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Tax Proposals Would Lift California's Low School Funding

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I think I heard the ghost of John Mockler last week.  Mockler, who died earlier this year, was a tireless voice reminding Californians that their schools were producing increasingly good results on a starvation budget.

Last Thursday, Jonathan Kaplan of the California Budget and Policy Center followed at least one of Mockler's themes, releasing a new analysis that shows that by almost any measure the state ranks poorly in its support for elementary and secondary education.  This is the case despite the fact that school funding has risen sharply in the economic recovery from the great recession.

California Ranks 42nd

By the Center's calculations, in 2014-15 California ranked 42nd among all states in spending after adjusting for the cost of living.  Without adjusting for the cost of living, the state ranks 29th.  California spends an average of $10,139 per student compared to $12,040 nationally. 

California also ranks poorly when school spending is examined as a share of its economy, 3.48% compared to 3.88%.

As a result, the state ranks near the bottom in the ratio of students to staff.  It is 51st in the ratio of teachers per student: 22.4 compared to 15.5 nationally.  The average guidance counselor serves 785 students compared to 440 nationally.  There's a librarian for every 7,572 students in California compared to 985 nationally.  And the number of administrators per student ranks the state 47th.

Wealth and Inequality

Line up these numbers with the task at hand.  California has the largest share of English Learners in the country, and it ranks higher than average in the percentage of students from low-income families.  Despite recovery, incomes in California rank among the most unequal in the country.

I could almost hear the echoes of Mockler's slide shows and his narrative of a decade of progress as he railed against what he derisively called the "constant drivel of the CCSI—the California Schools Suck Industry."

Kaplan's presentation was a thinly veiled endorsement to extend the temporary tax increases that the voters approved in 2012 when they approved Proposition 30.  Several tax measures will appear on the 2016 ballot.

A Fistful of Tax Measures

There is a fistful of tax measures potentially up for a vote.  Two would extend the income tax rate increase from Proposition 30 that would otherwise expire. 

In addition, there is a "Make It Fair" measure to reform commercial property taxes so that long-held property would be taxed at the same rates as those recently acquired. 

A measure by state Sen. Robert Hertzberg would attach the sales tax to services as well as goods. 

There is a measure to increase the tobacco tax, which has been unchanged since 1988.  Billionaire activist Tom Steyer announced last week that he would contribute $1-million to the campaign.

And potentially there is a measure to impose a severance tax on the extraction of oil and gas.  (In Texas and Louisiana the severance tax accounts for 9% of the state tax collections; in Alaska, it's a whopping 78%.)

Kaplan's analysis comes at a good time.  The Legislative Analyst predicts another year of increased school budgeting under Proposition 98's constitutional guarantee, which Mockler engineered.  There is likely to be a conclusion that generally increasing state revenue has answered the budget problems for schools and community colleges.  The new data remind us that better times for California have only started to lift the schools from the bottom ranks of the states.


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