Majorities of Californians favor Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to give extra K-12 funding to school districts with more English learners and lower-income students, according to a statewide survey released Wednesday by the Public Policy Institute of California. Californians also favor another component of the governor’s proposal: giving local school districts more flexibility over how state money is spent.

A strong majority of all adults (71 percent) — but fewer likely voters (60 percent) — support the governor’s plan to direct more funding to English learners and lower-income students. Most (74 percent all adults, 67 percent likely voters) say targeting money this way will improve these students’ academic achievement.

When asked more generally whether school districts with more low-income students should get any new state funding, 63 percent of adults and 52 percent of likely voters are in favor. Support is lower for the idea of giving districts with more English learners extra funding: half of all adults (51 percent) are in favor and a majority of likely voters are opposed (40 percent favor, 55 percent oppose). What if giving new money to districts with more of these students means giving less money to other districts? Levels of support are largely the same.

Overwhelming majorities (78 percent adults, 79 percent likely voters) favor the idea of giving local districts more flexibility over how state money is spent. Most adults think local school districts (43 percent) or schools (36 percent) — rather than the state — should have the most control over spending state funds for K-12 education. Just 16 percent say the state should have the most control. Underscoring this faith in decision-making at the local level, 73 percent of adults are very confident (16 percent) or somewhat confident (57 percent) that local districts would use the money wisely if given more flexibility. Likely voters’ views are similar (76 percent very/somewhat confident, 23 percent not too/not at all confident).

The debate over school funding comes at a time when most Californians (83 percent) say the quality of education is at least somewhat of a problem. Half (49 percent) consider it a big problem. This is an improvement since last April, when 58 percent called it a big problem. Most Californians (85 percent) also continue to consider the state budget situation at least somewhat of a problem for public schools. But here, too, the share saying it is a big problem — 57 percent — is lower than last April (65 percent).

“The mood about the state of California’s public schools has brightened somewhat with an improving economy and budget situation,” says Mark Baldassare, PPIC president and CEO. “But many Californians are still worried about how state funding will affect their local public schools.”

After years of budget cuts, most adults (63 percent) say the current level of state funding for their local public school is not enough (24 percent just enough, 9 percent more than enough). How do they feel about specific ways to raise money for local schools? If their local district had a bond measure on the ballot to pay for school construction projects, 65 percent would vote yes. A majority of likely voters (56 percent) would also vote yes — just above the 55 percent vote required to pass school bonds in California. And 60 percent of Californians would vote yes on a measure to increase local parcel taxes to provide more money for local schools. However, likely voters are divided (51 percent yes, 47 percent no) — this level of support is well below the two-thirds vote required to pass a parcel tax.

Legislators are currently discussing changes to Proposition 13, including one that would make passage of local school parcel taxes easier by lowering the vote threshold to 55 percent. A slim majority of adults (51 percent) say this is a good idea, while 42 percent say it is a bad idea. Likely voters are divided: 47 percent say it is a good idea, and 48 percent say it is a bad one.

How can the state significantly improve the quality of K-12 public schools? Just 9 percent of adults say state funding needs to be increased, 39 percent say existing funds need to be used more wisely, and the largest share — 50 percent — say both approaches are necessary.

“Many Californians believe that student achievement will improve if we allocate more state money to disadvantaged students,” Baldassare said. “Still, most residents also say that we need to use existing funds more wisely to improve schools.”

As the governor seeks support for his school funding proposal, his approval rating stands at 46 percent (31 percent disapprove, 22 percent don’t know) among California adults. About half approved of his job performance in March (49 percent) and January (51 percent). When it comes to his handling of K-12 education, just 32 percent approve, while 42 percent disapprove and 26 percent are unsure. The Legislature’s overall job approval rating and its approval rating for handling K-12 education are the same: 31 percent.

High School Dropout Rate Seen as Big Problem

The survey asked about three challenges facing the state’s K-12 system: the high school dropout rate, student achievement and teacher quality. Of the three, Californians are most likely to see the dropout rate as a big problem (66 percent). Far fewer characterize student achievement (36 percent) or teacher quality (28 percent) as big problems. Californians today are less likely to see each of these three issues as big problems than they were two years ago (dropout rate 74 percent, student achievement 46 percent, teacher quality 44 percent).

As state leaders debate the governor’s proposal to provide extra money to districts with more disadvantaged students, 56 percent of Californians say they are very concerned that graduating students in lower-income areas are less likely than other students to be ready for college. Just over half of residents (52 percent) say they are very concerned that schools in lower-income areas have a shortage of good teachers compared to schools in wealthier areas. Less than half (47 percent) say they are very concerned that English language learners score lower on standardized tests than other students.

College Prep Seen as Primary Goal of Schools

The survey asked Californians to weigh the importance of four educational programs. The results:

» Preparing students for college: 76 percent say this is very important. Latinos (91 percent) and blacks (90 percent) are much more likely than Asians (76 percent) and whites (63 percent) to express this view. Those with incomes below $40,000 are much more likely than others to say this is very important.

» Including career technical, or vocational, education in the curriculum: 74 percent say this is very important. Asians (62 percent) are less likely than Latinos (77 percent), blacks (76 percent) or whites (73 percent) to express this view.

» Including civics in the curriculum: 54 percent say this is very important. Latinos (64 percent) and blacks (60 percent) are more likely than whites (49 percent) or Asians (42 percent) to hold this view.

» Reducing K-3 class sizes: 53 percent say this is very important. Latinos (68 percent) are most likely to say this, followed by blacks (56 percent), whites (48 percent) and Asians (35 percent). Those earning less than $40,000 are more likely than adults with higher incomes to concur.

What is the most important goal of the K-12 public education system? Californians are most likely to say that it is preparing students for college (35 percent), followed by preparing students for the workforce (16 percent), teaching students the basics (16 percent), teaching students life skills (15 percent), and preparing students to be good citizens (12 percent). Latinos (56 percent) and blacks (47 percent) are much more likely than whites (23 percent) or Asians (21 percent) to choose college preparation as the most important goal. Californians with high school diplomas or less (45 percent) are much more likely than those with some college (29 percent) or college degrees (27 percent) to choose this goal. Those earning less than $40,000 (42 percent) are more likely than middle-income (31 percent) or upper-income (28 percent) residents to choose it.

Local Schools Get Good Grades

How well are schools doing in preparing students for college? A majority of adults say their local schools are doing an excellent (12 percent) or good (42 percent) job. Fewer say their schools are doing a not so good (28 percent) or poor job (11 percent) — a record low since PPIC first asked in April 2006. Most Latinos (59 percent), Asians (55 percent) and whites (51 percent) give their schools positive ratings for college preparation, while most blacks (54 percent) give negative ones. On preparing students for the workforce, 44 percent of adults give schools positive ratings and 49 percent give negative ones. Negative ratings are also at a record low on this question. Asked to grade their local public schools, more than half of Californians (55 percent) give As (16 percent) or Bs (39 percent), while 27 percent give Cs. Public school parents are somewhat more likely to give A or B grades (63 percent).

Less Confidence in Standardized Tests as Accurate Indicators

Two issues are the focus of state and national debate: standardized testing and teacher evaluation. When asked how confident they are that standardized tests accurately indicate a student’s progress and abilities, about half of Californians say they are very (11 percent) or somewhat (42 percent) confident, while 44 percent are not too confident (27 percent) or not at all confident (17 percent). Californians were more confident about testing in April 2006 than they are today (63 percent vs. 53 percent). Californians are more likely to say that students in their communities get the right amount of testing in elementary and middle school schools (40 percent) and high school (39 percent) than they are to say that students get too much testing (24 percent elementary and middle school, 21 percent high school) or not enough (29 percent elementary and middle school, 31 percent high school).

The survey asked about three measures that could be used in teacher evaluation: the academic achievement of students as measured by standardized tests, the academic improvement of students as measured by standardized tests, and classroom observations made by school principals or other experts.

Most Californians say all three should be included, with highest proportion of residents (84 percent) saying classroom observation should be used (63 percent academic achievement, 68 percent academic improvement). There is less agreement among Californians about whether a single framework for teacher evaluation should be used across all schools in the state or if each district should develop its own. About half (51 percent) say the same framework should be used statewide, and 45 percent say districts should develop their own.

About the Survey

Findings are based on a survey of 1,705 California adult residents, including 1,194 interviewed on land-line telephones and 511 interviewed on cell phones. Interviews were conducted April 2-9 in English and Spanish, according to respondents’ preferences. The sampling error, taking design effects from weighting into consideration, is plus or minus 3.7 percent for all adults, plus or minus 4 percent for the 1,423 registered voters, plus or minus 4.4 percent for the 1,134 likely voters and plus or minus 7 percent for the 416 public school parents.

Click here to read the full survey.