Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Should we raise income taxes for schools?

I am generally not a proponent of further increasing California income taxes, but this article in the Sacramento Bee about a potential new initiative that would raise income taxes for education and a little research I did over the holiday on school funding has made me more sympathetic to the idea.

I have told many people that I like everything about our move to California almost 4 years ago except the schools and its impact on my children's education.  Some of it has to do with standards, expectations and educational philosophies (schools do so much less to challenge stronger students here than I would like, even before the budget cuts), but I am increasingly convinced that most of it has to do with funding. 

I depressed myself over the weekend by researching per pupil spending at schools in the area and comparing them to the district we moved from in Maryland and the one's where my wife and I grew up in Maine and Ohio respectively.  It is embarrasing when relatives visit over Thanksgiving and your kids are trying to help with fundraisers that are trying to keep a school library open part time, while your nieces and nephews are engaged in all sorts of extra-curriculars and enrichment opportunities that your children's school doesn't even offer.

I found that typical per student spending in the region averages around $7,500 per student.  For the district we moved from in Maryland, the comparable spending was $13,000 per student and for the school districts my wife and I attended it is currently around $10,500 per student.  The educational offerrings and environment in the Maryland and the Ohio/Maine schools we experienced were pretty comparable, teacher salaries were the main reason for the difference between the $13k and $10.5k spending.  California teacher salaries, taxes and cost of living are more compariable to Maryland, but are those schools in Maryland really 73% better than California for spending 73% more per student?

California schools still teach the fundamentals, and I am sure that my kids would not be anywhere near 73% better educated if we had stayed in Maryland.  A lot of the differences are in the non-essentials, but that doesn't mean they don't have value.  I have found California schools to be comparatively joyless places, shockingly devoid of foreign language, music, art, and GT programs at middle and elementary levels.  School lunches are worse, transportation scarcely exists, typical facilities are worse, class sizes are larger, the school day is even 30 minutes shorter than we are accustomed to, and the school year is probably going to get shorter, again.  PE and football is noticably better here, and my kids are less stressed out about school which is nice sometimes (too much homework or stress over a 3rd grader failing a quiz has never been a problem here).

Although teacher salaries are higher than the national average, the data shows education salaries are among the only public employee salaries in California that are not extremely out of line with national norms.  (For example, we have fewer police per capita primarily because we pay police so much more, whereas we have fewer teachers per student primarily because we fund education so poorly).

Enough complaining.  It is a beautiful, sunny California day outside.  UOP music ensembles are playing holiday music out on the quad.  Time to go out and smell some roses.


  1. How about we reconsider developing the billions in oil reserves off our coast, and using *that* money for schools, if we could be assured it would be spent wisely? A year after the Santa Barbara catastrophe in 1967 you could not find any harmful effects. And that was with 1960's safety and cleanup technology.
    Protecting the views of a handful of mostly rich people in Santa Barbara should not be a huge statewide priority. And even their views would not be that messed up, since developing a field takes far fewer offshore rigs than it used to.

  2. Maybe. An oil severance tax? Definitely. Expanding the base of the sales tax to some services (I wouldn't go as far as the Calfironia Forward proposal)? Yes. Shifting money from the bloated corrections budget, redevelopment agencies, enterprise zones? Yes. All of these are preferable to more increases in an income tax that already has very high marginal rates.

    But the situation in the schools has gotten to the point where I may vote for my non-ideal tax increase for education.

  3. I agree with your thoughts Jeff however it's tough to be supportive when the retirement pensions are the most generous nationwide,qualified teachers from say Nevada or Oregon are precluded until they become "recertified" in CA(creating enormous barriers to entry for new labor), cost of safety in certain schools districts, etc.. A lot of education's problem in California are self inflicted.

  4. While oil development and alternate public methods of bearing the cost may sound appealing to some, they are far from democratic- why not charge parents for enrollment? As a tax paying property owner, I believe the current tax revenue dedicated to education more than covers the common societal benefits. Introducing user-based financing creates responsiveness in the service-using public to cost and enhances the feedback cycle for purser accountability.