Professors launch major investigation of California school governance, finance

Susanna Loeb

Susanna Loeb

Michael Kirst

Michael Kirst

To help lay the groundwork for reforming California's faltering school system, more than 30 researchers nationwide have launched the largest independent investigation ever of how the state governs and finances education.

Stanford Associate Professor of Education Susanna Loeb, an economist, is leading the $2.6 million effort, titled, "Getting Down to Facts: A Research Project to Inform Solutions to California's Education Problems."

"Much of the research on school finance is driven by litigation," Loeb said. "This effort stands out in its depth and breadth, but also because it is independent and nonpartisan. The consensus is that there has to be some sort of change. We hope that the results of these studies can help to carve out common ground for discussions that can lead to effective change in school finance and governance in California."

The studies aim to identify what reforms are needed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the school system and to assess how much it should cost to provide every child in California with a good education. Statewide, enormous disparities exist in educational quality. And compared with the past, California has fallen far behind. From its position as a national leader in education three decades ago, the state now ranks 48th in student basic reading and math skills, Loeb said.

The project, which was requested by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Committee on Education Excellence, Democratic leaders in the state Senate and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, aims to provide policy-makers with clear information that is needed to assess proposed reforms. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and the Stuart Foundation are funding the nine-month effort, which includes more than 20 studies.

"This is the most comprehensive study of school finance for K-12 in the history of California," said Stanford education Professor Michael Kirst, who has worked in state education since 1969 and is participating in the project. "It has more components and dimensions to the study than any other, and it is the most impressive array of researchers from around the nation that has ever been assembled to study school finance in California."

Although Kirst, who was president of the state board of education in 1970s, praised the quality of the project, he was less sanguine about whether it would lead to real change.

"It depends on when these studies come out," he said. "Is the policy window open? Are the stars aligned in that the governor and the legislative leaders are ready to move forward on this? Nobody can predict that. I don't even know who the governor is going to be. So we're just hoping."

In addition to Loeb and Kirst, Stanford participants include Anthony Bryk, the Spencer Foundation Professor of Organizational Studies in Education and Business; Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor; William Koski, the Eric and Nancy Wright Professor of Clinical Education at the Law School; and Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Getting Down to FactsAccording to Loeb, who designed the study, the project asks three broad questions:

  • 1. What do California school finance and governance systems look like today?
  • 2. How can we use the resources we have more effectively to improve student outcomes?
  • 3. To what extent are additional resources needed so that California students can meet the goals we have for them?
  • For the first question, Loeb said, researchers will investigate the following:

  • What is the structure of the California's school finance system?
  • How are the revenues distributed across districts and how do districts spend these dollars?
  • How do schools receive funds from districts and how much control do school administrators have over resource allocation?
  • What services do students in California receive and how do they compare to services in other states?
  • For the second question, Loeb said, researchers will look at possible inefficiencies within the system by asking the following questions:

  • In what ways do the structures of school finance and governance create barriers to the effective use of resources?
  • How do school and district personnel policies help or hinder effective resource use?
  • In what way does lack of information hinder policy-makers and practitioners from making the most effective decisions and what additional information would be most helpful?
  • The third question aims to pinpoint the resource needs for different academic goals by asking the following questions:

  • What do Californians believe schools should be held responsible for and students should be expected to achieve?
  • What resources appear to be important for allowing students to reach these goals?
  • How do needs for resources differ across students, particularly as a function of geographic location, increasing or decreasing enrollment, special education, poverty and English-language learner status?
  • Finally, Loeb said, three additional studies will help frame the research by asking the following questions:

  • What theoretical perspectives, including issues of equity, efficiency and adequacy, can help guide school finance and governance policy?
  • What can be learned about effective implementation of school finance reforms from experiences in other states?
  • What are the major lessons from the research studies in this project?
  • In addition to Stanford, researchers conducting the study come from other universities including California State University-San Diego, Syracuse University, Tufts University, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California, Quinnipiac University, the University of California-Davis, UC-Berkeley and UC-Santa Barbara. Others experts come from the American Institutes for Research, the Public Policy Institute of California, School Services of California, the RAND Corporation, EdSource, a clearinghouse for independent information on state public education policy issues, and Springboard Schools, a nonprofit network of educators committed to raising student achievement.