Los Angeles voters have struck down a proposed tax hike that would have put millions of dollars into the city’s school system, months after thousands of teachers went on strike for more school resources.
Measure EE asked voters to authorize the Los Angeles Unified school district to levy an annual parcel tax—which is a type of property tax based on units of property rather than assessed value—for 12 years at the rate of 16 cents per square foot of building improvements. Los Angeles Unified officials have estimated that the tax would raise $500 million a year, and the money would go into the district’s general fund to be used for instructional and support services.
The district planed to use the money raised from the tax hike to help meet the terms of the deal made with the United Teachers Los Angeles to end the six-day strike in January. The cash-strapped Los Angeles district had agreed to reduce class sizes, raise teacher salaries, and hire more school nurses, librarians, and counselors.
On Tuesday, Measure EE failed, with 54.3 percent voting no. A two-thirds majority was required to pass.
The defeat was a blow to both the district, which has projected a long-term funding shortfall, and the teachers’ union, which had hoped that the support shown by the community during the teacher strike would translate into support at the polls.
“The LAUSD is going to be strained to be able to fulfill all of the promises it has made, and certainly strained to try to promote the quality of education that the public has been asking for during the strike and in the months since the strike,” said John Rogers, a professor of education in the University of California, Los Angeles Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.
During a Tuesday night rally for supporters of the measure, according to the Los Angeles Times, LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said he believed that the campaign would ultimately pay off, despite the election results.
“We’ve put together the broadest, deepest, most diverse coalition in support of public education in our community in a generation,” he said.
UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl echoed the sentiment: “Everyone is talking about what our students need. That is a win.”
A Tough Sell
Rogers has researched California districts that have voted on parcel taxes in the past, and it’s a tough sell—especially for one as vast and diverse as Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest school system.
“Almost invariably, the districts that were able to pass parcel taxes were small and homogeneous with upper middle class and wealthy populations,” he said. “As the size and diversity of districts grows, I think the complexity of the politics grows alongside with it, and to get a two-thirds vote, you need very simple politics. Any opposition often spells defeat.”
Several in the business community opposed the measure, including the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, which wrote that the parcel tax “falls short on delivering what is needed in the way of accountability, transparency, and oversight.”
Beutner, a former investment banker, had fired back at the chamber’s opposition in a conversation with the Los Angeles Times. “The chamber said it’s not the answer, so what is?” he said. “If you think it’s not the answer for kids of poverty and kids of color, I wish the chamber would come to school and say, ‘We’re sorry, but we don’t think you’re worth a librarian a day.’”
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who oversaw the final negotiations of the teacher strike, supported the parcel tax. Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg both voiced support for the tax, too.
In November 2020, voters across the state of California will decide whether to change the way properties are taxed, which could result in a windfall for schools. The “split roll” proposal would tax properties based on their market value, rather than their purchase price as they currently are. That change would reap up to $10 billion a year for schools and local governments.
Still, the “political interests that lined up against Measure EE that will certainly be investing tens of millions of dollars to try to defeat split roll,” Rogers said.
In the meantime, attention will turn to the next steps of district leadership, and how the district will pay for everything included in the strike-ending deal.
“It leaves Mr. Beutner without a clear mission moving forward,” Rogers said. “He was seen as someone who was going to contain costs and bring more efficiency to the system. Since the teacher strike is over, and Measure EE [didn’t] pass, it’s not quite clear what particular strength he has and what an agenda will mean for Mr. Beutner, since he no longer can say that he will be able to galvanize the business community and the broader public to bring more resources into the system.”
Image: On Dec. 15, 2018, thousands of Los Angeles teachers rallied outside The Broad, a contemporary art museum downtown Los Angeles. —Damian Dovarganes/AP