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Poll: Voters, skeptical of school quality, support more funding

Annual PACE/USC Rossier poll also finds voters questioning fairness of college admissions

By Ross Brenneman

LAUSD teachers went on strike in January 2019

One year after Los Angeles teachers went on strike, momentum hasn’t carried over to the voter turnout required to pass new levies for school funding. (Photo/Margaret Molloy)

In winter 2019, strikes by Los Angeles and Oakland teachers dominated headlines. Teachers in both cities ultimately won more pay and support staff, but the strikes also presented an opportunity for additional change. The Los Angeles Times editorial board, for instance, wrote that the L.A. strike “put the importance of a quality education front and center in the public psyche. The urgency and attention generated by the strike must not now be allowed to fade.”

The results of the 2020 PACE/USC Rossier poll, however, show that California voters lack enthusiasm about the state education system and local school quality, and it’s unclear what effect such tepid support will have on a range of possible solutions.

In the poll, voters gave schools their lowest grade in a half-decade (only 20% gave an A or B on an A–F grading scale), with parents especially critical. More than two-thirds of respondents said that over the past few years, California school quality had either gotten worse or stayed the same (gotten better: 10%; gotten worse: 41%; stayed same: 36%), and voters felt similarly about the quality of their own local schools (gotten better: 15%; gotten worse: 32%; stayed same: 38%).

More school funding

Yet voter responses indicated they may see school funding as a way to improve school quality, with a majority saying the state needed to spend more on schools (should spend more: 56%; spends enough: 25%). Respondents also indicated support for a general obligation bond—to be voted on in March—that would raise $15 billion for school and college facilities (support: 64%; oppose: 25%).

Voters also showed lukewarm support for changing property tax policy under Proposition 13, so that business property taxes would be assessed based on current values rather than values at the time of purchase (the “split roll”). However, their support was lukewarm at best (definite or probable support: 45%; definite or probable oppose: 31%), even though the change could increase school funding. California remains well below the national average in per-pupil spending by state.

Still, state leaders looking to bolster funding shouldn’t assume victory. Given the opportunity to increase school spending in June 2019, L.A. voters balked, rejecting Measure EE on a 46-54% vote despite campaigning from district and labor leaders alike.

“Two of the state’s largest school districts had prolonged strikes last year, and I worry whether Californians are losing faith that the people with real power to improve schools can lead,” said Karen Symms Gallagher, dean of the USC Rossier School of Education. “Voters obviously want schools to have the money they need, but I think voters also want to know that the money they’ve already invested is being used well.”

Select other findings:

  • Education priorities: Asked to prioritize education issues facing the state, 59% of California voters rated gun violence in schools a 10 on the 1-10 importance scale. It was the top issue (mean: 8.63) for the second year in a row. College affordability was second overall (8.46) but was the top-rated issue for voters aged 18-39.
  • Trust in higher education: Sixty percent of voters say college admission at private universities is generally stacked in favor of students from wealthier families, while 19% believe it’s a fair process. Voters are ambivalent about the fairness of public university admissions processes—just 34% of voters say they are fair, while 40% say they are stacked in favor of wealthy students.
  • Admissions preferences: Voters expressed strong support, as last year, for college admissions preferences for children from rural communities or under-served areas (support: 68%, oppose: 24%), and children from underrepresented populations, such as students of color (support: 63%, oppose: 28%). However, attitudes towards other admissions preferences ticked sharply downward from last year. For elite athletes, voters oppose admissions preferences (support: 39%, oppose: 51%); last year it was 44% support, 47% oppose. For legacies, voters oppose admissions preferences (support: 35%, oppose: 55%); last year it was 46% support, 44% oppose. For children of donors, voters strongly oppose admissions preferences (support: 25%, oppose: 65%); last year it was 36% support, 54% oppose.

The poll surveyed 2,000 registered California voters online from January 3–10, 2020. The poll was led by researchers at the USC Rossier School of Education (Julie A. Marsh and Morgan Polikoff) and Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE)(Heather Hough and David N. Plank), and was conducted by Tulchin Research. The PACE/USC Rossier poll has generally been conducted annually since 2012.

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