Q&A: Professor David Plank on the budget and California's K-12 education system

A new report by Stanford's nonpartisan research center, PACE, finds that the budget crisis crippled attempts to increase spending on students and snuffed out appetite for reform.

Christopher Wesselman David Plank portrait

Professor David Plank, executive director of PACE

Five years ago, Stanford's Institute for Research on Educational Policy and Practice (IREPP) released a landmark report on the state of education in California called "Getting Down to Facts." That project, led by education Professor Susanna Loeb, examined the state's K-12 educational finance and governance systems. The project concluded that the state's education system could not make significant improvements without increased spending on schools and a comprehensive policy overhaul. 

This month another Stanford research center, Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), issued a progress report evaluating the last five years and looking ahead to the future. The Stanford News Service spoke with PACE's executive director, Professor David Plank, about the improvements made and the challenges that remain.

What were the findings of the original report five years ago?

California is not spending enough on schools, for one. The original report found that the amount we spent fell short of any reasonable standard of adequacy. It also found that the system was inefficient and ineffective in the way it used available resources. That meant that simply putting more money into the system would not necessarily lead to the outcomes we wanted. Finally, it found the school system was overseen by a completely incoherent governance and finance structure that did not target resources to the schools and students who needed them most.

What prompted the follow-up?

The first study was requested by the state; this was not. Here, we wanted to look back and figure out how much progress California has made over the past five years in pursuing the goals laid out in "Getting Down to Facts."

How has the state done?

There is some optimism and some discouragement. The discouragement first: the budget crisis that began in California in 2008 simply trampled on any chance to increase the amount spent on schools. In fact, we've reduced spending by about 10 to 15 percent. The crisis also snuffed out any appetite for reform in the system. So one answer to what's happened over the last five years is things have gotten worse. Less spending on schools, little progress on reforms.

Still, there are some things to be optimistic about?

Yes, we have moved ahead on some issues, and we have reason to believe we are entering a moment where we will move rapidly on some critical problems in the system.


For example?

One of the places where the state has made progress is on improving its data collection system. There is still more to be done but we can now track students through their educational careers, basically keep track of each individual student as they make their way through the system.


Why is it important to keep track of students?

At the most basic level, it allows us to better understand who is dropping out and who is graduating. We now know those numbers with a high degree of confidence.  As the system matures, we'll be able to evaluate the effects of participation in different programs on academic careers, like special education, advanced placement courses or English-language programs. That kind of data helps measure learning growth over time. So now we have mostly completed that on the student side. We still need to do it on the teacher side.

Any other gains made since the earlier report?

Another fundamental recommendation was to move California to a weighted pupil funding system in which every student has a base funding amount assigned to him or her, and there are additional weights given for certain students, such as those in poverty or special programs. It basically says we'll spend the same on each student, and then add more for those with special needs. While we haven't implemented such a system yet, there's good reason to think there will soon be movement on it. The governor has proposed this year to move on such a system and it appears to be a top priority for his administration. This would radically simplify the way students are financed.

While the state has stumbled on implementing many reforms, some local districts have stepped in. What are your thoughts on that?

That's a real cause for optimism. California school districts are looking for more flexibility and getting it. A number of them have moved aggressively at the local level. Notably, some of the large urban districts are working together. They are realizing they can do some things without the state, and they realize that waiting for state resources or policy changes will mean they could be waiting for a long time.

What are some of the challenges that remain when trying to reform California schools?

Fundamentally, the same challenges that existed in 2007 still exist today. There are too few adults in the California schools system – too few teachers, administrators, counselors and librarians. There are simply too few adults to provide quality education. That's another way of saying we don't spend enough, as class sizes have gone up and programs have been cut.

The other issue is governance. Here I think the resurgence of local initiative and the growing willingness to act when the state is unable is probably the most positive development in the system. Trying to get things through Sacramento is a very heavy lift. Creating space where local actors can innovate without waiting for permission from Sacramento is probably the most promising development in the system since 2007.


What is the role of researchers, including you and others at Stanford and elsewhere, in affecting policy? How can you help inform lawmakers and others?

Scholars can introduce new ideas into the system that emerge from research. At our best, we help policymakers think about problems in new ways.

We also study the impact of policies: how they are working, what effects they are having, what ideas should be cultivated and expanded, what ideas should be abandoned. One of the goals of PACE is to make California's education system more of a learning system. We encourage experimentation and evaluation to see what's promising and what's not.

Researchers also draw boundaries around what good policy looks like. Education is highly subject to fads. Research can help deflate bubbles, see if things are proven and take a hard look at evidence. Research can help make clear if policy proposals are grounded in evidence or simply a product of wishful thinking.


About PACE

Founded in 1983, Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) is an independent, non-partisan research center based at Stanford University, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Southern California. PACE seeks to define and sustain a long-term strategy for comprehensive policy reform and continuous improvement in performance at all levels of California's education system.

David Plank, PACE, dnplank@stanford.edu

Amy Yuen, School of Education, (650) 724-9440, amy.yuen@stanford.edu

Brooke Donald, Stanford News Service, (650) 725-0224, brooke.donald@stanford.edu