When it Comes to Education, Are Californians Unique?

Paul E. Peterson
Year of publication: 
August 17, 2017

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.