TOO MANY COOKS
Who is to blame for the condition of the California public education system, once one of the best in the country, asks The Economist. Local and state officials can plausibly blame state voters. Citizens passed Proposition 13, which cut schools' main revenue source: property taxes. To restore lost services, voters then passed Proposition 98, which dictated that schools each year receive the same funds as last year, adjusted for increase in students and personal income per capita. The state legislature then had to find money to comply with Proposition 98, though Proposition 13 and other initiatives had sapped major revenue streams. So the legislature put yet another measure on the ballot, Proposition 111, with the intent to make Proposition 98 more flexible. John Mockler, an expert in California education since the 1960s, said Proposition 111 finally made the overall structure for education funding incomprehensible. He compares the resulting package of legislation to the general theory of relativity, quantum physics, and the federal tax code in complexity, and reckons he is currently one of ten people alive who understand California school finance. This information is from the PEN NewsBlast.
加州今昔 (1975 v 2010?)
California’s schools show how direct democracy can destroy accountability
Apr 20th 2011 | from the print edition
EVERYTHING ABOUT CALIFORNIA’S school system is complicated, starting with the question of how bad its public schools are. Comparisons show that students in California fare worse than the national average in mathematics, reading, science and writing. But the numbers are unfair, says John Mockler, an expert in Californian education who has been following its fortunes since the 1960s. For instance, half of California’s pupils are Hispanic, and 40% of those hardly speak English. Most other states don’t face this problem.
Nonetheless, there is a broad consensus that California’s public schools are not what they could be, nor what they used to be. California ranks 47th among the 50 states and the District of Columbia in spending per pupil ($7,886, against an average of $11,397). It ranks last in the number of students per teacher: California’s legislative analyst estimates that most classes have 28-31 pupils. And it ranks 42nd in the proportion of pupils who graduate (63%, against a national average of 69%).
Indeed, it would appear that California, at some point in the past generation, must have decided to disinvest in its children and to reallocate resources to such things as prisons. When Mr Mockler first started examining school finance in the 1960s, California spent about 5.6% of personal income on schools. It now spends 3.5%. For a state that sees itself as a pioneer of the global “knowledge economy”, that seems bizarre.
So who made this decision? Or, as John Syer, a professor at California State University, puts it sardonically: Who might be accountable for the bad schools? Is it local school boards, or the state board, or the education secretary, or the superintendent of public instruction, or the governor, or somebody else?
Start with the governor, who is elected, as in all 50 states. He appoints a secretary of education, a member of his cabinet. Oddly, however, that secretary (and thus the governor) does not have much power in this area. For the state’s education department is headed by a superintendent of public instruction, who is directly elected and thus answers only to voters, not to the governor. He in turn chairs a state board of education (the other members of which are again appointed by the governor).
Californians, in fact, insist on this sort of confusion in their entire executive branch. Thus they directly elect eight statewide officers (governor, lieutenant governor, attorney-general, secretary of state, controller, treasurer, superintendent and insurance commissioner). Often these officers are at war with one another. For the two decades starting in Jerry Brown’s second term, and again during most of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s tenure, the governor and his lieutenant even belonged to different parties.
In this respect California is again unusual. Only 14 states separately elect a superintendent of public instruction, 12 a controller and ten an insurance commissioner. If democracy is about holding elections, the Californian mantra is: the more the merrier. This is especially true for education. Most power over the day-to-day running of schools belongs to the roughly 1,040 school districts. These are separate jurisdictions from cities and counties and have their own boards whose members are elected locally.
Yet in allocating responsibility for the prevailing mediocrity, all of these officials can plausibly point accusing fingers at voters. After all, they adopted Proposition 13, which cut the schools’ main revenue source (property taxes). Voters, for their part, usually shrug and say that they only voted against the taxes, not against the services those taxes paid for. To prove that point, whose irony often eludes Californians, voters passed still more initiatives to restore the school spending whose tax financing they had cut.
The main such measure, on the 1988 ballot, was called Proposition 98. Its main sponsor was the California Teachers Association, the largest spender in Californian politics, which hired Mr Mockler to draft it. His original text, as he now describes it, was still simple enough to be comprehensible: “You [ie, schools] get what you got last year, adjusted for the increase in students and the increase in personal income per capita.” So school spending would generally rise in line with demand and affordability. Mr Mockler added a provision that, following good fiscal years, the base would be reset at a higher level so as to put a floor under school spending yet allow the possibility of additional growth.
Proposition 98 narrowly passed, sending yet another challenge to the beleaguered legislature. It now had to find money in the budget to comply with Proposition 98, even though Proposition 13 and other initiatives had taken away most of the main revenue source and now required supermajorities to raise other revenues. So in a sort of capitulation to the ballot box, the legislature itself put yet another measure, Proposition 111, on the 1990 ballot. Its intent was to make Proposition 98 more flexible so that the legislature would be able to pass budgets once again. But that is not quite how it turned out.
According to Mr Mockler, it was Proposition 111 that finally made the overall structure for education funding incomprehensible. It multiplied by six the “data sets you need to know” to calculate education spending, he says. He compares the resulting package of legislation to the general theory of relativity, quantum physics and the federal tax code in complexity, and reckons that he is currently one of ten people alive who understand Californian school finance. In a typical budget season, the state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst dutifully produces tomes analysing whether “test 1” or “test 3” applies, and whether the “maintenance factor” might kick in. Nobody really knows what that means, as the legislative analyst concedes in the official primer.
There is a lot to contemplate in this tale. First, what made voters think that they understood enough to pass any of these initiatives, given that nobody understands their results? Second, why did voters not become concerned about the ever denser thicket of unintended consequences? As Mr Mockler says, the need for Proposition 111 arose only because of Proposition 98, and the need for 98 arose only because of 13.
The unintended consequence of that overall bundle has been to invert the stated purpose of Proposition 98. Originally designed to be a floor under school financing, it has instead become a ceiling. No legislature will nowadays raise school spending any more than necessary, because the formulas would then require even greater increases the following year. (Journalists usually take a shortcut through all the calculations and simply say that Proposition 98 requires “about 40%” of the general fund to go to schools.)
Mr Mockler has been thinking about all this for decades. He drafted one of the most important ballot measures ever. And yet he calls the entire initiative process “mob rule” and blames it for keeping the state’s schools down. “If you put an initiative on the ballot that repealed every initiative of the past 40 years, I’d vote for it,” he says. The question of who is accountable for California’s mediocre schools has a surprisingly simple answer: everybody, which is to say nobody.