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Study to Examine Public Schools

March 31, 2006|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

For years, state Sen. Don Perata recalled, California officials shrugged off the issue of public school funding by saying, "Thank God for Alabama and Mississippi, or else we'd be last."

California isn't scraping bottom anymore, although it still ranks in the lower half of all states in per-pupil spending. But one thing hasn't changed: No one can say with certainty how much money it would take to properly educate all children -- if that's even possible.

That should change, Perata, a Democrat from Oakland, and others promised Thursday, with the launch of a major research initiative aimed at determining how California can meet its educational goals and what the price tag will be.

Spearheaded by Stanford University, with $2.6 million in funding from four philanthropic organizations, the project will bring together scholars from around the nation to conduct 20 studies into California's K-12 public school system.

The studies, to be completed by the end of the year, will be aimed at giving state officials the information needed to reform the system, with a focus on whether funding is adequate and whether it is allocated efficiently and fairly.

That will mean taking on some politically delicate topics such as the discrepancies between rich and poor districts, and the difficulty of assigning the best teachers to the neediest schools.

"We admit we have an achievement gap, and that achievement gap is unacceptable," state Supt. of Schools Jack O'Connell said in a telephone news conference about the research project. "We need a clear idea of what it's going to cost to meet the different educational needs of our very diverse student population."

The project will be led by educational economist Susanna Loeb of Stanford and will include researchers from 17 schools or research institutions, including USC, San Diego State, the University of Pennsylvania, the Rand Corp., UC Berkeley, UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara.

Funding comes from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and the Stuart Foundation.

Loeb said the study would focus on three areas: the current state of school financing and governance; how the state can use its resources better; and what it would take to meet the needs of all students.

Ted Mitchell, the former Occidental College president who heads Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's advisory committee on education, said no state had attempted a comparable study.

"There really is no marker in the history of school reform for this kind of collaborative, bipartisan, independent research," he said. He added that there is broad consensus in Sacramento now about the need for meaningful educational reform.

Perata pledged that the study would not suffer the typical fate of a state-sponsored report.

"Our commitment is that this will not die on the shelf," he said. "It could be and should be the centerpiece of the governor's State of the State [speech] next year, and should be the driving force behind what we do legislatively and with our budget in 2007. We have a lot riding on this."

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