Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, Jan. 21, 2004

Documentary examines how California public schools fell 'from first to worst'


A new documentary on the state of California's schools, featuring education Professor Mike Kirst, airs next month on public broadcasting stations.

From First to Worst, a production of the Merrow Report, details how California's public school system went from the nation's best in the 1950s to its worst by 1994. The hour-long film will be shown at 8 p.m. Feb. 4 on KCSM, and Feb. 5 at 8 p.m. on KTEH and 11 p.m. on KQED. The Merrow Report produces films on education issues for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and the Public Broadcasting Service.

The School of Education presented a preview of the documentary Jan. 14, followed by a discussion with Kirst and the film's host, veteran education journalist John Merrow.

"As an out-of-stater, I'm stunned by what California accepts as OK in so-called good schools," Merrow told the audience. "Californians have gotten used to mediocrity. That's part of the challenge: to convince Californians that they can, in fact, change things. It's pretty clear that California doesn't spend enough on education."

The film describes how, in the 1950s and 1960s, communities funded and controlled their local schools. But, in 1965, deadly riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles underscored how this system had created vast education inequities, with well-to-do districts outspending poor ones by 4-to-1. In 1968, Serrano v. Priest challenged the system of using local property taxes to fund local schools. The suit was settled in the mid-1970s and resulted in limiting state spending to just a few thousand dollars per student statewide. "We really wrote off adequacy, and we ended up with equalized mediocrity," Kirst said in the film.

During the 1970s, inflation compounded school funding issues as property taxes exploded in California. A taxpayer revolt followed in 1978 with the passage of Proposition 13, which sought not only tax relief but also protection against future taxes by requiring a two-thirds majority vote to pass new taxes. The film describes how Proposition 13 led to cuts in art, music and language programs in schools, as well as physical education, counselors, nurses, librarians and libraries. Schools became more crowded and rundown as the state's population grew but local property taxes, once the primary source of school funding, could not be used to build new facilities.

The film contrasts two San Francisco Bay Area school districts. In San Pablo, a working-class city, schools are overcrowded, decrepit and inadequately staffed. But in Orinda, an affluent town just 15 miles away, schools receive the same level of state funding but look very different thanks to a private foundation supported by Orinda parents that raises money to provide for instruction not supported by the state. The result is a "semi-private public school," a parent tells Merrow in the film.

During a post-film discussion, Kirst said polls show that Proposition 13 still enjoys popular support and is unlikely to be overturned. In an opinion article published in the San Jose Mercury News on Nov. 23, 2003, the professor advocates throwing out the state's current school financing system and starting over. "California's K-12 education finance system is broken in every way," Kirst writes. "It has no underlying rationale, is incredibly complex, fails to delivers an equal or adequate education to all children and is a nonsensical historical accretion. It is more centralized than almost any state system in the nation. Funneling more money to classrooms, through the same labyrinth, would not translate into a high-quality education for children."

Instead, Kirst supports a system that would organize school financing around state academic standards to guarantee an "adequate" level of funding for all pupils, adjusted for special-needs students and local living costs. "This system would lead to significant differences in spending per pupil among school districts, but every child in California would still be guaranteed a high-quality education," Kirst argues.

A strong public education system is essential for a healthy democracy, Merrow said. "Democracy is not instinctive behavior, it's learned behavior," he said. "That's why it's critical that somehow California get back on the path from worst to first."

Michael Kirst, professor of education, expresses cautious optimism about California's educational future.