No More Cuts To Public Education The Case for San Diego’s Parcel Tax

The San Diego Unified District Board of Education will be voting Tuesday (5 pm) evening to place a temporary parcel tax up for voter approval on the November ballot.  While this move on the surface is a response to the “funding cliff” that public education systems state-wide are facing as Federal stimulus dollars expire next year, the reality is that much larger stakes are in play here.

The school district is facing the prospect of $127 million in projected cuts for the school year beginning in September 2011 after cutting more than $370 million from its budget over the last four years. They have tentatively proposed a long list of budget reductions, from eliminating librarians and counselors to halving the school day for kindergartners. More than 1,400 employees – ten per cent of school district employees – will be facing layoffs if those cuts become reality.

Beyond the job cuts, which would entail eliminating school athletics, arts & music programs, vice-principals, libraries, school nurses, gifted programs and magnet schools, is a struggle for the very soul of public education.  Hidden behind the “no-tax” and “blame the unions” rhetoric of the measure’s opponents is an agenda that would shrink public education to a bare bones institution that would functions as holding tank for the children of the lowers and middle classes whose parents cannot afford private education.

As with private schools in the higher education business, this agenda won’t actually reduce education costs; these monies will simply be re-directed to profit-making institutions with no public oversight or real interest in student achievement. (For more on the cruel, cold world of private college education, I suggest that you read this investigative report:…

The reality of proposed parcel tax is that it will cost individual home-owners a whopping $8 a month, apartment owners are looking at paying $6 per month per unit.  Low-income seniors would be exempt from the parcel tax. In other words, for the cost of a martini or a couple of lattes, the local school district will be able to deal with a looming fiscal crisis. That money goes directly to the school district and not Sacramento. In San Diego Unified, the money would be used to hire more teachers, which would help to lower class sizes.

The tax expires at the end of five years, and the monies raised are strictly targeted: Under the proposal, none of the money would be spent on administrators or the central office. Expenses would be monitored by an oversight committee.  Each school would get $150 per student to pay for academic programs. The money could be used to hire teachers, pay for supplies, vocational education or technology. After per-pupil funding is distributed, half of the remaining funds – about $20 million annually – would be spent to keep class sizes low in kindergarten through third-grade.

The counter-attack on the proposed parcel tax has already begun.  Sunday’s Union-Tribune editorialized on flaws they perceived in the District’s web site explaining the details of the parcel tax.  You can be assured that a follow-up attack will happen over the next couple of weeks over the choice of consultant Larry Remer to run the campaign in favor of the proposal, despite the fact that he has a good track record on such issues. (Full disclosure: Remer and I were, four decades ago, co-editors of an alternative newspaper that used much of its editorial footprint towards denigrating the local dailies.)

Since it now appears that the two initiatives that appeared likely to gain the most interest amongst reactionaries will not be on the ballot in November-Carl Demaio’s “Clean Up Government Act” and the proposal to raise the local sales tax by ½ percent*-the proposed parcel tax will become the lightning rod for pro-privatization forces.

(*Insiders have told me that the decision has been made not to expend political capital in the face of proposals to build a new city hall and other new shiny toys.)  

Advance polling by education advocates shows that the battle is likely to be hard fought.  Poll respondents demonstrated a significant depth of support for the tax.  The problem is that State law mandates that such measures must be approved by 2/3 of the electorate.   Over the past year more than 20 California districts have attempted to pass parcel taxes, with 16 passing in mostly small and affluent districts.

The voting districts with the most swing, depending on the questions posed by pollsters, were district six (inland north city, i.e., Claremont & Kearny Mesa)  and district two (which includes Ocean Beach and Point Loma).  This means voter turn out in OB could be a real determining factor.

As one business leader reportedly told School Board President Richard Barrera, he’s opposed to this initiative and will work for its defeat so he can make the schools “come to us on their knees” to beg for survival. That pretty much sums it up.  The survival of schools is now on the line. Here’s where we stand now:  

California has more students per school staff than the rest of the US.

California’s schools:

• Ranked 50th in the nation with respect to the number of students per teacher.

California averaged 21.3 students for each teacher in 2009-10, more than 50

percent larger than the rest of the US, which averaged 13.8 students per teacher.2

• Ranked 46th in the nation with respect to the number of students per

administrator.3 California’s schools averaged 358 students for each administrator

in 2007-08, compared to 216 students for each administrator in the rest of the US.

• Ranked 49th in the nation with respect to the number of students per guidance

counselor. California’s schools averaged 809 students for each guidance counselor

More than $17 billion has been cut from California public schools and colleges in the last two years, equaling a cut of nearly $3,000 per student. This is the single largest cut to public education since the Great Depression. Because of this, more than 26,000 pink slips were issued to California educators this year.

Do we really want to make things worse? The school board hearing on the parcel tax is scheduled for 5 pm Tuesday, July 13th at the Board of Education Building in University Heights.  The anti-education people will be out in full force to try & discredit this idea.

Please attend if you can.