When it Comes to Education, Are Californians Unique?

Of all the 48 continental states, the Grizzly Bear State, as it was originally known, has the hottest, driest valley (Death Valley), the highest hill (Mt. Whitney), the largest living tree (Sequoia), the most people, and the greatest number of domestically raised turkeys living outside the state capital (Sacramento). But when it comes to K-12 education, are the views of Californians any different from those living elsewhere across the United States?

To gather up some indications on this intriguing topic, I took a look at the Californians who participated in the 2017 Education Next survey of American adults, which was administered to a representative sample of 4,200 respondents nationwide, including 523 Californians. As reported elsewhere, the survey asked about school spending, charters, vouchers, teacher unions, bilingual education, digital learning, state take-overs of troubled district schools, teacher unions, merit pay, teacher tenure, and many other matters. For all results see the data here.

One word of caution. The Education Next sample is drawn to be nationally representative of the United States as a whole. It does not contain representative samples for any of the states, not even the largest one. So the results reported below can only be suggestive; to get a reliable sample of public opinion in the state, a survey for that state would need to be conducted. What follows only offers hints as to what such a survey might find.

Those who would hasten the movement of the tectonic plate destined to drag a goodly share of California into the depths of the Pacific Ocean will be surprised to learn that Californians are not direct descendants of aliens from the other side of Pluto but common, ordinary Americans who think pretty much like everyone else. On dozens of questions, the answers provided by the average Californian do not deviate from the responses provided by the average American by any more than 6 percentage points. That difference is too small to be worth discussing, especially since we cannot be certain we have a representative sample.

Yet one large difference turned up in an experiment Education Next undertook. The survey sample was split into two random halves. The respondents in the first group were asked whether they thought teacher salaries should increase, decrease, or remain about the same. The second half was asked the same question only after first being told current average salaries in the state.

This information had a much greater impact on Californians than elsewhere. When simply asked whether they think salaries should increase, decrease, or remain about the same, 68% of Californians, but just 61% of the U. S. public, favors an increase. But when first given current average salaries, the support for an increase plummets in California to just 27%, as compared to 36% across the country. In other words, the shift in opinion is no less than 41 percentage points in California, as compared to 25 percentage points in the United States as a whole.

Why does information about teacher salaries have a bigger impact in California? Very likely, it is because Californians seriously underestimate current teacher salaries. They think teachers in their state are paid an average of about $45,600 when in fact they are paid about $72,800, on average. That’s an underestimate of over $27,000. In the United States as a whole, the underestimate is just short of $18,000. While both under-estimates are similar in percentage terms, the bigger dollar difference probably leaves most Californians wondering why teachers need to be paid still more.

A few other differences were also discerned.

1. Californians are more suspicious of homeschooling. Only 33% would allow it, while 41% would not. The rest take no position. For the U. S. public as a whole, the balance of opinion is much more favorable: 45% in favor, 34% opposed.

2. Californians are more likely to favor allowing the formation of after-school clubs by Muslim students than by Evangelical ones. Fifty-seven percent of Grizzly State residents would allow a group of Muslim students to organize an after-school club at their local public school, and only 17% would not. This compares to 45% favor, 27% opposed among the U. S. public. But Californians are less likely to give that same opportunity to Evangelical students. Only 39% would allow it, while 31% oppose the exercise of that religious right. Among the U. S. public as a whole, 48% support the Evangelical’s right to organize clubs, and just 21% oppose it.

3. Californians are much more likely to favor Common Core state standards. Fifty-one percent of Californians express a positive view, as compared to 41% for the country as a whole. Californians are also more likely to favor the testing of students than are people in the United States as a whole. Seventy-three percent of Californians, but only 63% of the U. S. public favor the federal requirement that students be tested in grades three through eight and again in high school.   Californians are also more likely to favor testing of pre-school children.

All of these differences are provocative in one way or another. But the more important fact is that on most issues the opinions in California resemble those of the public across the United States as a whole. We suspect this to be the case. In order to be sure, a survey would need to be given to a specific sample drawn to be representative of the state’s adult population, not one that includes Californians but is drawn to be representative of the U. S. adult population.

— Paul E. Peterson

Paul E. Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and Director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and Senior Editor of Education Next.

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