The challenge facing education in California is to achieve adequacy, said an eminent educator of educators. Not superiority - adequacy.
The way to meet that challenge is to reconfigure education funding, said Michael Kirst, who taught Los Altos School District Superintendent Marge Gratiot and Matt Neely, an assistant principal at Mountain View High School (and the vice mayor of Mountain View), among other local educational lights.
A professor of education and business administration at Stanford University since 1969 and co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, Kirst knows the state of education in California firsthand. On March 14, at the second of four Community Dialogues on Education, he told parents and educators of Los Altos and Mountain View, "Rewriting the funding formula could give kids a better education."
Marching away from the goal
In the 1960s, California was among the top 10 investors in public education and had one of the best public education systems in the nation, Kirst said. By 2001, however, the state ranked 44th in the nation in school funding.
After Proposition 13 cut property taxes in half in 1978, the state equalized funding among the districts by "leveling down and leveling up - to mediocrity," he said. Since then, continual state intervention has created "geological layers of reforms" and more than 100 categorical programs, which account for about one-third of California's education budget. (A categorical program specifies the way in which the money allotted for it can be spent. Examples are programs for class-size reduction and school accountability, or standardized testing.)
By 2001, the state ranked 48th in elementary class size, 47th in eighth-grade math performance and 11th in teacher salaries (adjusted for cost of living), Kirst said. In 2001, California tied with Hawaii for last place in reading and was "near the bottom" in number of counselors, librarians and music teachers, he added.
"Mississippi ran away from us in reading a long time ago," he said with a rueful laugh.
Kirst's first choice for making more money for schools is to apply a sales tax to services. In California, he said, the state controls 83 percent of education revenue, but the state formula does not take local cost of living into account. He said that the current state budget will cause "slow erosion over the next few years" because "the cost curve is going up" - health care is "skyrocketing," and young teachers are in line for "step" salary increases.
"If you adjust for cost of living, I don't know how high-spending this area (really) is," he said.
Rapid growth in enrollment has been accompanied by stunted finances in California, but Kirst thinks the state is on the brink of another decline in enrollment. In Los Altos, however, Gratiot has reported that kindergarten enrollment has been higher than anticipated for two years now, standing at 415 on March 1. Enrollment a year ago was 431 and grew to 445 by the start of this school year. In 2002, March enrollment was only 369 but grew to 400 by the time school started. District officials expect more 5-year-olds on the first day of class next year than are now registered.
Time for another about-face
Kirst wants an about-face in standards in California's education system. "Start with standards of student outcome rather than inputs," he said.
He said the state is starting off on the wrong foot by taking the 704-square-mile Los Angeles Unified School District as the starting point for its planning. Eleven subdistricts - which include Los Angeles, all or parts of 28 other cities and some unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County - form a superdistrict of 746,800 K-12 students. The district's bureaucracy is huge, and the territory is too unwieldy to manage - "so they go to the site," Kirst said.
Saying that the long-term effect of state control is the loss of confidence in local education officials, Kirst added, "We need to trust the locals more and enable them to build local capacity."
He called for the state to restructure categorical programs and make geographical cost adjustments to funding. Local school boards, foundations and councils should have more control over their schools, and the schools need better teachers, he said.
Kirst thinks a citizens movement will soon put statewide education initiatives on the ballot. He cited the example of the Reiner Institute's effort to have taxes raised, but only on commercial property, to fund universal preschool.
"It's Meathead vs. The Terminator," he said. Reiner's approach makes Kirst uneasy: "We're going to see education vs. business in the fall, when we should be building coalitions."
Kirst also would like to see a redistricting of the Legislature, which he described as "gerrymandered artfully and ruthlessly" to exclude "the pragmatic middle," open primaries, and increased term limits. On top of that, the state must "deal with the $8 billion structural deficit."