Oakland voters to help decide on California school funding proposal

Proposition 51 in the Official Voter Information Guide for the November 8, 2016 election. (Photo by Pablo De La Hoya)

Proposition 51 in the Official Voter Information Guide for the November 8, 2016 election. (Photo by Pablo De La Hoya)

On Tuesday, Californians will vote on the California Public School Facility Bonds Initiative, otherwise known as Proposition 51. The proposition, which would provide $9 billion in bonds for public education, has voters split, leaving the fate of the ballot measure in limbo.

Proposition 51 is the first education bond to appear on the ballot as an initiative from the public, and the first statewide education-related bond measure up for a vote in ten years. Many acknowledge that it is coming at a time when public schools are in dire need of funding.

A “yes” vote on the proposition would provide for $9 billion in bonds to fund the improvement and construction of new facilities for K-12 schools and community colleges. This includes $500 million for career technical education (CTE) facilities, a branch of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.  If approved, the state of California would borrow the money and increase state debt for the bond.  

“I think both sides … recognize that after a decade that there is a large demand. In some cases, it’s a question of public safety,” said Larry Galizio, CEO of the Community College League of California, a non-profit organization that supports the proposition. “At the extreme, you have asbestos and lead paint. If it’s not a safe learning environment, it’s not one that can help educate, train, K-14 public students for the 21st Century.”

Proposition 51 is a citizens’ initiative, resulting from some residents’ frustration over the state’s decaying public school infrastructure and a state budget that has prioritized public works over education in the last decade.

Dozens of state officials, education advocacy groups and business associations have come out in support of Proposition 51, according to Californians for Quality Schools. Right now, it has the endorsement of both the California Democratic Party and the California Republican Party.

Yet a Public Policy Institute of California poll in October showed 46 percent support among likely voters, with 12 percent still undecided.

Critics including Governor Jerry Brown are opposed to it because the measure has acquired millions in campaign funds from special interests groups associated with contractors, construction unions and housing developers who have a stake in building more schools. They worry that the proposition would dispense funds to contractors disproportionately at the expense of California’s students. They see it as a roadblock rather than a plus in reforming funding for public schools.

“I know that voting for a school construction bond is like voting for motherhood, apple pie and Chevy, but in this particular case that’s not what Proposition 51 is,” said G. Rick Marshall, director of the California Taxpayers Action Network, a nonpartisan organization opposing the proposition. “[Voters] need to take a real look and see who’s benefitting from the passage of this. Is it really the kids?”

Brown has argued that the bond would only further inequity between schools because the funding process prioritizes schools that apply for projects early. In a February interview with The Los Angeles Times, he claimed that process benefits affluent districts over poorer ones.

The current funding problems in education stem from a series of propositions approved by voters over the last few decades.

In 1978, Proposition 13 switched the local and state roles in funding public schools, effectively slashing funding for public education by handing responsibility to the state. In response, Proposition 98 in 1988 required the state to spend a larger and more consistent fraction of the state budget on education.

This resulted in a cumulative gap of $12 billion between the actual budget for education and the budget promised. The gap is due to administrative inefficiencies, according to Ed100, an organization that educates the public on California’s school system.

In 2012, Proposition 30 restored education funding by temporarily raising taxes $6 billion in income and sales taxes to complement the state’s general fund. However, these taxes will expire in 2018.

Danny Beesley, the director of FabLabs in Oakland schools, said he sees both sides of the argument but added that high-tech workshops like his can’t afford new buildings and infrastructure without the state’s support. If the proposition passes, $500,000 of the $9 billion bond is allocated for career training education facilities that provide students with the technical skills and training to succeed in future careers.

“Seeing these facilities go up makes the school better equipped,” he said. “It’ll help me make a greater impact in the work that I do.”  

The bond would cost Californians around $8.6 billion in interest, requiring annual payments of $500 million for 35 years. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, those funds would come through either taxes or reductions in services.

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