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Michael Hiltzik: Schools and the future of California

November 18, 2009 |  6:10 pm

One can count on two developments after every gubernatorial election: The victor will declare himself or herself the "education governor," and nothing will be done.

As my column for Thursday observes, this phenomenon is especially disturbing in California, because our schools are among the most beleaguered in the nation. They're consistently underfunded, yet burdened with the reputation for being spendthrift. As it happens, these are not mutually exclusive conditions. California spends less than most other states on a per-pupil basis; meanwhile our ability to track where the money goes and ensure it serves the right pupils is also worse than most other states.

The remedy is a comprehensive reform of school funding to strip away the accretion of mandates and fiscal jugglements that turn our school funding procedure into a Rube Goldberg monstrosity. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger just punted on the issue, presumably for the last time. A solution, if it comes, will be the hands of the next, er, "education governor."

The column starts below. 

Anyone who has spent time in or around government, from the deeply embedded bureaucrat to the young policy wonk, knows that there are two important issues in funding a public program.

One, is it getting enough money? Two, is the money being spent wisely?

On both counts, California’s method of financing its schools gets a big fat F. On a per-pupil basis, our schools are among the most poorly funded in the country, and no one can be sure that the money they do get serves its purpose.

Ask those who have devoted time to examining the system: The way this state doles out money to K-12 education isn’t merely inefficient and ineffective, it’s insane.

This is the standard opinion of economists, education experts and business leaders. Eric Hanushek, an economist at the conservative Hoover Institution, told me he finds the system "just crazy." UC Davis education professor Thomas Timar calls it "completely disconnected from reality."

The system is so infested with complexities, state mandates and unaccountability that Ted Mitchell, president of the state Board of Education and former president of Occidental College, says that "it’s remarkable that school administrators can open the doors of their schools on a daily basis."

Read the whole column.

-- Michael Hiltzik

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