What last Tuesday’s vote got us (not much)

November 12, 2012
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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