Taxes, School Bonds & Math

Schools already have the money they're asking for.

This is a primer about Proposition 47, the education bond issue on the ballot in California. This issue is important both to Californians and to those of you who live elsewhere as well because public education in most states is suffering from the same plagues as those in California.

Before we get started though, the shocker.

California spends, on average, about half of the entire state budget for education. It spent $53.7 billion on K-12 (not counting college and university expenditures) during the fiscal year ending June 30, 2002, according to the state's Department of Finance.

Polls indicate 57% of California's population finds Proposition 47 attractive. It has received a vast amount of positive press and is supported by all the usual suspects, from the state PTA to the League of Women Voters (ironically charged by the state with presenting non-partisan analysis of ballot measures).

The purpose of this bond issue is to raise cash for public schools. Funds are needed in order to make existing schools earthquake safe, to build some 46,000 new schools (most folks do not realize that there is a second baby boom underway that dwarfs the original), to upgrade crumbling school infrastructure, and to give a shot in the arm to the state's colleges and universities. (Cal-State LA plans two new state-of-the-art TV studios with some of their share of the loot.)

At an initial cost of roughly $13 billion (not counting interest), Prop. 47, if enacted, will be the largest bonded indebtedness ever undertaken by the fine folks of the Golden State (the $13 billion does not include any of the local issues which collectively amount to billions more). Should Prop. 47 be approved, the second installment is slated to appear on the next ballot to the tune of an additional 12 billion plus.

What is most bothersome is that Prop. 47 supporters are, to be charitable, disingenuous, and to be uncharitable, lying, when they make the claim that Prop. 47 will not increase taxes. This gross misstatement, bandied about in print, radio, and TV ads splashed across the Golden State, has garnered much of the support that exists for the proposition. It would seem that everybody wants something for nothing and we are quite willing to believe it can be had for that price.

The harsh certainty is this: The bonds must be repaid, together with interest, and the funds to repay the debt can only come from tax dollars. Taxes will increase or other government expenditures will be cut so as to service the debt on these bonds. That is a fact just as absolute as the fact that a leap from a tall building will splatter you on the sidewalk like a ripe watermelon.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2002, California public schools spent $9,267.00 per student for the education of its kindergarten through high school students. This expenditure did not stop 80% of all public schools in California from failing to meet the state mandated level of student performance on the Stanford 9 achievement test in 2001.

Contrast that with the private, for-profit, school my son attended last year, which cost $4,800.00 and provided Jake with two teachers, three aides, and a class size smaller than most public schools. The secular Garden Academy's tuition is $3,000.00 per year. The Olive Branch Christian Academy charges $3,000.00 per year with a hefty discount for enrolling child number two. Bethel Christian in Riverside provides every amenity of a traditional public school, including a fleet of buses and a competitive high school football team, for $3,000.00 per year. Even the prestigious and academically rigorous California Ranch School charges $1,200.00 less than the average public school per-pupil expenditure and the students are much more likely to be accepted at Stanford or Yale than to fail the SAT 9.

Most private schools provide education at one-third to one-half the costs incurred by public schools. This is largely because private schools face different incentives than public schools do. For example, consider the most dramatic screw up in recent memory, LA's Belmont Learning Center. Millions upon millions of dollars were spent by LA Unified to build this school on the site of a former toxic waste dump. (These are some of the folks who want more of our money for schools.) The school cannot be fixed and it cannot be occupied, but the public school establishment is not calling for board resignations or revocations of the LA Unified School District charter. That is not to say that the public school establishment is happy about this idiocy. They obviously aren't. But the incentive is different. LA Unified isn't going out of business; instead they are going back to the well for more money. For an easier to envision example think: Compton Schools. Still failing after all these years.

Everyone knows that public schools aren't very good at teaching kids to read. But they aren't very good at math either. Just for fun, let's do some math.

Assuming that classrooms contain an average of 30 students, California spends almost $280,000.00 per classroom per year. Assuming teacher salaries and benefits range from $50,000.00 to 80,000.00 per year there is more than $200,000.00 per classroom per year left over for administration costs, maintenance costs, and other overhead. Yet this important information is lacking from any coverage of this issue and from the general debate itself.

California claims that approximately 61% of the school budget is spent on "classroom instruction", a catchall category that seems to include some items not directly related as well as other items that seem logically connected to classroom instruction. Even using this generous figure there is almost $110,000.00 per year, per classroom, per year left over after the cost of classroom instruction.

Taxpayers and parents have to ask the hard questions. The answers offer us useful information to evaluate any given tax increase proposal.

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