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Poll finds division over new taxes for schools

Times Staff Writer

Californians want their public schools protected from state budget cuts and are willing to tax the rich to make that happen. But despite the threat of schools taking a beating in next year’s state budget, residents are sharply divided over whether they would support higher taxes for themselves, according to a statewide poll released late Wednesday.

The poll by the Public Policy Institute of California also turned up some interesting divisions among Californians -- by region, by political party, and by race and ethnicity.

Residents of Orange and San Diego counties were the happiest with their public schools, while residents of the San Francisco Bay Area were the grumpiest. Latinos and immigrants were far more likely than others to view public schools as primarily a springboard to college. And, not surprisingly, Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to support new taxes to pay for public schools.

The survey also found the public to be generally worried about the state of public schools and deeply dissatisfied with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature for their stewardship.

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“I think today’s report is very bad news for the governor,” said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley and director of Policy Analysis for California Education. “It’s not surprising that Californians would be confused about the tax issue, because this governor is politically weak, and he’s weak because he isn’t showing bold leadership.”

Aaron McLear, Schwarzenegger’s press secretary, countered that Fuller “would be hard-pressed to find anyone who’s showing more leadership on education right now.” He said the governor shares voters’ concerns about cuts to education, but rejects tax increases to solve the problem.

“And that’s why he’s talking about budget reform: so we don’t put the schools through this roller coaster of inconsistent funding year after year, and we’re able to provide some stability,” McLear said.

Education ranked as the second most important issue facing the state, well behind the sour economy but slightly ahead of immigration and gasoline prices.

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Eighty percent of respondents said the quality of schools was a problem, and just over half said it was a big problem. Nearly 60% said the school system needs major changes.

More than half of those polled said they disapproved of Schwarzenegger’s handling of education, and 61% disapproved of the Legislature.

The statewide survey of 2,502 California adults showed that attitudes about education have not changed significantly over the decade that the group has been conducting it.

“If anything, it was the consistency over time that struck me as being significant, especially in this strong economic downturn,” said Mark Baldassare, president and chief executive of the nonpartisan think tank.

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The poll revealed overwhelming agreement -- by nearly eight in 10 respondents -- that schools in poor neighborhoods have fewer resources than those in wealthier spots. Seven in 10 people said that if more money became available, a larger portion should go to schools in low-income areas. Most people agreed that more money would make schools better, although Democrats were far more likely than Republicans to hold this view. But there was near unanimity that schools could be improved through better use of existing state funds.

The survey revealed some fascinating differences in attitude among the state’s ethnic and racial groups.

African Americans expressed the most concern about the quality of education, with 97% saying it was a problem and 72% saying it was a big problem -- far more than any other group. Blacks were the most concerned about the effect of budget cuts, whites the least.

Latinos were the most likely to support higher taxes on themselves to pay for education, whites the least. And when asked the primary goal of public schools, 61% of Latinos said it was to prepare students for college -- nearly triple the percentage of whites and double that of blacks and Asians. Those groups were more likely than Latinos to say the primary goal was to prepare students for the workforce, to teach them “the basics,” or “life skills.” There was a similar divide between immigrants and people born in the U.S.

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“The belief that public education can provide a way to economic and social mobility is very strong among Latinos and immigrants,” Baldassare said, “and among the native population and the white population, I think that K-12 schools are seen as providing a variety of different roles for different people.”

Fuller said he was concerned that Latinos were less likely to worry about the quality of public schools.

He said he found that “troubling, because we know that on average, Latino students go to the lousiest schools in the state. . . . Latinos either don’t understand the mediocre quality of their public schools or they’re reticent to criticize public institutions.”

The survey was conducted by telephone -- including, for the first time, cellphones -- between April 8 and April 22. For the total sample, the margin of error was plus or minus 2 percentage points.

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mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com


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