Velma Sykes worked hard to ensure that her children received a quality education at their public high schools in Sacramento.
“I was very involved, and I’m not talking about just helping with homework or weekly meetings with their teachers. I mean sending emails to their teachers every single day,” she says. Sykes saw firsthand what happened to the African-American children in her school district who didn’t have this kind of parental involvement. “They were ignored.” Sykes says that she has completely lost faith in the public school system’s ability to serve African-American children like her own.
This lack of faith among African-American parents is a theme that runs through a statewide survey on education released last week by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). In the survey, 63 percent of African-Americans surveyed said they disapproved of the California legislature’s handling of the K-12 public education system, compared to 52 percent of whites, 36 percent of Latinos, and 30 percent of Asians.
“I was really struck by the degree of concern in the African-American community,” says Mark Baldassare, the CEO and President of PPIC. “In contrast, we see a very optimistic assessment among Latinos of the direction that public education is going in California.”
It is no secret that both African-American and Latino students are among those in California with the highest dropout rates and those most likely to attend a poorly resourced school. Yet the survey reveals that while all Californians are concerned with the severity of these problems, there is a stark difference in the attitudes held by Latino and African-American respondents towards the state’s education system.
Patricia Gandara, professor of education at UCLA, says that two major factors contribute to this difference. The first is immigrant optimism. “Things look a lot better here than they did at home. Many of the Latinos in California are immigrants, so their comparison is to the situation in Mexico, which they left because it was so bad. You see that with the Asians as well, there is a little bit more optimism. The African-Americans have lived with the under-funding and under-education for so long, but the immigrants haven’t yet.”
The second issue is a lack of information. “There is no community that is more out of the loop in terms of what’s happening in the schools than the Latino community, because of the language issue, and also the lack of social capital they have,” says Gandara. “I think if we ask Latinos these same questions in two generations and nothing drastic has happened to improve the education system, their answers will look a lot more like the African-American responses.”
The PPIC survey and findings are based on 2,500 telephone interviews that were conducted in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean. Survey respondents were 52 percent white, 31 percent Latino, eight percent Asian, six percent African American/black and three percent ‘other’. It was funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
This survey makes clear that ethnic Californians place great importance on giving all children a quality public education and the chance to go to college. This is a particularly strong sentiment within the Latino community. Among the Latino respondents, 56 percent say that preparing kids for college is the most important goal of the K-12 system compared with 34 percent of African-Americans, 28 percent of Asians, and 20 percent of whites.
“Latinos hear that going to college is important in this society. Even if they know little about the process, they want this for their children. It’s part of their optimism,” says Gandara.
Latinos aren’t always optimistic, however. Latino and African-American respondents showed the most concern for those falling between the cracks. Eighty percent of Latino respondents and 78 percent of African-American respondents cited the high school dropout rate as a big problem compared with 60 percent of white respondents and 48 percent of Asians.
Poll results found that even among white respondents, there is significant support for English-language learners and students from low-income families. “This poll shows that there is the desire among all Californians to level the playing field,” says Baldassare.
Although public awareness of inequalities in education is high, the survey also exposes some major gaps in knowledge around how California ranks in the country when it comes to how much money is spent per student and student test scores.
According to the National Education Association, California ranks 29th out of 50 states when it comes to spending, yet nearly half of the African-American respondents, and more than half of the white, Asian and Latino respondents thought Californians ranked average or higher in terms of spending.
And while California is ranked close to the bottom on student reading and math scores when compared to other states, only about a quarter of respondents from every ethnic group were aware of this fact.
The PPIC Statewide Survey comes out on the heels of the release of a major group of studies out of Stanford University that advises lawmakers on how to better manage the system and how to direct more resources toward the state’s public school system. “We see our role as an extension of the Stanford research by providing the public opinion component,” says Baldassare. “Our role is to provide voices for people who may not be at the table during the discussions going on this year about these issues.”
The situation is urgent, stresses Sykes. She says that an overwhelming number of African-Americans are now looking at private school as the only option for a quality education for their children. “African-American parents want a better public education system. The politicians need to hear what we have to say and act on it.”