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Outlook for California education 'grim': Kirst suggests options for local funding

STANFORD -- "California education is in tough shape, and its going to get tougher," says Stanford University Education Professor Michael Kirst, who says the main reasons are a flat economy and a state financing system that hasn't accommodated booming population.

Kirst suggests that California explore means to restore the state funding that was "emasculated" by Proposition 13 in 1978. Proposition 98, passed in 1989, does protect a percentage (40 percent) of the state budget for schools, Kirst said, "But people are finding out that 40 percent of nothing is still nothing."

Kirst is a co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, and was a strategist for Ross Perot's Texas educational reform effort in the 1980s. He spoke Thursday, Oct. 29, to more than 120 people at a dinner discussion for the Friends of the Stanford University School of Education.

"It's a pretty grim situation. Financing is not nearly as bad nationally as it is in California," said Kirst.

From 1980-1990, educational spending across the nation increased about 30 percent after inflation. In California, it increased only 9 percent, and with the recent recession "we lost that increase during the 1990s," Kirst said.

In 1964, California was fifth in the nation in per pupil spending. On the eve of the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, California had dropped nationally to 23.

"The state continued to fall dramatically during the 1980s. Currently, we rank about 39th in the country," Kirst said. "Because California enrollment is growing so rapidly, even if the California economy grows at the same rate as the national economy, we will lose ground in per pupil expenditures, absolutely and relative to other states."

New York, for example, spends $125,000 more per classroom than California does. Even isolated California districts that are comparatively well off are spending about 60 percent of what is spent in suburban school districts in such states as Michigan or Illinois.

For instance, Palo Alto - one of the 40 California districts that "are shielded islands from the financial problems of the rest of the state" - nevertheless spends only about $6,300-6,500 per pupil; affluent suburban districts of New Jersey and New York spend $11,000-12,000 per pupil, according to Kirst. The California state average is slightly over $5,000 per pupil.

Large class size

Moreover, he pointed out, California classes are among the most crowded in the nation.

"Every year, we have a race with Utah to see who's got the largest class sizes," he said. "Last year, they won. This year, it looks like we might."

The national average for the number of children per class is in the low 20s, Kirst said. "But in California, you find most classes in the 30s everywhere," he said.

Kirst noted that although some have disputed the impact of large class size on learning, "when you get into the 30s, most research indicates that there are problems in classroom teaching."

Moreover, California classrooms differ from the national average in a number of ways that exacerbate the effects of budget constraints and large class size.

"On this fiscal base, California has one of the most diversified student populations in the U.S. - more diverse, especially, than Utah," Kirst said.

By the year 2000, he said, 38 percent of California students will be Hispanic, 12 percent Asian, and 8 percent black. Moreover, 20 percent will have limited command of English.

Adding to the problem, 21 percent of current California schoolchildren live in poverty.

"And every day, 600 students are added to the system, while the state's economy is essentially flat," he said.

Meanwhile, the electorate and the student body diverging: 54 percent of California schoolchildren are minority, but 81 percent of the 1992 voters are white.

"And the voting turnout is getting older and whiter," Kirst said.

"A lot of people are voting who are not involved directly with public schools."

Kirst proposed several financing solutions for California schools: 1) Amend Proposition 13 by a statewide referendum to restore local property tax flexibility; 2) use county-level sales taxes that are now allowed by the state if a majority of voters agree; and 3) enact state law authorizing local school districts to place a surtax on the state income tax if a majority of district voters approve.

Kirst pointed out that 88 percent of the California school funding comes from the state - a larger proportion than any other state except Hawaii.

The alternative to developing local sources of funding, said Kirst, "is an annual replay of this year's budget debacle."

"Excessive state control of school finance was not something voters wanted when they passed Proposition 13. The easiest way to end this deadlock, without changing Proposition 13, is probably through a new, voter-approved local funding source, such as sales or income tax."

Most of all, Kirst added, "we need gutsy leadership" to make any major changes at all.

Questions, answers

During a question-and-answer session with the audience, Kirst answered a number of queries about school innovation, school reform and the voucher initiative.

Speaking about Whittle Communications project to create for-profit schools, Kirst said: "I think it's quite do-able. If he doesn't do anything for the handicapped, he'll save 20 percent. If he doesn't include programs for the limited English speaking students, he could save another 12 percent that way."

Kirst pointed out that one of the reasons current education costs are so high is because of America's commitment to educate all its children, while private schools may select those they have the best chance of educating well.

Another questioner asked Kirst about excellent schools offered abroad - specifically, an excellent but low-cost German school Stanford President Gerhard Casper had mentioned in his introductory remarks.

Kirst noted that in Germany, students interested in trades are sent out to apprenticeships, financed in part by business, which removes those less academically inclined from the schools.

"These international comparisons are always interesting, but I always wind up asking whether the samples are the same - who's being sampled at age 17?"

But most of the questions seemed to focus on issues of school choice and the California voucher proposal to be on the July 1994 ballot.

"Nobody has implemented a large-scale voucher system, so we are unsure what will happen," Kirst said. He called the Colorado voucher initiative, on the Nov. 3 ballot, "a shot in the dark-you're trying to overturn a whole system with unknown results.

"In California, we spend $25 billion for public schools, another $2.5-3 billion in private school funding. Some people talk as if vouchers and competition will create a new age in education as people stream in to start new schools - but nobody knows."

He recalled his days with Perot's Texas reforms during the mid-1980s.

"Eighty different reform proposals were being sent out to the schools," Kirst said. "I said I thought schools might have trouble handling that. He said, 'Those good ole' boy administrators - they'll incrementalize you to death! We've got to nuke this educational system! I want to drop a nuclear bomb on it!'

"Well, if you want to nuke this system, you'll have a chance in July 1994."



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