Proposition 88, the Classroom Learning and Accountability Act on the Nov. 7 ballot, aims to benefit California’s low-performing public school system. The measure is virtually guaranteed to fail and is a horrendous idea for many reasons.
Prop. 88 levies a $50 statewide parcel tax on every property owner in California. This would be the only statewide property tax in California — and the first since 1910.
Given that the tax would be the same for all properties, regardless of value, it would hurt small-property holders proportionately more than wealthy owners. Even owners of boat slips and timeshares would be subject to the tax increase. According to the California Assessors Association, there are 5,000 boat slip owners in Los Angeles County who receive an annual tax bill of $50 each. These individuals would have a bill of $100 if Prop. 88 passes — a 100 percent increase.
Prop. 88 would undermine Proposition 13, which limited property tax increases at the local level. Under Prop. 13, it takes a two-thirds majority of local voters to increase local property taxes. Prop. 88, as a statewide property tax increase, requires only a majority of the vote. If successful, it could lead to future statewide end-runs around Prop. 13.
Prop. 88 would also lead to a huge increase in bureaucratic paperwork, with little funding to pay for it. Property owners exempt from the new parcel tax, such as the elderly or the severely disabled, would have to file papers proving their age or disabilities. Despite this burden, the initiative only provides a paltry $17,200 per county per year for administrative costs. This would not begin to cover the cost of new forms, the tracking and recording of new data, and providing the infrastructure for working out individual problems.
For all its fiscal fiascoes, the initiative’s educational problems are even worse. The new tax dollars would be funneled into reducing class size, facilities grants, instructional materials, school safety programs, and a data collection system. The state has already spent around $16 billion over the last 10 years on reducing class sizes in kindergarten through grade three with little effect on student achievement. California Secretary of Education Alan Bersin recently noted, "The research is clear that class-size reduction, in and of itself, does not improve student achievement."
Prop. 88 would pour an extra $175 million a year into this black hole. The initiative would also spend $100 million a year on instructional materials. The state Legislative Analyst’s Office, however, says the $400 million a year that the state already spends on instructional materials is enough to provide a textbook for every child in every core subject. That some schools may not be providing books to students may have more to do with bad local decisionmaking than lack of state funds.
Prop. 88 would also set aside $85 million for facility grants for schools that have not received facilities funding from state general obligation bonds. However, Proposition 1d on the November ballot would allot $7 billion to K-12 schools for facilities funding. If voters approve 1d, then it is likely that the facilities money raised by Prop. 88 would be superfluous. Given the ineffective expensive existing programs in the state school budget, such as class-size reduction, it would be better to redirect current funding to the program areas covered by Prop. 88 than to implement a new tax.
Few ballot initiatives in recent history have incorporated so many flawed ideas as Prop. 88. Its basic intent reflects the timeworn message from the school bureaucracy: Increase government spending and the system will improve. There is little reason to believe Prop. 88 will improve student achievement. But it would succeed in punishing every property owner in the state and burdening local governments.
Lance Izumi is director of Education Studies at the San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute. Email firstname.lastname@example.org