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Is California a Bellwether for School Support?

There's no guarantee that what takes place in California will be repeated elsewhere, but it's a mistake to dismiss events in the Golden State out of hand. A new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll serves as a case in point. Despite a series of reports about the persistent underperformance of public schools in the state, voters strongly support Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to increase the sales tax and raise levies on top earners in order to raise money for schools ("Strong majority backs Jerry Brown's tax-hike initiative," Los Angeles Times, Mar. 26).

Specifically, 64 percent of voters surveyed were in favor of the measure, which will be on the November ballot. If approved, it would raise the state sales tax by a quarter-cent per dollar for the next four years and impose a graduated surcharge on incomes of more than $250,000 over the next seven years. What is most surprising is the percentage of voters who favor this approach. These presumably are the same voters who voice harsh criticism of public schools. Yet when push comes to shove, they are not ready to give up on public education.

How to explain this disconnect?

First, it's important to note another finding of the same survey. Sixty-four percent of voters were against a separate measure put forward by the California State PTA that would hike income taxes on most taxpayers to raise money for schools and early childhood education and pay down the state debt. I stress this point because it indicates that voters surveyed may be primarily out for justice. The Brown proposal would single out top earners, whereas the PTA proposal would spread the tax increase across a broader band of earners. Whether voters will pay more under the Brown plan seems secondary to their anger against the rich.

Second, Californians remember when public schools in the state were considered among the best in the nation. I think many voters only now realize the harm done by the passage of Proposition 13 in 1979. By reducing local property taxes and shifting funding of schools to the state, they created a complicated set of formulas that only experts can fully understand ("Some California schools get twice the funding - and more - of others," San Jose Mercury News, Feb. 26). The result has been that California now ranks 43rd in per-pupil spending.

Third, voters want to avoid cognitive dissonance. Polls have consistently found that people believe their local schools are better than schools elsewhere. They are essentially satisfied with the job neighborhood schools are doing in preparing their children or grandchildren for college ("Californians willing to pay higher taxes for better schools," Los Angeles Times, Nov. 19, 2011). By supporting the Brown proposal, they ease their consciences. As Sean Cavanagh noted: "Residents also appear to be taking notice of the pain schools are absorbing" ("Gauging Public Opinion on Tax Hikes for Schools? Good Luck," Education Week, Nov. 29, 2011).

It's unlikely that voters will change their minds very much between now and November. Even if they don't, however, the question remains whether voters in other states will follow in California's footprints. As Joanne Barkan explains in detail, reformers are spending at least a half-billion dollars a year to sway public opinion in favor of a market-modeled movement ("Hired Guns on Astroturf: How to Buy and Sell School Reform," Dissent, Spring 2012). At some point, their message is bound to have an impact.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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