Survey finds school funding divide

Californians want public schools spared from state budget cuts, but are less willing than before to foot the bill with more taxes, according to a statewide poll released Wednesday.

In its annual survey on education issues, the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California found deep dissatisfaction with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature over education policy and growing skepticism that money is the answer to the problems facing public schools.

“I think that the public’s really concerned about what they’re hearing about budget cuts, especially as they relate to schools,” said Mark Baldassare, the institute’s president and chief executive. At the same time, he said, there is “a real ambivalence about taxes and . . . a very strong sense that the state leadership is really lacking today.”


Just 20% of those surveyed approved of Schwarzenegger’s handling of education, and even fewer -- 18% -- approved of the Legislature’s record on the issue. Both are the lowest ratings in the five years that the institute has been conducting the education poll. “I didn’t even know it could go that low,” said Baldassare, who has been polling in California for more than 20 years.

Six in 10 of those surveyed said more money probably would result in higher quality schools, but an even larger majority said schools could make better use of the money they have.

A majority was worried about the impact of state budget cuts on schools, but respondents were almost evenly split on paying more taxes to make up the shortfall: 48% said they would be willing to; 49% said they would not. Five years ago, 67% were willing to pay more taxes for schools.

The survey found Californians restive about education, with roughly six in 10 saying public schools need “major changes,” and a majority saying the quality of education is a big problem for the state. People were especially concerned about the high school dropout rate.

Los Angeles residents were among the least satisfied with their local public schools, and had by far the least confidence in their local school leaders.

“Clearly, there is greater unhappiness in Los Angeles than elsewhere in the state,” Baldassare said, adding that there were also “greater challenges in Los Angeles than anywhere else, in terms of the size of the [Los Angeles Unified School] district and the makeup of the student body.”

The survey revealed strong statewide support for the high school exit exam, which some have criticized for keeping students in low-performing schools from graduating. Interestingly, the strongest support for the exam came from Latinos, who have one of the highest failure rates. Eighty percent supported the exam as a graduation requirement, compared with 69% of Asians, 65% of whites and 53% of African Americans.

The poll was conducted among 2,502 California adults, including 252 interviewed randomly on cellphones, between April 7 and April 21. The margin of error was plus or minus 2 percentage points, higher for subgroups.