State's spending fails to keep pace
The Oakland Tribune, June 16, 2003
By Jill Tucker, STAFF WRITER
PUBLIC EDUCATION isn't supposed to pick
sides, but it does. It favors Alexene Farol over Gerry Silva, two eighth graders
living 20 miles away, but worlds apart. At Pleasanton's Harvest Park Middle
School, Alexene's teachers are better than Gerry's at Havenscourt Middle School
in Oakland. Her classrooms are better. Her textbooks are better. The library,
the science and computer labs, the playground and the music programs are better,
too. And although Alexene is already considered socio-economically advantaged,
state taxpayers spend more money to educate her -- nearly$27,000 more on her
teachers -- than they spend on Gerry.
Their public schools are separate and unequal -- a condition only getting worse
as budget cuts in California leave kids like Gerry even more vulnerable in
deteriorating classrooms staffed with uncredentialed teachers. It was never
supposed to be that way. Public schools were supposed to be the great equalizer
-- the one place where kids got an equal shot at a future regardless of what
life is like on the streets outside. But public schools have never been equal.
California's schools -- like those across the country -- typically reflect the
condition of their communities.
Students in poor communities enter dilapidated classrooms where uncredentialed
teachers with inadequate materials await -- and where parent involvement is
limited or nonexistent.
In better-off neighborhoods, sometimes just a few miles away, the schools nearly
sparkle, sporting the latest facility upgrades, top-notch equipment and the most
experienced teachers. With nighttime PTA meetings, weekend potluck fund-raisers
and various festivities, these better schools lure upwardly mobile home buyers
drawn to the first-rate education and other opportunities offered to their kids.
It's a two-tiered system maintained by a convoluted funding formula that doesn't
spend money based on where it will really matter and fails to place the best
teachers -- or even simply qualified teachers -- with the children who need them
And while politicians have loudly touted expensive education reforms, they have
lacked the real political will to reform the system, instead simply raising the
bar on the schools and the students.
"What's there isn't good enough," said Merrill Vargo, executive director of the
Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, who asks whether there's the political
will to say: "The public school system is one of the cornerstones of a
democratic society, we have to make it work and we have to make it work for poor
kids, and it's not an option to say it doesn't."
In California, schools with the highest poverty and minority enrollment have on
average 20 percent uncredentialed teachers on staff compared to 5 to 6 percent
of teachers at the schools with the lowest percentages of poor and minority
students, according to a 2002 study by The Center for the Future of Teaching and
Learning, a Santa Cruz-based nonprofit.
And because beginning teachers get paid about $40,000 less than a 20-year
veteran, the state's poor and minority students are often getting a bargain
basement education when it comes to what taxpayers spend on their teachers.
Resources for facilities are equally unbalanced. A 2001 California Budget
Project study found the schools with the lowest test scores got about 30 percent
less state bond money than they should have -- because the state allocates the
money on a first-come, first-serve basis rather than by greatest need.
The current budget crisis is exacerbating the situation, as parents with
monetary means step in at already high-performing schools to fill in the holes
left by spending cuts, leaving lagging schools to fall further behind.
With the exception of the rural South, California's low-performing schools are
among the worst in the nation, said Linda Darling-Hammond, of the Stanford
University of education and a national expert on education reform.
"I personally had never seen kids receive as low quality an education as I found
in districts like Oakland, Ravenswood, San Francisco and Compton," she added.
"It's just really tragic."
Funding is a mess
But money talks a lot louder for some California kids than others.
Across the state, the majority of education dollars are doled out to schools not
based upon need, but rather 30-year-old formulas from pre-Proposition 13
property tax rates and subsequent legislative efforts to equalize funding, but
nonetheless give some districts hundreds or even thousands of dollars more per
child than others.
The result is a mess, according to state and local officials.
"California school finance is such -- somebody called it a Winchester Mystery
House -- that the way it is put together makes absolutely no sense," said school
board president Terry Thygesen, of Menlo Park City Elementary, where they get
about $11,000 to spend on each child, including all public funding, parent
contributions and a parcel tax.
In Dublin, where the standardized tests scores are among the state's best, the
district received $7,839 in total revenue for each of its 4,421 students during
the 2001-2002 academic year, according to the state-supported Education Data
Over the hill in Hayward, officials received $7,180 to spend on each of its
24,199 students -- nearly $16 million less than if funded at the same level as
Or head east to Manteca, where officials got by with $6,393 for each of 21,309
The explanation for such differences?
"You can never explain it to a real person because there is no rationale about
why a district will get a much higher level of funding than another," said state
Sen. Dede Alpert, D-San Diego, a vocal advocate for education in the
That means schools with the most disadvantaged students don't have any advantage
when it comes to getting more basic education dollars to cope. The fact that
Gerry can't take home a history textbook for homework -- because there's only
one classroom set -- falls on deaf fiscal ears.
In fact, the system favors white and wealthy kids.
According to a 1999-2000 study by The Education Trust, a national nonprofit
dedicated to closing the achievement gap, California spent $5,036 per student in
districts with the highest minority enrollment, $369 less than low-minority
districts, and $5,202 per student in districts with the highest poverty levels,
$59 less than low-poverty districts.
That includes categorical state funding for programs often targeted to
low-income students and low-performing schools.
Granted, it doesn't include the more than $1 billion in annual federal Title I
money for the state's low-income students. Title I money pays for tutoring
programs, classroom aides, materials, curriculum and some teaching positions,
but it still hasn't significantly closed the gap, according to federal research.
Some say the money is spread too thin, others say it doesn't address the actual
quality of teachers and facilities, focusing too much on aides and
More importantly, Title I money is supposed to provide additional resources for
disadvantaged students and was never intended to make up for the short shrift in
state school spending.
"Those kids need a heck of a lot more resources than the well-to-do, upper
middle class, educated students," said Paul Goldfinger, vice president of School
Services of California, a school finance consulting firm. "We have a system that
does it on the cheap and hopes that it works out."
Money follows teachers
The financial inequalities, however, are magnified when tracked to the
classroom. Although districts get a set amount of money per student, the money
follows the teachers, not the kids.
This year, taxpayers spent $82,126 to teach Alexene for the six hours she was at
school each day in Pleasanton. In Oakland, taxpayers spent $55,199 to teach
Gerry for his six hours of classes. That's a $26,927 difference.
While that says nothing about the quality of their teachers, California schools
don't allocate money for teachers based on quality. They pay teachers based on
whether they have a credential and the number of years they've been teaching.
Alexene's teachers all have credentials, and almost all have at least two
decades of experience, if not three. Only Gerry's gym teacher is fully qualified
to teach. The rest lack a full credential and have one or two years experience.
Yet, educators say, all schools are subject to the state's high-stakes
And all children are subject to the same standardized tests, whether they get a
$10,000 public education in high-ranking Menlo Park or a $6,400 version in
That means Gerry takes the same tests as Alexene.
The odds are his scores will be lower.
At Havenscourt, standardized test scores are among the worst in the state --
with an Academic Performance Index of 446 on a 1,000-point scale. At Harvest
Park, test scores are among the state's best, with an API of 838.
"These scores are not imprinted on kids' DNA," said BASRC's Vargo. "They're a
reflection of what they're taught. It's just tragic when that happens and it's
happening every day in those schools."
Spending doesn't keep pace After Proposition 13 passed in 1978 -- shifting
property tax dollars and education finance to the state -- legislators set about
boosting funding in districts whose local property taxes left them at a previous
Yet at the same time, California's school spending has failed to keep pace with
other states. The overall quality of California's schools fell from among the
best in the country to the bottom of the barrel.
Local school districts were forced to become creative or watch the quality of
their classrooms continue to decline. Parents created nonprofit education
foundations, pouring millions into district coffers each year.
And districts started to pass parcel taxes. Well, some did.
According to a 2001 report by the Public Policy Institute of California, parcel
taxes are passed primarily in districts with high-income and highly educated
parents -- raising an average $500 per student.
Of the 62 districts that passed parcel or assessment taxes between 1983 and
2002, nearly four out of five were in the Bay Area, with 14 in Marin County
alone. Five have been in Alameda County, eight in San Mateo County and zero in
San Joaquin County.
Emeryville, Burlingame, San Mateo-Foster City and San Carlos were among the few
who got the minimum two-thirds vote to pass a parcel tax in a special election
on June 3.
"The government is just not giving enough funds and paying for things to give a
quality education," said Lynne Young, president of the Menlo-Atherton Education
Foundation, where the district gets about $800,000 from parcel taxes each year.
What about the districts that can't pass a tax?
"'It's in high-minority, low-income schools that kids are basically being
abandoned," Darling-Hammond said. "Increasingly, it looks like some kids are
just being written off in terms of education."
Fixing schools not enough
There are those who say that even if we spent more money on the children who
need the most help, it wouldn't matter much. They say socio-economics determine
a child's future more than teachers, textbooks or comfortable classrooms, so we
need to fix society rather than fix the schools.
"You can't say all you have to do is put the best highly qualified teacher in
that classroom or the best principal or equalize funding or fix the bathrooms,"
said state facility director Brooks. "Kids ideally would come from families with
adequate parent support. They would adequately be fed. Obviously, you can't fix
it all. It isn't just an educational problem."
True, but that doesn't justify the disparity, education activists say.
"Changes in the system are just too hard if the adults responsible for the
change in the end don't believe these kids can learn as much as the white and
Asian kids," said Russlyn Ali, director of The Education Trust-West. "You have
to change the way people think about poor and minority people. Everybody has the
right to learn. Everybody can learn."
Fixing the system requires radical change -- changes in the way we fund schools
and facilities and changes in the way we place teachers, say educators,
activists and even politicians.
State Sen. Alpert is working to implement a state master plan for education,
which among other things would establish what a quality education looks like and
how much it costs.
On top of that, the state would then add more money to accommodate the extra
needs of low-income students. "Believe me, I don't think this is going to be
easy," Alpert said.
These changes would require extraordinary political will by state officials -- a
factor often missing when it comes to creating true change for children like
"I think the middle class doesn't know how bad the Havenscourts are," said John
Affeldt, a managing attorney of San Francisco-based Public Advocates Inc. "And I
think if they did, there would be more political will."
The state has undertaken massive education reform efforts in the last several
years, but many programs -- like some teacher recruiting and retention efforts
-- have fallen by the wayside in the lean budget times. Or, like class size
reduction, they are offered to everyone, thus sustaining or even widening the
gap in quality.
Forcing the issue
Frustrated with state inaction, civil rights activists sued the state in May
2000 to force elected officials to address the disparity. The Williams vs. State
of California lawsuit hopes to force the state's hand in fixing Gerry's school
and those in similar straits.
"We have a system where some schools are getting funded more than others," said
Affeldt, who helped file the lawsuit in state Superior Court. "I don't think the
public wants those conditions to continue either. If we're not educating those
kids, we're not going to be able to maintain the level of economic prosperity we
In the meantime, the vast inequalities in public education will continue to be
the norm, an accepted standard in our public schools.
And that will have repercussions not only for students like Gerry, but for every
taxpayer in the state.
"We will continue as a state to get sued by people who argue there is no
equity," Alpert said, referring to the pending Williams case. "Sometimes (a
lawsuit) seems to be the only thing that gets people going. It's an awful sad
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