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By Mother Wired Education Writers

SACRAMENTO DESK - A once world-class system is now third-rate. Can it be rebuilt? State has enormous resources with problems to match. Has a shrinking tax base. Pays a high price for social experimentation with reading, math, science curriculum. Pace-setting reforms were made meaningless and derailed by tidal waves of illegal immigrants clogging limited educational resources.

Quick Facts:
Proficient Readers at end of 4th Grade: 1.8 out of ten pupils
Proficient Math at end of 8th Grade: 1.6 out of ten pupils
Population: 31.589 million
Public school districts: 1,001
Public schools: 7,821
Children in poverty: 24%
Single parent families: 26%
Annual K-12 spending: $25.385 billion
K-12 enrollment: 5.407 million
Minority: 59%
Pupils with disabilities: 9%
Urban: 32%
Suburbs and large towns: 50%
Rural and small towns: 18%

'When I entered teaching in California in 1955, we had a first-rate public education system that was the envy of all the other states,' says Claire Pelton, now an associate director in charge of advanced placement at the College Board. 'I have seen this extraordinary system destroyed by our political leaders and by a 'me first' population that doesn't give a damn about our future generations.'

The primary tool of that destruction was Proposition 13, enacted by a stunning 68% of voters in 1978. The act shifted the funding burden to the state by capping local property taxes and reducing by more than half the amount of local revenues available for education and other public services. As if that weren't enough, a year later voters passed the "Gann Amendment," which set strict limits on the growth of state-level spending and mandated taxpayer "refunds" if revenues exceeded those limits.

With those two actions, California became the first state simultaneously to cap local taxes and to limit state revenue growth--a double whammy for public education and other services. In 1995, tax revenue lost from Proposition 13 alone exceeded the state's total expenditures for K-12 education and corrections combined.

According to Dean Nafziger, a former executive director of the WestEd education research laboratory in San Francisco, 'Rather than a stake in the heart, [Proposition 13] has meant slow starvation; it's taken time for the effects to show. Californians who've gradually learned to make do with less don't see the depth of erosion that's occurred in every aspect of our schools.'

Each year that erosion becomes easier to see and harder to ignore. Many of California's schools are woefully overcrowded and in need of repair. In 1994, 43% of schools reported having at least one building in need of extensive repair or replacement--the third highest percentage in the nation.

California now has more than $11 billion in unmet facilities needs. 'Dangling ceiling tiles, toilets that don't work, leaking roofs--these school conditions send strong messages to children about how much we value them and their education,' says Mr. Nafziger.

Part of the problem is that Proposition 13 requires a two-thirds approval for local bond measures. "We have bonds which have received almost 66% of the vote and have still failed, which is very disappointing for local communities," says Delaine Eastin, the state's superintendent of public instruction.

In 1994, class sizes in California's public schools averaged about 30 students--the highest in the nation. That year, only 7% of elementary teachers reported having fewer than 25 students in their classrooms. And high school classes are often just as crowded.

Last summer, the state's Education Technology Task Force found California's schools ill-equipped to deal with the information age. In 1995, the state ranked 43rd in the number of "modern" computers available to students, with 52 students for every multimedia computer in the schools.

California's public school library system ranks next to last in the nation in the ratio of books and librarians to students. 'Our libraries are woefully undersupplied and understaffed' says Ms. Eastin. In 1994, more than one-third of California's public school libraries lacked a full- or part-time librarian.

In 1994, the state ranked at the bottom on the national assessment of 4th grade reading achievement, tied with Mississippi and just ahead of Louisiana. Fewer than one out of five students who took the National Assessment of Educational Progress scored at a proficient level or above.

Worse, more than half of California's 4th graders failed to score at the basic level--an easier benchmark indicating only partial mastery of grade-level content. California was among a handful of states whose performance on the reading assessment was statistically worse in 1994 than in 1992.

In 1992, 16% of California's 8th graders scored at the proficient or advanced level on the NAEP math exam, below the national average of 21%. About half could not demonstrate even basic math skills.

Last year, a poll by Policy Analysis for California Education found that only 17% of the public considered the state's schools 'good' or 'excellent,' down from about 33% three years ago. Nearly half the respondents thought the schools were 'not so good' or 'poor.' Not surprisingly, a majority of the respondents said the system of public education in California needs a "major overhaul."

In 1988, the California Superintendent of Public Education, Bill Honig and the California Teacher's Association sponsored Proposition 98 to increase school funding. It failed.

State Superintendent Bill Honig has since been removed from office, convicted of fraud, and served a prison term for embezzling State education funds.


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