California's Education Crisis and the Need for New Revenues
By Duane Campbell
California, like most states, needs additional revenue to fund schools and to invest in the future. A tax plan known as The Millionaires Tax has been proposed by the California Federation of Teachers and the Courage Campaign to increase revenues to pay for vital services. It was assigned the official title "Tax To Benefit Public Schools, Social Services, Public Safety, And Road Maintenance."
On March 15, Governor Jerry Brown agreed to modify his proposed tax plan to make it more like the more progressive plan of CFT, the Courage Campaign and others.
California public schools are in crisis - and they are getting worse. This is a direct result of massive budget cuts imposed by the legislature and the governor in the last four years. Total per pupil expenditure is down by over $1,000 per student. The result: massive class size increases. Students are often in classes too large for quality learning. Supplementary services such as tutoring and art classes have been eliminated. Over 14,000 teachers have been dismissed, and thousands more face lay offs this fall.
California schools are now 47th in the nation in per pupil expenditure and 49th in class size. Our low achievement scores on national tests reflect this severe underfunding.
Of course the economic crisis of 2007 to the present caused by bankers and pirates made matters worse. The state took in some $30 billion less in taxes and thus had less to send to the schools. School budgets have been cut by some $10 billion. K-12 education receives about 40% of the California budget. Thus any decline in the state budget leads directly to cuts in school services.
A report of the California Budget Project notes that “measured as a share of family income, California’s lowest-income families pay the most in taxes. The bottom fifth of the state’s families, with an average income of $12,600, spent 11.1 percent of their income on state and local taxes. In comparison, the wealthiest 1 percent, with an average income of $2.3 million, spent 7.8 percent of their income on state and local taxes.”
The question for the promoters of the corporate agenda, such as the Chamber of Commerce, is can the economy prosper with a poorly educated work force. California grew and prospered from 1970- 1994 based upon a well educated work force. Then, in the period between 1994-2008 over $10 billion in corporate tax cuts were passed – making the current crisis much worse. California suffers from a decade of disinvestment. Today, instead of continuing our state’s once great commitment to education, conservative anti tax forces have imposed a Mississippi model on California schools.
Back to the ballot compromise designed to address the state’s education crisis: The new plan follows the Brown tax format but would increase taxes on earners starting at $250,000 for single filers, as well as increase the statewide sales tax by a one forth of one cent. The other two of the governor’s tax brackets will also be retained, but the last marginal tax hike – at $500,000 for singles and $1 million for couples – would increase by 3 percentage points rather than Brown’s original 2 percentage points. The new income tax hike on the rich would also last longer than Brown’s proposal, going for seven years instead of five. The sales tax hike would still expire at the end of 2016. A major concession is that the new Brown proposal would send the revenue collected to the general fund for allocation thus allowing some of the funds to be used for desperately needed relief for public programs facing annual budget assaults.
Until now the two proposals had divided the labor community- particularly those most active in the electoral arena. CFT and the California Nurses Association backed the "Millionaires tax," while the California Teachers Association and Service Employees International Union State Council backed Brown's proposal. The State Buildings Trades backed the Brown plan and pressured others to abandon their efforts. Now that the two plans have merged, major labor unions are united in support of the new tax plan. Already conservative politicians and pundits such as the Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters are calling the compromise plan “soak the rich”.
Political analysts worried that if two or three tax measures make it to the ballot, all of them would fail. The new plan must now be qualified for the ballot. This will require over 800,000 signatures in about 30 days – a difficult feat. Not helping matters, civil rights attorney Molly Munger is backing her own $10 billion income tax measure.
The California economy needs to invest in roads, bridges, telephone lines, communications systems, clean energy and quality education. These are the down payments that make prosperity possible. Conservative opposition to any new tax ignores the undeniable, historic fact that prosperity depends upon having a viable educational system and a well functioning infrastructure. Rather than invest in something that pays itself back many times over, the Republicans have led the effort to starve public education of desperately needed revenue.
The good news is polling consistently shows that the California voters are willing to pay for a quality public education system. The hurdle to putting these poll numbers to the test has been getting such a historic choice and opportunity onto the ballot. It appears that this November Californians just may finally have a chance to make their voices heard.
Duane Campbell is a Professor (emeritus) of Bilingual/Multicultural Education at CSU-Sacramento and the Chair of the Sacramento local of Democratic Socialists of America.