You flunked!

A poll indicates public ignorance on education spending runs rampant. Time to wise up and join the debate team.

A fascinating finding in the latest Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) statewide poll is that while Californians have strong opinions on public education and what to do about it, they are very poorly informed about what’s really going on. In other words, the public gets an F on education.

As a wonderfully sneaky test of voter awareness, PPIC asked Californians, in a recent survey about how they felt things were going, to tell PPIC how much of the state budget they believed was spent on the public schools.

Most Californians thought it was a paltry amount. Only one in three California residents had any notion that public education is by far and away the biggest dollar item, sucking up half the budget (very roughly, $50 billion of $100 billion).

California voters feel more money should pour into the schools. Yet, they are utterly unaware that California spends more on its schools each year than the entire operating budgets of the 49 other states, including New York.

The PPIC poll offers amusing insight into how stupid some people become whenever they are driven by their blind political partisanship.

The poll showed that Democrats tend to wrongly believe that California’s prisons get the biggest chunk of our state budget (those awful, icky prisons that those evil Republicans keep building), while Republicans tend to wrongly believe that social welfare gets the biggest chunk of dough (those awful, evil handouts for illegal immigrants that the Democrats keep approving).

With this much ignorance coursing through Californians’ brains, are we beyond help? Broad misconceptions like these help to drive the passionate debate about education, teacher tenure and school funding in this state.

Yet, the National Education Association (NEA) and the National Center for Education Statistics rank California schools in the middle of the 50 states on per-pupil spending. Our schools are not under-funded, despite our huge size, our budget troubles and all the people who pay no taxes because they work off the books.

Why don’t Californians know this?

First, the California media are dead on their feet. Rarely do they bother to pick up a phone and get to the bottom of the education-funding myths, which they love to perpetuate.

Second, the most vocal education lobby has spent a great deal of money convincing the public that our schools are still near the bottom in per-pupil funding. You hear their pleas on the radio and TV all the time.

Third, this lie was helped in January when Rand Corp. released a flawed—and just plain wrong—study that showed California still wallowing near the bottom in per-pupil funding.

The Rand author has not yet called me back. But one key problem is that Rand used special data for California that was not used for any of the 49 other states.

As noted by California Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer, the Rand study included in its student population count for California “all children who had excused absences” but didn’t actually attend school. That represents scads of children. Yet, the 49 other states did not include children with “excused absences.”

By inflating the number of kids in California classrooms (and Rand did it because California insisted on being the only state to add excused absences to its student count), the data wrongly pushes the per-pupil dollar expenditures downward, as compared with the 49 other states. Even Rand acknowledges that by dividing spending by an inflated number of kids, its study likely has skewed the per-pupil-funding comparison.

I’m very sorry if you attended a public school in California and find this math too hard. But, as Eric Hanushek, an education expert at the Hoover Institution, noted, “We’re not even close to eighth from the bottom—nowhere near that. We are at or near the middle in the nation.”

Exactly right. The NEA, a left-leaning teachers union, which H.D. Palmer noted “is hardly an organization that you can say is on the side of a Republican administration,” reports that in 2002-2003, California spent $7,552 per student.

At the time, according to the NEA, the national median per pupil was $7,574. Hmm, we were $22 short. No wonder our kids are at the bottom in reading and math.

Yet, Californians are clueless, as shown in the PPIC poll (bracketed comments are mine):

“Ultimately, state residents trust themselves to make the tough calls: 72 percent believe voters should make decisions about the budget and governmental reforms rather than abdicate that responsibility to the governor and legislature (25%). But when it comes to the budget, how much knowledge do residents bring to the table? Only 29 percent of Californians can identify the top category for state spending (K-12 education). [Amazing!] Only one third (32%) correctly name personal income taxes as the main source of state revenue. [Incredible!] And only 11 percent of Californians correctly identify both the biggest spending category [schools] and the largest revenue source. [Hoo boy!]”

Noted Palmer, of the state Department of Finance, “There’s just a great deal of misinformation out there, much of it going out over the airwaves.” He added, “People just do not get that when California adds billions each year to the schools, which we do, adding another $1 billion means you multiply $1 million by 1,000.”

Ah, but that requires math, burdening the brains of the California public.

I’ll make it easy. Fact: California is at the median level in national per-pupil funding. Fact: Our funding is normal. Fact: Funding is a phony issue. Fact: We are not “facing disaster” from huge “cuts.”

Even the solidly median number of $7,552 per student is an unfairly low amount total for California. The NEA figure doesn’t include hundreds of millions of dollars California now spends—far more than other states—in a desperate bid to retrain “certified” teachers. Under former Governor Gray Davis, the state Board of Education wisely realized that our teachers pour out of our state’s slack teacher colleges knowing far too little history, math or class-control methods.

There’s another reason the $7,552 for California is too low. The national average spent per pupil in 2002-2003 was $8,041 (note: I said “average,” not “median,” and they are different). Compared with the national average of $8,041, California was $489 behind other U.S. schools, right? Really bad, right?

Wrong. The national average is a canard promoted by the education lobby. It includes the per-pupil funding of three exceedingly unusual East Coast states and Washington, D.C., which spend a staggering $11,057 to $12,568 per pupil—thousands more than any other state.

Washington, D.C., has the most disastrous school district in the nation, filled with mostly U.S.-born kids who, on national English tests, are losing ground to Los Angeles’ largely foreign-born kids. Yet, D.C. schools spend their princely sums on all the wrong things.

The money blown by these four big spenders—D.C., New York, Connecticut and New Jersey—drives the national average into the stratosphere. The truth is most states spend between $7,000 and $8,000 per child, just exactly like California. If those four are removed from the equation, California shows up in the upper half of the per-pupil-funding pile.

So, let’s stop manipulating statistics. The low-funding states are obvious in the NEA data, and California is not among them. The lowest-spending state of all is Utah, which spent only $4,838 per student in 2002-2003. Utah kids, by the way, do very well on standardized tests.

Perhaps all these silly claims that California “under-funds” its schools are what finally prompted the office of Elizabeth Hill, the nonpartisan chief legislative analyst, to say in a report: “The analytic basis for pursuing the national average as a spending goal is unclear. The level of spending necessary for California to provide quality K-12 programs depends on many variables, and may be higher or lower than the national average.”

The Legislative Analyst’s Office very wisely added that California “should be concerned more with how its students perform.”

What a concept.

So, the question becomes: Who’s out there, successfully fighting to inform the California public so it doesn’t keep getting an F on education and heading down all the wrong paths?

In truth, nobody is organized to fight the wrongheaded education lobby. That lobby has the ear of the public, in dramatic fashion. That’s why the public believes “smaller class size” should be the top goal of education reform. There isn’t a single credible study showing that lowering classes from 30 to 20 students results in better-educated kids. We’ve spent billions on that particular fantasy. Yet, we could have spent the cash on textbooks, retraining teachers so they can actually teach math, and so on.

Today, Proposition 98 guarantees that huge wads of extra money pour into California schools on a regular basis. Acting like a massive sponge, Proposition 98 is why California freeways cannot be maintained and health-care programs must be curtailed.

It’s stunning that no major voice has arisen—no organization, lobbying effort or the like—to wipe out all this public ignorance and launch an informed public debate about what needs to be done in the schools. Yet, polls continue to show that Californians view education as one of their greatest worries. I second that emotion.