Prop. 13 is a dirty word (OK two words) to many California progressives, but a new bill with the same name could massively reverse the reduction of funding to California schools.
Old-timers will tell you that California public schools were once the envy of the nation, before a 1978 ballot measure called Prop. 13 handed property owners a nearly 60 percent cut on their property taxes per CA tax returns, but sucker-punched local school systems’ funding. There’s a new Prop. 13 in town, every California town that is, in the form of a March 3 statewide ballot measure whose full name is the Public Preschool, K-12, and College Health and Safety Bond Act of 2020. It’s an outgrowth of a little-noticed state assembly bill called AB-48, which passed last year and Gavin Newsom happily signed, that authorized $15 billion in state bonds to rebuild crumbling school facilities — but only if voters give it the final OK.
$15 billion sounds like a lot, and indeed, it is the biggest school bond in California history. But the Chronicle informs us there is a “$100 billion backlog of failing boiler rooms, leaky roofs and new construction projects needed at K-12 schools and universities.” So the $15 billion sounds like the least we could do, and admirably, the bill prioritizes funding for schools with large percentages of low-income students, foster youth, and English-as-a-second-language students. The Chron points to this example of a Richmond High School ventilation system that “has been inoperable for 25 years.”
Austerity types complain, though, that the interest on the bonds will ultimately amount to $11 billion over the next 35 years, which is nearly the value of the bonds themselves. “A lot of this is being driven by Wall Street,” Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association president Jon Coupal to the Chronicle. “They make a ton of money off this. But is it really good for the citizens of California?” He points to the state’s $7 billion surplus and very healthy $18 billion rainy day fund.
But this is not a so-called rainy day, argues State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. “One thing that you have to consider when you are using surplus dollars is that from year to year the economy changes,” he told California Public Radio. “We have been putting money away in the rainy day fund because we know that at some point there will be an economic downturn. One of the benefits of a bond funded program is it becomes a stable resource available for school districts to apply to.”
The Chron breaks down the numbers to note that $9 billion would be earmarked to upgrade K-12 schools, another $500 million apiece would go to charter schools and vocational tech schools, $4 billion is set aside for UC and CSU colleges, and $2 billion for California community colleges.
The measure is at about 53 percent approval, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, with the Bay Area showing the highest level of support.
As an interesting aside, the above-mentioned Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association requested that California retire the number Prop. 13, like it was a sports jersey or something. That did not happen, and education trade publication EdSource reminds us that in the 10-year cycle of statewide ballot measure naming, implemented in 1998, the name Prop. 13 was used for a $2 billion water bond (2000) and a constitutional amendment to prohibit the reassessment of seismically retrofitted buildings (2010). Both of those Prop. 13s passed.
Image: Kevin Y. via Yelp