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Studying California Schools

Finances, Accountability and Governance

In August 2002, (Education Code '64200-642003) the Quality Education Commission was authorized by the California legislature, but remained unfunded as a result of the state budget crisis. In the simplest terms, the core objective for the Quality of Education Commission was to answer the question:"What does it actually cost (adequacy) to provide each student with an opportunity (equity) to meet the achievement levels specified by the legislature?" Ultimately, applying such a cost figure to each school district could serve as a basis for the development of a state funding formula for providing adequate educational services in local communities.

In April, 2005, Governor Schwarzenegger formed the Committee on Educational Excellence. The committee will focus on four interrelated issues: the distribution and adequacy of education funding; the functioning and effectiveness of governance structures; teacher recruitment and training; and the preparation and retention of school administrators. In this way, the work of the committee will incorporate the charge of the Quality Education Commission through a more integrated and thorough analysis of California's public school system.

In April, 2006, the press covered the announcement of a new project "Getting Down to Facts: A Research Project to Inform Solutions to California's Education Problems" which is made up of numerous individual projects. Stanford Daily published a followup article two two weeks later. The project asks three broad questions:

  1. What do California school finance and governance systems look like today?
  2. How can we use the resources we have more effectively to improve student outcomes?
  3. To what extent are additional resources needed so that California students can meet the goals we have for them?

Even before the public release of the report in March, 2007, anticipation of the report ran high on both sides of political spectrum. CTA President Barbara Kerr issued this statement to CTA members prior to the release of the study.

In March, 2007 the studies were released with news coverage in this Los Angeles Times article. California Teacher Association President issued this statement while the California School Board Association issued this statement. In the days following, news articles and editorial 1, editorial 2, editorial 3 and editorial 4 were published. However, the price tag of an additional $20,000,000,000 to $30,000,000,000 to implement recommendations from the studies will prove problematic when you look at California Tax System in 2007.

In April, 2007 the Education Coalition and CTA began airing radio spots to keep the GDTF study in the public awareness. A 2007 education survey from Public Policy Institute in California showed support for public education slipping. While at the 2007 Edsource meeting, John Mockler (architect of Prop 98) presented a positive slant on the job California is doing educating the 6 million plus children.

In August, 2007, the School Finance Project paper was published. The goal of the paper was to begin identifying common ground for the development of a comprehensive package of both reform and investment relative to Californias public school system.

In October, 2007 EdSource hosted a forum on California Education Policy The purpose of this event was to provide a forum for a wide variety of education stakeholders to describe their policy suggestions and to hear the suggestions of others. More than 50 individuals, organizations, and coalitions submitted policy briefs to be shared at the convening. Those policy briefs are available here. You can search by topic and download them individually.

Cross & Joftus, LLC, an education policy consulting firm, presented a framing paper, which draws on findings from the Getting Down to Facts research studies as well as other existing research and data about California. It also describes aspects of California's current finance, governance, personnel and data systems, which the authors suggest should be re-examined to make schools work better. Cross & Joftus, in partnership with CIF, is working to help Californians develop, communicate, and advocate for comprehensive research-based policies that will strengthen the state's education system. A unpublished research paper circulated on possible model to reform California school funding that was subsequently analyzed the PPIC in January, 2008. Sacramento Bee Columnist Peter Schrag cautions his readers to proceed with caution as the "year of education" begins to be revealed, while Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters acknowledges the sheer amount of verbiage being generated on education. In December, Peter Schrag pointed out education in California is not as bad the "school suck" industury portrays.

In January, 20008, with the collapse of the housing bubble starting in 2007, the Governor's budget proposes reducing the K-14 education by 10% with a suspension of Prop 98. So all of the reform discussion about under funding of education appear to be on hold.

In March 2008, the Governor's Committee on Education Excellence finally released its highly anticipated official report, Students First: Renewing Hope for California Executive Summary. The entire 44 page report is Students First: Renewing Hope for California Complete Report. The entire set of documents is here: Every Child Prepared.

Here are two "solutions" presented by two experts in school finance. In October, 2008 a research paper was published that laid a framework for aligning education resources with student learning outcomes.

In 2010, the Public Policy Institute of California issued a study on School Finance Reform. In preparation for new budget battles with incoming Governor Jerry Brown, the Chamber of Commerce issued a study indicating public education in California is receiving adequate funding. The California Budget Projects issue a warning about the accuracy of the Chamber of Commerce study. In 2011, the LAO examined the impact of consolidating small school districts under 1000 students.

I have summarized the studies and evaluated their implication for the Alameda school district.

Other Reference Material

A hard look at school system

State enlists help from foundations, researchers for a yearlong study

By Jim Sanders, Sacramento Bee, March 31, 2006

California launched what is billed as the most extensive study ever conducted of its public education system Thursday - a yearlong, $2.6 million foundation-funded venture involving 23 separate projects by some of the state's top education researchers.

The bipartisan project had been requested by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Committee on Educational Excellence, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell and Democratic legislative leadership - Assembly Speaker Fabian Nzqez and Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, among others.

"For too long, we've let good intentions, rather than good research, really guide us in the process of funding our educational delivery system," O'Connell said.

California traditionally has determined how much it will budget for education each year, then decisions are made by the Legislature and local school districts about how best to spend that money.

A key portion of the study will take a different tack, analyzing how much money is needed to provide a quality education for each student - not necessarily how much the state can afford.

"It's a very loaded question," Perata said. "Because implicit in the question is that once the answer is there, once it's supported by data, then we have to decide what we will do about it."

"Our commitment is that this will not die on the shelf," he said. "It could be and should be the centerpiece of the governor's State of the State [speech] next year, and should be the driving force behind what we do legislatively and with our budget in 2007. We have a lot riding on this."

Collectively, the 23 reviews will target public education finance, governance and dozens of specific questions, including how money could be spent more effectively to improve student achievement and what barriers exist to placing top teachers in low-performing schools.

Though Thursday marked the formal launch of the project, called "Getting Down to Facts," some of the research has been ongoing for several months. The multipart study is expected to be completed by year's end.

Rather than using public funds, the project will be bankrolled by four philanthropic groups - the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and the Stuart Foundation.

The California Teachers Association, the California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators applauded the effort in concept Thursday.

But Bob Wells, ACSA executive director, said he hopes that any research regarding school administration looks beyond monetary issues.

"If the only question you're asking is, 'Are your administrators holding down costs?', you may find a district that's holding down costs but the students aren't learning much," he said.

Jim Lanich, president of California Business for Education Excellence, supported by the California Chamber of Commerce, said a comprehensive and nonpartisan study could be valuable. But the list of researchers involved is "pretty left leaning," he said.

"It would be tragic, for the sake of our kids, if it was driven with an outcome of money as opposed to improving academic achievement," Lanich said.



April 8, 2005

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger today introduced the Governor's Advisory Committee on Education Excellence, a non-partisan, privately funded group charged with examining K-12 education in California and recommending steps to improve the performance of public schools.

California's children deserve to be taught in the best public schools. There is no issue more important to me and to the future of California than the reform of public education, said Governor Schwarzenegger. Our future and the futures of millions of children depend upon the quality of our schools. We have many great schools and thousands of great teachers, but as I have said many times before, they work in a system that is broken. I have asked this distinguished group of educators and policy makers to help me fix this broken system and to make California's schools the best in the nation once again.

Drawn from the public and private sectors, the 15-member committee will be led by Occidental College President Ted Mitchell, an education historian, former UCLA vice chancellor and long-time advocate for public schools.

(Ted Mitchell quote in LA Times article about the new study, 3/31/06)

"There really is no marker in the history of school reform for this kind of collaborative, bipartisan, independent research," he said. He added that there is broad consensus in Sacramento now about the need for meaningful educational reform.

Ted has been a leader of education reform efforts in our state for two decades and has earned the trust of educators, policy makers, and legislators from both sides of the aisle, said Governor Schwarzenegger. I have great confidence in him and in the other committee members who represent a wide range of voices, ideas, and communities. I know they will bring forward bold and creative ideas for making our schools great.

I am grateful for the governor's confidence and for the opportunity to serve our children and our state, said Mitchell. The committee's existence and our broad charge are testimony to the governor's commitment to improving our schools. I look forward to working with him, with Secretary Riordan, with Superintendent O'Connell, with the Legislature, teachers, and education groups throughout the state to better California's schools.

The committee will focus on four interrelated issues: the distribution and adequacy of education funding; the functioning and effectiveness of governance structures; teacher recruitment and training; and the preparation and retention of school administrators. In this way, the work of the committee will incorporate the charge of the Quality Education Commission through a more integrated and thorough analysis of California's public school system.

In each of these areas, the committee will draw on the insights of researchers and policy makers from California and across the country. The governor has directed the committee to develop a plan for public engagement, to report regularly to Secretary for Education Richard Riordan, and to deliver its recommendations in a series of reports within the next 24 months.

The Governor has brought together an exceptional committee of individuals who share our commitment to improving public education. The critical goal -- to provide every single student with a quality education -- deserves unwavering focus, said Riordan. Ted Mitchell is one of education's best leaders. I know he will successfully lead this team to complete its meaningful charge.

The committee and independent studies in support of its work will be funded through a public-private partnership. Discussions are underway with a number of foundations, including the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, the Stuart Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"We are encouraged by the commitment to investigate California's school finance structure and understand what is working and where the gaps lie," said Marshall Smith, director of education for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, speaking on behalf of the four foundations. "Our hope is that a well-researched, non-partisan study of these issues will inform conversations at all levels of California's government."

Committee members include:

  • Arlene Ackerman, superintendent, San Francisco Unified School District
  • Russlyn Ali, executive director, Ed Trust West
  • Dede Alpert, Nielson & Merksamer LLP; former state senator
  • Ernesto Cortes, southwest regional director, Industrial Areas Foundation
  • Jim Doti, president, Chapman University
  • Dave Gordon, superintendent, Sacramento County Office of Education
  • Thomas Henry, chief executive officer, Fiscal Crisis Management & Assessment Team
  • Jose Huizar, president, Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education
  • Sherry Lansing, chairman emeritus, Paramount Pictures
  • Peter Mehas, superintendent, Fresno County Office of Education
  • Irene Oropeza-Enriquez, teacher, Prairie Elementary School, Woodland
  • Mark Rosenbaum, general counsel, American Civil Liberties Union
  • Sau-Lim (Lance) Tsang, board member, Oakland Unity High School - Charter School
  • Randolph Ward, state administrator, Oakland Unified School District
  • Caprice Young, president and chief executive officer, California Charter Schools Association


Researchers launch analysis of California's school finance and governance systems

By Lise Trei, Stanford Research, March 31, 2006

To help lay the groundwork for reforming California's faltering school system, more than 30 researchers nationwide have launched the largest independent investigation ever of how the state governs and finances education.

Stanford Associate Professor of Education Susanna Loeb, an economist, is leading the $2.6 million effort, titled, "Getting Down to Facts: A Research Project to Inform Solutions to California's Education Problems."

"Much of the research on school finance is driven by litigation," Loeb said. "This effort stands out in its depth and breadth, but also because it is independent and nonpartisan. The consensus is that there has to be some sort of change. We hope that the results of these studies can help to carve out common ground for discussions that can lead to effective change in school finance and governance in California."

The studies aim to identify what reforms are needed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the school system and to assess how much it should cost to provide every child in California with a good education. Statewide, enormous disparities exist in educational quality. And compared with the past, California has fallen far behind. From its position as a national leader in education three decades ago, the state now ranks 48th in student basic reading and math skills, Loeb said.

The project, which was requested by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Committee on Education Excellence, Democratic leaders in the state Senate and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, aims to provide policy-makers with clear information that is needed to assess proposed reforms. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and the Stuart Foundation are funding the nine-month effort, which includes more than 20 studies.

"This is the most comprehensive study of school finance for K-12 in the history of California," said Stanford education Professor Michael Kirst, who has worked in state education since 1969 and is participating in the project. "It has more components and dimensions to the study than any other, and it is the most impressive array of researchers from around the nation that has ever been assembled to study school finance in California."

Although Kirst, who was president of the state board of education in 1970s, praised the quality of the project, he was less sanguine about whether it would lead to real change.

"It depends on when these studies come out," he said. "Is the policy window open? Are the stars aligned in that the governor and the legislative leaders are ready to move forward on this? Nobody can predict that. I don't even know who the governor is going to be. So we're just hoping."

In addition to Loeb and Kirst, Stanford participants include Anthony Bryk, the Spencer Foundation Professor of Organizational Studies in Education and Business; Linda Darling-Hammond, the Charles E. Ducommun Professor; William Koski, the Eric and Nancy Wright Professor of Clinical Education at the Law School; and Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Getting Down to Facts

According to Loeb, who designed the study, the project asks three broad questions:

  1. What do California school finance and governance systems look like today?
  2. How can we use the resources we have more effectively to improve student outcomes?
  3. To what extent are additional resources needed so that California students can meet the goals we have for them?

For the first question, Loeb said, researchers will investigate the following:

  • What is the structure of the California's school finance system?
  • How are the revenues distributed across districts and how do districts spend these dollars?
  • How do schools receive funds from districts and how much control do school administrators have over resource allocation?
  • What services do students in California receive and how do they compare to services in other states?

For the second question, Loeb said, researchers will look at possible inefficiencies within the system by asking the following questions:

  • In what ways do the structures of school finance and governance create barriers to the effective use of resources?
  • How do school and district personnel policies help or hinder effective resource use?
  • In what way does lack of information hinder policy-makers and practitioners from making the most effective decisions and what additional information would be most helpful?

The third question aims to pinpoint the resource needs for different academic goals by asking the following questions:

  • What do Californians believe schools should be held responsible for and students should be expected to achieve?
  • What resources appear to be important for allowing students to reach these goals?
  • How do needs for resources differ across students, particularly as a function of geographic location, increasing or decreasing enrollment, special education, poverty and English-language learner status?

Finally, Loeb said, three additional studies will help frame the research by asking the following questions:

  • What theoretical perspectives, including issues of equity, efficiency and adequacy, can help guide school finance and governance policy?
  • What can be learned about effective implementation of school finance reforms from experiences in other states?
  • What are the major lessons from the research studies in this project?

Click here for a four-page summary of the research agenda.

In addition to Stanford, researchers conducting the study come from other universities including California State University-San Diego, Syracuse University, Tufts University, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California, Quinnipiac University, the University of California-Davis, UC-Berkeley and UC-Santa Barbara. Others experts come from the American Institutes for Research, Public Policy Institute of California, School Services of California, the RAND Corporation, EdSource, a clearinghouse for independent information on state public education policy issues, and Springboard Schools, a nonprofit network of educators committed to raising student achievement.


Stanford profs lead CA education inquiry

By Katherine Cox , Stanford Daily, April 11, 2006

Californians lead the nation on industrial, technological and ideological fronts, but when it comes to public education the Golden State trails far behind. Its standing at the bottom of national education rankings has prompted a massive inquiry into the state's school finance and governance policies. More than 30 researchers from think tanks and universities across the nation will contribute to the $2.6 million research effort, the most extensive independent research project to be conducted on the California school system to date. The project, entitled, "Getting Down to Facts: A Research Project to Inform Solutions to California's Education Problems" will, among other things, identify which kinds of student outcomes are probable given a certain level of funding, and determine what additional funding is required to allow all students to reach academic standards.

However, the project's director, Susanna Loeb, an associate professor in the School of Education, qualified this goal.

"Just putting dollars in the system will not guarantee that students receive these resources,' she said.

Another part of the study will address the funding conundrum and explore how resources can be better applied to maximize student performance. A third branch of the work will examine how the state's governance and finance systems operate today.

At the end of the nine-month-long project - which is privately funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and the Stuart Foundation - researchers working on 20 different sub-studies also hope to formulate a number of recommendations that will begin to help state legislators streamline the finance and governance systems.

Five studies will be devoted to evaluating how the state finances public education. They will track how state, federal and local funds get to individual districts; interpret the relevant legislation and compare it to that of other states; and even look at schools operating expenses.

Stanford Education Prof. Michael Kirst, who is also working on the project, described the current system as, "so convoluted and complex that only a handful of experts understand it."

Experts from 11 universities, including the University of Pennsylvania and Tufts, and six nonpartisan think tanks will employ a variety of data collection methods. According to Loeb, a handful of the project's studies will draw upon the results of broad surveys. Others will rely on existing records and statistical analysis.

One study of district business offices will use administrative data, as well as information collected from a survey, to describe the practices in acquisition and allocation of resources in districts across the state and relate these practices to district outcomes using statistical techniques, Loeb said. "We also have an overview study of governance that is based largely on interviews across the state. This study aims to identify important areas in which California could improve its use of resources."

These particular studies, intended to root out the misuse of resources and identify allocation methods that yield positive academic results, reflect the way Kirst sees the correlation between funding and students' success. He believes that the gaping disparities in the California education system are not necessarily linked to the amount of funding at each school, but instead to the misappropriation of funds and other factors.

In my view, it's not just funding that causes these differences; it's not even primarily funding, he said. "Some districts perform worse because schools have not been able to overcome through instruction the differences students bring to school like students' economic and parental backgrounds. Also, if you are spending a lot of your increased funds on health care for employees, teachers and for spouses of employees, then your students aren't really benefiting at all."

Kirst's contribution to the project will compare other states that have gone down the finance road that California is considering.

New Jersey, Kentucky, and Arkansas for instance, which are states that are way ahead of California, have tried to raise funding, he said. "We will try to determine whether the states adequately increased funding and whether they got any results."

Kirst will also examine three separate school finance methods. He will look at states that implemented an equity policy, which, Kirst said, "dictates that schools are funded at the same amount."

Assessing states that have prioritized adequacy over equity will give California an idea of }what it would cost for all students to reach a set of academic standards," according to Kirst. And finally, the efficiency criterion, which other states have adopted as a primary finance strategy, will reveal how students fare when officials distribute funds more appropriately.



Stanford University

Quinnipiac University

San Diego State University

Syracuse University

Tufts University

University of California at Davis

University of California at Berkeley

University of California at Santa Barbara

University of Pennsylvania

  • Margaret Goertz Bio

University of Southern California

University of Wisconsin

American Institutes for Research

  • Jay Chambers Bio
  • Tom Parrish Bio
  • Jesse Levin Bio
  • Maria Perez Bio


  • Trish Williams
  • Mary Perry

Public Policy Institute of California

RAND Corporation

  • Janet Hansen Bio

School Services of California

  • Ron Bennett Bio
  • Robert Miyashiro Bio

Springboard Schools

  • Ida ObermanBio
  • Jim Hollis

List of the researchers and their projects