Parceling out Opportunities
by UCLA IDEA
Themes in the News for the week of Monday, Nov. 7-14, 2011
In the run-up to last Tuesday’s election, school board President Cindy McCauley in Marin County’s Tamalpais Union High School District acknowledged that “times are tough right now for individual property owners,” but argued that local citizens should generate additional revenues through a parcel tax because “we need it” (Patch, Patch). McCauley is right on both counts. Tamalpais’ 8 percent unemployment is four times what it was in 2007. And, its public schools would have faced growing class sizes had the community not come up with more funds to fill the budget gap created by state cuts. But, the challenges facing Tamalpais, where median family income is over $130,000, pale in comparison with other California communities. If Tamalpais needs it, doesn’t the rest of the state need it more?
Tamalpais was one of seven California districts that held parcel tax votes in response to dwindling state funds. These districts would have used the money to address basic needs: Maintaining class sizes, counseling, arts, and technology. Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified board President Dora De La Rosa said, "We really don't have much of a choice--because without extension of a parcel tax, we're facing devastating cuts" (Daily Breeze). The tax passed in five of the districts.
The seven small- and medium-sized, upper-middle class or affluent communities that put parcel taxes on the ballot look different from the rest of California. Taken as a group, only 8 percent of students enrolled in these districts come from low-income families, compared to 56 percent across the state. Their average median income is $114,387, or 68 percent higher than the state figure of $68,909.
Affluent communities are best positioned to hold and pass parcel taxes, which levy a flat tax on each parcel of land in the district. It costs a lot of money for a campaign that can win a supermajority of votes. Successful campaigns often are led by paid consultants and require substantial volunteer time. To accomplish this, a community needs to have cash on hand and a reservoir of organizational capacity. As officials at Burlingame Elementary School District in San Mateo County recently noted, taxes are often pitched to the community as a way to promote the brand of high-quality public schools in order to maintain local property values (San Francisco Examiner).
After the election, the five successful districts celebrated the tremendous support of their communities. Those that did not, like Las Virgenes Unified, bemoaned the "huge loss for our kids and our community," and worry about increasing class size, cutting arts, and shortening school year (Ventura County Star, Los Angeles Times).
Left out of the parcel tax election story is that 6 million California students never had a chance because their districts did not place a parcel on the ballot. They, too, suffer a “huge loss.” Nearly all of these students attend schools with larger class sizes and less access to counselors and librarians than anywhere else in the nation. Conditions in their schools have deteriorated substantially with three years of budget cuts, and more reductions likely in January. And public education is even more consequential in these communities for determining a young person’s life chances.
Also not mentioned in the reporting is that most of the affluent communities that put forward parcel taxes still lag behind the rest of the nation in the investment and quality of educational opportunities provided students. All but two of the districts spent less than the national average. All have larger class sizes than the rest of the nation.
Kevin Gordon, a paid consultant working on the Palos Verdes parcel tax said that in the face of state budget cuts, “we've got to take matters into our own hands" (Daily Breeze). On the one hand, parcel taxes speak to a deep public commitment to fight for public education. But on the other, these measures have focused attention on protecting the educational opportunities of immediate neighbors, while doing nothing for the rest of the state.
It is time to expand the “we” that Gordon speaks of. We Californians must take matters into our collective hands and fight for quality public education for the entire state. Last week, California’s PTA called for a ballot measure for November 2012 to address “chronic underfunding of our public schools” (Educated Guess). We need it.