Peter Schrag

Peter Schrag

It’s amazing how fast we can adjust to an inadequate educational status quo. Somebody in Sacramento called it “re-benching our lowered expectations.”

For months, mostly thanks to Gov. Jerry Brown’s intense campaign, California’s school supporters had been in a state of nerves, swinging from excitement to near-panic: If Proposition 30, the governor’s proposed tax increase, was to fail, the budget trigger would force schools to lop yet more days off the calendar, lay off yet more teachers, and cut still more programs.

Some of it might have happened. Counterfactuals are always hard to prove. If it had, it might have brought home to voters – at last – that, yes, there was indeed a price to pay for our unwillingness to raise taxes. But given the fact that it wasn’t fate, only politicians, that made the schools the prime target of possibly severe budget cuts, a lot of other things could have been cut as well.

Now, at best, we’re roughly back to some approximation of an inadequate norm. Yes, Proposition 30 won, and yes, there may be Democratic supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature – maybe – that in theory could raise taxes without Republican votes.

But even if every cent went to schools of the $6 billion to $8 billion that Proposition 30 will generate, which certainly will not happen, we still wouldn’t get back to the national average in per-pupil spending, much less to anything approaching real adequacy or equity in our diverse, convoluted system.

At last count, we were among the bottom among 10 states in per-pupil spending, at or near the very bottom in class size, and in counselors, librarians, and nurses per pupil. The schools that the majority of our poor kids attend still have the least experienced teachers, the worst equipment, and the shabbiest facilities.

Nor is there much chance that the leaders in the Senate and Assembly can harness their supermajorities for tax increases. Some of those members, as a senior legislative staffer told me this week, won by razor-thin majorities. The last thing they’re going to do is jeopardize their seats by voting for taxes.

In the past couple of years, even as the share of Republican registration and votes has gone down, we’ve weakened parties even more. With the state’s new open primary, there’s almost no reason for voters to register with any party.

So how much clout does the leadership still have? Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez are not ayatollahs (as Willie Brown once described himself) and the voters are still tax-resistant.

Could the Legislature’s supermajorities withstand oil industry pressure and money to impose an extraction fee (as they well should)? Could they restore the full vehicle license fee? Or (God forbid) could they pass Molly Munger’s across-the-board income tax?

Tuesday’s vote did, in the words of a veteran Sacramento school consultant, restore “some stability” to the system, improve the schools’ credit ratings, and revive some esprit in the school community, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. The tight times of the past few years have also imposed a sort of “market test” in some districts, he said – he cited Fresno as an example – putting them in a better position to take advantage of new funding when it comes.

For the state as a whole, that would include shedding some costly unproven programs, among them the rigid 20-1 across-the-board class size reduction formula imposed without study in the mid-1990s, and adding many more preschool classes and an additional middle school period, as Fresno has just done.

But California’s education system, though no longer sinking, is still, as he said, “a decrepit old ship.” If the projections are right, the salvation voters approved on Tuesday will take us back, roughly, to the funding levels of 2007-08. Meaning that our education funding will still be in the pits. The promise of the Master Plan to universal access to low-cost higher education is a thing of the past. We are not about to de-privatize the University of California. In addition, Jerry Brown’s tax may generate as much backlash as school improvement: “You raised my taxes and the schools still suck.”

California has started to move toward some major changes in its education system – toward a weighted school funding formula that provides a base for each student, plus additional funding for poor students and English learners; toward the national Common Core standards and the new tests that come with it.

But unless the extra weighted formula funds really go to the students they’re designed for, and not just to the districts in which they go to school; unless the state provides the means to effectively implement Common Core and the rigorous retraining of teachers it will require; and unless the governor’s call for local control is accompanied by authority for the locals to raise their own taxes, none of those things will mean very much.

So don’t expect very much more than a continuation of the status quo, at least for this year, and maybe for a lot longer. Almost certainly passage of the new tax will reduce chances of any more substantial tax reform for some years. Yes, we’re better off than we were a week ago. But let no one think that we have just voted ourselves a good, equitable school system.

 Peter Schrag is the retired editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press).

 


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  1. Gary Ravani 4 years ago4 years ago

    There is not a shred of evidence to suggest companies are leaving CA any faster than they leave any other state. When they do leave they off-shore. CA is gaining wealthy people and losing poorer people who go to other states seeking a lower cost of living. Mr. Schrag is wrong about class size reduction being "un-studied." The Tennessee STAR program is considered one of the best pieces of educational research ever done (after the Coleman report). … Read More

    There is not a shred of evidence to suggest companies are leaving CA any faster than they leave any other state. When they do leave they off-shore.

    CA is gaining wealthy people and losing poorer people who go to other states seeking a lower cost of living.

    Mr. Schrag is wrong about class size reduction being “un-studied.” The Tennessee STAR program is considered one of the best pieces of educational research ever done (after the Coleman report). The STAR progeam showed significant educational achievement gains for students particulalry poor students and it was ALL about class size reduction. Over the course of 30 years the achievement gains turned into solid gains in income, productivity, reduction in criminal activity, inproved health outcomes, and even longevity.

    Replies

    • Paul Muench 4 years ago4 years ago

      I thought the Tennessee study was for classes of 10-15 students. So my question has always been did CA go far enough to gain any of the advantage? The only studies I’m aware of have said no.

  2. Richard Moore (@infosherpa) 4 years ago4 years ago

    thank you making one of your 892 words “librarian” . . .

  3. el 4 years ago4 years ago

    I’m going to savor not having to face another enormous mid-year cut for at least a month before I fall prey to the gloom and doom.

    I am happy that Californians said that schools are important enough to pay for. That is a victory right there.

  4. CarolineSF 4 years ago4 years ago

    I'm not clear why others don't think Prop. 30 signaled voters' new awareness "that, yes, there was indeed a price to pay for our unwillingness to raise taxes." As a lifelong Californian -- who was an informed voter in the June 1978 election when Prop. 13 passed, and who has viewed public sentiment toward taxes and government with interest over the years -- I do see it that way. Read More

    I’m not clear why others don’t think Prop. 30 signaled voters’ new awareness “that, yes, there was indeed a price to pay for our unwillingness to raise taxes.” As a lifelong Californian — who was an informed voter in the June 1978 election when Prop. 13 passed, and who has viewed public sentiment toward taxes and government with interest over the years — I do see it that way.

    Replies

    • Richard Moore (@infosherpa) 4 years ago4 years ago

      34 years and you still think it was the fault of 13?

      3 decades of political inaction and the rallying cry is 13?

      Politicians are cowards. They are afraid of losing, afraid of their party masters, and afraid to stand for something.

      So they suppress information — with the lowest level of school and public library service in the nation. Keep the people ignorant and they will be submissive.

  5. sc 4 years ago4 years ago

    I'm set to retire like alot of my friends who are also in the 15%. Another 12 months and I'm out of CA. On a separate note-- There is talk about modifying Prop 13 to get at those commercial property tax avoiders in order to get them to pay more. Do you really believe that commercial property taxes or any costs associated with running a business are not passed on to others--the poor, the middle class and the wealthy? So, … Read More

    I’m set to retire like alot of my friends who are also in the 15%.
    Another 12 months and I’m out of CA.
    On a separate note–
    There is talk about modifying Prop 13 to get at those commercial property tax avoiders in order to get them to pay more.
    Do you really believe that commercial property taxes or any costs associated with running a business are not passed on to others–the poor, the middle class and the wealthy?
    So, altering prop 13 will have consequences–another tax on all CA citizens.

  6. Regis 4 years ago4 years ago

    The passing of Prop 30 doesn't accomplish anything new. Come June 2013, the politicians in Sacramento will be lamenting about the lack of funds and being unable to balance the budget. There isn't a dollar that doesn't come in, that a Democrat in Sacramento isn't willing to spend on something, anything. Prop 30 relies again, on taxing that upper 15% of the tax base, who already pay 85% of the taxes in the state. … Read More

    The passing of Prop 30 doesn’t accomplish anything new. Come June 2013, the politicians in Sacramento will be lamenting about the lack of funds and being unable to balance the budget. There isn’t a dollar that doesn’t come in, that a Democrat in Sacramento isn’t willing to spend on something, anything.

    Prop 30 relies again, on taxing that upper 15% of the tax base, who already pay 85% of the taxes in the state. Add the Cap and Trade act and see the continuing decline as the largest companies continue to leave California. Many of the high earning retirees I know have left or already have left California and they were certainly in the top 15%.

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