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California’s public schools earn poor marks

I’m passionate about public education. My wife and I were both educated in public schools, and our two kids go to public schools (Jefferson Elementary and A.P. Giannini Middle). My wife was president of the Jefferson Elementary PTA for two years and is currently the vice president. I started and continue to run an annual charity investor conference (see our website at, which has raised over $1.4 million so far to largely help Bay Area organizations improve educational opportunities and life outcomes for underserved youth. When it comes to public schools, I’m all in.

So it makes me very sad to report that the public school systems of San Francisco and California are in poor shape, and have been for many years. There is no sugarcoating it. We are failing to fulfill our most basic responsibility to invest adequately in our future through our children’s education.

This column will lay out the problems. Next week’s column will explain the root causes, and then I will propose an agenda for reform and what you can do to support it.

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The primary problem with our public schools is that the educational outcomes are poor. To start with, the overall level of American education outcomes is unimpressive compared to other rich countries. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Programme for International Student Assessment 2015 Results in Focus, the United States scores roughly average in science and reading, and below average in mathematics. Specifically, we ranked 15th in reading, 16th in science, and 25th in math.

Yet even compared to a lackluster American benchmark, California falls short. Back in the 1960s and 70s, California was widely regarded as having one of the nation’s best public school systems. Today, we are subpar. Since 1990, national and state-level education performance has been tracked by the “nation’s report card,” administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. You can read the results at As you can see from the graph comparing fourth and eighth grade student reading and math proficiency, California has long lagged the national average and most other states.

There are some caveats and silver linings. Comparison between states is imperfect because states set their own rules for how the NAEP test is administered, e.g. Texas exempts English learners with fewer than four complete years of English instruction, while California administers the test to all students. (See, notes under the graph of fourth and eighth grade proficiency.) California improved its abysmal performance from the 1990s and 2000s, and 2017 saw a welcome uptick in reading and math scores, most notably in grade four reading. Nevertheless, California’s performance is below average, and has been for many years.

While even the best public schools could improve (like many public school parents, I would like more opportunities for gifted math students to learn at a faster pace), where our public schools truly fail is in serving our neediest kids. As the table shows, San Francisco public schools significantly underperform in student proficiency for low-income African-American and Latino students compared to the statewide average for each subgroup (as well as the statewide average for all students).

Another way to see the opportunity gap is geographically. If you look at a map showing the “GreatSchools Rating” for San Francisco’s public schools, look how the Eastside/Westside divide leaps out!

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Is San Francisco a liberal, progressive city? You wouldn’t know it from how we treat our students.

A secondary problem with our public schools is the working conditions for teachers and administrators. To be clear, the kids come first: schools exist to serve our students, parents and citizens. Still, I’m sure we all agree that competent teachers should be reasonably paid for their vital work.

You have probably read about teacher strikes in Oklahoma and West Virginia. Before adjusting for cost of living, the average annual teacher salary in California looks much higher by comparison: Oklahoma and West Virginia are roughly $45,000 and $46,000 respectively, versus nearly $73,000 in California.

But once you adjust for California’s much higher cost of living, compensation in the three states are much more similar: Oklahoma and West Virginia are roughly $51,000 per year and California is a little more than $57,000 (which ranks it 19th out of the 50 states plus Washington, D.C.). These cost of living adjustments are tricky and imperfect. Still, in high cost California cities like Los Angeles and (especially!) San Francisco, it’s undeniably challenging to live a normal middle-class life on a teacher’s salary.

(An enormous caveat is necessary here: a significant component of teacher compensation is earned via pension benefits, which are not counted in these salary numbers. We will revisit pensions in a later column. For now, here are a few key points to keep in mind. First, more senior teachers who have accrued a lot of pension benefits are in a much better situation than more junior teachers who will have to pay more into the system to receive less generous benefits. Second, while pensions can be a good tool, they can also lead to misaligned incentives if mismanaged. Third — and this will be no surprise if you have read previous Follow the Money columns — the pension liabilities are large and underfunded.)

California teachers also have very high class sizes. California is tied for first (with Arizona and Utah) for the highest student-teacher ratio at 24 to 1, substantially higher than No. 4 Nevada at 21 to 1. (The average student-teacher ratio is 16 to 1.) The research is indeterminate to what degree a difference of this magnitude is worse for students; what is clear, however, is that it entails more work for teachers, especially given the high percentage of students for whom English is not their native language.

Let’s recap the problems. California public school educational outcomes are poor. The neediest students are hurt the most, especially here in San Francisco. And the teachers? When you adjust for cost of living, larger class size and the high proportion of English language learning students, California’s teachers (especially younger ones whose future pension benefits are highly likely to be less generous than the ones more senior teachers have already accrued) face a similarly tough work situation as teachers in many other states.

The next column will look at root causes. Here’s a hint. Some people argue that our public schools need reform, while others say we have failed to fund our public schools adequately. Both sides are right.

Patrick Wolff lives in the Sunset District. Email him at


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