Wealthier Districts Winning School Tax Hikes, Widening Divide, Experts Find
To help protect their schools from California's unrelenting budget crisis, some communities are voting to pay more property taxes to preserve teacher jobs, smaller class sizes and electives such as art and music.
So far this year, more than 20 districts have held elections for school parcel taxes, which are levied on individual parcels of property, and at least 16 have approved them. More districts are trying to place such measures on the ballot later this year.
But the tax measures, which require a two-thirds majority to pass, are mostly winning approval in smaller, wealthier districts, according to education experts, raising worries about growing inequality between schools in rich and poor communities.
"It's a story of widening disparity," said John Rogers, who heads the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access. "Across the state, the pain is felt everywhere, but because of the unequal distribution of wealth, some areas are able to respond."
Some California lawmakers and education advocates are pushing legislation that would lower the percentage of the vote needed to pass a school parcel tax to 55 percent.
The two-thirds threshold was just out of reach for Alameda, a San Francisco Bay area city that failed to pass a school parcel tax Tuesday even though nearly 66 percent of voters approved it.
Hundreds of volunteers staffed phone banks and knocked on doors to campaign for Measure E, which would have given the city some of California's highest school taxes, with homeowners paying $659 annually. But it was fiercely opposed by commercial property owners who would pay up to $9,500 per parcel each year.
"Measure E won. It just didn't pass," said John Knox White, a parent with two children in Alameda schools. "Where else do we say that one-third of voters should have veto power over a huge majority? That's not representative democracy."
Now the 9,500-student school district is moving ahead with a plan to increase class sizes, cut adult education, eliminate its gifted student program, shorten the school year and lay off dozens of teachers and guidance counselors. Several neighborhood schools could be closed next year.
"The kind of impact it's going to have on students and incoming students is going to be immense," said Maya Robles-Wong, an incoming senior at Alameda High School. "I'm more worried for my sister and future generations of Alameda High School students."
Robles-Wong and Alameda Unified School District are among the plaintiffs in a high-profile lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of California's school finance system. They allege the system leads to unequal learning opportunities and doesn't provide enough money for students to meet the state's rigorous academic standards.
Education advocates, meanwhile, are urging Congress to provide another round of emergency money for schools, warning that up to 300,000 teachers could lose their jobs as federal stimulus funds dry up.
"I'm desperately worried about the loss of teacher jobs as we go into the fall," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told teachers at a meeting in Marin County Friday. "We have to take action now."
By voting to raise local property taxes at the district level, some locales are reversing a 30-year-old trend in which states took the more prominent role in education funding, said Kim Rueben, an economist with the Urban Center's Tax Policy Center. But Rueben also noted the resulting disparity: "Some places will be more able to pass these taxes than others."
Between 2001 and June 2009, 83 of California's 980 school districts approved parcel taxes, but most of those districts have less than 10,000 students and serve fewer low-income children than the average district, according to Edsource, an education research group.
The wealthy Bay Area suburb of Piedmont, which has some of California's top public schools, has passed parcel taxes seven times in the past 25 years, including two last year. Homeowners in the 2,550-student district pay more than $2,000 in school parcel taxes each year.
By contrast, Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest with nearly 700,000 students, failed to pass a modest $100 per parcel tax in June. The district is laying off thousands of teachers and other school employees as it grapples with a massive budget deficit.
Jack O'Connell, California's superintendent of public instruction, wants to reduce the threshold to pass school parcel taxes from 66.7 percent to 55 percent, which would allow more communities to secure extra money for schools and reduce inequality among districts.
"We should provide the mechanism for districts to have a legitimate shot" at passing school parcel taxes, O'Connell said. "Think about how many school districts don't even try to pass a parcel tax because they don't think they can get the two-thirds vote."
But taxpayer advocates say there should be a high bar to raise property taxes, especially at a time when many homeowners are struggling financially.
"The two-thirds threshold forces the proponents of the tax make a good argument about why the tax is needed," said David Kline, a spokesman for the California Taxpayers Association. "It gives more protection to the homeowners who will ultimately be paying a higher property tax for many years to come."