By now, just about everyone knows something is really wrong with California’s school funding formula.
California is the first place we call for heart-wrenching, firsthand stories of how budget cuts are affecting school programs, teachers, and students. California schools have seen student enrollments and schools’ needs rise as the state education budget from which they receive the bulk of their funding has pretty much stagnated.
It’s now become a spring ritual to hand out layoff notices to every eligible teacher and administrator. Several years ago I visited a school principal who was moved to tears as she told of having to hand the notices to some of her most prized and talented recruits.
So when I wrote about how state budget fluctuations have a lot of school administrators on edge for May’s ASBJ, I knew that California school officials would be wondering how much they would have to cut from their budgets. I was wrong. They’re already cutting classroom programs. And while the layoff notices used to be a formality — most teachers knew they would be rehired once the education budget was hashed out — now, thousands of teachers are certain they won’t have their jobs next year, even as some class sizes rise to 40 or more students.
What we don’t hear much talk about are solid solutions to this ever-present crisis, which would mean dramatic tax reform. Some 40 percent of the state budget goes to education, but the budget has been hamstrung by two voter-approved ballot initiatives, Proposition 98, which guarantees a minimum level of funding for schools except in periods of financial hardship (ie, now), and Proposition 13, which capped property taxes in 1978. When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger launched an expensive campaign to overhaul Proposition 98 three years ago, he got clobbered.
What Schwarzenegger and other politicians won’t dare discuss is how to overhaul Proposition 13, as financial guru Warren Buffett has recommended. Prop 13’s formula uses the purchase price of a home — no matter whether that home was purchased in the 1940s, 1970s, or 2005 — as the basis and limits how much that tax can be increased each year. Designed to help elderly homeowners afford their tax bills, it’s created vast inequities, for both local governments and residents.
And as a result, school districts are beholden to the state economy and the whims of the state legislature far more than property taxes – which, despite the current national housing slump, are still one of the most stable revenues for schools.
How long it will take — or how dire the schools’ crisis will get — for lawmakers to address this issue?
Joetta Sack-Min, Associate Editor