Education advocates in California say public schools will either sink or swim based on the outcome of two competing tax initiatives on the November ballot — Proposition 30 and Proposition 38. While both aim to protect students from more devastating budget cuts, they go about it in very different ways.
To better understand what is at stake for California’s public schools, I started off by visiting the headquarters of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest district in the state.
LAUSD has had to cut about half a billion dollars from its budget every year for the past five years because of the state’s money problems. Class sizes have swollen to more than 40 students; the school year was cut by five instructional days, and teachers have lost their jobs.
The person behind every difficult financial decision is Megan Reilly, the district’s Chief Financial Officer.
Her office is perched on the 26th floor of a skyscraper in downtown Los Angeles. Stacks of papers and financial reports are piled on and around her desk. Although she has a sweeping view of the city, she can’t take her eyes off of a series of large monthly calendars on the wall.
November 6th, Election Day, is circled, underlined and highlighted.
“I don’t think you can not think about it,” Reilly says. “We’re just in limbo because everything is critical about what is going to happen at the November election.”
Reilly views the election as a watershed moment for schools, because if voters do not approve Prop. 30 or Prop. 38, L.A. Unified — along with most other districts in California — will be pushed further down the road toward insolvency.
“I can’t face counselor ratios going even higher,” Reilly says. “I can’t face class sizes going even higher. It’s really hard for anyone to face the public saying, ‘I’m going to have to take more away from the schools.’ There’s nothing more to take.”
Reilly and other school administrators across the state believe Gov. Jerry Brown’s initiative, Prop. 30, offers the most immediate relief.
It would raise roughly $3 billion for public schools and community colleges by taxing the wealthiest Californians for seven years and it would increase the sales tax by a quarter-cent, a hike that everyone would have to pay. Overall, the measure would raise $6 billion for education and to balance the state budget.
However, should voters reject Prop. 30, schools will get hit with a $6 billion spending cut halfway through this school year. Many districts would be forced to lop off three full weeks of instruction.
“These are horrific cuts,” says Dan Schnur, director of the Jess Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
Schnur says that given the constant cuts to public education, taxpayers may finally be ready for the first time in almost 20 years.to reach into their pockets to help schools.
More on Prop 30:
“The biggest challenge for Governor Brown is convincing them that state government can be trusted to spend their tax dollars wisely and effectively.” The governor faces a trust issue because for the past five years, lawmakers have tapped into the state’s special pot of education funding to balance the budget.
The $3 billion raised annually by Prop. 30 would go back into that education pot, refilling it to the same level as before all of the cuts. This move would stabilize school funding and eventually even expand it. It would also free up existing general fund dollars for other needs because that is part of the governor’s larger plan to fix the state’s structural budget deficit.
One person who doesn’t trust the governor’s strategy is Molly Munger, the wealthy civil rights attorney who is bankrolling Proposition 38 — the competing education tax initiative. Munger’s name has been splashed across the news because she’s been criticizing the governor and Sacramento lawmakers for squandering education dollars.
“[Voters] are willing to pay the tax. But they insist, rightly, that the money not go to Sacramento, because they know if it goes there, bad things will happen to it,” Munger said in a recent interview with San Francisco’s KNBC Channel 3.
Unlike the governor’s initiative, Prop. 38 would tax the income of almost every Californian for 12 years. Under the initiative, public schools could receive as much as $10 billion the first year, which would be set apart from the state’s general fund. Some of the money would also go to preschools and to paying down bond debt.
Scott Kaplan has three children in the Redondo Beach Unified School District, just north of Long Beach. He’s backing Prop. 38 because he believes it would give communities more control of how the extra money is spent.
“It’s a huge amount of money for our district of 11 schools,” Kaplan said. “What we can do with those funds at the local level … is phenomenal.”
But the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office points out there is more to Prop. 38 than meets the eye. Because the money is earmarked for education, the initiative would do nothing to help California’s overall budget deficit. The measure also comes with a myriad of funding rules that school administrators say would be difficult to navigate.
And then there is the issue of timing. The Legislative Analyst states Prop. 38 tax dollars may not flow into schools until sometime during the next school year.
Erica Jones teaches 3rd grade at Angeles Mesa Elementary School near Inglewood. She backs the governor’s plan, Prop. 30, because she doesn’t want schools to get hit with that $6 billion spending cut should the initiative fail.
“I can’t wait for a great solution. We need help now,” Jones says.
Like many Californians, Jones feels the state’s wealthiest should kick in more to help the state and to get the school system back on track. “I’m all about shared responsibility,” she say, “but there’s been a lot of responsibility put on the lower class and the middle class. So at this point we’re already struggling.”
Because the outcomes of these initiatives are so critical for education, a growing number of parents and educators are urging a yes vote on both.
However, only one can win — because Prop. 30 and 38 would increase the income tax on Californians. The state’s constitution views that as a conflict, so only the measure with the most votes can prevail.
And state taxpayer groups, of course, don’t want either one to succeed. They believe that giving more money to government simply encourages out-of-control spending. Here’s a chart of how much more Californians would pay under Prop 30 and Prop 38, respectively. The data is from the LAO; the dollar amounts represent the marginal tax rate for single-file taxpayers…
Listen to Ana Tintocalis’ story:
Update Oct 30: Here’s a great infographic comparing the two propositions, from EdSource. Click on the image to see the full graphic.