Five years ago, a brigade of education policy analysts from 32 institutions released a report on the financing and governance of California's public schools called "Getting Down to Facts." The authors hoped their findings would help "streamline governance and...simplify and rationalize school finance, in addition to improving information and ensuring that schools had sufficient and excellent staff." They had powerful backers, including the Speaker of the California Assembly and the governor's Secretary of Education.
But one Great Recession later, researchers from Policy Analysis for California Education say in a follow-up study released May 3, titled "Getting Down to Facts: Five Years Later," that despite some small promising developments, "Our initial optimism was clearly unwarranted."
What has largely shredded that optimism is the domination of the California education debate by economic problems, instead of priorities the "Getting Down to Facts" authors stressed half a decade ago. To exemplify this problem, the new PACE report's authors (representing Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Southern California) note that by the end of the last decade, state general funding of K-12 dropped 15 percent from its peak in 2007-8. Per-pupil funding from 2007-8 to 2011-12, the report shows, slipped by $522, or about 6.3 percent.
In the very first sentence of the section of the new report on school finance, Heather Rose at the University of California at Davis, writes: "California's school finance system is in disrepair to the point that it no longer meets the needs of the state or its students."
There's also a handy "Then and Now" chart in the report stating what has and has not changed over five years. Accountability hawks will dislike this characterization of lines of authority: "Then: Few interviewees knew who was in charge of different aspects of the system and who was responsible for what tasks. Now: No change."
The authors do point out places where stagnation or decay don't dominate. They cite the launch of the state's student data system and the increased flexibility of local authorities in terms of how they can use resources (although that was attributable to funding streams drying up, the authors say), along with "bolder reforms" taking place in major districts like Los Angeles Unified. They also note recent developments such as the $7 billion tax increase proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to support schools that will go to voters on the November 2012 ballot. One place where "streamlining" has at least technically taken place: The position of Secretary of Education, a primary sponsor of the report from 2007, no longer exists.
There's a lot more to chew on here, and not just because we can compare parallel data and information from two points in time for one major state. The two points in time deal with optimistic priorities in California right before the recession reared its head, and post-recession realities, as the authors themselves bluntly admit.