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CA Schools’ Long Financial Fall

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Above: The last time California spent more money on students then most other states in the country was 45 years ago, according to government and education association statistics.

— The last time California spent more money on students than most other states in the country was 45 years ago, according to government and education association statistics.

During the past five decades the state’s per pupil education spending has plunged from a one-time high of fifth in the nation in 1965 to 43rd in 2009.

“The citizens of California used to spend 5.6 percent of our personal income on schools. Now we are spending 3 percent,” said California’s former Secretary of Education John Mockler.

“We are spending 26 billion less on our children’s education, as a percent of our income, then when Ronald Reagan was governor in 1972 – before revenue limits and Proposition 13 and all of those things passed,” Mockler, now an education consultant, said.

As part of our series on Prop 13, KPBS set out to determine why California’s per pupil education spending has dropped so dramatically when compared to other states. Prop 13 is the 1978 ballot measure that capped property taxes at 1 percent of purchase price and limited yearly increases to 2 percent.

Just how did California fall to the bottom of the heap and how much of that decline is directly attributable to Prop 13? Pinning down an answer is no easy task.

The California Department of Education, the National Education Association (NEA), and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), all keep stats on per pupil funding. All three agencies calculate per pupil spending using different methods. But no matter which measure is used, California repeatedly ends up below the national average.

According to data compiled by the National Education Association, per pupil funding began declining prior to Prop 13. And it didn’t start its steepest decline until 1988.

“The negative effects began in 1973, before Prop. 13, when Ronald Reagan put revenue caps on public schools and no revenue caps on any other layer of government. That lasted five years previous Prop. 13,” Mockler said.

In 1977, an effort was made to correct the school’s revenue cap problem, but that fix was wiped out just one year later when Prop 13 was passed as a way to cap rapidly increasing property taxes.

“Proposition 13 essentially eliminated, or substantially reduced, the local decision-making process for funding public schools. It prohibits local districts – no matter what the people want – from asking for more property tax funds,” Mockler said.

“But that could have been replaced in many ways, but it hasn’t, because in this state we continually reduce taxes.”

Another issue impacting California’s per pupil education spending is the state’s complex education funding formula. Mockler explained it this way: typically, when there’s an increase in economic activity, local property taxes increase. In many other states this is in fact the case and schools benefit from the increase. But in California, the exact opposite happens. If we have an increase in property taxes, the state simply gives local districts less aid.

Put more simply, think of education funding as a glass of water. The state is obligated by law to keep the glass full. If property taxes fill the glass a fifth of the way, then the state pours in the remaining four-fifths. If property taxes fill it two-fifths of the way, the state can pour in less, only three-fifths.

The problem in California is that schools are drinking from a smaller glass then many other states in the country.

“When the economy in California gets a cold, the schools get pneumonia,” said Mockler.

The Envision documentary, The Legacy of Prop 13, airs Monday at 9 p.m. on KPBS Television.

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