California’s Expensive ZIP Codes Deliver Cut-Rate Education Results

Published December 1, 2007

Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice
By Lance T. Izumi, Vicki E. Murray, and Rachel S. Chaney,
with Ruben Peterson and Rosemarie Fusano
San Francisco: Pacific Research Institute, 2007
available online at
or from the Pacific Research Institute, $24.95

Opinion polls have long shown stronger than average support for school choice among Hispanics and African-Americans. Suburban complacency could explain much of this gap. If so, this fascinating book by a team of Pacific Research Institute scholars comes as an alarming wake-up call to well-to-do Californians who believe America’s education crisis is someone else’s problem.

California’s public schools are in a bad way. Only about four of 10 students in grades two through 11 scored at or above the proficient level in English language arts and math on the California Standards Test (CST), the state’s main standardized tests, in 2006.

On the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only two of 10 California fourth-graders scored at or above the proficient level in reading, and only three of 10 scored at or above proficiency in math. Scores for California’s eighth-graders were either the same or worse.

These numbers suggest suburbs statewide don’t have a lot of high-performing schools. California’s schools fail to educate a large portion of students up to the state’s own standards, much less those of NAEP.

Overpriced, Underperforming

The authors make this point abundantly clear in a tour of California cities with a combination of very high-priced homes and poorly performing public schools. The following passage gives you the flavor of this tour:

“Travel down the coast to San Diego County and one finds the city of Carlsbad, ranked by several magazines as one of the most expensive communities in the state. While the area has some new subdivisions, the neighborhoods in Carlsbad High School’s zip code are mainly characterized by more established single-family homes, some on streets without sidewalks or lighting to preserve a rural feeling. Carlsbad High is in a district called Olde Carlsbad, which has houses that range from giant mansions to more modest one-story homes. The median home price in the school’s zip code is $645,000. “At Carlsbad High, 66 percent of students are white, 22 percent are Hispanic, less than 7 percent participate in the free-and-reduced lunch program, and slightly more than 5 percent are English language learners. Less than half of 11th-graders, 48 percent, score at or above proficiency on the CST English exam, while only 27 percent score at that level on the CST algebra I exam. Thirty percent score at or above the proficient mark on the CST geometry exam and 36 percent score at that level on the CST algebra II exam.”

Fool’s Gold

The authors drive home a point made in 2003 by Elizabeth Warren and others in The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke (Basic, 2003), but with an additional turn of the knife. Warren demonstrated many middle-income families have been bankrupting themselves trying to buy into neighborhoods with highly regarded public schools. The PRI team demonstrates in California these same families have likely over-mortgaged themselves for overrated schools failing to teach affluent children.

The authors thoroughly and convincingly argue for expanded parental choice in order to jolt suburban public schools out of complacent mediocrity. California home prices are more than twice the national average, but fourth-grade reading scores are tied for 48th among the 50 states.

For all the pride and beauty of the Golden State, one cannot escape the conclusion there is something deeply unsustainable about this situation. This clarion call for far-reaching education reform is both timely and urgent.

Matthew Ladner, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is vice president for policy at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix, Arizona.