School board trustee John de Beck has a plan to “buy back” some of the 617 teachers the San Diego Unified School District was forced to lay off this week. De Beck's plan is one that's never been proposed in San Diego and might not sit well with either side of the political spectrum but is perhaps the only way to assert a little control over state budget cuts to education.
Last month, de Beck, who's been a trustee for 18 years and a high-school teacher before that, proposed that the school district study the feasibility of putting a parcel tax on the November ballot. A parcel tax is an annual flat tax that's paid by every property owner in the city; exceptions are made for those older than 65 or on disability.
Right now, the exact amount of the tax is uncertain. De Beck suggested $97.50, but consultants hired by the school district will look at what voters are willing—if at all—to pay and report back in August. If $97.50 is it, de Beck estimates it'll bring in an additional $29.5 million a year for the school district—a mere 2 percent of the district's $1.2 billion operating budget, but a good chunk, more than one-third, of the $80 million that needs to be cut to balance the 2008-09 budget.
A draft version of the proposed tax, called the San Diego Children's Quality Education Act, says money will go to teacher training and retention, staffing libraries and media centers and will provide incentives for teachers at low-performing schools. There's also mention of enhancing teacher-accountability measures and the formation of a citizen's oversight board to monitor how the money is spent.
“It's a little over 30 cents a day” for property owners, de Beck points out. “If we pass the parcel tax in November, we can be re-hiring [teachers] as soon as December.”
Opponents of parcel taxes argue that although the per-diem breakdown seems small, it's an unfair tax that, unlike property taxes, affects rich and poor alike—while a property tax is based on assessed value, with a parcel tax, you can have a mansion or a shack on your parcel of land and you'll still have to pay the same amount.
Supporters counter than it creates a source of revenue over which a school district has complete control, which is exactly what education experts are saying needs to happen if California's public schools are going to improve.
According to a massive 22-part study released by Stanford University last year, called “Getting Down to Facts,” taxpayers get the most bang for their buck from decentralized spending—in other words, teachers and principals, not state-level bureaucrats, know best what their students need. “I'm tired of people wringing their hands and saying the state controls education,” de Beck said. “We can continue to take any bone California throws us and continue to operate, but if we want to improve our schools and the rest of California, it's far better for us locally to take control.”
In California, 90 percent of school districts' operating money comes from the state. It's a system that was set up to ensure equality—the result of a lawsuit, Serrano v. Priest, that made an example of funding disparities between schools in Beverly Hills and Baldwin Park. In response to Serrano, the state capped per-pupil spending in property-tax-rich communities and spread that money to poorer districts. In response to the state, affluent communities got behind Prop. 13, the 1978 law that put limits on property taxes—voters in affluent communities were none-too-happy that their taxes were being redirected away from their schools. Prop. 13 made a provision for parcel taxes, though: If two-thirds of voters agreed to tax themselves, a community could create a locally controlled pot of money.
According to the nonpartisan policy organization EdSource, between 1983—when the first parcel tax was passed in Tulare—and 2006, only about one-fifth of California's 1,000 school districts have enacted parcel taxes. A 2001 report by the Public Policy Institute of California, which questioned why more school districts weren't taking advantage of the funding method, found that districts where voters have approved parcel taxes share some common traits: small size and taxpayers who are politically liberal, well-educated and above-average wage earners.
The San Francisco Bay Area is parcel-tax ground zero, and no school districts south of Los Angeles County have successfully passed parcel taxes. There have been three attempts in San Diego County, all of which have failed.
At least five Bay Area school districts have parcel taxes on upcoming ballots, including San Francisco Unified, which is proposing a $198-per-parcel tax. If the San Francisco proposal passes, it will be the largest school district in California to have a parcel tax.
Whereas in the past parcel-tax revenue went to fund extras, like language, music and art classes, over the past few years, school districts have relied on that revenue to keep essential services in place—like teachers—some regularly raising the amount of the tax to keep pace with budget needs.
The important question is whether a parcel tax stands a chance in San Diego, where, soon after the 2003 Cedar and Paradise fires, voters opposed a measure to increase the hotel-room tax to support police and fire services.
“In anti-tax San Diego, with the economic downturn and housing slump, it would be an uphill battle to convince voters,” said Steve Erie, a professor of political science at UCSD. “San Diego voters have passed bonds for new schools, but that was when the economy was roaring.”
The real budget breakdownThe media's been criticized for not getting the numbers right when reporting on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed cuts to K-12 education money. Is he cutting $1 billion? Where does the $4 billion number come from? According to the state's Legislative Analyst, California will spend $1.1 billion less on K-12 education this coming fiscal year than it spent last year (or, about $145 less per child). But, under Prop. 98, the law that sets the minimum amount of funding for public schools, the governor is undercutting the education budget by $4 billion. Schwarzenegger was able to get the Legislature to suspend Prop. 98 in order to balance the state budget. Update: Schwarzenegger announced Wednesday that he'll restore $1.8 billion to the education budget.
The state budget, by the numbers:
Proposed budget for Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: $10 billionProposed K-12 education budget: $49.3 billionSpending per person under CDCR jurisdiction: $31,645*
Spending per K-12 student: $8,370*** Based on recent state count of 316,000 (all Department of Corrections jurisdiction, including parole)
** Based on state estimate of 5.89 million students