SACRAMENTO, CA ~Last week the capital was abuzz over Getting Down to Facts, the massive series of privately-funded education reports coordinated through Stanford University. The responses to these reports missed some key realities.
The reports confirm that California education is a mess, burdened with a complicated and counterproductive system of finance. To bring every student up to speed under current conditions would cost more than $1 trillion per year, according to one estimate from which the researchers have distanced themselves. According to another, to bring California students in line with the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act will require spending increases of 53 to 71 percent.
Press accounts hail the reports as proof of the need for at least a 40-percent increase in education funding. That came as good news to the axis of teacher unions, free-spending politicians and education bureaucrats whose single reform idea is more money. The researchers are divided about the need for spending but united on a key point. Absent meaningful reforms, no amount of money would do the job, something even Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez seems to realize,
"If money alone guaranteed a good education, then Paris Hilton would have a Ph.D.," he told reporters. California now spends a total of $67 billion per year, all sources included, on K-12 education, and the reports confirm that a lot of it is misspent though wasteful categorical programs. That has also been known for a long time.
The standard response to the Stanford reports is that California needs both more spending and reform. A better response would be to take this data as the latest evidence that California’s K-12 system is essentially unreformable. More evidence for that also came last Tuesday, before the Stanford reports were released, in a different report that did indeed get down to facts.
On March 13, the California State University system revealed the latest figures on remedial education. In fall 2006, a full 43.5 percent of incoming freshmen needed remedial English and 37.5 percent needed remedial math. In other words, nearly half incoming students are deficient in English and more than one third deficient in math.
These remedial students, it should be pointed out, are from the top third of their high-school class, with high GPAs of 3.15 in math and 3.18 in English. The picture for students in the bottom two thirds must be grim indeed. Nationally California ranks 48th in reading and math, despite spending, from all sources, $11,500 per student per year. The system leaves even the best students deficient in math and English, the most basic subjects.
Neither the CSU remedial figures nor Getting Down to Facts address the question of whether a K-12 system that produces such dismal results, at such high cost, deserves increased funding. There is no denying that the system has had the money: by law education is the biggest item in the budget. But it has failed to deliver and always comes back for more. But as legislators should know by now, the system is essentially unreformable. It works best as a means to transfer wealth from taxpayers to an insatiable bureaucracy. If California truly wants increased student performance, the state needs to take a different path.
Meaningful reform will only take place when individuals, rather than bureaucrats, make key decisions and funding goes to the student, not the institution. That choice needs to be extended to parents and students in K-12. Choice will give them right to, in effect, fire the lot of them and chart their own course.
The Governor’s Committee on Education Excellence should take the Stanford reports and CSU figures as the latest confirmation of failure. Instead of parroting the latest demand for more money, the committee, the governor and the legislature, should pursue reform through full parental choice in education for all Californians as a matter of basic civil rights.
K. Lloyd Billingsly is the editorial director of the Pacific Research Institute. This article originally appeared as a PRI Capital Ideas feature.