California voters have a crucial choice this November. On Propositions 30 and 38, they can vote for higher taxes and accept the premise that this won’t hurt the struggling economy and that the main problem with our already-high-tax state is that its government doesn’t get enough money from its residents. Or they can vote no and force change in our broken status quo, starting with the public schools that eat up by far the biggest chunk of the state budget.
Proposition 30, championed by Gov. Jerry Brown and public employee unions, would raise the state sales tax by 0.25 percent for four years and would establish for seven years, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2012, four new income-tax brackets for residents making over $250,000, with the highest rate of 13.3 percent on those making more than $1 million annually. Its main selling point amounts to one of the most grotesquely cynical actions in Golden State history: The $6 billion it would raise has already been included in the state budget, and if Proposition 30 fails, the shortfall would be covered primarily by reducing the school year by up to 14 days.
This is civic terrorism – raise taxes or we’ll punish students and hurt their futures. It brings to mind the 1973 National Lampoon cover showing a dog with a gun held to its face and a headline reading, “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog.”
Proposition 38, sponsored by wealthy Los Angeles civil-rights attorney Molly Munger and backed by the state PTA, is honorable, at least. Starting in 2013, it would increase personal income taxes for most employed Californians, beginning at 0.4 percent for those with smaller incomes and increasing on a sliding scale to 2.2 percent for those with income more than $2.5 million. It would end after 12 years. The extra estimated $10 billion annual revenue this would generate could only be used only on K-12 public schools, repaying state debt, and early childhood programs.
It has restrictions on spending intended to force constructive use of the additional dollars going to school districts, which would receive 60 percent of the extra revenue in the first four years and 85 percent after that. Munger says the “California Education Trust Fund” that the measure establishes would prevent the new funds from being used for salary or benefit increases for existing teachers. The Legislative Analyst’s Office isn’t that categorical in its assessment. This interpretation gap suggests Proposition 38 is yet another in California’s long list of ballot initiatives with murky language that leads to court fights – and that union-dominated school districts would see a way to get around the measure’s clear intent.
We understand the inclination many voters will have to help our schools. But both Proposition 30 and Proposition 38 ignore two fundamental concerns about California’s school system.
The first was outlined in Getting Down to Facts, the massive collection of studies of the California education system released in 2007 by Stanford University researchers. It concluded that schools had many needs that did deserve much more funding. But its key conclusion was that higher funding should not be forthcoming until profound reforms were adopted, starting with how teachers are evaluated and granted lifetime job protections via tenure...