Opinion > Commentary

Trouble ahead for local school bonds and parcel taxes?


Mark Baldassare

Mark Baldassare

The elections this year offer the first statewide look at Californians’ willingness to raise revenue for their local schools since passage of Proposition 30, the tax initiative to benefit education that voters passed in November 2012. While it’s too early to know how many local school districts will test the waters by placing a construction bond or parcel tax on the ballot, there are undercurrents in our new survey that spell trouble ahead for local school ballot measures. In short, the public’s sense that schools are in crisis has diminished.

Our annual PPIC Statewide Survey on Californians and Education shows that likely voters view fiscal conditions in education as generally improving. The proportion who say that the state budget situation is a “big problem” for California’s K–12 public education has dropped by 10 points—from 72 percent to 62 percent—between April 2012 and today. More importantly, the proportion of likely voters saying that the level of current state funding for their local public schools is “not enough” has also dropped by 10 points between April 2012 and today—from 59 percent to 49 percent. In other words, the likely voters who currently view state funding of their local schools as problematic now make up less than a majority.

In our recent poll, 55 percent of likely voters would vote yes if there was a local school bond on the ballot—just barely meeting the minimum passage level. By contrast, 48 percent of likely voters would vote yes on a local school parcel tax—falling far short of the two-thirds needed to pass.

It is important to note that likely voters who are public-school parents are bucking these statewide trends: a majority of them view state funding for their local public school as inadequate, and over 60 percent say they would support a local school bond and a local school parcel tax this year. But our poll finds that public-school parents make up less than 30 percent of the likely voters who will determine the ballot outcomes.

Since 2001, the statewide passage rate for local school bonds has been 81 percent and for local school parcel taxes, 60 percent, as noted by CaliforniaCityFinance.com and EdSource. This year, those rates may fall. Alternatively, there may be fewer local school ballot measures this year as funding proponents focus on a smaller set of school districts with voter profiles that offer favorable odds for passing these measures. For instance, our poll finds majority support for local school bonds and local school parcel taxes among Democratic, Latino, lower-income and Bay Area likely voters.

Meanwhile, some legislators have proposed lowering the vote threshold needed to pass these taxes from two-thirds to 55 percent, which requires changing Proposition 13. But since the Democrats lost their supermajority when three of their senators were suspended, the Legislature is much less likely to send this change to the voters for approval. Californians are not inclined to make this change anyway. The proportion of likely voters who say that this change to Prop. 13 is a good idea has declined—from 46 percent in April 2011 to just 39 percent today.

It is possible that voter concern about school funding needs will surface later this year, as school districts implement two dramatic changes: the Common Core Standards in the classroom and the Local Control Funding Formula, which provides more money for districts with higher proportions of English learners and lower-income students. These changes could offer two new avenues to engage voters about the need for local school funding. For now, though, we will be watching for signs that Prop. 30’s passage will make it harder for local school ballot measures to succeed in 2014.

Mark Baldassare is president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California.

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6 Responses to “Trouble ahead for local school bonds and parcel taxes?”

  1. Mike McMahon said

    on April 30, 2014 at 7:47 am

    If one looks at national polls regarding elected officials and public education, both fare very poorly when asked about them as a collective. Yet on a local level, elected officials get reelected and their local school is fares much better. So in the abstract, polling on a statewide level will show low levels of support and it is up to local school district to demonstrate the need for passage of a bond measure or parcel tax.

    • navigio replied

      on April 30, 2014 at 10:22 am

      If it were possible to choose to have no local representation one pact far fewer local officials would be re-elected. :-)

      School districts must demonstrate much more than need. In fact, I expect few would dispute need. Negative poll responses surely represent a lack of trust much more than they do a lack of need.

  2. Jennifer Bestor said

    on May 1, 2014 at 6:11 pm

    I’m loth to criticize this analysis, but the issue is vital to the long-term political viability of LCFF. Isn’t there a methodological challenge using statewide data to predict passage of parcel taxes in individual districts? Aren’t there two very different voter populations in California?

    Only about a tenth of all school districts in California currently collect parcel taxes*, covering 11.5% of California students (7.7% of low-income/English-learner students). These districts are not representative of California. Their median LCFF LI/EL percentage is 26% — vs. 56% for California overall. Over a third of them are basic-aid districts versus 10% overall.

    Just seven counties out of 58 collect a significant dollar amount of parcel tax, six of them in the Bay Area**. So separating your results for the Bay Area vs. the rest of the state may be more predictive. Most likely, it would extend meaningfully to the parcel-tax-possible districts elsewhere in the state.

    * Data from 2012-13 School Year, Ed-Data.k12.ca.us, shows only 22 of 58 counties have districts with parcel taxes, consisting of about 108 school districts, 37 of which are basic-aid districts.
    ** Major Parcel Tax-Collecting Counties: Alameda (26% of all parcel tax collected in California), Santa Clara (19%), Marin (12%), Contra Costa (11%), Los Angeles (10%), San Francisco (10%), and San Mateo (8%).

  3. Jennifer Bestor said

    on May 1, 2014 at 7:01 pm

    I would ask you to do a breakdown analysis because, while parcel taxes may never be a statewide phenomenon, it’s hard to see LCFF flourishing without them. A quick look at the school districts with the lowest per-student LCFF funding in 2021 shows:

    Bottom 10 Unified Districts:
    Piedmont City, Manhattan Beach, La Canada, San Ramon Valley, Oak Park, San Marino, Palos Verdes Peninsula, Coronado, Scotts Valley and Los Alamitos. Under $9,300 per student.

    Bottom 10 High School Districts:
    William S. Hart, Los Gatos-Saratoga, Acalanes Union, Campbell Union, Fremont Union, El Dorado Union, Roseville Joint Union, West Sonoma County Union, Santa Ynez Valley Union, and Liberty Union. Under $10,500 per student.

    Bottom 10 Elementary Districts over 200 students:
    Orinda Union, Los Gatos Union, Moraga, Reed Union, Hermosa Beach City, Kentfield, Mill Valley, Lafayette, Kingsburg Charter, and Larkspur-Corte Madera. Under $8700 per student.

    Is this really a parent/voter group that will cheerfully see their kids at the very back of the state bus? Right now, over 60% of these districts have parcel taxes to combat the current situation.

    It would be nice to think that, with LCFF, any California school will be able to educate any kid to compete internationally. But LCFF still needs to discover $20+ billion more in future funding to get us back to where we were in 2008 — closer to 40th than our current 49th, but still dismal.

    If parcel taxes are actually falling off the table in middle-income English-speaking districts, the problem is very serious, indeed.

    • navigio replied

      on May 2, 2014 at 5:13 pm

      I’ve always believed that LCFF was intended to spur a growth in parcel taxes. It’s probably one of the least politically confrontational (ie diversionary tactic) methods of getting the better-off to increase their share of education funding contribution. It is a real gamble in the age of charters though.

  4. Jennifer Bestor said

    on May 2, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    One last thought: don’t just look for signs that Prop 30’s passage will make it harder for local school ballot measures to pass. Look for signs that it might make it easier!

    Why?

    If you look at communities that routinely pass school parcel taxes, you will also find they pass school construction bonds, support PTAs, and run aggressive education foundations beyond the usual school/parent population. They engage the community in an ongoing process to support the schools.

    In contrast, the state pursues a big-bang/deep-disaster approach. Rather than constructing a pathway with regular milestones, we wait for things to collapse, then come up with The Big One, battle out a win, then tout it as a major victory when the first dollars come in. Their insufficiency and sensitivity to the next economic downturn are masked through another gubernatorial tern. Then the next disaster strikes.

    With no road map to make real gains, it’s no wonder voters are confused.

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