Backers of Prop 13–the school bond on the March 3 ballot, not the 1978 ballot initiative—say they want to support students.

But their bond may leave California’s students worse off—by gobbling up political attention and money that would be better spent on education, rather than buildings.

This Prop 13 is complicated, and I like some of its provisions on equity, and on higher education. But at its heart, it’s the wrong measure at the wrong time. Specifically, it’s a bond for school facilities, which is not a big need for our schools at this time.

To put it more directly, Prop 13 gives us more money for new buildings—and more debt on state and local budgets—at a time when California schools have less students. 

This bond also comes on top of five state school bonds that have been passed over the last generation. As a result of prior bonds, our schools are in relatively good shape. Indeed, we may have too many schools and school buildings—declining enrollment and budgets busted by retirement costs are forcing school closures all over the state.

What schools are lacking is education. Instead of putting billions into debt service for school buildings, the state should be spending millions to extend the school day and the school year, giving students more instruction.

California school also needs more support for its growing population of special ed students. And it needs to provide more instruction, more technology, and more teachers for foreign language and STEM. Today’s students have to do better, and they have more expensive needs. Indeed, with fewer students and young people, California needs to make sure its students are doing much better in school. Instead, we’ve turned our school accountability system into gobbledygook.

So why the emphasis on building schools? Because it’s easy compared to raising educational levels, and it allows politicians to point to structures to show that they’ve done something. The school bond also makes the politically powerful construction lobbies and unions happy. Those lobbies don’t much care that school districts will be piling on more debt on top of balanced sheets loaded with obligations for retirement benefits.

Our students needs many billions more in support. But they don’t need more buildings.