I’m sure if you took a “No duh” poll on taxes in the U.S., you would find an overwhelming majority of us don’t like paying them. Sure, you can find data on whether people think taxes are too high, or if they feel like they are paying too much, but the question of actually enjoying the process of writing a check to the federal or state government (or in some cases, a city government), I’m pretty sure there would be a paucity of good vibes — +/- 3%.
Like I said, it’s a “No duh” poll. But the attitude toward taxes in the U.S. is one that is wrapped up in distrust toward the people spending the money. There’s a certain disconnect between “us” and “them” when it comes to an individual’s connection to the government; and that disconnect is quite pronounced when it comes to taxation.
The 30th anniversary of Prop 13 in California can be seen as something uniquely Californian, but it’s not. Prop 13 (enacted in 1978) was a voter/tax payer initiated grassroots movement of pissed off residents in the Golden State who saw their property tax rates go through the roof as the price of real estate increased. Ah, but if it was just the paying of taxes that was at issue in the drive to make Prop 13 part of the California Constitution. No, when there’s money involved in government, who gets what, and how much, and for what reason is fueled by the clashes of class. Issues of class (and even race) are not really addressed when Prop 13 is discussed. Rather, the usual story of elderly residents losing their homes because of rising property taxes becomes the narrative frame of the history of Prop 13. That’s not to say that wasn’t an issue, it’s just that divorced from the historical forces of the early ‘70s, Prop 13 can seem like populist revolt that only had to do with money.
The scheme prior to Prop 13 was fairly simple: property taxes levied by a county were used to fund public schools in the ZIP codes where the money came from. The state government really didn’t get too involved in the system of funding, since its contribution was less than 40%. It doesn’t take a hell of a lot of logical reasoning to see that under this scheme, the per-pupil spending in school districts around the state showed great variations. Sure, the state provided a minimum of funding for all districts, but the nice “extras” districts flush with money got, were, by and large, confined to ZIP codes where incomes were high.
Such inequality of funding produced a greater inequality of outcome with regard to public education. In other words, students from wealthy families got more, and poor kids got less. That’s life, right? It’s not fair; things are not equal, and they never will be, so quit your moaning, okay? Oh wait, there’s something in our Constitution called the Equal Protection Clause that applies to public institutions. So, is unequal funding of public schools unconstitutional? That was the opinion of the California Supreme Court in Serrano v. Priest in 1971 and 1976. Consequently, the California State Assembly created a new scheme that capped per-pupil spending to equalize the amount of money districts received.
In a case of “I’ve gotta look out for me and mine,” California taxpayers in 1978 voted overwhelmingly for Proposition 13, which rolled back property tax rates to 1976 levels, and limited the amount property tax rates could be raised to 2% a year – unless property was sold. Moreover, Prop 13 enacted a provision that made it so the legislature couldn’t raise taxes without 60% voting “yes.” After a court battle over whether Prop 13 was constitutional or not, it became part of the state constitution, and then the wheels were in motion to restore the level of inequality that Serrano and the California legislature sought to address in the early to mid ‘70s. Homeowners got their property tax breaks, and the state saw tax revenues drop at a time when the population of the state was increasing. The effect was very noticeable in the public schools where the apparatus for funding the schools shifted in large part from the local levels to the state.
To supplement the loss of revenue coming to school districts, wealthy communities essentially taxed themselves so the system of inequality could persist. Districts in wealthy cities and neighborhoods could do fundraisers for the non-profit wing of a school (i.e., the education foundation) to supplement the state funding, so the schools could have programs that offered more well rounded curricula for the students. What about the school districts in poorer neighborhoods? If they didn’t have the money to do the same for their children, well, boo-hoo for them.
It’s easy to put the blame on Prop 13 for problems California schools face nowadays, but Prop 13’s effect actually highlights the importance of taxation for the General Welfare; and by that I mean the correlation between dollars and outcome. Looking at wealthy districts is instructive because it’s easy to see what can happen when education is funded to such an extent that the students thrive academically, artistically, and even socially. Look what money can buy! But it’s not only money; there are other things, too. More students thrive in financially wealthy districts because of parents who volunteer, assist teachers, and, yes, show up to school board meetings to let their views be known. It’s a combination of money, communal skills, political participation, and just plain showing up at the school to get thing done. How do I know this? Well, it’s simple: I went to lousy schools as a kid – schools where the elements I just listed were lacking – and my child goes to a school where they have money, the parents volunteer, the teachers alert us to academic problems the kids may be facing, and so forth. I don’t live in some kind of communitarian nirvana. I live in a suburb where the majority of the population is not losing economic ground. They can afford to be effusive with their time and money, because they have it. They can afford to lend their skills to the General Welfare of the school because they see how doing so pays dividends in the future. And herein lies the problem of the anti-tax mentality: it’s hypocritical.
The spirit of Prop 13 is prima facie about financial self-interest, and how much money individuals can keep in their own pockets. However, when anti-tax advocates want to spend money on public schools their kids attend, they become small-scale welfare state liberals. Those pockets of effective welfare state liberalism produce success stories that have labels like “Distinguished School” and “Honor Societies.” Many of the children from these communities have a better chance to attend the good colleges and land the good jobs once they graduate. Their advantages come from the very ideology that is reviled at the voting booth since late ‘70s: liberalism. But like I said, it’s a small-scale liberalism that perpetuates the very system of inequality large-scale liberalism was trying to address in the ‘60s and ‘70s. If we’ve learned anything from the 30th anniversary of Prop 13, it’s this: the long-term effects of starving “the beast” (i..e, the government), while feeding the lapdog (i.e., school districts) rib eye steak has come home to roost. California is in the top 10 of world economies, but, on the whole, has one of the worst K-12 public education systems in the country.