Voters Supportive of Local Measures for Schools; More Skeptical of Statewide Solutions

Voters in Redwood City approved a local tax for district schools earlier this year. (Ana Tintocalis: KQED)

Voters in Redwood City approved a local tax for district schools earlier this year. (Ana Tintocalis: KQED)

Redwood City is a suburb just south of San Francisco. In recent years, the city has restored its historic downtown area and cleaned up its neighborhoods. But one thing remains the same: the Redwood City school district still gets the lowest amount of state education funding compared to neighboring communities — a result of the state’s complex school funding formula. That rubs 78-year-old Redwood City education advocate Margaret Marshall the wrong way. “It’s not fair and it’s wrong,” she says.

Marshall served on the district’s school board back in the 1980s. But when the state cut millions from education funding over the last two years, she took action. Marshall and an army of volunteers spent hours drafting a local parcel tax for Redwood City schools this past spring. Parcel taxes have become extremely popular among public school districts because the money raised goes directly into local campuses and teachers.

“If [voters] see the money being spent on their block, on their street, in their child’s school, they’re at least willing to consider that tax increase.”
But passing this kind of measure is tough. It requires a “supermajority” vote — two-thirds voter approval.

Redwood City tried three times before to pass a parcel tax, but this time Marshall says voters were finally ready to listen. “I had more coffee and cups of tea in the little coffeehouses locally,” she tells me. “But when you take the time to explain it to someone, one-on-one, you feel better about it. I think lots of times people distrust because they don’t understand what is happening.”

That grassroots effort paid off in the June primary. Redwood City schools will now get $1.7 million extra every year for the next several years.

It’s not just this community. Voters across California approved a record number of local school parcel taxes in elections earlier this year. Now, in the November election, a whopping 131 local school tax initiatives will appear on ballots across California.

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, says voters’ recent inclination to support such measures could spell trouble for the two statewide tax hike initiatives Propositions 30 and 38. “If [voters] see the money being spent on their block, on their street, in their child’s school, they’re at least willing to consider that tax increase,” Schnur said.

Of the two statewide tax proposals, Gov. Jerry Brown’s Proposition 30 has greater public support, but voters are still not convinced the money it raises will get to local classrooms. Schnur says Brown’s biggest political roadblock is deep-rooted voter skepticism — which is why Brown has pushed so hard for pension and welfare reform, and even cut down on cell phones that state employees have at their disposal.

“Almost everything he has done has been designed to say to voters, ‘Hey look! You can trust me with your tax dollars,’” Schnur says.

The governor’s Prop. 30 television ads reflect his ‘you can trust me’ message. In the ads Brown has softened his take-charge tone and is shown chatting with students in colorful classrooms and libraries.

Prop. 30 would raise about $6 billion by both taxing California’s wealthiest and increasing the sales tax for all. Roughly half of the new money would go toward public schools and community colleges. The rest would help tackle the state’s structural deficit.

Critics say the governor is misleading voters by claiming Prop. 30 is an education tax measure when it also raises revenue for other uses.

Brown’s campaign, however, says stabilizing the state’s overall budget is essential for school funding. Educators and parents who support Prop. 30 emphasize what will happen if the measure does not pass — a $6 billion spending cut halfway into this school year.

Cuts Would Hit Small Districts Especially Hard

The Pajaro Valley Unified School District, which serves the agricultural community of Wastonville, needs all the money it can get to provide extra resources for its students who are learning English as a second language.

The district’s chief business officer Brett McFadden says that is why the Pajaro Valley school board, the local teachers union, and community groups have endorsed Prop. 30. However, McFadden says the governor’s measure is still not a perfect solution.

“Prop. 30 would just stabilize us. We don’t get anything extra from it. [The measure] just protects us against a further cut. To that extent, it isn’t a magic bullet. It’s a temporary fix.” McFadden said.

Still, the statewide tax hike proposal remains Watsonville’s best hope. Most immigrant parents here don’t earn a lot of money, and many are not registered voters. As hard as it was for Redwood City to pass a local parcel tax, Watsonville would face an even steeper climb to securing a two-thirds vote. The statewide measures need just a simple majority vote: 50 percent plus one.

A poll this week by the Public Policy Institute of California shows the governor’s Prop. 30 measure with 48 percent support, and Prop. 38 with 39 percent.

The challenge over the next week-and-a-half will be whether either campaign can bridge the “tax-trust” divide.