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How do California's school boards compare?

STANFORD -- How do California's 1,013 school boards compare with others across the nation?

According to Stanford University education Prof. Michael Kirst, executive director of the recent "Report of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on School Governance" and a former president of the California State Board of Education:

"School boards here respond much more to what the state wants and needs rather than to citizens' demands. They work more as agents of the state than as local fundraisers adapting programs to the local context."

Nationally, the report says, states provide 50 percent of school funding, with 44 percent provided locally and the remaining 6 percent from the federal government.

Since the 1978 passage of Proposition 13, however, California schools receive a whopping 85 percent of their funding from the state, with only 7 percent controlled locally. By eliminating local districts' ability to raise property taxes, Proposition 13 turned the local property tax into a de facto state tax, Kirst said.

This state control creates conflict between school boards and citizen expectations, Kirst said.

"California school boards are flak-catchers," he said. "They get a lot more grief without having the flexibility and authority to really change things. Their job is very frustrating."

Since the Proposition 13 cutbacks, school boards also have had to decide which school programs will and will not survive tightened budgets - a move that has not enhanced their popularity.

Kirst said that California rates 29th among the states in per-pupil spending, but that when adjusted for California's high cost of living, the state falls between 42nd and 44th.

The new report also singles out California for its excessive state regulation of what school boards can and cannot do.

"The California Education Code, at five volumes, is cluttered with outmoded regulations and duties required of school boards," it said,. "Deflecting them from their policymaking role and needlessly inhibiting local flexibility."

Kirst's message to California's state legislators echoes the advice proffered in the rest of the report: Prune the legalistic clutter and define the school board's role more simply and clearly.

"The state needs to figure out what it wants school boards to do," he said.


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