The ongoing debate concerning how California’s teachers should be evaluated—by misleadingly simplistic quantitative analyses of student test results (as administrators prefer) or through more well-rounded (and administratively time-consuming) in-class observations–is a red herring. Looking at the facts behind the State’s educational priorities tells a much different story of where the problem with California’s educational system lies. With the highest student-to-teacher ratios of any state in the country by a wide margin, the biggest problem California’s schools face is not the quality of teachers. It’s a lack of teachers, period.
According to the NEA’s statistics for the last available school year (2010-11), at an average of one teacher to 23.1 students in daily attendance, California has the most overburdened teachers in the nation by far. Not only is that ratio 65% higher than the national average of 14.9. Incredibly, California’s ratio of teachers to students in daily attendance is 24% higher than even the next worst state in the nation in this category, Nevada, with a ratio of 18.6. When it comes to overburdening our teachers, California truly is in a league of its own. One can only cringe when imagining what these statistics would look like if Prop. 30 failed and the state’s K-12 schools had to make due with about 7% less revenue in 2012-3.
California and Vermont
While no state is anywhere close to California’s unconscionably high ratio of students to teachers in the classroom on the average day, there is one other state that is just as noticeable an outlier with respect to this measure but in the opposite direction. At a student-teacher ratio of 7.6 on the average school day, Vermont students benefit from over three times more teacher attention than California students. How does Vermont do it? For one thing, by spending money. Vermont spends 220% of what California does per pupil in daily attendance.
Of course, there are a few factors that contribute to Vermont’s ability to provide such an extraordinary amount of teachers per student on the average day. As a rural, largely agricultural, cold weather state, Vermont students are absent significantly more than their California counterparts. Another contributing factor is that Vermont simply has fewer school age residents proportional to its overall population. Thanks to these factors, despite per capita income being $3,000 lower in Vermont than in California, Vermont has $83,000 more personal income for every student in daily attendance. And, due in part to the state’s lower cost of living, Vermont’s money goes further in hiring teachers: Vermont teachers make almost $19,000 a year less than California teachers.
While these factors make Vermont’s extraordinary student-teacher ratio somewhat more explicable, nevertheless, such an outcome demonstrates a steadfast commitment to spending significant amounts of money in order to put vast numbers of teachers in the classroom. Vermont spends $56 on K-12 education for every $1,000 of their personal income, compared with California’s $39. For the reasons discussed above, raising our education spending to a percentage of personal income equal to Vermont’s certainly would not produce the same extraordinary amount of teacher attention. However, such an increase in spending certainly would make it possible to hire enough teachers to bring California back in the range of statistical normality with respect to this measure and thereby to drastically improve our state’s educational outcomes.
The lesson of Vermont is pretty simple really. If we want our schools to improve, we need to stop blaming our teachers, stop expecting them to magically “do more with less,” and start hiring more of them. This may very well mean spending more money.
California and Texas
Perhaps it is simply unrealistic to wish that Californians would support education to the degree that is done in a vastly smaller and more demographically and ideologically homogenous state like Vermont. But is it not too much to ask that we at least manage to catch up with Texas? Statistically speaking, it would seem that Texas would have a harder time paying for education. With a higher percentage of its population of school age, Texans earn $48,000 less in personal income for every student in daily attendance. Yet, somehow, Texas still manages to spend 6 more dollars on K-12 education out of every $1,000 of earned income.
However, the difference between the K-12 educational systems of Texas and California cannot be seen as a result of spending alone. Somehow, while spending only slightly more than California per student in daily attendance, Texas manages to have vastly more teachers in the classroom. In real numbers, Texas actually employs 70,000 more teachers than California while, on any given school day, California classrooms are filled with over 1.5 million more students. At 13.6 students in daily attendance per teacher, Texas teachers can give almost 70% more attention to the average student.
Unsurprisingly, this vast difference in the amount of teachers between Texas and California correlates with a stark difference in educational outcomes. Texas’ statewide 2011 four year high school graduation rate was 85.9% compared to California’s 76.3%; Texas’ dropout rate was 6.8% versus California’s 14.4%. When broken down demographically, the difference in the states’ student outcomes is even more glaring. The graduation rate for Texas’ Hispanic students was 81.8% compared with 70.4% in California; 80.9% of African-American students in Texas graduated high school in four years compared with 62.8% in California; Hispanic and African-American students in California were both over twice as likely to drop out (17.7% and 24.7%, respectively) as compared to their counterparts in Texas (8.7% and 10.9%).
Sadly, it appears at present that such a state of affairs is most likely to be changed not by California’s public school system catching up, but by Texas racing to meet California at the bottom. Starting with the present school year, Texas cut $5.4 billion from its K-12 education budget over a two year period. When government spending leads to demonstrably positive results in an area as uncontroversial as education, budget cuts are soon to follow.
In assessing the social implications of California’s unparalleled lack of teachers in the classroom, we should start with two key observations on the effects of teacher attention.
First, the amount of attention teachers can give to their students makes a big difference in the lives students will go on to live. Teachers with fewer students are more able to know the needs, skills, abilities, and challenges (not to mention the name!) of each student. Besides allowing opportunities for shoring up lesson points and following up with assignments, individual attention from teachers shows students that who they become is something that is important to the larger society. Individual attention from teachers gives students a feeling of accountability that encourages them to stay in school. From this view, the correlation between high school graduation rates and teacher attention that we saw in our comparison of Texas and California is unsurprising. High school graduation, in turn, has many significant benefits of its own. Besides being correlated with higher lifetime earning potential, high school graduation is a significant protective factor with respect to drug abuse, incarceration, and early parenthood—outcomes that in themselves significantly alter a person’s life chances.
Second, diminished teacher attention lowers the educational outcomes of some student populations more than others. While students of all demographics benefit from increased teacher attention, there is much to suggest that teacher attention is an otherwise irreplaceable condition of educational success for many students who come from homes with fewer educational resources (e.g., computers, educated parents with available time). Fewer teachers in the classroom should thus be thought of as a key factor in the diminishment of social mobility, the perpetuation of racial inequities, and the reproduction of poverty from generation to generation.
With these forces in mind, we can thus conclude that the statistically anomalous dearth of teachers in California schools amounts to a civil rights violation. The racial disparities evident in California’s graduation rates mirror similar disparities in its incarceration rates. Latinos are incarcerated in state prisons at nearly twice the rate of whites and African-Americans at over 8 times the rate of whites. Putting significantly more teachers in California’s classrooms is a crucial step toward ensuring that California’s future will not replicate the inequities of its present. Moreover, it is a measure that would benefit all students, regardless of ethnicity.
1: Stop talking about teacher evaluations. This is simply the wrong conversation to be having as it implies that there is something substandard about California teachers, or at the very least, that the time and money spent in improving the performance of existing teachers is not better spent simply by hiring new teachers. As demonstrably overburdened as they are, out of all proportion to their counterparts in other states, it is a testament to the quality of California teachers that the state’s educational outcomes are not any worse than they are. The conversation concerning teacher evaluations should end until at least such time as California’s number of teachers in the classroom returns to some semblance of normality.
2: Tax the rich. Poor and middle-income Californians have endured immense struggles during the Great Recession of the past four years: a state unemployment rate that has hovered at around 10%, stagnating wages for those who do have jobs, real estate values significantly below their 2007 levels (with no proportionate drop in rents), and higher gas prices. All the while, California’s well-to-do, particularly the richest 1%, continued to prosper while also enjoying effective federal tax rates that are often close to half those paid by middle-class income earners. Prop. 30’s largely progressive structure of taxation was certainly a welcome step toward returning some sense of equity in taxation (except for the .25% sales tax, foolishly tacked on, I suspect, in order to forestall cries of “class warfare”). Unfortunately, by itself, Prop. 30 will provide only enough money to make sure that California’s schools do not get even worse. Improving the future of the state’s educational system depends upon Democrats in the State Assembly finding the courage to enact tax increases now that they have enough seats to overcome Republican obstructionism. However, in doing so, they need to make sure that any tax increases go exclusively to the richest Californians who can afford them and not to the majority of Californians who certainly can’t.
3: Ensure that funds are reallocated from corrections to education. There are signs that California is finally starting to recover from the obsession it had in the 90s and 00s with locking up its citizens in greater and greater numbers. Passed in the last election, Prop 36 (which amends the mandatory minimum sentencing recommend by the “three strikes” law) should lower corrections costs for the foreseeable future. The state’s prison population was already declining before Prop 36, due to the enacting of the Supreme Court’s mandate that lower-level offenders be transferred to local facilities. California citizens must see to it that the reductions in corrections costs that follow from these measures be put toward shoring up the state’s fledgling educational system. Given the enormous influence of law enforcement and corrections interests in Sacramento, ensuring that elected officials follow such a path will require constant vigilance.
4: Talk to teachers about trading increased compensation for increased future hiring. California’s teachers are among the most highly paid in the country, as they should be given the incomparable demands placed upon them and the state’s high cost of living. Teachers unions are right to be protective of teacher pay increments under these conditions; especially when attempts to reduce teacher compensation are tied to faulty and disingenuous “value-added” evaluation schemes that provide no direct indication of what teachers actually do in the classroom. Implementing such schemes would offer no clear benefit for students or teachers and would likely mean the burgeoning of administrative costs. Negotiations should instead start from the assumption that teachers are competent and dedicated professionals who care first and foremost about the quality of education their students receive. Teachers know firsthand how much more satisfying and less stressful their jobs would be—and how much more successful their students would be—if given the opportunity to provide more individualized attention to students. California teachers might well be willing to make concessions they wouldn’t otherwise if they are given air-tight guarantees that any compromises they make on pay increases would go exclusively towards the hiring of new teachers.
 As a side note, contrary to what you might expect from its supposed “red state” ideology, Texas’ marginally higher educational spending is partially subsidized by the higher percentage of revenue that its public schools receive from the federal government—15.3% compared with California’s 12%. It is worth mentioning that ideology rarely correlates with how a state’s residents make their ends meet or pay for their education. Out of the 20 states with the highest percentages of personal income from the public sector, only 4 of those voted for Obama in 2012. Similarly, only four of the 20 states who receive the highest percentages of their public school revenue from the federal government voted for Obama.
 As Joseph M. Hayes of the Public Policy Institute of California notes, “Since the advent of realignment on October 1, 2011, the total in-custody prison population has fallen by 12%, from 161,000 to 141,000 at the end of February 2012.” http://www.ppic.org/main/publication_show.asp?i=702