Inside Nehal Pfeiffer's biology class at Soquel High School.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Opinion from Community Voices

Time for a Prop 13 haircut — we need to better support K-12 schools in California

California’s public schools are in trouble and the key problem is inadequate funding, writes Lookout political columnist Mike Rotkin. Low-income neighborhoods and communities of color feel the sting most acutely, he says. His answer? Reform of Proposition 13, the 1978 property-tax relief law. He says increased revenue could bolster school funding and not harm homeowners who receive Proposition 13 tax relief.

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Our K-12 public schools in California are in trouble.

It’s not just the (hopefully now-finished) problem of closures for the pandemic and the lost learning. Schools have been failing for quite a while now.

Once the envy of the nation, California public schools now too often fail to prepare students adequately for college and careers. There are, of course, many exceptions, but they are too few and far between, throughout the state.

There are several reasons why our schools struggle so much, but mostly, I see it as an issue of inadequate funding for our public schools tied to the passage of Proposition 13 (property tax relief) in June 1978.

Here’s why.

If we look at California before the passage of Proposition 13, we were second only to New York in spending per student in public schools.

Immediately following the passage of Proposition 13, California fell to 49th in spending per K-12 student in public schools — just ahead of Mississippi.

Since that time, new sources of funding for K-12 schools, including guaranteed percentages of the state budget, the state lottery and other alternative funding have raised our relative standing with respect to spending per student back to 20th among the states.

But this still means that New York, which spends $24,040 per student each year, provides almost twice the support for schools as California at $12,498.

Santa Cruz city and county schools are working hard to do as much as they can without the funding the state should supply.

And of course, these problems are exacerbated in poor communities, despite the good intentions of the Serrano cases, which ostensibly guaranteed equal spending per student in every school district in the state. We all know local funding for buildings, textbooks, lab equipment, computers, other classroom resources and the availability of volunteer efforts by parents vary widely between wealthy white neighborhoods and low-income communities of color.

Westlake Elementary School on Santa Cruz's Westside.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Here in Santa Cruz, the contrasts are not as sharp as in a city like Los Angeles, but it is hard to miss the difference in physical appearance and resources between, say, Westlake Elementary School on the Westside and Gault Elementary School in Seabright.

Luckily, our community is relatively successful in passing local school property bonds to support physical improvements in our schools, and our districts do better than most in distributing the funds equitably among various schools, irrespective of neighborhood incomes.

Because the schools here know they cannot pay teacher salaries competitive with those in Silicon Valley, the schools have worked hard to come up with other ways to recruit and retain good teachers. This includes several initiatives, including to provide workforce housing for teachers and others in the school system.

But we clearly need to do better, both here in the county and throughout California, for our kids.

I have, naturally, heard the argument, “you can’t fix this problem by just throwing money at it.”

I agree. But without sufficient money, necessary school reforms are really impossible.

That’s why I believe the best answer to fixing schools and offering a reliable funding increase lies in reforming Proposition 13.

This idea is not new. Advocates tried and failed (by a slim margin) in 2020 to increase property taxes and “reform” Prop 13.

But what is new is that support for the reform idea has grown — and the anti-tax movement in California has slipped significantly. Essentially, some of Prop 13’s shine has worn off.

Some of this is because of how rapidly residential property turns over in California. Under the rules of Prop 13, the sale of property triggers a reassessment of the property value and the taxes based on that assessment.

That means two exactly similar houses built at the same time on the same size lot often result in property taxes for the more recently purchased being five times the property taxes of its neighbor.

Also, a glaring weakness of Proposition 13 is that, unlike residential property, commercial and industrial property — which accounts for half of property in California — does not change hands frequently. As a consequence, the share of property taxes in California paid by commercial and industrial property owners is minimal.

Adding to concern, there are now some outrageous transfers of ownership of commercial and industrial property that receive unpopular Prop 13 protections. These transfers allow a prior owner to maintain the relatively low tax obligation indefinitely. The protections of Prop 13 remain on the property despite its sale.

This doesn’t hold for residential property. Businesses get to keep low taxes, but we can’t pass our tax benefit on to our children.

So there is momentum and rationale behind trying to reform Prop 13 again.

We all know small classroom size, good pay for teachers and modern, fully equipped classrooms and up-to-date textbooks are crucial to educational success. Currently, pay for the teaching profession is pathetic.

Santa Cruz City Schools have (laudably) made it a top priority to make teaching here a positive experience. Teachers are encouraged to collaborate, including across grade levels, and to develop their own initiatives. The completely irrational arguments put forth by some that teachers are overpaid are belied by any reasonable comparison with what the salaries are in the private sector for those with similar educational preparation.

Given the difficulty of teaching in underfunded schools, far too many of the best teachers are quickly drawn away from the profession to jobs in the private sector or elsewhere in government careers. We in Santa Cruz County know this pattern well.

Of course, there are those truly dedicated teachers who stick it out, but the attrition of so many of the best teachers into other sectors of the economy is easily demonstrable.

As I mentioned briefly in my article on affirmative action, children growing up in neighborhoods where neither their parents or virtually any adults they know have completed higher education nor have high-status careers means that these children really don’t have access to role models who would encourage them to believe that investing commitment in their education will ever actually pay off for them. They also often lack adults who can help with homework, a quiet place to do homework and enrichment opportunities.

And wherever the roots may lie, there are classrooms where teachers have to spend far too much of their time focused on discipline rather than actual teaching — another cause for schools’ and districts’ difficulties in recruiting and retaining the best teachers.

So while a great deal can be written about specific reforms that would help improve education in California’s K-12 schools, the first question has to be how can we improve funding for public schools.

Proposition 13 passed in 1978 because the value of real estate was escalating so rapidly that many taxpayers, and particularly older adults and others on fixed incomes, could not pay the property tax bills based on the value of the homes they owned (or that were passed through to them as renters).

Gault Elementary School in Santa Cruz's Seabright neighborhood.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Property values in California continue to spiral out of control, and I don’t believe it would be right to simply repeal Proposition 13. As a practical matter, far too many older Californians would be back in the crisis they faced in 1978 — and they turn out for elections in much higher percentages than younger voters.

And of course, there would be some rent increases to small businesses and to consumers in general; however, these would be far less than the benefits that California and local schools and local governments would be able to provide to communities out of even modest increases in commercial and industrial property taxes.

Passing a Proposition 13 reform would take a very heavy lift from supporters, but the positive impact on our state as a whole would be overwhelming.

Not just funding our schools, but other pressing issues such as affordable housing and homelessness, improved public transportation, dealing with our mental health and substance abuse issues and rebuilding our state’s infrastructure would all benefit from such a proposition.

And, I am afraid, if we are not willing to tackle the issue of inadequate funding for our K-12 schools and these other issues, accomplishing diversity goals in higher education and so many other quality of life issues will be little more than unfulfilled dreams.