The failure of the school tax on the ballot last Tuesday in Los Angeles is the latest troubling story, but school funding has been an undercurrent in the news across the country in recent weeks.
Even in Massachusetts, where public education is relatively well funded, members of the New England Patriots published an op-ed in the Boston Globe to compare and contrast the funding in the schools where they visit. They have been paying attention to the school libraries: “We’ve read stories to elementary school students, sitting on carpeted floors in large libraries filled wall-to-wall with books and colorful seating areas. Yet we’ve also visited schools where we see a very different picture. Two weeks ago, we invited members of the Legislature to join us on a tour of Tracy Elementary School in Lynn. It was clear that Tracy’s principal, staff, and teachers are the school’s heart and soul, doing their best to give these children the best educational experience possible—but they also clearly lack the basic resources necessary to help their students succeed. Unlike at other schools we’ve visited, we didn’t see a dedicated library in Tracy Elementary. We didn’t meet a librarian. There is none… (W)e were shocked when we saw the reading rooms where English learners, along with students with learning disabilities, go to get time with a reading teacher or specialist. The rooms were 50 square feet and had no chairs, forcing up to 10 students at a time to squeeze on the floor to get the support they need… The state’s inequitable funding of education has left districts containing high concentrations of low-income students with smaller budgets than other, more affluent districts, even as these districts must meet a greater level of need from their students.”
Florida’s legislature has recently passed a troubling change to the state’s school finance. Florida’s new law redirects a portion of locally passed school taxes to privately operated charter schools. In a nuanced and important analysis of the new law’s impact, Jeff Bryant quotes Justin Katz, president of the Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association, who explains that voters in Palm Beach County recently approved by a 72 percent margin, “$200 million in funding for their schools… a measure that specified increases could be used for teacher raises in traditional public schools and not for funding charter schools.” However: “A recent law passed by the majority Republican Florida state legislature and signed by newly elected Republican Governor Ron DeSantis will force local school districts to share portions of their locally appropriated tax money with charter schools, even if those funds are raised for the express purpose of increasing teacher salaries in district operated public schools.”
In Ohio, a new bipartisan school funding plan, introduced with fanfare in March—with the intention it would be included in the Ohio House biennial budget proposal—has sunk into a morass of legislative negotiation and disappeared from the news entirely. The proposed plan was intended to address the following problem: 503 of the state’s 610 school districts—82 percent—have had their state funding frozen for several years because the state has lacked the money to contribute what any decent school funding formula would provide. Ohio’s public schools have been victimized by a decade of tax cuts, further reducing the state’s education budget following the 2008 recession.
But this week’s most significant story is the failure of the Los Angeles parcel tax in a special election last Tuesday. District officials put the tax on the ballot after the teachers struck last January to expose the decrepit conditions in their schools, a widespread lack of support staff, huge and unworkable class size, and paltry salaries for teachers and other education professionals.
Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez captures the message voters seemed to send in Tuesday’s election: “On this, the last week of school before summer break in the Los Angeles Unified School District, voters have sent a loud and clear message to roughly 600,000 students: Your schools may be crumbling, your libraries may be closed, your class sizes may be unmanageably large, about 90% of you live in poverty, and thousands of you are homeless, but who cares? The Measure EE parcel tax on Tuesday’s ballot needed two-thirds approval and didn’t even get 50%. It would have cost the average homeowner about 75 cents a day. As supporters pointed out, California is in the bottom tier of funding per pupil nationally, and New York City schools spend about $8,000 more per student than L.A. Unified spends. The response from Los Angeles was a shrug. Actually, it looks like roughly 90% of registered voters couldn’t be bothered to cast a ballot.”
The Los Angeles Times‘ education reporter, Howard Blume describes the usual anti-tax rhetoric produced by the opponents of the school levy whenever such a local tax appears on the ballot. In Los Angeles the opposition was led by the Chamber of Commerce. Blume quotes Richard Fisk, a leader from the anti-tax committee: “‘I think the school district is mismanaging how they spend their money and mismanaging how they create a quality education for all their kids,’ said Richard Fisk of Granada Hills, chairman of government affairs for United Chambers of Commerce, based in the San Fernando Valley. Before asking for more money, ‘the district needs to get its house in order both fiscally and academically,’ he said.”
It’s easy to assume that with its thriving economy California ought to be able adequately to fund its public schools. But local school spending remains limited by Proposition 13, the 1978 property tax freeze law; state funding has not made up the difference. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities ranks the states by their combined state and local funding per-pupil. California is 18th from the bottom.
After Tuesday’s parcel tax failure in Los Angeles, columnist Steve Lopez interviewed Glenn Sacks, a James Monroe High School social studies teacher who identifies racism and inequality as issues underneath the election results: ” ‘I think as LAUSD has become so heavily minority, so heavily poor… the public feels it doesn’t have a stake in public education anymore, and they’re willing to let conditions deteriorate,’ said Sacks, whose class sizes are as high as 41 students. ‘People say don’t complain about class sizes, deport the illegals, you’re lousy teachers turning out a lousy product, and a lot of this is just nonsense. The kids I teach, I love them, and they learn, and I wouldn’t want to teach anywhere else. But they start out so far behind the white middle-class kids they’re being compared to, inevitably they’re going to look like they’re not succeeding and we’re not succeeding…. I’m amazed that people can’t see through that.”
Lopez continues, commenting on Sacks’ explanation of last Tuesday’s election returns: “Sacks is framing the dark narrative here, the one that says a great deal about race and class in Los Angeles, and about practical and psychic distance between haves and have-nots. Most voters don’t send their kids to L.A. Unified Schools, don’t venture into neighborhoods where the challenge for educators is greatest, and never see firsthand the promise and possibility in the faces of those 600,000 children who could use a little more help. It’s easier to shrug, to vote no, to skip the election altogether and say, sorry, kids, have a nice summer.”