Arnold’s Year of Education: Defunding Students Who Need It Most9 min read

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These temporary stopgaps seem to have run their course. As the state budget is collapsing, Arnold has focused his attention on education funding, and plans to balance the budget on the backs of students, instead of making wealthy Californians pay their fair share. But it’s worse than misplaced priorities. At the core of Arnold’s education funding reforms is a Nixonian effort to cut off funding for California’s needy students. Arnold’s goal is to reverse the hard-won victories of an earlier generation, all in the context of hitting education with massive funding cuts to balance the budget.

First, a brief history. In 1968 John Serrano, a parent in Baldwin Park (an LA suburb) sued the state claiming that the method of funding schools denied equality to all California students. At the time, per-pupil spending for Baldwin Park schools was $577 for the school year, but was over twice that number – $1231 – in Beverly Hills. This was because 90% of school funding came from local property taxes, and in districts with higher property values, there was more money for local schools (even though Baldwin Park paid a higher property tax rate than Beverly Hills, land was worth a lot more in Beverly Hills).

The case wound its way through the courts and in 1974 the California State Supreme Court handed down the Serrano v. Priest decision. Serrano and its follow-up decisions mandated that the state reduce these property-wealth-related disparities. In 1977 the state Legislature provided for the implementation of the Serrano decision, but this was kneecapped by Prop 13, passed in June 1978.

There has been a lot of debate about the role of the Serrano decision and the tax revolt. Many political scientists and even some historians see a cause-and-effect relationship here; that Serrano broke the tie between local property taxes and local schools, and homeowners revolted by cutting those taxes instead of seeing them go to help students of color.

But the more historians and scholars look at this, the less certain the link becomes. Most Californians were not aware of the ins and outs of the Serrano decision. And scholar Isaac Martin in 2006 found no evidence to uphold the Serrano => Prop 13 theory. Instead, the property tax revolt is more about a reaction against taxes and government itself. Robert Self has shown in his excellent book American Babylon: Race and the Struggle For Postwar Oakland that Alameda County voters did turn to Prop 13 out of a broad rejection of the welfare state. Over in San Francisco rising inflation led the city to confront its public employees, including its police and firefighters, and voters in SF preferred to deal harshly with them when they struck for fair wages instead of accepting a property tax increase. Even today, anyone involved in California education is depressingly familiar with the opposition of a hardcore antitax faction who will oppose ANY tax increases for schools, no matter how badly they’re needed.

Prop 13’s effect was to cut 60% of property tax revenue immediately. Jerry Brown had been foolishly hoarding a surplus – one of the causes of Prop 13 – and in 1979 and 1980 he used it to help bail out the cities and school districts who were now facing a major budget crunch. The state now took over the funding of public education, and the state guaranteed the equality rules mandated by the courts in Serrano. But, and this point is important – even without Serrano there would still be a need for local schools to be bailed out by the state. Prop 13’s limits are too low to meet the state’s basic needs.

As the budget surplus disappeared, and the state entered recession in the 1980s, Democrats and Republicans both raided education funding to balance the budget. Teachers were fired, classes cut, schools closed. I remember some of this from my own childhood, seeing music classes and other such things cut from my elementary school and being told that “state budget cuts mean you can’t learn an instrument.” We had the vague realization that other, older students had more opportunities and that we were being screwed – if anyone’s interested in why our generation is trending so progressive, this might be worth a look.

The cuts began to worry developers, whose new suburbs depended on the promise of better schools to lure white flight. To assuage them the California Legislature enacted the “Mello Roos” act in 1982, named after its authors, Monterey Senator Henry Mello and LA Assemblymember Mike Roos. This allows towns to create “community facilities districts” that can levy “Mello Roos fees” to fund all kinds of infrastructure needs independently of Prop 13. Designed to make growth pay for itself, Mello Roos gives an enormous advantage to new communities over existing ones in terms of school facilities. In Tustin, where I grew up, the new high school looks more like a college than a high school, with stunning facilities that my 1960s-era campus simply doesn’t have. Older communities, especially those with less wealth, cannot compete.

By 1988, sick of constant state raids on education spending, voters enacted Proposition 98, designed to stop these kinds of crippling cuts. Prop 98 uses a series of “tests” to determine the level of funding for education as a portion of the overall general fund. Right now, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, Prop 98 accounts for 45% of the general fund. Prop 98 can be suspended by a 2/3 vote of the legislature in a fiscal emergency, and Arnold is planning to do that this year so as to avoid tax increases and balance the budget on the backs of students.

Prop 98 was only a stopgap, a measure intended to preserve something for education until politicians finally got their act together and solved the structural revenue problem. 20 years later that still hasn’t occurred, and the need for Prop 98 is as strong as ever.

By the 1990s a system had emerged where new suburbs generally had excellent schools – brand-new facilities that attracted teachers and, with new facilities that didn’t require as much maintenance as older ones, could spend more money on teacher pay. Older schools and urban districts such as those in Oakland, or south LA, however, were left behind. When the state economy and budget revenues did well, these schools would get some additional support. But when the economy and revenues dipped, these schools were often first on the chopping block.

California has never really been committed to helping all of its students succeed. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds, from poor communities, or who have special needs have had to fight like hell just to get what opportunities in schools they have today. Serrano and Prop 98 were hard-won victories and yet both have been significantly undermined by a state that prefers low taxes to actually seeing students get the education they have a Constitutional right to receiving.

So it should be no surprise that Arnold’s plan for education involves cutting these students out once again:

“– Increasing local control of school finances by ending the requirement that most education funds have to be spent on specific programs.

“– Adopting “student-centered funding,” in which a base level of funding would go to all students, then additional funds would go to students who are poor, speak little English or have other extraordinary needs.”

These are Nixonian plans. Nixon’s method of killing the Great Society was to stop federal spending on specific projects and instead “block grant” the money to cities and states to spend as they wished. The result was a gutting of federally-guaranteed poverty programs that were badly needed, but that had also been opposed by many localities that were happy to maintain racism and inequality.

Arnold wants to do the same with school spending. If funding for “specific programs” is not mandated, then those programs won’t get funded. If poor, ESL, or other special needs students have to get “additional funding” then guess whose funding is first on the chopping block – theirs.

Typically, the Chronicle presents this as a series of special interests fighting over spoils:

“But most of the $41.4 billion spent from the state’s general fund on education is tied to certain categories, from adult education, to English learners, to gifted and talented. And each one has vocal supporters who don’t want to lose the money for the group they’re interested in helping.

“Those people will come off the walls if their money comes into one pot, and they’ll have a separate fight (for their constituents) in every school district,” said Kevin Gordon, president of School Innovations and Advocacy, a lobbying and consulting firm representing school districts.”

This is very bad framing, because it suggests that adult education, English learners, and gifted and talented students are special interests with loud backers, instead of people whose needs ought to be met by society as a whole.

Underlying this is a desire by Arnold to favor suburbs over inner cities, to favor middle- and upper-class students over the poor and students of color. Arnold wants to deliver those voters – either core or wobbling Republicans – the education funding that currently goes to students who have the greatest need for it.

The fight over education funding is perhaps the starkest example of what California budgeting is really all about – robbing those who need help to subsidize those who don’t. Keeping taxes on the wealthy low so that everyone else suffers.

The middle class has too often bought into this, but is beginning to realize that they lose more than they gain by cutting education so as to cut taxes. Education is what builds the middle class, after all – California’s current middle class is still living off of Pat Brown’s liberal legacy of free education. Low taxes are nice, but when they come at the expense of your child’s education, which in turn comes at the expense of your own pocketbook (especially when the California economy worsens and the middle-class taxpayer needs government aid to survive), it is a bad deal.

Democrats need to make this case to Californians. Explain to them that education funding isn’t just about teachers and students, but is about our basic future. If the middle class is to survive, if students currently being left behind are going to be helped, if special needs students are going to get the care and attention they need, education funding has to go UP, not down. And special programs have to be BOOSTED, not cut, not made vulnerable.

Robert Cruickshank is currently completing a Ph.D. in US history through the University of Washington. He is a Californian through and through, however, born and raised in Orange County and educated at UC Berkeley. He resides in Monterey, California, where he is active in supporting sustainable development projects, public transportation systems, and other progressive policy goals. This article originally appeared in Calitics and is republished with the permission of the author.

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