by Peter Schrag
(Published Dec. 1, 1999)
Despite California's booming economy, its public services -- and its schools especially -- remain stuck in retrenchment mode, the state norm ever since the era of rigid tax limitations began with the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. In the case of the schools, that means a gap of roughly $1,000 annually between the national average in spending per pupil and what California spends.
The Golden State, which in the 1960s was among the top 10 states in school spending, is now among the bottom 10. Adjusted for cost of living, California's school spending is among the bottom four. But now the California Teachers Association, the state's dominant teachers union, has prepared an initiative for next November's ballot that would not only bring the state up to the national average within five years but, more striking still, also would require the governor and Legislature to raise taxes in order to do it.
If it passes, the Reinvesting in California Schools Act could send a signal almost as loud as Proposition 13 that one era has ended in California and a new one begun. For both policy and politics, its implications are enormous. There's no magic about the national average in school spending. But at a time when education is high on almost everybody's priority list and when the state's leaders, beginning with the governor himself, have made school reform the major item on the public agenda, how "do you oppose becoming average," as Jean Ross of the California Budget Project put it.
John Hein, chief CTA lobbyist in Sacramento, has polls that bear that out. When asked whether California should be spending at least at the national average, 83 percent of respondents answer affirmatively. Even when they're told that this would entail higher taxes, Hein says, more than 60 percent support such a measure, though he won't say exactly what the numbers are.
To enhance the measure's appeal, it also would generate some modest additional funds for higher education.None of those things assure passage. Nothing that almost guarantees a tax increase is a sure thing, even one that, like this one, specifically would exempt increases in the property tax. And while the measure would require the additional money to go to classroom improvements -- teacher training, books, equipment, further class-size reductions and all the rest -- and while it would require districts to account for how the money is spent, it has no other guarantee of accountability or even an assurance that most of the money wouldn't simply go on the local bargaining table.
Further complicating its chances is the fact that the CTA already has one measure, Proposition 26, on the March ballot; it would allow local school bonds to be passed by a simple majority rather than the two-thirds now required. Would that open the CTA to charges, as the opponents plainly hope, that it's too hungry and greedy? Hein says the CTA "is committed to effective accountability." And in theory, the state now has a local accountability system.
But there are a lot of people in the school community who believe that the system can't work, and the CTA measure doesn't provide an alternative. In addition, people such as Jonathan Coupal, the president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, are already arguing that the CTA proposal represents yet another form of ballot-box budgeting. If it succeeds, what's to prevent police or firefighters or any other popular group of public employees from asking for similar protections? "If they succeed," he said, "we might as well dismiss our Legislature."
One answer is that for many purposes we've already dismissed our elected officials, so tying their hands with various ballot measures (some sponsored by the Jarvis organization) that a great deal of government already runs on autopilot. In theory, the CTA initiative would hold other state spending harmless. And because it would allow the new state school tax to be passed by a simple legislative majority rather than the two-thirds majority that Proposition 13 requires for all other tax hikes, it might actually increase political accountability.
In the meantime, the CTA measure creates a dilemma for a lot of politicians, not least among them the governor. This is one issue on which a Democrat, even a shrunken Democrat such as Gray Davis, ought to be leading and on which a well planned accountability system could have been leveraged with the real increase in funding -- ultimately some $5 billion to $6 billion a year -- that such an initiative would generate.
If that had happened, most of it wouldn't have to go to the ballot at all. But now that it's likely to go to voters, it represents a major test for California -- and a huge indicator of whether the state will remain stuck in its essentially conservative tax-limitation mode or whether there could be a significant change of course both in policy and in the political climate surrounding it.
Its mere presence on the ballot could have an effect even on the outcome of other California races next year. If it passes, it could change a lot more, and not just in California.
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Speaker's Commission on State/Local Government Finance