PACE’s latest update on California’s K-12 education finds little progress, lots of challenges

The latest five-year assessment of the state of California’s K-12 public school system — conducted by the Policy Analysis for California Education, an independent research center — reports small progress in the face of persistent as well as unanticipated challenges like the recession.

Released May 3, the PACE report, “Getting Down to Facts-Five Years Later,” focuses on finance, governance, data systems and personnel issues from 2007 through 2011. It follows up on a similar investigation five years ago by Stanford University. PACE is based at UC Berkeley, Stanford University and the University of Southern California.

Authors of the first report said they hoped it would lead to new policies to streamline governance, simplify and rationalize school finance, improve educational information and assessment, and ensure that schools operate with enough topnotch staff.

“Our initial optimism was unwarranted,” says the new report, in an introduction by Susanna Loeb, an education professor at Stanford and a PACE director. She notes that while the issues raised in the first “Getting Down to the Facts” report have penetrated policy discussions, “the past five years have seen only small improvements” in the central problems identified five years ago, due in part to the severe economic recession.

The original report provided a comprehensive diagnosis of the issues facing California’s education system, and a framework for policies to move the state forward, according to David Plank, PACE’s executive director. He says that the latest report shows that the original report’s diagnosis and prescription “remain as relevant as five years ago.”  The recommendations include targeting resources to students who need them most, and reducing the burden of state regulation so local educators have more flexibility in how they use resources.

The new PACE report is being formally presented at a seminar for leading education policymakers and scholars today in Sacramento. At the seminar, USC’s Dan Schnur, who also is on the faculty of UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, will lead discussion about the results of a related PACE/USC Rossier School of Education online poll on education issues, such as reform, funding, and taxes.

The full PACE report is available online. Among its key findings:

  • The economic downturn led to reduced education spending across the state, with California general fund spending on education down 15 percent by the end of the last decade compared to its peak in 2007-2008.
  • A series of proposals are circulating to make education finance more flexible, including plans for a weighted formula to allow adjustments for schools’ special or differing needs.
  • The state’s education system is heavy on compliance and complexity, but light on data collection that could lead to improvements. However, California’s Longitudinal Student Data System (CALPADS) has been running for two years, conducting detailed analyses of student learning as well as accurate measures of dropout and graduation rates.
  • State budget cuts have led to layoffs and reduced staff development, but the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing has upped its oversight of teacher education programs.
  • While educational governance at all levels remains weak, improvements include: increased resource control for local authorities; more federal support through the Race to the Top initiative and stimulus/innovation funding; elimination of the state Office of the Secretary of Education to avoid duplication; and successful local initiatives to increase district accountability, flexibility and transparency and develop new ways to evaluate, compensate and support teachers.

Bruce Fuller, a PACE director and professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley, says he remains optimistic, noting that the report shows that “despite huge cuts to local schools, two governors have now advanced policies that cut central bureaucracy and move a richer share of dollars into classrooms” as  Sacramento tries “to lift, rather than over-regulate, teachers and classrooms.”

PACE investigators acknowledge in the latest report that they hope their research will help spur more “fruitful changes to state policy so that California can provide the educational opportunities that its students deserve.”

The current “Getting Down to The Facts” was supported by PACE’s core funders, including the California Education Policy Fund (a project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors), the Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and the Stuart Foundation.

PACE works on long-term strategy for comprehensive policy reform and improved performance throughout California’s education system. It bridges the gap between research and policy, working with scholars from California’s leading universities and with state and local policymakers to increase the impact of academic research on educational policy in California.