The Strange Logic Behind Prop 13 and Prop 98

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Last week, Prop 98 author John Mockler and state Supt. of
Public Instruction Jack O’Connell conducted a press conference on the threat to
the state posed by another suspension of the education funding guarantee. And
it got sort of kinky. Mockler described Prop 98 as having been "bended,"
"folded," "mutilated" (and a few other adjectives) by the Schwarzenegger
administration.

O’Connell
and Mockler talked about how California ranks low in state support for education.
They argued persuasively that our schools need better funding.  I agree. But, in the next breath, they
talked about the need to protect Prop 98. That’s where they lost me.

The
logical problem with the argument for protecting Prop 98 is a mirror image of
the logical problem with the argument for protecting the 2/3 vote for tax
increases that was part of Prop 13. To review: conservatives tell us that
California is a mess of over-taxation and over-spending. Then they tell us that
without the 2/3 vote and Prop 13, California would be a mess of over-taxation
and over-spending. Which is it, guys? Prop 13 has been in place for 30 years,
so if you believe that the states taxes and spends too much, it seems safe to
conclude that the 2/3 vote doesn’t really prevent higher taxes and high
spending. It’d be far more logical to assume that the 2/3 vote is part of the
problem.

On
Prop 98, it is liberals making the illogical argument. Liberals argue (rightly,
I believe) that California schools are an under-funded embarrassment. But then
they say that we have to protect Prop 98 to prevent our schools from being an
under-funded embarrassment. Which is it, folks? Prop 98 has been in the
California constitution for 20 years. If our schools are under-funded, it’s
logical to consider Prop 98 part of the problem.

How’s
that? Prop 98 is based on complex formulas that involve a variety of economic
and budget factors. But what Prop 98 doesn’t account for is need and the costs
of great instruction. Instead, it creates a culture of just hitting the
minimum-politicians can fund the minimum guarantee and say they protected
education. So the budget debate about education revolves around the question of
whether we’re funding the Prop 98 minimum-not whether we’re giving schools the
resources they need.

Ideally,
we wouldn’t have an education funding guarantee. The legislature would do the
job, and face the consequences if schools weren’t properly funded. But there’s
no way that could happen politically.

So what we need is a better education
funding guarantee. We need a process – that is open but not dominated by
interest groups — through which, based on the best research and data, the
state determines what is needed to make California children the best educated
in the world – materials, technology, teachers. Then you estimate your student
population, multiply the amount needed by the student population, and then
require that schools have to receive that amount. Such a guarantee would focus
political debate on education (not on the budget) and on what sort of
instruction and resources are needed to produce top results. Designed
correctly, such a process would create incentives to find ways to provide the
necessary education in a more cost effective way.

It makes no sense to cling to a guarantee
that essentially guarantees a certain part of the budget and new revenues for
education. Such a guarantee, which we have in Prop 98, isn’t a policy. It’s a
fetish. If schools are our top priority in the state (and they should be), we
need to make sure we’re giving them what they need to do the job, irrespective
of the rest of the state budget.

There’s
a lot of talk about initiatives to change Prop 13. Fine. But it’s also time to
revisit Prop 98 too.

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