Fourth- and fifth-graders at Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland. (Photo by Alison Yin/EdSource)

Reducing gun violence, making college more affordable and addressing the teacher shortage again are on the minds of California voters, who also said they would support raising teachers’ pay and spending more for schools, according to a new PACE/USC Rossier poll.

PACE, an independent research nonprofit affiliated with several California universities, and the USC Rossier School of Education released their annual poll on Feb. 7. The survey of 2,000 registered voters was representative of the state’s ethnic makeup, geography and party affiliation; 28 percent of the respondents were parents with children under 18. The poll organization Tulchin Research conducted the survey in early January.

Perhaps reflecting a rise in pessimism about education, fewer voters gave schools high grades this year, and the proportion of people who said they’d encourage young people to become a teacher dropped significantly compared with four years ago.

Among other findings in the poll:

  • There was good news for advocates of Proposition 13, a $15 billion state bond on the March 3 ballot to underwrite the costs of school district, community college and higher education construction projects; 64 percent of voters support it, 25 percent oppose, with the rest saying they don’t know.
  • When voters who “lean” in favor or against are included, 55 percent of voters said they support, with 36 percent opposing, a “split-roll tax” proposal, called the Schools and Communities First initiative, which could appear on the November ballot, to raise commercial property taxes to fund schools, and city and county governments.
  • With half of voters responding to slightly different versions of this question, an average of 59 percent of voters said it was very or somewhat important to increase “the number of teachers of color in California” — a priority of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond.
  • An average of 63 percent of voters said they would support, with 27 saying they would oppose, a plan to require high school students to take an ethnic studies course, dealing with social justice, social change and the impact of race and racism. Ten percent had no opinion. (Half of voters responded to slightly different versions of the question; see questions 40 and 41 on page 13 of the full poll results for the wording.)
  • When asked their opinion about a new law enabling districts to deny a charter school based on the potential financial harm on a district, an average of 56 percent supported it and 28 percent opposed it, with 16 percent saying they don’t know. (Half of voters responded to slightly different versions of the question; see questions 24 and 25 on page 8 of the full poll results for the wording.)

School shootings are extremely rare in California, and school lockdowns as a result of threats of violence are infrequent, but the fatal shooting of two students by a 16-year-old schoolmate at Saugus High in Santa Clarita last November was a shocking reminder of the random possibilities. Given a range of possible options to reduce gun violence in local schools, expanding mental health care services and prohibiting the sale and ownership of assault rifles and other high-capacity firearms received the strongest support — ahead of increasing active shooter drills, installing metal detectors and hiring armed security guards.

The survey listed a dozen issues currently facing California and asked voters to rank them from 10 (very important) to not important (1). Reducing gun violence, making college more affordable and reducing the teacher shortage were the top three priorities, just as last year. This year supporting struggling schools and improving education funding was not far behind. But even the lowest-rated priorities — increasing access to early education, improving services for English learners and increasing the diversity of the teaching workforce — received strong support, as indicated in answers to other questions.

Regarding early education, voters were about evenly split between increasing taxes to expand more access for young children and spending less on other programs to make room for more early ed; 1 in 5 voters said the state should do neither option.

Views of higher education

Coming in the wake of the college admissions scandal that consumed headlines last year, more voters felt that the admissions process to the state’s public universities “is stacked in favor of wealthy students” (40 percent) than view it as a fair process (34 percent), with the rest indicating they were uncertain or no opinion. African American voters expressed more confidence in the process than whites and Latinos.

Two-thirds of voters said they strongly or somewhat support college admissions preferences for children from rural communities or other underserved areas. Slightly less than two-thirds (63 percent) indicated support for admissions preferences for children from underrepresented populations, such as blacks and Latinos.

Asked how much debt is reasonable for a college student to obtain a four-year bachelor’s degree, 63 percent said $20,000, with 20 percent saying students shouldn’t have to take out any loans. The average debt across the nation for a college grad is $29,000, according to the survey.

Grading schools

Starting in 2013, when more post-recession revenue flowed to K-12 schools, voters’ perceptions of schools improved and peaked in 2016, when 45 percent of voters gave their local schools an A or B grade. That dipped to 36 percent this year. Heather Hough, PACE’s executive director, speculated that messages to the public, that schools are underfunded, college is unaffordable and teachers are underpaid and mistreated — a theme of teacher strikes in 2019 — left more people feeling more pessimistic. Parents gave better grades, however: 48 percent graded their local schools A or B and 25 percent said their schools had gotten better over the past few years, compared with 15 percent of overall voters.

Still, 56 percent of voters — down from 65 percent in 2018 — believe the state should be spending more on education. And this year, that includes 68 percent of Democrats, 66 percent of parents and 39 percent of Republicans.

Three-quarters of voters said they were strongly or somewhat in favor of raising teacher salaries — for all teachers, new teachers and teachers in subjects facing shortages. Low pay was the primary reason fewer voters said they would definitely or probably encourage young people to become teachers. The number fell from 71 percent in 2016 to 56 percent this year.

Of those who would definitely or probably discourage young people from becoming a teacher, 47 percent cited not enough pay while 24 percent cited undisciplined and out-of-control students.

Story originally published by EdSource.

John Fensterwald