Scandalous Schools

"The Condition of California School Facilities and Policies Related to Those Conditions," a 2002 report by nationally recognized facilities expert Robert Corley, is written in stilted bureaucratese, but the conditions it describes are the stuff of exposés. Corley describes peeling lead paint on classroom walls; leaky roofs; deathly hot classrooms, their windows blacked out against the heat; bathrooms "reminiscent of third world slums," or else padlocked; vermin-infested buildings. These aren't rarities: The report estimates that a third of the schools are in "poor condition" and 10 percent -- some 800 buildings, housing more than 400,000 schoolchildren -- are in "unusually poor condition." A General Accounting Office study, published in 1996, ranks California's school buildings the fourth worst in the nation. Where is Michael Harrington when we need him?

If these were gas-station restrooms or greasy spoons, you'd give them a wide berth. But the students trapped inside for six hours a day don't have that option. Such miserable conditions help to "transform yearning for quality education into anger, pride into shame and civic engagement into public alienation," concludes social psychologist Michelle Fine, who interviewed and surveyed more than 100 students from those neglected schools. A disproportionate number of the students who go to such schools are poor and nonwhite. Yet regardless of a student's racial or socioeconomic background, youngsters attending schools with inadequate facilities and materials did considerably worse on reading and math achievement tests than their counterparts in up-to-date schools.

While public schools across the country are now being forced to trim their budgets, California's were in trouble years before the state awoke last winter to the grim reality of a $38 billion budget deficit. The Golden State used to be a "model and magnet for the nation -- in its economic opportunities, its social outlook, and its high-quality public services and institutions," writes Peter Schrag in Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future. But in the aftermath of Proposition 13, what Schrag calls the "Mississippification" of the state has proceeded apace. Mississippi's schools actually look better in some respects than California's, for the sorry physical condition of school buildings is the embodiment in bricks and mortar of the decline of a once-vaunted public-education system.

During the past quarter-century, expenditures per pupil have fallen nearly one-fourth when compared with the national average. Education Week ranked California fourth worst in the nation in adequacy of resources for education. According to EdSource, an independent information-gathering organization, taxpayers spend about 3 percent of their personal income on kindergarten through 12th-grade education, 40th in the nation. Despite a mid-1990s push to reduce class size in kindergarten through third grade, the state ranks 49th in the number of students per teacher. The U.S. average is about 16-to-1; in California it's nearly 21-to-1. That translates directly into lower quality of instruction and less support for students.

The problem isn't just the student-teacher ratio. It's also the quality of instruction. Some 42,000 instructors -- as many as in half the other states combined -- lack teaching credentials, and 38,000 more are working with emergency permits. Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond calculates that students attending schools whose enrollment is drawn from the lowest quartile of socioeconomic status are five times more likely to have underqualified teachers than students going to schools that draw from the top quartile.

Meanwhile, the "frills" of education -- libraries, art and music classes in grade school -- are disappearing from California's public schools. Textbooks are in short supply -- so short that some 2 million schoolchildren don't have textbooks they can take home. There is just one guidance counselor for every 1,011 students, a ratio that's more than twice the national average. Realistically, this means that only a handful of students get any advice about college or jobs. There's one librarian for every 4,454 students; that's the population of a small town and more than five times the national average. In the state that's known as the high-tech capital of the universe, 7.2 students share every computer, as compared with 4.9 students nationwide. In each of these categories, California ranks 51st -- dead last.

Not only does the paucity of qualified teachers, computers, art classes and textbooks turn schools into cheerless places, it also affects students' academic success. A report by the Public Policy Institute of California concludes that California lost ground in academic achievement as well as school expenditures during the 1980s and '90s. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the best single measure of achievement, reflect this pattern: California students perform considerably below the national average in reading, mathematics, science and writing. In 2000, barely half of the state's eighth-graders demonstrated at least basic competence in math, as compared with two-thirds nationally, placing California 32nd among the 40 participating states and territories (and the District of Columbia). On the reading exam, the state ranked 32nd out of 36. On the science exam, students in California, who live in the epicenter of scientific research, ranked 37th out of 38. Only Guam did worse. Even taking into account the proportion of non-native English speakers, California students still perform poorly on the NAEP exam.

The familiar excuse is that demographics explain these outcomes, but demography isn't destiny. The contrast with Texas, the state whose student population is most similar to California's in terms of the percentage of poor and nonwhite students, demonstrates the point. In 1990, students in both states performed at about the same level. Forty-five percent of the eighth-grade students demonstrated at least basic competence in mathematics. That year the national average was 51 percent. Within two years, however, Texas' NAEP scores were higher than California's. In 2000, 52 percent of California eighth-graders had mastered at least basic math, which represented a slight improvement over the course of a decade. But by then California had slipped farther behind the national average, which had risen to 65 percent -- and 68 percent of Texas students were performing at that level.

These same disparities hold true for racial and ethnic minorities. In the 2000 eighth-grade math exam, 34 percent of Hispanic students in California scored at the basic level or higher, compared with 59 percent in Texas; for African American students, the comparable figures are 25 percent and 40 percent. Although reading scores for California's Hispanic and black fourth-graders improved by nearly a grade level between 1992 and 2002, eighth-graders didn't register similar gains.

Politics helps to explain the different outcomes. In the mid-1980s, a pint-sized billionaire named Ross Perot made public education in Texas his issue. The Perot Commission, composed mainly of leading businessmen, urged that the state boost expenditures on the schools while imposing tough statewide academic performance standards. When high-school quarterbacks started getting benched for not maintaining a C average (under "no pass, no play" rules), Texans got the message: These reforms had to be taken seriously. A succession of governors, both Republican and Democratic, have stuck to the game plan.

By contrast, there has been no game plan in California, just posturing and political opportunism. The main K-12 education initiative of the 1990s -- reducing class sizes in the early elementary-school grades -- was politically irresistible but badly thought-out policy. Although school districts cut the size of kindergarten through third-grade classes, many were forced for lack of funds to increase class sizes in grades four through six.

Meanwhile, California's business leaders have absented themselves from debates over public education, choosing to import skilled workers from India rather than to press for better schools at home. (The major exception is high-tech entrepreneur Ron Unz. His passions have been curtailing bilingual education and encouraging the proliferation of charter schools, neither of which does much for the education of most California schoolchildren.)

Can California dig itself out of this hole? The best news has to do with the physical condition of the schools. Last fall voters approved the state's biggest bond issue ever -- $13.1 billion, earmarked to build new schools and modernize old ones. Voters in Los Angeles endorsed a separate $3.5 billion school bond issue for the state's biggest school district.

Today the state is swept up in one of its periodic political upheavals, and again voters are hearing from the likes of gubernatorial candidates Arnold Schwarzenegger and Peter Ueberroth that California taxpayers are among the most overtaxed in the nation. It's not true: According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the state ranks 19th in the percentage of personal income spent on state and local governments. But if Californians elect a new governor who's committed to solving the budget crisis entirely by cutting expenditures, public education is in for even rockier times. Regardless of the outcome of the recall election, though, the future is murky.

One helpful step would be voter approval of a proposition, likely to appear on the November 2004 ballot, that would authorize school districts to raise property tax rates if 55 percent of the voters agree (not the two-thirds supermajority that Proposition 13 requires). The adoption by the state legislature of a proposed master plan would mark another step in the right direction. Under the plan, kindergarten would be required and preschool programs expanded in school districts with the worst achievement scores. Vitally, the plan would make the state commit itself to providing "suitable learning environments" in every school. This would mean no more shuttered bathrooms, no more vermin and no more unqualified teachers. But the master plan, which would have been controversial even in the go-go 1990s, is going nowhere in a state that survived the fiscal year only by issuing $11 billion in bonds to cover operating expenses and carrying a deficit greater than $9 billion. The new budget actually cuts state funding for education by $200 a student.

Williams v. California, a class-action lawsuit demanding that the state meet its constitutional obligation to provide at least the bare essentials needed for an education, offers a glimmer of hope. Although the state has spent more than $18 million fighting the case, plaintiffs may well win, as it's hard to imagine Sacramento publicly rationalizing its failure to give textbooks to 2 million youngsters. Yet even if plaintiffs win the lawsuit, the impact isn't clear. It's one thing to secure a judicial ruling -- or, more likely, to negotiate a consent decree -- but much harder to bring about change on the ground.

Constitutional rights such as those asserted in the Williams case are supposed to trump practical considerations. But winning a lawsuit can't alter the fact that there's no money in the state treasury and little political will to improve life in classrooms. For now, at least, "Mississippification" remains as much an aspiration as a slur in the once-Golden State.

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