How Bad is too Bad? How Much is Enough?

Click on this map for some interesting data, courtesy of


The statistics for my state, California, are particularly bleak.

Given the current hoopla about the new funding formula, I thought it might be useful to step back and ask a more fundamental question. Does the state collect enough revenue to support education to the extent that a meaningful change in student outcomes is likely?

Are we rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?  We have not substantially changed the way revenues are generated since the implementation of Proposition 13 in 1978.  Except for the temporary taxes coming in under Proposition 30, the new Local Control Funding Formula takes the same tax inputs and attempts to distribute them differently for different outcomes.  Are we fooling ourselves?

If you have a particular interest in California I recommend the documentary “From First to Worst“.  Although now ten years old it documents the impact of the tax limiting measure Proposition 13 on California’s education spending and outcomes.

Proposition 13 was supposed to limit government spending by reducing available dollars.  This did happen to a certain extent, and education took the brunt of it.  However in an attempt to maintain programs sales taxes and income taxes went up and the state resorted to more and more accounting tricks and borrowed more and more money.*

Brown Prop 13

Jerry Brown at a news conference in 1978. Source:

Proposition 13 cannot be dismissed as old news.  All informed voters need to understand it and its lasting effects, even though it is rapidly approaching its 40th birthday.  Called the Third Rail of California politics (touch it and you die), conversations about amending Proposition 13 are pretty much dead on arrival.  Even governor Brown, who has successfully arm-wrestled numerous special interest groups into submission to bring fiscal solvency back to California, is seemingly willing to say “that ship has sailed.”  It might have to do with the fact that he was governor in 1978 when the Proposition was passed.  He likely still bears the scars from that era and is just unwilling to go there again.  Here’s a thought-provoking opinion piece about Brown and Proposition 13 that appeared in Bloomberg last year.

Jerry Brown's official state portrait from his first stint as governor (1975 - 1983)

Jerry Brown’s controversial official state portrait from his first stint as governor (1975 – 1983)

Questions regarding Proposition 13 go to the heart of who should be taxed and by how much.  An even more basic question is:  what is the role of government anyway?

How much do you value public education and how do you think we should pay for it?  That’s a question every voter needs to answer for themselves before heading for the polls.  Remember, 2014 is an election year, and Brown is seeking reelection.  He will be 76 years old.

*This all came to a head when Governor Schwarzenegger took office. Though charismatic and smart, he ranks high on the list of the state’s most inept governors   Accounting tricks and borrowing reached new heights during his term.  His problem: a blurry, vague vision coupled with an inability to persuade or pressure enough interest groups to get anything meaningful accomplished.


  1. Proposition 98 Forecasting and Finagling | FiscalShare - January 19, 2014

    […] recent post on California’s Proposition 13 was for you. This post is about Proposition 98.  Together, […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: