Are California Schools the Worst in the Nation?

Bob Somerby is wondering if it’s really true that California schools used to be the nation’s best and then, after Prop 13 passed in 1978, quickly plummeted to become the nation’s worst. Objectively, that’s all but impossible to measure since we don’t have much in the way of testing statistics to look at before 1978. What we do have are some overall statistics on how schools are managed. For example, here are three key metrics from 1970-2015:

Generally speaking, California got worse compared to the national average on all three metrics between 1970 and 1995. Teacher salaries continued to get worse through 2015, but per-pupil spending and student-teacher ratio stayed flat.

So what did that do to test scores? Between 1970 and 1995, who knows? Between 1995 and 2015 they went up significantly, but so did test scores for the whole country. We need to set the bar a little higher and take a look at California test scores compared to the national average:

What does this tell us? Not a lot, since we’d really like to see how California compared to the national average in 1970, before Prop 13 was passed. However, it does tell us something: over the past 20 years, pretty much every ethnic group in both reading and math has made progress compared to the national average. What’s more, California’s test scores in 2017 ranged from about 98 percent to 101 percent of the national average. That’s not going to win any awards, but it hardly suggests that California schools have collapsed into a dystopian hellscape. Roughly speaking, there’s the usual mix of good ones and bad ones, and overall they’re about average.


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It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

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Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

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