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California: Dream Deferred

January 22, 2010
by Peter Schrag
Image source: Courtesy of Learning Matters, Inc.

Liberal and conservative ballot measures, tax-cutting Republicans and union-dominated Democrats, three-strikes laws and budgetary mandates—all have played a role, often unintended, in the steep decline of California’s public schools and services.

In the generation after World War II, California, always well-endowed in its climate and natural beauty, became an exemplar not only for its universities and its huge investment in schools, parks, roads, and water systems, but for the modern, professional government that the state established to oversee that investment. Those progressive social policies were enacted under both Republican and Democratic governors, and by legislators of both parties. Now, 40 years on, they seem almost quaint. Later, after things had descended into ugly and spiteful partisanship, some of those legislators, by then long retired, would get together and reminisce fondly about the good old days when they could comfortably work together, even when they disagreed.

During this time, along with the federal government, California created major new flood control and water delivery systems. It bought and developed thousands of acres of new parklands, and nurtured public institutions that were unmatched anywhere on earth. In the mid-1960s, the state ranked among the top ten in the nation in the amount it spent per pupil in its public schools; its per capita investment in its infrastructure was among the highest in the nation.

But perhaps the greatest symbol of the era was higher education. Nine new state college campuses opened between 1957 and 1966. Beginning as the chancellor at Berkeley in the 1950s, Clark Kerr stockpiled academic stars against the time when he predicted—correctly—that the rising tide of enrollment would require them. In 1964, for the first time ever, the American Council on Education rated Berkeley over Harvard as “the best balanced distinguished university in the country.” By the end of his tenure in 1967, UC was not just serving students or knowledge; it was driving economic development of the highest order. Stanford and Berkeley were the root soil from which Silicon Valley grew. The universities, said Kerr, were “bait to be dangled in front of industry, with drawing power greater than low taxes or cheap labor.”

Forty years on, the optimism of the 1950s and 1960s seems a sentimental echo, barely remembered, of a long-lost past. Early in 2005, as one indicator, the non-partisan Governing magazine gave California government a C-minus rating, tying the Golden State with Alabama as the state with the poorest performance in the nation in public management, infrastructure, and other major governing characteristics. By the 1990s, California had slipped below the national average and, in most major categories, far below average in virtually every measure of governance and public services, including the condition of its highways and its spending on elementary and secondary education, whose students’ scores on national tests were among the lowest in the country.

Worse, the state’s ability to govern itself was tied in knots by a succession of ballot initiatives: legislative term limits; tax and spending limitations combined with complex mandatory spending formulas for schools putting roughly 40 percent of the state budget beyond the discretion of the legislature, which in turn caused the legislature to seize local property tax money, leading to cuts in local services and, ultimately, another ballot measure pushed by cities and counties to prevent future legislative raids on their money.

How can a state that has locked itself into such constraints, but whose citizens nonetheless continue to demand high levels of public services, cope with the new California and the new world that’s grown around it? Equally important, to what extent has the rise of that new California driven the decline in the public’s willingness to tax itself and to trust its government? By the beginning of 2005, the legislature and two governors, trying to reconcile pressure for continued high levels of services with a generation of tax limits, five years of tax cuts and the economic blows inflicted by the recession of 2001- 2003, had run up huge deficits that they papered over with creative financing and a record $15 billion-plus in loans.

The big explosion that, more than anything else, marked the end of the golden era was the passage of Proposition 13 in June 1978. As in most other states, individual California property values in the pre-Proposition 13 era were assessed every two or three years by county officials on the basis of the general market for that type of property in that neighborhood. As the California real estate market heated up to what then seemed stratospheric prices, California homeowners, many of them the families who had bought those little development houses after the war, found their tax bills soaring to three, four, or five times what they’d been.

On June 6, 1978, Proposition 13 passed by an overwhelming 65-35 margin. All told, Prop. 13 rolled back local tax revenues by nearly 60 percent and, in effect, gave control of the property tax to the state. It thus gave Sacramento enormous new authority over local government and eviscerated the locals’ ability to control their own fiscal destinies.

Within days of its passage, all summer school classes were eliminated. In the succeeding months, schools cut the jobs of thousands of counselors, librarians, and nurses, reduced or canceled art and music programs, cut most high school schedules from seven periods to six, enlarged class sizes—to this day, California is second among the states in the size of its classes—and began a generation of what has been politely called “deferred maintenance,” not only of schools but of all public facilities. By 2003-2004, the most recent year for which comparative estimates are available, California ranked 40th in the nation in the percentage of personal income devoted to K-12 schools. And since California is a high-cost state with powerful teachers’ unions, teachers’ salaries continued to increase. In 2003-2004, they were the highest in the nation in absolute dollar terms (at an average of $56,000) and showed no sign of declining.

That meant, of course, that everything else—counselors, libraries, textbooks, building maintenance, equipment—had to give even more. In 2002-2003, California ranked dead last in number of students per guidance counselor and dead last in number of students per librarian. Worse, many California schools, particularly those serving poor and minority children, had severe shortages of experienced teachers, or even certificated teachers of any kind.

If the impact of California’s declining commitment to its schools was large and dramatic, the erosion—a word Kerr himself would later use—of the grand scheme of the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education was more subtle but often as deep. The cumulative effect of the state’s economic cycles and their boom-bust effect on higher education budgets was to leave all three segments of the state’s higher education system more subject to political and fiscal buffeting and uncertainty.

California, the state that 30 years before had been cited by international agencies as a model in higher education, now ranks 25th in the nation in the percentage of its 9th-graders who got either a bachelor’s degree within six years or an associate’s degree from a community college within three years of graduating from high school. And since the great majority of first-generation students—those whose parents never went to college, meaning Latinos and blacks particularly—went to the community colleges, the program cuts and fee increases hit new Californians particularly hard. And it would become ever more difficult for UC to recruit and keep distinguished faculty and attract the best students to maintain the “gold standard” in higher education, and keep it intact as the engine for the state’s economy that Kerr had made it 40 years before.

While Proposition 13 has been the biggest single force in the erosion of California services and the corresponding dysfunctionalization of California government, it also spawned a string of other tax and spending limitations that compounded the impact: Proposition 4 in 1979, which sharply restricted increases in state and local spending; initiatives allowing residential property owners to transfer their homes to their children or grandchildren without reassessment, thus creating a privileged class of people who could inherit legal privileges and pass them on to their children; the abolition of state inheritance taxes and indexing of state income taxes; and the imposition of strict limitations on local fees and assessments.

Collectively, they triggered further initiatives to remedy or correct the unanticipated effects of prior measures. When Gov. George Deukmejian, declaring that the state had hit its Proposition 4 “spending limit” in 1987, refunded about $1 billion to the taxpayers, it was the schools, which always got the largest share of state appropriations, that were hit the hardest. In short order, Bill Honig, the independently elected state Superintendent of Public Instruction, and the California Teachers Association qualified what they regarded as a corrective measure, Proposition 98, to prevent that from ever happening again. Their initiative, narrowly approved by voters on the November 1988 ballot, required the state to spend at least 40 percent of its general fund on K-12 schools and to increase school funding each year by at least the cost of living and the growth in enrollment from the prior year’s base.

In the decade following its passage, governors were so fearful of raising the Proposition 98 base, however, and thus locking themselves into mandatory increases in succeeding years, that it served more as a spending ceiling than a floor. Not unexpectedly, it also generated widespread concern, if not anger, among competing claimants to state resources, the University of California in particular, that had no such protection.

Other ballot box budgeting initiatives in the succeeding 15 years imposed yet additional costs on the state, among them: Proposition 70, a $795 million bond, approved in 1988, for the acquisition, development or restoration of a long list of parks and other lands, and a $2 billion transportation bond in 1990 for an equally detailed list of projects, both sponsored by the California Planning and Conservation League.

But easily the largest of the new voter-initiated costs was Proposition 184. California’s uncompromising “Three Strikes” sentencing law, passed in 1994, helped drive the state’s prison population from below 25,000 at the end of the 1960s to 164,000 some 35 years later, nearly doubling the percentage of the state budget spent on corrections and ballooning the rolls and benefits of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.

Beginning in the late 1990s, voters also passed a series of liberal measures. Among them: Propositions 215 (1996) and 36 (2000), both funded by liberal deep pockets, liberalizing the state’s drug laws. In the same year, they also voted (by 61-39) for a labor-funded initiative to increase the state’s minimum wage; two years later they approved Proposition 10, an initiative funded largely by actor Rob Reiner raising the state’s tobacco taxes to fund—at an additional $750 million a year—a range of state and local early childhood development programs. The Reiner measure may also have helped spark Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Proposition 49, which would take $445 million out of the state’s general fund to expand before- and after-school programs in any year when state revenues increased. Like many other pieces of ballot box budgeting, Proposition 49 promised the voters something nice for nothing.

Three of the four ballot box budgeting proposals that confronted voters in November 2004—all concerned with health care—were firmly in that tradition. Proposition 63, the tax surcharge on millionaires for mental health programs; Proposition 61, authorizing a $750 million bond for children’s hospital facilities; and Proposition 71, a $3 billion stem cell research bond, all passed. The fourth was Proposition 67, which would have raised some phone taxes to help bail out an emergency care system that was rapidly failing. It lost by an overwhelming 72-28. Californians, once again, seemed to be showing that when a nice thing was offered at what appeared to be no cost—or if the only obvious cost was borne by millionaires or smokers—they were happy to vote for it. If they had to pay for it, they weren’t so sure.

Is the initiative a healthy process? Or is it sinking rational policy-making and accountable government in a swamp of hyper-democracy? When voters face a dozen state ballot measures, plus maybe a dozen local ones, as they sometimes do in California—plus votes for often dozens of federal, state, and local offices—can they really make informed choices on even a fraction of them, no matter how diligent they are? Each measure restricts the powers and choices of elected government, state and local, to respond to future (and often unexpected) situations, which in turn makes elected leaders less able—and often less willing—to respond.

The almost inevitable result of the constraints on elected government is more government dysfunction and voter frustration and yet more calls for ballot box remedies, which in turn starts a new cycle. The conventional legislative process, for all the logrolling that sometimes accompanies it, is usually subject to a whole range of institutional checks that the initiative is not, including the intrinsic legislative impulse to compromise and accommodate as many sides and interests as possible. None of that occurs in direct legislation, which is a winner-take-all process that, by its very nature, is rarely respectful of political minorities. Nor, of course, do voters have to record their votes, as politicians do, much less confront those who believe they’ve been damaged by those votes. They can’t be run out of office if they make serious errors, and are not accountable for the consequences to their fellow citizens. In this process, the majority rules absolutely.

California’s voters are still overwhelmingly white, and older and more affluent than the general population. They have relatively few school-age children. The general population, and particularly those with school-age children, is increasingly Hispanic or Asian, younger and less affluent, but because they’re poorer and often not citizens, they vote in much smaller numbers.

Collectively, those “minorities” are now a majority of California’s population: they are the new California. Which is to say that there is a huge gap between those who disproportionately depend on schools and other public services and those who vote on statewide issues. Indeed, is California’s dysfunctional system itself—the fact that it doesn’t work well, and often not all—a not-unwelcome instrument, however unintended, of the status quo and the effort to hold the new California at bay? With every passing day such a system appears ever more detached from, and unresponsive to, the state’s economy, population, and global relationships. Is that what the voters really want?

From the July August 2006 Indo Chic issue of California.

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