This commentary first appeared on EdSource.org on April 30, 2014.
The elections this year offer the first statewide look at Californians’ willingness to raise revenue for their local schools since passage of Proposition 30, the tax initiative to benefit education that voters passed in November 2012. While it’s too early to know how many local school districts will test the waters by placing a construction bond or parcel tax on the ballot, there are undercurrents in our new survey that spell trouble ahead for local school ballot measures. In short, the public’s sense that schools are in crisis has diminished.
Our annual PPIC Statewide Survey on Californians and Education shows that likely voters view fiscal conditions in education as generally improving. The proportion who say that the state budget situation is a “big problem” for California’s K–12 public education has dropped by 10 points—from 72 percent to 62 percent—between April 2012 and today. More importantly, the proportion of likely voters saying that the level of current state funding for their local public schools is “not enough” has also dropped by 10 points between April 2012 and today—from 59 percent to 49 percent. In other words, the likely voters who currently view state funding of their local schools as problematic now make up less than a majority.
In our recent poll, 55 percent of likely voters would vote yes if there was a local school bond on the ballot—just barely meeting the minimum passage level. By contrast, 48 percent of likely voters would vote yes on a local school parcel tax—falling far short of the two thirds needed to pass.
It is important to note that likely voters who are public school parents are bucking these statewide trends: a majority of them view state funding for their local public school as inadequate, and over 60 percent say they would support a local school bond and a local school parcel tax this year. But our poll finds that public school parents make up less than 30 percent of the likely voters who will determine the ballot outcomes.
Since 2001, the statewide passage rate for local school bonds has been 81 percent and for local school parcel taxes, 60 percent, as noted by CaliforniaCityFinance.com and EdSource. This year, those rates may fall. Alternatively, there may be fewer local school ballot measures this year as funding proponents focus on a smaller set of school districts with voter profiles that offer favorable odds for passing these measures. For instance, our poll finds majority support for local school bonds and local school parcel taxes among Democratic, Latino, lower-income, and Bay Area likely voters.
Meanwhile, some legislators have proposed lowering the vote threshold needed to pass these taxes from two-thirds to 55 percent, which requires changing Proposition 13. But since the Democrats lost their supermajority when three of their senators were suspended, the legislature is much less likely to send this change to the voters for approval. Californians are not inclined to make this change anyway. The proportion of likely voters who say that this change to Proposition 13 is a good idea has declined—from 46 percent in April 2011 to just 39 percent today.
It is possible that voter concern about school funding needs will surface later this year, as school districts implement two dramatic changes: the Common Core Standards in the classroom and the Local Control Funding Formula, which provides more money for districts with higher proportions of English Learners and lower-income students. These changes could offer two new avenues to engage voters about the need for local school funding. For now, though, we will be watching for signs that Proposition 30’s passage will make it harder for local school ballot measures to succeed in 2014.