How a Ballot Measure Brought America’s Largest Public School System Back From the Brink
Four years ago California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 30, the emergency ballot measure that Governor Jerry Brown and state education leaders had argued was needed to rescue public schools and community colleges from the fiscal free-fall of the 2008 Great Recession.
The good news, according to the California school teachers and officials, parents, college professors, health-care advocates and economic researchers interviewed by Capital & Main for this series, is that the initiative not only performed as advertised, but it may be the most spectacularly successful ballot initiative in the state’s notoriously uneven history of direct democracy.
By raising income taxes on the wealthy and the sales tax on everyone, Prop. 30 dramatically stabilized school funding in the wake of the recession, averting thousands of new teacher layoffs while beginning the work of restoring the jobs and programs lost during the first years of the crisis.
By raising income taxes on the wealthy and the sales tax on everyone, Prop. 30 dramatically stabilized school funding in the wake of the recession, averting thousands of new teacher layoffs while beginning the work of restoring the jobs and programs lost during the first years of the crisis. It was also instrumental in allowing the state legislature to balance its budget for the first time in years without slashing social programs.
Together with a recovering economy, the temporary tax measure has to date reinvested more than $31.2 billion in preschool, K-12, and community colleges. By boosting per-pupil funding by more than 14 percent, Prop. 30 bumped the state’s Great Recession-battered national ranking from dead last in 2010-11 to 40th among all states at $10,493 per student in 2016-17. It’s still a far cry from California’s long-ago position as a top funder of public education, and a 2016 report estimates that merely moving California to the average funding level of the top 10 states would require roughly a doubling of current state funding under Prop. 30.
But the measure is scheduled to expire at the end of 2018. And that, say Great Recession survivors, will again place California’s still-wobbly public schools on the edge of the same fiscal precipice that made the system so vulnerable in 2008.
“There was a cluster of bad things happening simultaneously as districts struggled to balance their budgets,” Tom Torlakson, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, recalled in a phone call to Capital & Main. “We saw a suspension of money for curricular materials, so teachers had to do with somewhat outdated text books. Parents who wanted to see their children in a small class of 25 or 30 students were seeing classes with 38 and 40 students.”
Those memories are still fresh for Torlakson, who took office in January 2011, when the shock waves of the global financial crisis had opened up a two-year, $18 billion budgetary abyss — at a cost of nearly $3,000 per student — beneath the state’s already badly strapped public schools. Barely three days into his new job, he declared a state of financial emergency.
It was the most significant economic crisis for California public education since the Great Depression. But because California schools were in a very different place than they were in the 1930s, in many ways, it was the most devastating financial blow ever to hit the system. What had begun in 2008 as a “$28 billion hole,” according to numbers provided by California’s Department of Finance, by the 2011-12 budget, ballooned to a $98.3 billion cumulative deficit. Balancing the budget meant all services in the state felt the impact of cuts — cuts so deep that they quickly spilled over into the constitutionally protected funding for K-12 education and community colleges.