California Public Schools Need the Millionaires Tax
By Lisa Schiff
California voters will have the opportunity and responsibility this November to take some of the state’s financial matters into their own hands. The Republican no-tax-do-or-die-pledge strangle-hold over the state legislature that makes it literally impossible to raise revenues is being sidestepped by a handful of tax measures presented to the public on the ballot. If ever there were an example of the initiative process being a check on other branches of government, this is it.
Several measures raising taxes and putting those resources towards education will be on the ballot, the most well-known being Governor Brown’s proposal. Other leading contenders are the Courage Campaign’s “Millionaires Tax” and the “Our Children, Our Future” initiative created and financed by civil rights attorney Molly Munger. Each of these measures attempts to fill some of the financial gap the state is facing and each of them has implications for California’s public schools. The Millionaires Tax, though, stands out as by far the best of the three.
There are two key strengths to the Courage Campaign’s initiative. First, it taxes the right people – those who are accruing the greatest amount of personal wealth but are proportionately contributing the least to our shared services, and thus our shared well being. In addition it’s got no end date, meaning it establishes permanent streams of revenue.
By contrast, Governor Brown’s strategy is a short-term (5-year) combination of a sales tax and a tax on high income earners (those with incomes higher than $250,000). But a sales tax is just another way of pushing costs down the income ladder and a short-term solution isn’t much better than no solution.
The Munger initiative more explicitly (and somewhat shockingly) places the financial burden where it absolutely shouldn’t go by making the threshold of her new tax start with those making $7,316 in income per year. It is also relatively short term, with a 2024 expiration date.
Fixing our schools can’t be done at the direct expense of the poorest among us – that is simply morally wrong and in the long-run, self defeating. Schools are already trying to fill some of the gaps for struggling families, providing, for instance, free or low-cost meals. Making ends harder to meet for poor families will just increase the direct challenges students will have to overcome in the classroom. Furthermore, increasing the tax burden on low-income families will exacerbate a disturbing trend.
The California Budget Project recently issued a report on who pays taxes, showing that those with the least income are paying the greatest share of their income and that an increasing number of high-income individuals are paying no personal state income tax. This inequitable situation needs to be reversed; the price of our collective needs must be distributed more proportionately and the Millionaires Tax is a solid step forward in achieving that necessary budgetary equilibrium.
The second important strength of the Millionaires Tax is the target of the new revenues. Public education is at the top of the list, but it’s not the only thing. The Courage Campaign folks have rightfully recognized that there are other essential services that have been decimated and that they need attention too – health care services for the low-income and elderly; safety services, such as fire and rescue; and roads. These issues affect education – kids who have no health care struggle in school.
While Brown’s measure targets some of the same areas, including education and public safety, it also targets corrections, an area that needs rethinking and retraction, not expansion. Munger’s initiative is restricted just to education, which is a huge mistake.
Privileging public education needs above other essential social services is an untenable and foolish compromise. While it may give schools money on the one hand, it ultimately takes resources away by further stressing and impoverishing many public school families, whose children will arrive at school needing increased support in non-education related areas. Just as important, segregating public education is ceding power to the divide and conquer strategy. We are kidding ourselves if we fail to recognize that the drive to reduce public investment in health care, safety and transportation is the same drive that’s pushing increased impoverishment and privatization of our schools.
At a time when our voices need to be powerfully united, public education advocates are unfortunately divided in their support over these measures. The California Teachers Association backs Brown’s initiative, the California PTA backs Munger’s initiative, and the California Federation of Teachers supports the Millionares Tax.
These endorsements should not be taken at face value – voters will need to do a bit of critical analysis and compare these competing solutions for themselves. Once they do, public education supporters who are looking for real change generated in an equitable, sustainable way will have a clear and easy choice - the Courage Campaign's Millionaires Tax.
Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA. This article originally appeared on Beyond Chron.