Who ruined California's Public Schools?
That's the accusation that is being tossed around these days.
"Illegal immigrants have flooded the state! And public schools are choking on the excessive amount of students! Not to mention that most of the students can't even speak English!"
I hear this sentiment echoed through different media channels daily from the CNN policy analysts in their stripey fancy suits to some over weight lady in a fanny pack being interviewed on her front lawn in Sylmar. The fingers all point to the "broken border."
Currently, there is political firestorm brewing about the border and immigration reform. I would like to focus on just one dimension of the debate : the decay public schools in the state. Who are we to blame?
Allow me to explain. Up until the 1980's California was a model state for public education (K-12). We ranked 18th in school spending. California public school funding came predominately from property taxes (85%). The revenue that was collected from property tax was put into a pool and doled out to the state's schools.
Since the 1920's California property has always been, well, caliente. The proliferation of the sprawling suburbs, the rise of a sophisticated freeway system, the temperate climate, the coast, the mountains, the schools all caused housing market to explode by the 1970's. However, even after you were able to buy a new home in California, the property value would continue skyrocket. Consequently, the amount a home owner would pay in property tax also continued to soar.
Grandma and Gramps were soon being taxed out of their homes. New homeowners could not stay in a neighborhood long due to their property tax. Property owners screamed as taxes went up ten and twenty percent per year -- with no end in sight.
The housing market was erratic.
Communities were destabilizing.
The people were getting pissed.
Enter Howard Jarvis, a crusty old white guy to be sure, but also a fierce populist politician who led the crusade against property taxes. Jarvis and the Tax Payers Association of California successfully tapped into the fear and frustration of California homeowners and got proposition 13 on the Ballot in 1978.
Prop. 13 capped property tax at 1 % of the ORIGINAL sale value. Meaning, if you bought a home in Laguna Beach in the 1970's for 300,000 you would only pay 3,000 in property taxes a year. Even today, your home maybe worth 850,000. You still pay 3,000. Pretty sweet deal.
The opponents of Prop. 13 exclaimed that funding for local government, public education, police, fireman and social services would be de-funded to brink annihilation.
No matter, Proposition 13 and other anti-tax measures still passed by a landslide in 1978. California historians refer to the election at as the "Tax Payers Revolt." Indeed, the homeowners insurgency has had lasting and harrowing effects that are still felt today. Prop 13 resulted in a cut in local property tax revenue of $6 Billion. School districts lost, on average, HALF their property tax revenue. By 1980, California plummeted from 18th in the nation for school funding to 40th!
We are currently ranked 42nd --- that's below Kentucky-- in school spending. Even though California has the 9th highest per capita income in the nation and has some of the most expensive property in the country, all that wealth is siphoned away from the public schools due to Prop. 13. In the words of one policy analyst "We've chosen mediocre public service, and more private money. We've decided not to tax ourselves as much. We've basically turned our back on schools. It's a choice we made within our state."
Now we have a severe teacher shortage, piss-poor test scores, and no real remedy sight. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" act only further exacerbates the problem by putting financial sanctions on poor performing cash-strapped schools.
Prop. 13 does not just apply to homes, it also applies to ALL property. Meaning businesses are also capped at 1 %. If the state legislature or our burly Governor would increase the percentage to 3 or 4 percent then millions of dollars would poor back into our schools. There would be greater funding for more teachers which equals smaller classes sizes, tutors, college prep classes, and of course, bilingual classes.
The demise of California's public school is not an immigration issue, it's a financial constraint issue.
So next time you start blaming your Guatemalan gardener's kids for our dysfunctional schools, why don't you ask your parents how they voted on Prop. 13 instead?