Does Brown Tax and Budget Plan Undermine School Funding?

Gov. Jerry Brown is selling his ballot initiative to raise income and sales taxes temporarily as a simple choice: raise taxes, or see schools cut.

This tax-for-schools pitch is politically powerful. But the details of Brown's budget proposal undermine that argument.

California has a school funding guarantee, Prop 98. It is famously complicated. And while it is supposed to provide a minimum base of funding for schools, in practice it has been something more like a ceiling on funds. Since it was enacted in 1988 (and amended in 1990) by voters, school funding in California has declined when compared to other states.

Brown's budget further eviscerates the weak Prop 98 protections. Prop 98 is supposed to guarantee a certain share of the budget for schools. But in the event that his tax initiative loses, the governor is proposing to count more than $2 billion debt payments to cover school bonds as part of the Prop 98 guarantee, instead of money that goes into the classroom.

This move comes on top of an accounting maneuver last year that carved $5 billion out of the state general for local governments -- and thus may have lowered ("may" because nothing is ever certain with Prop 98) the amount of money going to schools through the Prop 98 guarantee.

These actions are a problem not only for schools but for Brown's hope of passing a measure. This game with school funding is one reason why the California Federation of Teachers is supporting its own tax initiative as an alternative to Brown's. Another is that the initiative would devote school dollars to covering previous promises to schools, instead of boosting current programs.

The situation also shows how badly California needs a brand-new budget system. instead of a formula based on a share of the budget, California should base school funding on educational needs -- the costs of the teachers, materials, schedules and facilities necessary to educate children in the best way we know how.

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