Beyond Proposition 30: Eight Challenges for California's education future

Louis Freedberg

Louis Freedberg

The passage of Proposition 30 represents a major victory for public schools, and for Governor Jerry Brown, but still to be tackled are multiple challenges facing California’s education future.

Here are eight principal challenges:

1.  Bringing the state’s funding levels up to the U.S. average

Latest estimates rank California 46th in per capita spending compared to other states. Over the past decade, the gap between California spending per student and the national average has grown from $691 in 2001-02 to $2856 in 2010-11. According to the California Budget Project, just bringing California to the national average – let alone the highest-spending states like Massachusetts or New Jersey – would cost $17.3 billion, three times more than the amount raised by Prop. 30. The discrepancy raises a basic issue of fairness: Should California’s children be subjected to a less effective education than their peers in many others states just because they happened to be born here?

2.  Achieving funding equity among California school districts

Beyond California’s lagging behind other states, there are major discrepancies among school districts in how much is spent on education. In many cases, current funding formulas don’t take into account the additional effort and costs involved with educating students from disadvantaged or English learner backgrounds. Gov. Brown has proposed funding based on a “weighted student formula” to give additional funds to school districts serving high-needs students. But it is far from clear whether it will be possible to do so without diverting funds – and generating resistance – from wealthier school districts.

3.  Implementing new accountability and testing systems

The  accountability systems established by the No Child Left Behind law did not result in a dramatic transformation in school performance. California is now in the process of implementing the Common Core State Standards adopted by 46 states – as well as gearing up for new computer-based testing systems that will replace California’s current standardized testing regimen, the California Standards Test. Enormous amounts of work remain to be done in implementing both the standards and the new assessment systems – and it is far from clear how many school districts will have the capacity to do so successfully in the short time frame they will be given.

4.  Restoring core programs trimmed or eliminated as a result of budget cuts

Proposition 30 will not provide funding to restore programs trimmed or eliminated over the past five years since the beginning of the Great Recession. Depending on the district, these include a shorter instructional calendar; the erosion of the K-3 class size reduction program; reduced counseling staff; cuts in music, art and physical education programs; and the drastic shrinkage or elimination of summer and adult school programs. There is an ongoing debate over the effectiveness of the class size reduction programs, but there is no doubt that schools are under far greater stresses in meeting the needs of individual students than they were before the Great Recession.

5. Helping students from economically distressed households succeed in school 

Large numbers of children live in households where parents are unemployed, facing the prospect of foreclosure, or dealing with other impacts of the state’s struggling economy. Many of these children need more individual help, counseling, or mental health services. Others need academic support to help compensate for the stressful home environment they live in – or neighborhoods characterized by high levels of unemployment, housing foreclosures, and violence. Yet schools lack the resources to address the needs of the whole child, not just his or her educational needs in the classroom.

6.  Managing the costs of special education

As the cost of special education services rises – driven in part by the nearly fourfold increase in the  number of students diagnosed as autistic – school districts face enormous challenges in underwriting the costs of mandatory services called for in a student’s Individual Education Plan. The federal government continues to provide 11 to 12 percent of the cost of special education services despite their being mandated in the early 1970s by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act approved by Congress, with local districts and Sacramento having to make up the difference.

7.  Linking the school curriculum more directly with college and careers

The latest buzz phrase in education reform circles is “career and college readiness” – ensuring that students leave high school with the skills they need to  succeed in college and the world of work, while making the high school curriculum relevant and engaging to them. Already a central dimension of the Obama Administration’s education reform agenda, new legislation (SB1458) signed into law by Governor Brown will push that concept onto the front burner of state education policy as well.

8.  Expanding technology in the classroom

School districts face the challenge of using online tools and technology to improve the effectiveness of classroom instruction – and to tailor instruction for students with particular education needs. In addition, school districts will need to be able to offer computerized assessments being developed for implementation of the Common Core State Standards in California. But many districts don’t have either the hardware or software that they need to take advantage of the contributions the digital revolution can make to the classroom.

Celebrating Proposition 30’s passage is entirely appropriate. In providing stop-gap funding, Prop. 30 is a hugely important first step towards reversing the state’s decades-long disinvestment in its public school system. But for educators on the front lines of our schools, the euphoria will be tempered by the knowledge of the work that must still be done to raise student achievement to world-class levels.

Louis Freedberg is executive director of EdSource, a nonpartisan, non profit Oakland-based organization founded in 1977 to engage Californians on key education challenges.

Do you have any challenges you think should be added to this list?  Please use the comments section below to share your thoughts. 

Filed under: Commentary, School Finance



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18 Responses to “Beyond Proposition 30: Eight Challenges for California's education future”

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  1. Jon@Nonprofit software on Dec 17, 2012 at 5:00 am12/17/2012 5:00 am

    • 000

    California is in such a mess… I think it would be a lot easier to manage if it broke up into 2 different states :/

  2. Bea on Nov 26, 2012 at 8:39 am11/26/2012 8:39 am

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    Silly us. We thought the problems we need to address have to do with funding and the impacts of poverty on student learning.

    We’re so wrong!

    It’s the school boards. At least according to Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, former chair of the State Board of Education and oh – founder of a charter school with a famously nepotistic and incompetent board of directors:

    Look out democracy: Reed has another plan.

  3. el on Nov 20, 2012 at 3:04 pm11/20/2012 3:04 pm

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    You mention hardware and software… I want to expand that a bit.

    – Realize that publishers of online content are going to charge by the seat by the year; there will be no coasting an extra year or two (or five) on textbook purchases.

    – Bandwidth. Most of these initiatives envision various online activity… many schools, especially rural schools, do not have a large enough data pipe to accommodate this.

    – Electrical infrastructure. Any school built or last renovated before 1990 probably does not have enough Amps to plug in 20-30 laptop computers in a classroom.

    – Batteries. Any equipment running off batteries on a regular basis will probably need to have a replacement battery annually. Laptop batteries run ~$100 each. This is a substantial additional cost.

    – IT staff. My experience in the private sector is that any company with 20+ users has a dedicated IT staff member, and typically you end up with one staffer per 50 users or so. In a school this ratio would indicate one dedicated IT person per two classrooms! No one has budgeted for this that I’m aware of. In a high school or middle school classroom where the kids are only present for 50 minutes per period, even a 5 minute network outage would completely disrupt the day’s lesson.


    • navigio on Nov 20, 2012 at 7:25 pm11/20/2012 7:25 pm

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      I hope someone is reading this stuff, because you bring up extremely important points.

      I am especially glad you mentioned the licensing issue. Personally, even coming from the tech industry, I’ve always found licensing to be overly complex, and often stupidly implemented. It is not uncommon for licensing mechanisms to morph for no other reason than to try to squeeze additional money out of a customer or business model. When that happens, the concept of intellectual property feels rather arbitrary (maybe I hang out with too many europeans).

      In any case, there have to be good and better ways to implement licensing when being used for public education. I would even go so far as saying maybe its time for some open source educational software. It does not make sense to have licensing costs consuming funds in such an arbitrary manner.

      In addition, the question of licensing can get introduced in digital books, which could create a much different situation than the ability to ‘coast’ the way we now can with physical books bought outright.

      • Mark T on Dec 24, 2012 at 4:08 pm12/24/2012 4:08 pm

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        I just got a taste of the new world of on-line curriculum by way of a community college course.

        What they are doing is charging MORE for the online content than it used to cost for a textbook! This was a course on PC management where the hours we spent watching pre-fab videos “online” could have been much better spent solving real problems on real computers. This content is much shallower than I had when I took a similar course back in the dark ages of Windows 98/2000. It is clearly a “rationing” model where they are stretching out the content to max out revenue.

        The curriculum racket a huge scandal. Would it break somebody’s arm to get the ideologues who seem to run all the ed schools to generate a basic math curriculum that could just be put online for free? Have you seen what they are doing at It speaks volumes to me that the feds, the state honchos, and the academics are all pretending it’s not even there, much less be in a hurry to link to it. It is (almost) unfathomable to me how the people at Google or Yahoo could not see how they could solve this problem and actually solve some the “root issues” like inequality they claim to be concerned with. I say “almost” unfathomable because the obvious implication of taking the Facebook model and turning it into a Schoolbook collaboration would be to cut into the market for the fluffy junk these onliners are using to make money.

  4. Aiesha on Nov 20, 2012 at 2:39 pm11/20/2012 2:39 pm

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    Yea…good luck with that. The state of everything there in California is in terrible shape. Soon all your millionaires will leave with the new tax laws that are trying to be pushed onto them. Boo california, booooooo.

  5. kate on Nov 20, 2012 at 9:29 am11/20/2012 9:29 am

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    Great job illuminating some of the challenges facing schools as we move forward.

    Just to give a little anecdotal support. As the call increases for our students to become more computer literate, here is the situation in my school. I have one EMac from about 2002 that is online for student use. I have one MacBook Pro, digital camera and projector that is primarily used for presentations. We have a 15 years old portable computer lab available to all 500 students. There is no computer lab room.

    Although Common Core tests will be designed to be taken on a computer, we have been told by our district that ours will be paper and pencil.

    When I visit suburban schools where Smart Boards, up to date computer labs, etc. are the norm, I despair over the fact that my children are so needlessly disadvantaged. They are hard-working, bright and eager. Their parents are supportive. They deserve better.

  6. Paul on Nov 20, 2012 at 1:54 am11/20/2012 1:54 am

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    We’ve missed a big challenge: What on earth happens when Proposition 30’s TEMPORARY taxes expire? The sales tax lasts only four years and the income tax, only seven. Do we go back to bake sales?

  7. Ernie Silva on Nov 19, 2012 at 2:09 pm11/19/2012 2:09 pm

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    There’s a ninth challenge that California can and should address. One major outcome of the principal challenges that Mr. Freedburg identifies is California’s dropout crisis. Yet there are schools in California and across the Nation that are reengaging very low income students who have given up on traditional high schools.

    The Alliance for Excellent Education reports that resources invested in dropout recovery have significant returns for the State’s economy as well as the individual student’s family and community. Bringing back just 1/2 of California’s 2010 dropouts would result generate 8,700 new jobs and $1.9 billion in economic growth. Dropout recovery would further result in $167 million of annual tax revenues for state and local governments.

    The discussion of how to provide impactful school funding and the value of weighted student funding is an important one. Policy makers should note that Connecticut has recently integrated dropout recovery and economic growth by adopting a “recuperative weight” for funding former dropouts in some contexts. California’s schools, communities and economy could benefit from a similar approach.

  8. Joanne Leavitt on Nov 19, 2012 at 12:33 pm11/19/2012 12:33 pm

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    Making sure every child enters school ready to learn. Early Childhood Education starts at birth. The vocabulary a very young child is exposed to determines their vocabulary when they enter school. This is an indicator of their academic readiness. Too many start a year or two behind their best prepared peers. This is especially true of children from families with limited incomes. Quality, full day early childhood programs for our youngest children can cost as much as a year at USC, out of the range of those who need it most. If we are to solve the other problems of preparedness for college and the workforce, we have to start at the beginning.


    • Regis on Nov 20, 2012 at 7:07 am11/20/2012 7:07 am

      • 000

      “..Quality, full day early childhood programs for our youngest children can cost as much as a year at USC, out of the range of those who need it most…”

      Don’t have kids you can’t afford to feed, clothe or have babysat! “Those who need it most” shouldn’t be relying on the taxpayer to fund their procreativity. Just because you can pop a kid out, shouldn’t mean that you’re going to tap the taxpayer or somebody else to feed, clothe and educate your kid. What happened to personal responsibility? Why has it become the norm that the Taxpayer has to pony up endless amounts of money to an increasingly huge population that readily votes themselves benefits?

      CALWORKS is an unbelievable program. “Kith and Kin”, qualify as child care providers, which means that often, parents will trade kids with their relatives and the State of California or the taxpayer pays! The CALWORKS benefit model has a non-working mother of two, bringing in $36K a year in benefits! Add the $12,000 a year that it costs to keep two of them in school, that’s another $24,000, so now we’re at $60,000 a year! Now add Section 8 housing at a conservative $1,200 a month or $12,000 a year and it comes up to an astounding $72,000 a YEAR! Multiply that by at least half the typical Los Angeles Demographic and you have an unsustainable amount of Taxpayer money that is going to run out someday.

      • navigio on Nov 20, 2012 at 1:42 pm11/20/2012 1:42 pm

        • 000

        Yep, Calworks is an unbelievable program. The gov cut half a billion from it this year. I also think there may be some caveats to your calculations. First off, benefits dont last a year if you dont get a job. Then if you only ‘pretend’ to get a job, you’re breaking the law, and people do get prosecuted for that. Not sure what the ‘typical LA demographic’ is, but there were about 47,000 families in the WTW plan last year in all of LA county (there are a bit over 3 million households). Anyway, welfare spending in CA is just over a third of what it was about 15 years ago as a percentage of the budget (now less than 3%). And until the recession(s) started, the number of families receiving assistance was declining.

      • el on Nov 20, 2012 at 2:55 pm11/20/2012 2:55 pm

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        I realize this is a shocking idea, but people lose their jobs or have to take significant pay cuts even after they’ve already had children.

        Since you’re so envious of these programs for low income people, I can’t help but point out that you too can give up your income and try to eke a living off them.

  9. Regis on Nov 19, 2012 at 7:38 am11/19/2012 7:38 am

    • 000

    “5. Helping students from economically distressed households succeed in school

    Large numbers of children live in households where parents are unemployed, facing the prospect of foreclosure, or dealing with other impacts of the state’s struggling economy. Many of these children need more individual help, counseling, or mental health services. Others need academic support to help compensate for the stressful home environment they live in – or neighborhoods characterized by high levels of unemployment, housing foreclosures, and violence. Yet schools lack the resources to address the needs of the whole child, not just his or her educational needs in the classroom.”

    So please explain why the taxpayer should be on the hook for a huge third world population and their associated values? Is this more of the “It takes a village to raise a child” BS?

    “Yet schools lack the resources to address the needs of the whole child, not just his or her educational needs in the classroom.”

    “Others need academic support to help compensate for the stressful home environment they live in – or neighborhoods characterized by high levels of unemployment, housing foreclosures, and violence.”

    So where are the parents in all of this? What happened to Parental Responsibility? Now we have a ‘Safety Net’ for the ‘most vulnerable’ and from experience living around these people, it’s the taxpayer that’s the most vulnerable, having money pulled from his wallet, not for Government who’s sole job is to take care of the infrastructure, but now pays women to babysit each other’s kids (CALWORKS), WIC, Welfare, Section 8, Free lunches, breakfast too and it goes on and on.

    …or neighborhoods characterized by high levels of unemployment, housing foreclosures, and violence.

    Hey, who’s creating this? The (REAL) taxpayer? No, it’s built-in and it’s not going to get any better, because this whole new wave of immigrants doesn’t even have to assimilate any longer! The advertising, TV, billboards, newspaper and radio are all in Spanish!

    No need to speak english, the government prints everything in ten different languages, at taxpayer expense! And for all of this, what exactly has been the LAUSD graduation rate? What are the typical demographics?

    Add to that, a business hostile Sacramento, chasing the biggest companies out and penalizing the small business’s for whatever they can get out of them. I’ve reviewed the 2012-2013 budget from Sacramento and the funding for K-14 (14???, you mean now we have to guarantee an AS degree too?) goes from 46.9 billion dollars in 2011-2012 to 64.2 billion in 2015-2016?

    Where the heck are they going to get that money? The Prop 30 is only $3.5 billion dollars or about 5% of the total? So how is this going to cure our problems? It ain’t!


    • el on Nov 20, 2012 at 2:49 pm11/20/2012 2:49 pm

      • 000

      This rant doesn’t really deserve any response, but I feel the need to point out that many of these families were happily and productively employed pre-recession and paid their taxes just like the rest of us. Many of them are slackers who speak only one language, English. I’ve heard principals from across the state say that since the downturn, that school has a vibe running through a large percentage of the kids where they’re just a bit more tense, a bit more stressed, and generally having more discipline problems even among kids whose parents are still employed. The parents are working more hours and more worried about job security, and that creates effects all the way across the relationships.

  10. Mike McMahon on Nov 19, 2012 at 6:52 am11/19/2012 6:52 am

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    Actually you missed the biggest challenge facing every school district in California. After over four years of no real pay raises and in most cases salary reductions, the pressure to raise teacher salaries will be immense. The pressure will come as school funding begins raise in 2013/14 based on state projections. The reality is however that general funding from the State is 15% below 2007/08, so any ongoing raises will be at the expense of programs that have been eliminated during the past four years.

  11. Earl Richards on Nov 19, 2012 at 4:39 am11/19/2012 4:39 am

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    A public watchdog organization is needed to oversee the disbursement of Prop 30 funds to ensure that all of the funds are spent on education, and does not go to Wall Street, does not go into the pockets of the Regents and does not go into the general fund, and from to who knows where. The Governor of California cannot be trusted with Prop 30 funds, because his sister works for Goldman Sachs and Brown is on the Board of Regents for the University of California. Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs appear to be the “vampire quids” in the swaps scam.

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