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Is California a Bellwether for Education Reform?

It's always risky to assume that evidence from one state applies to others. But when the state is California, it's hard to dismiss the findings out of hand. According to a poll conducted for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles Times, 64 percent of voters in the state said they are willing to pay higher taxes to increase funding for public schools ("Californians willing to pay higher taxes for better schools," Los Angeles Times, Nov. 20).

The consensus crossed all races, ages, regions, income and educational levels. (The sole exception was conservative Republicans, with only 34 percent willing to do so.) Respondents made their support clear, despite giving public schools a rating of "C" or below. But about half demanded sweeping changes at low-performing schools, including conversion to charter schools or closing, and reorganization of staff and curriculum, as provided for in the state's Parent Trigger Law.

The poll's results will be tested in November when voters will be asked to approve a half-percent increase in the sales tax and an income tax surcharge on those making over $250,000 a year. If they turn down the initiative, Gov. Jerry Brown warned that the state will have to impose another $6 billion in cuts to public schools and higher education ("California Budget Crisis," The New York Times, May 14).

The survey also found that 58 percent of voters want evaluations of teachers' performance made public, in the belief that the quality of schools would be improved ("Californians support making teachers' reviews public," Los Angeles Times, Nov. 21). However, only 10 percent want test scores to be the only basis for determining teachers' salaries.

Because of its size, California is assumed to be representative of other states, but the only issue that has so far elicited widespread agreement across the country is vouchers. Voters have rejected them by a margin of at least two to one in 26 statewide referendums between 1967 and 2007. The most recent example was in Utah when more than 60 percent of voters in that conservative state said no to the nation's first universal voucher program, even after the plan was passed by both houses of the Legislature and signed by the governor.

Interpreting polls, however, is always tricky. For example, studies have shown that how questions are framed can skew responses. Nevertheless, if I read the results accurately, the poll in question offers something for both sides in the debate over school reform. Although it indicates that voters are not ready to give up entirely on public schools, I don't think they will be recognizable in the next decade. There are simply too many demands arising from the global economy. We're already seeing evidence of that view in the way teachers are being evaluated, the growth of charter schools and the waning power of teachers unions.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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