Should Progressives Support Proposition 88?

by Paul Hogarth on October 10, 2006

As California continues to be the 43rd state in the nation in education spending (due to Prop 13 and Arnold Schwarzenegger), some education advocates have placed Proposition 88 on the November ballot to address this problem. Funded by Netflix founder Reed Hastings and venture capitalist John Doerr, the $50 parcel tax would raise $470 million a year to fund the state’s public schools. Locally, Prop 88 has the support of the San Francisco Bay Guardian – whose endorsement carries enormous weight among the city’s left-leaning voters, especially in down-ballot races with minimal media coverage. But not all progressives and public school advocates think it’s a good idea.

The California Democratic Party, the state PTA and the state Federation of Teachers are all against it, while the California Teachers Association remains neutral. This puts these groups in common cause with anti-tax zealots like the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association. In the Official Ballot Argument against Prop 88, right-wing opponents say that it undermines the “clear intent of Prop 13 to limit property taxes,” an argument not likely to convince many voters who care about education. But progressives have very different reasons for opposing Proposition 88.

“It’s a regressive tax that will unfairly burden low-income homeowners,” said School Board candidate Jane Kim. “We just don’t have the guts to tax wealthy individuals and businesses fairly, and we should be going after Prop 13.” Prop 88 would charge every parcel of real property in the state (regardless of size or value) a flat $50 fee. While elderly and disabled homeowners have an exemption, there is no equivalent break for low-income homeowners or parcels with low property values. “A $50 parcel tax is nothing for someone living in a $3 million house,” said Natasha Marsh of the League of Pissed Off Voters, but it’s another expense for working-class people struggling to get by.

But Tim Redmond, executive editor of the Bay Guardian, argues that this is not realistic. “In a perfect world and in a relatively sane world, property taxes in Marin would pay for schools in Bayview,” he explained. And while a parcel tax is more regressive than an income tax, it is far less regressive than a sales tax, which disproportionately hurts poor people the most. “Only those who own property will pay it — not renters,” said Redmond. “And unlike bond measures, landlords in San Francisco can’t pass it on to their tenants. It’s hard for me to oppose anything that is remotely non-regressive and with the $50 parcel tax, the schools will be better off than they are now.”

Prop 88’s total revenue is minimal, an argument which cuts both ways for progressives. With real estate values having soared throughout California (and especially in San Francisco), Redmond says that anyone who owns property can afford to pay an extra $50. But Kim points out that it’s not worth the fight to pass something that will only raise $470 million a year for the entire state. “That’s less money than the general fund of the San Francisco Unified School District,” she said.

Opponents argue that a parcel tax that won’t raise much money could hurt future efforts to get more comprehensive funding approved by the voters. “It creates an atmosphere in California that when voters are actually given a progressive tax, they might not support it,” said Jeremiah Jeffries of Teachers for Social Change. “People who should be critical or watchful haven’t been paying attention. I don’t think it’s long-term thinking.” While local communities like Berkeley and Oakland have passed parcel taxes for public schools, Prop 88 would be the first statewide parcel tax since Prop 13.

Another concern is how the money would be distributed. Prop 88 divides the funding into five segments ($175 million for class size reduction, $100 million for more textbooks, $100 million for school safety, $85 million for facility grants, and $10 million for data system) that schools could then apply to receive a portion. But the funding criteria are vague, leaving most of the decisions to the state legislature. Only 25% of all schools statewide could receive an extra textbook per student, and only 1% of non-charter schools would be eligible to get facility grants.

The League of Pissed Off Voters, which carefully reviewed each proposition on the ballot, strongly opposes Prop 88 for this reason. Most of the funding would go to schools that have scored highly on the academic performance index – which means schools where students have done well on standardized tests. “Standardized tests are not reflective of students’ needs,” said Marsh, who pointed out that the money will likely go to upper-income suburban schools where the kids need it the least. “There’s no even distribution that is mandated,” she argued. “We oppose the idea of any school funding not based on need – but actually based on performance.”

Nobody on either side is making Prop 88 much of an issue. While the Bay Guardian endorsed it, said Redmond, there are far more pressing concerns on the ballot – like opposing Prop 90. The United Educators of San Francisco (who represents the city’s public school teachers) took no position on it – because it is “deceptive, doesn’t raise much money, and is sloppily written,” said spokesperson Matthew Hardy. The UESF is focusing most of its energy on passing the other two public school measures on the ballot – California’s Proposition 1D and San Francisco’s Proposition A.

Prop 1D, the state’s school bond, is part of the Governor and Legislature’s five-part package to “Rebuild California.” It will raise $10.4 billion to construct new schools to relieve overcrowding, and renovate old schools. “It targets schools and areas that need it the most,” said Hardy. Prop A, the city’s school bond, will raise $450 million over a period of several years to repair the school district’s crumbling bathrooms, and replace all trailers for temporary classrooms. “If we don’t pass Prop A,” explained Hardy, “we could potentially lose up to $30 million in matching state funds to fix our aging schools.”

Whereas progressives are divided on (and a good number oppose) Proposition 88, both California’s Prop 1D and San Francisco’s Prop A enjoy widespread support across the political spectrum. Regardless of where progressives stand on Prop 88, everybody agrees that our public schools are in dire need of more funding. And Prop 1D and Prop A will go much, much farther than any new revenue that Prop 88 could bring.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Prior to joining Beyond Chron, Paul Hogarth personally endorsed Jane Kim for School Board.

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