How do we define educational equity today? As income inequality continues to widen, what has traditionally been defined as success is no longer attainable solely through giving your education your all. That definition of success, the threshold wherein people are provided the ability to earn a livable wage and a foundation to continue along the path of higher learning, is something that most folks are leaving educational institutions completely unable to reach.
Here in San Diego County, that issue is compounded by an absurd cost of living, an increasing population of high-needs students, and a completely unsustainable finance paradigm for public schools. Acknowledging that is a necessary preface to the discussion about metrics for educational success because it is at the core of the debate weighing traditional public schools against newer models such as charter schools. San Diego County school districts, especially K-12, are struggling to fund basic construction and maintenance that has been decades overdue. Vital programs are finding themselves on the chopping block. Let’s go over the genesis of these woes here in California.
The decline in performance of California’s public school systems can be linked to the infamous ballot proposition in 1978 (Proposition 13) that reduced property value taxes by about 57%. It also moved the authority to raise property taxes from local governments to the state. Local governments seeking to raise property taxes would need voters to approve a ballot initiative by a two-thirds majority. If the State of California wanted to raise property taxes, both houses of the state legislature would have to approve such legislation by a two-thirds majority. While California’s Supreme Court had ruled in the landmark 1971 Serrano v Priest case that the property tax finance schema was unconstitutional, Prop 13 severely limited the scope of the remedy that the Court could apply. It also obliterated the ability of local governments to make any decisions in regard to property taxes. Since that period of time, the renown excellence of California’s public schools took a severe toll.
A decade later, after public schools had suffered irreparable damage, California voters passed Proposition 98, which mandated that the state dedicate a minimum of 40% of the General Fund to education. This brings us to the current situation:
- Public schools now receive about 60% of their funding from the State, 25% from property value taxes, and the remaining 15% from the federal government (Weston, PPIC).
- Due to extenuating circumstances, the overall amount spent on K-12 in the past ten years since the financial crisis of 2008 has fluctuated, with $63.3 billion dollars spent in the 2016-2017 fiscal year (Legislative Analyst Office, The 2016-2017 Budget: California Spending Plan).
- The Local Control Funding Formula has been in place for four years and is meeting varying degrees of success around California.
In my home school district of Poway Unified, which is in the northeast quadrant of San Diego County, we are in the middle of one of the nation’s largest fiscal imbroglios you will see from a school district. Because the district was restrained by Prop 13 from raising property taxes even incrementally, the school board had to look for other sources of revenue. This resulted in the district issuing a capital appreciation bond worth $105 million dollars. By itself, that isn’t necessarily controversial because school districts borrow that kind of money frequently. The part of the bond that will bankrupt the community is a key stipulation was that Poway Unified would not pay anything back for 20 years. The interest will accrue, equating to a total payment of a staggering $981 million dollars.
These are the kind of situations that have arisen from the mess that Prop 13 created. They will not go away until we have repealed Prop 13 and we have reformed school finance statewide and locally. This is why the conversation about looking into new finance paradigms is so important. Unless as a community we take drastic measures to find solutions to this crisis, the future looks very bleak.
If you are interested in learning more about efforts to reform Prop 13, please click here.
Luis Alejandro Montes
Luis wanted to see more of California and took an opportunity to train as a wildland firefighter in Ukiah California, about 800 miles away to the north. After the 2016 presidential election, Luis felt an even stronger call to return to work organizing for positive change. He now resides in San Bernardino County as a freelance writer and environmental policy advisor for several local campaigns.