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Local School Funding & the Exclusive Electorate

Mark Baldassare April 30, 2015

State funding for K-12 public education has been rising, but 70 percent of public school parents say it is “not enough” in our April PPIC Survey. Are California voters likely to heed these parents’ calls and support local ballot measures for school funding?

It doesn’t look likely. To begin with, likely voters are much less likely (54%) than public school parents to say that the state’s funding for their local schools is not enough. More important, in our recent poll likely voters and public school parents have starkly different views about specific ways to increase funding—local bonds and local parcel taxes—for their local public schools. Specifically:

  • When it comes to local school bonds, 75 percent of public school parents would vote yes if their local school district had a bond measure on the ballot to pay for school construction projects. But only 53 percent of likely voters would do so—lower than the 55 percent required to pass a local school bond.
  • As for funding schools through local parcel taxes, 61 percent of public school parents would vote yes. But just 49 percent of likely voters would. A two-thirds majority yes vote is needed to pass a local parcel tax for schools.
  • What about lowering the majority needed to pass local parcel taxes—from two-thirds to 55 percent? This tax reform is rated as a good idea by 57 percent of public school parents. Only 44 percent of likely voters agree—less than the majority required to make this change.

The poll’s findings reflect the fact that California’s “exclusive electorate” controls the fate of ballot measures for local school funding. Today, many public school parents are nonvoters. And most likely voters are not public school parents. According to a PPIC report, likely voters are disproportionately white and tend to be homeowners, older, college graduates, and affluent.

Latinos, renters, and the younger, less educated, and less affluent are strong supporters of local bonds and local parcel taxes for local schools. They also favor lowering the vote threshold for passing local taxes. But these groups are outnumbered among those who cast ballots in elections.

It’s not impossible to pass local bonds and parcel taxes for school funding. CaliforniaCityFinance.com reported last December that eight in 10 local bonds and 6 in 10 local parcel taxes for local public schools have passed since 2001. But funding advocates have to carefully pick and choose the timing and location of these local school funding measures in deference to the higher vote thresholds required and the propensities of California’s exclusive electorate. A PPIC study concludes that the overall fiscal impact of parcel taxes has been fairly limited statewide.

School funding proponents want a state bond measure on the November 2016 ballot. The presidential election will attract the largest and most diverse electorate. It would take a simple majority vote to pass a state school bond. Our poll finds that 55 percent of likely voters and 77 percent of public school parents would vote yes on a state bond for school construction projects.

Meanwhile, the governor has stated that local voters should be deciding if they want more local school funding and that state voters should not be asked to pass state school bonds. This idea of local control resonates with Californians, who generally distrust the decisions made in Sacramento. But as our survey suggests, likely voters are unwilling to lower the local two-thirds threshold for passing local parcel taxes, leaving it easier to pass school funding measures at the state level than at the local one.

In other words, the state is likely to continue to play an oversized role in local school funding—until the California electorate reflects the will of the people who are relying on local public schools to improve their children’s futures.

News and analysis of California policy issues from PPIC

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