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Public School Systems Get Low Marks in Poll

Almost two-thirds in the state say education quality is a major problem, but most oppose tax hikes to fix it--except on the rich.

April 27, 2006|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

Californians are increasingly frustrated and dissatisfied with their public school system, and so skeptical about government's ability to spend money wisely that they oppose any general tax increase to improve education, according to a statewide poll scheduled for release today..

Nearly two in three Californians believe the quality of education is a major problem for the state, and only one issue -- immigration -- is seen as a higher priority for state government, according to the poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California. More than nine in 10 people surveyed said education was shaping up as an important issue in the upcoming race for governor.

That could provide an opening for Democratic contenders Steve Westly and Phil Angelides. Only about a third of likely voters in the November election believe Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has done a good job on education, and poll respondents supported Democratic policies on education spending by nearly a two-to-one margin over those of Republicans.

Yet Schwarzenegger's approval rating was sky high compared to that of the Democrat-controlled Legislature: Only 16% of those surveyed said state lawmakers have been doing a good job on education.

The Public Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan think tank, used five languages to reach 2,501 people throughout the state. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.

"The public's frustration with the state of education is palpable. They see lots of rhetoric but little progress," said Mark Baldassare, research director for the institute, in a statement issued with the report. "There is serious discontent across the board."

Opinions varied, however, by race and region. African Americans were far more worried about the state of schools than any other racial or ethnic group, and Los Angeles County residents were more disgruntled than other Californians. Half of those polled in L.A. County gave their local schools a grade of C or below, compared with just 37% in Orange and San Diego counties.

In an interview, Baldassare noted that the public appears especially concerned about the academic achievement of poor Californians, and supports efforts to increase staffing in schools that serve low-income neighborhoods. "I think the public has a sense of frustration and disappointment that we are not making enough progress fast enough in the areas that need the most help," he said.

Two-thirds of those surveyed said the high school dropout rate was a big problem for the state, but blacks and Latinos were far more likely to share that sentiment than whites and Asian Americans. Nearly nine in 10 African Americans cited the dropout rate as a major problem.

Baldassare said disenchantment with the public schools may be, in part, the result of an increased focus on standardized tests, in which most California pupils have scored less than proficient in core academic subjects. Those polled, however, strongly supported the emphasis on testing, including the state's new high school exit exam.

Jack O'Connell, the state's superintendent of public instruction, said in an interview that California's educational standards have tended to shed "a harsh light on academic achievement." He said he shares the public's frustration that change is occurring too slowly, but added that discontent is necessary to bring about improvement.

"To the extent that we can keep public education as a front-burner issue, the students of this state will be better prepared for the new economy," he said.

About a third of those polled said they thought California public schools have gotten worse in the last two years, about double the number who said they have improved.

Evidence can be found to support either conclusion. California students have done better in the Annual Yearly Progress reports issued as part of the federal No Child Left Behind initiative, but have slipped slightly in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a widely accepted measure of student achievement.

The poll revealed some interesting attitudes toward school spending. Sixty-five percent of those surveyed said schools would improve if the state spent more money on them. But an even larger majority -- 81% -- said schools could make better use of existing funds.

And people don't appear eager to raise taxes to improve schools. Just over a third of likely voters favor raising the state sales tax, and less than one-quarter support higher property taxes to fund public schools. (A hefty majority, however, is willing to raise income taxes on the wealthiest Californians.)

That reluctance, however, might be opposition only to the general notion of raising taxes for schools. Faced with very specific requests recently, Los Angeles voters were willing to approve four successive bond measures to raise money for school construction.

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