Education is a top concern.
In a Times poll conducted by telephone November 18 through December 12, 1997, just months after California students began the 1997-98 school year, 23% of Californians called education the most important problem facing California (in an open-ended question where no response options were provided). This was second only to crime (including gangs, drugs, and violence), mentioned by 37% of Californians. The concern about education is far-reaching and not just limited to self-interested Californians with children in the educational system. High proportions of parents of school-age children, parents of older or younger children and non-parents named education as the most important problem facing the state.
When Californians were asked what they consider the most important problem facing public schools specifically, the highest proportion said a lack of funds or budget cuts (19%). Nineteen percent also mentioned some form of crime, including gangs, drugs, violence, and crime in general. These issues were followed closely by concern about overcrowded classrooms and issues related to teacher performance and training (17% for each). Another 12% mentioned an issue related to student preparedness and discipline and 10% named a concern related to parental involvement and the teaching of proper values.
Nearly one-third (30%) of Latino parents of school age children mentioned large class sizes as the most important problem in California public schools (throughout this analysis "parents" will refer to parents of school-age children unless otherwise stated). High proportions of white parents also gave this response (22%, compared to 13% of African American and 10% of Asian parents). Latino and Asian parents were more likely to show greater concern about crime, with 30% of Latino and 33% of Asian parents calling this their top concern, compared to 11% of white and 20% of African American parents. Concern about budget cuts was higher among white and African American parents. Last, Asian parents were far less likely to cite teacher performance or training as the most important problem in California schools, with just 4% of Asian parents giving this response, compared to 17% of white, 23% of Latino and 27% of African American parents.
A plurality of residents believe the quality of public education in California has gotten worse and that private schools provide a better education.
By nearly 2 to 1, more Californians believe education has gotten worse than gotten better (43% to 22%). One quarter of Californians think it has remained the same and the remaining ten percent were uncertain.
The proportion believing the quality of education has gotten worse was somewhat higher among non-parents and parents of children 18 years of age or older. White and African American parents were more likely to think the quality of education in California has gotten worse (46% and 55% respectively) than Latinos (34%) and Asian parents (22%). The belief that education in California has gotten worse also increased with rising income and was higher among parents with children in private school than those with children in public school (51% to 38%).
Further indicating the poor perception of public school education in the state, the vast majority of Californians agreed that children who attend private schools generally get a better education than children who attend public schools. Forty-five percent strongly agreed with this statement and another 22% somewhat agreed, for a total of 67% in agreement. Just 27% disagreed. Nearly two-thirds or more of each parent subgroup agreed with this statement as well. Again, non-parents, parents of children 18 years of age or older, and more affluent residents were slightly more likely to think children who attend private school get a better education. Unsurprisingly, private school parents were far more likely to agree that children who attend private schools generally get a better education than those parents with children in public school. Seventy percent of private school parents strongly agreed with this statement, compared to 36% of public school parents. Overall, 80% of private school parents agreed, compared to 60% of public school parents.
More than two-thirds of respondents give California's public schools only a fair or poor rating. Local schools fare better.
When Californians were asked to rate the quality of education in California's public schools, just three percent called it excellent and 22% called it good. Forty-four percent were only willing to call the quality of education in the public schools fair and another 27% called it poor (for a total of 71% calling California's public schools fair or poor). This rating did not differ much from Californians' perception of schools nationwide. Just 25% called the quality of education in public schools in the nation excellent or good and 67% called it fair or poor.
California schools received lukewarm to poor ratings with non-parents and parents of children of various ages. Parents with children in private school were more likely than those with children in public school to give California schools a poor rating (37% to 24%).
Asian parents were slightly more positive about California schools, with 44% giving them an excellent or good rating, compared to 36% of Latinos, 20% of whites, and 15% for African Americans. Only 11% of Asian parents gave California public schools a poor rating, while 17% of Latino parents, 30% of white parents, and 43% of African American parents did so.
While the perception of California schools was generally weak, Californians gave higher ratings for the quality of education at their local public schools. Nearly half (43%) of Californians called their local public schools excellent (8%) or good (35%). While one-third think their local public schools are just fair, only 18% believe they are poor.
Parents of school-age children (49%) and parents of children under five (52%) are more likely to give their local public schools an excellent or good rating than non-parents (33%) and parents with children 18 years of age or older (37%). With this result as one indicator, there is a slight trend for parents of school-age children and younger children to have a slightly more positive opinion of public education in California than non-parents and parents of older children. Parents of school-age children and those with children approaching school-age may have more information or involvement in schools and, therefore, a slightly better impression. Another explanation may be that parents who are sending their children to public school are less willing to accept that they are sending their children to inadequate schools -- which creates cognitive dissonance.
Furthermore, while 52% of public school parents called local public schools excellent or good, just 33% of private school parents did so. Private school parents were more likely to call public schools fair (36%) or poor (26%).
African American parents had a far more negative view of local public schools than Latino, white and Asian parents. While approximately half of Asian, Latino and white parents gave local public schools excellent or good ratings, just 29% of African Americans did so. Seventy percent of African Americans gave their local schools a fair or poor rating -- including 32% saying poor -- compared with 38% of Asian parents, 50% of Latino parents and 47% of white parents.
Residents were also asked who they blamed or credited for the current condition of education in California. Among those who gave the schools good ratings, the highest proportion gave credit to teachers (38%). Seventeen percent of Californians who had a good impression of California's public schools gave credit to parents, 12% to administrators and 12% to state government (and another four percent to Governor Wilson).
Parents of school-age children were even more likely than respondents overall to give themselves -- parents -- credit for the condition of public schools, with 21% giving this response. Households where there is a "stay-at-home mom" were also more likely to give credit to parents than households where both parents work (37% to 10%). In households where both parents work, respondents were more likely to give credit to teachers (39% to 19%). Respondents in families with a stay-at-home mom may believe that having a parent available contributes to a child's academic success, while parents who work give credit to the teachers that guide their children in their absence.