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Schools: Standards Are Important, but Money Is Vital

May 21, 2000|Robert A. Levine | Robert A. Levine, senior economist emeritus at Rand, served as deputy director of the Congressional Budget Office

SANTA MONICA — By all standards, California ranks near the bottom among states in educating its children. Gov. Gray Davis has made education his No. 1 priority and has promulgated an intricate system of tests, standards and disciplines for those who fail. But the state has also been far down in per-pupil spending,

The governor's aides say his new budget, taking advantage of California's revenue surplus, "pushes the state's spending on schools above the national average." But the budget, with new education spending centered on the proposal to excuse teachers from state income taxes, is unlikely to pass in that form. In any case, teacher income, already high in California, is not the problem.

What is the proper approach: standards or dollars? Both, of course. Standards like those emphasized by Davis are essential, to focus spending where it is most needed and most successful instead of into bureaucracies or Belmont fiascoes. Disciplines and teacher incentives are also necessary. But a few comparisons relating educational outcomes to dollars and the things dollars can buy reveals that more money is also needed, and badly.

One common contention is that California is different, and more difficult, because of its high immigration rates and multilingual student bodies. To analyze this, some comparisons are helpful, contrasting California not only with national averages but with Texas, which also has a large Latino population. Overall, Texas does far better under programs started before George W. Bush became governor, but continued by him.

To begin with some readily available educational outcomes: Reading scores for California fourth-graders are 7% lower than both the national average and Texas; Latino students in California fall the same distance below the national average, 12% below Texas. California eighth-graders fall about as far back in science. Almost 50% of those eighth-graders have less than basic proficiency in math, compared to 40% nationally and in Taxes.

What is the relationship of those output shortfalls to monetary inputs? Recent figures on dollars-per-pupil showed California at 86% of the national average, but the comparison is actually worse. Because teacher salaries are higher in California, the same money buys fewer teachers: Davis' proposed tax exemptions would only increase the discrepancy. Paying teachers well is a fine thing, and perhaps they are paid more because they are better, but perhaps it is because California has higher living costs, a wider range of attractive private jobs and strong teachers' unions. California has some good teachers, but there are also incompetent ones and many who are undertrained. That is why standards are needed.

But we need money, too. Adjusting for the higher salaries, California's per-pupil expenditures fall another 10 percentage points, to 76% of the national average and 80% of Texas. Less money means less education, sometimes shockingly so. The media report daily about the results of money not spent: students without desks or five classes set up in a single gymnasium. The stories are reinforced by statistics:

* California's 24 students per teacher compares with the national average of 17.3, and 15.6 in Texas. (These numbers come from the period before Gov. Pete Wilson instituted his class-size reduction program, continued by Davis, but other states have reduced class size, too.)

* California has 98.2 students per teacher's aide: the national average is 94.7; in Texas, it's 90.1.

* California spends $1,039 per pupil for instructional materials compared with the national $1,285. Hence, the depressing stories about the lack of textbooks in California schools.

* The nation and Texas employ eight times as many school librarians per student, compared with California. In 1994, the entire state of California had 850 school librarians. Remember when the school library was an essential locus for learning?

These statistics, though only the tip of the iceberg, provide readily available measurements. The stories about substandard classrooms, missing textbooks, teacher turnover in the poorest schools, lack of maintenance and filthy bathrooms suggest there is plenty of ice beneath the surface.

Yes, standards are necessary. And, yes, you can't solve the problem by throwing money at it. But if we want the standards to achieve something more than frustration for those striving to meet them, then money and the things money can buy are also necessary. Because we cannot make a desert bloom by rearranging the grains of sand and testing them for fertility.

The governor's budget, to the extent it is real and stands up politically, is a start. But all aspects of California education, not only teachers, need attention. And education will need as much spending--even more--when prosperity and surpluses slow. We have a long way to go. *

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