A Tale of Two Cities and Why We Need to Reform Prop 13

Proposition 13 has devastated California’s education system.   And it’s worse than you even think.  Like the frog in the slowly boiling pot that doesn’t realize his predicament until it’s too late, I feel like California has become desensitized to its education funding crisis.  And unless we clean up our act quickly, we are going to be cooked.

As a guy who helps start schools in my day job, let me show you what finances in NYC look like versus those in Oakland, and how the formulas either increase equity and quality, or undermine them.   If you only have a vague sense of anger, you should be screaming by the end of this piece

California’s F in school funding

Prop 13 cut California’s state education budget from 9 billion to 6 billion over night. I have written before about California’s status at the bottom of the school funding barrel, but let me make this real for folks.

There are two important ways to think about school funding, (1) is it adequate? Is there enough base money to provide the standard supports for quality education and (2) is it equitable?  Some students will have higher needs and higher costs, and does the funding adjust to meet those higher needs students.

California fails miserably on both accounts, even with the latest improvements in the California’s funding formula that provides more funding to high needs students.  Those funds are vastly inadequate.

A Tale of Two Charters

Right now I have two active charter school applications submitted, one in NYC the other in Oakland, let me show you the budget differences

school Average per pupil/per ADA Special education funding/State and fed average/ per ADA Facilities funding/per ADA Total per pupil average
NYC Charter $14,027 $7761.31 $2801 $24,589.31
Oakland Charter $11,305.33 $610 $1113 $13028.33


In total our NYC school gets almost twice as much per child, but if you take it apart the real difference is in the supplement for special education.  In NYC the formula includes multipliers for high needs special education students, and those payments generally are enough to serve students, and if they aren’t you can petition for more funding if you can prove the costs.

There is a school serving high needs students on the autism spectrum that gets $80,000 per child.  The money meets the needs of students.  In Oakland, not so much, and it matters.

Designing Schools for High Needs Students

In my NYC school we aim to have 35% special needs students, mostly students who could be in self- contained classes.  We integrate all classes, which are typically 15-17 students, and we have two well trained educators in each class.   That would be impossible on the per pupil and special education funding in California.  And one of the reasons we don’t see innovative schools catering to higher needs students in Oakland is because the funding won’t support the needs.

We are at a pivotal time in California education funding.  The economy has been booming and the state has basically reached the top of the funding ladder.  So without changes, future funding increase will be relatively flat.  At the same time, pension costs are going to significantly increase, and at some point the economy will also recede.  Unless we prepare for those coming storms we will be caught under water.  Or at least low income kids will.

Take Action, Reform Prop 13

Thankfully, we can change this.  A recent Town Hall in Oakland looked at reforming prop 13 and I have even heard at least one of the candidates for governor, Villaraigosa, mention prop 13 reform publicly.  And while many factors influence school funding the most important is Prop 13.  As one expert noted on KPBS,

prior 1978 (when Proposition 13 passed), back in the day when schools needed money. More money to hire students, to pay for classrooms, supplies, and so on. They basically looked to the local taxpayer for money in the form of property taxes. And in fact, they set their budgets, went to the county assessor, the property tax rate was set, and then they collected enough money. As much money as they needed. After 1978, what happened was we couldn’t do that anymore. It was a statewide cap. One percent – that’s all the money that you got. So as a result, before 1978, before Prop 13, statewide the schools had a $9 billion budget. After Prop 13 they lost $3 billion – a third of that – overnight.

And there were some good reasons to limit taxes in some cases, where it created a hardship. But this applied to everyone equally and distorted the normal property tax market.  Grandma on a fixed income, Steve Jobs and corporations too all were treated the same.  The rich can and should pay more.

Our state and our kids deserve better.  As someone who moves in and out of the boiling water in Oakland, this frog knows how hot it is, and how close we are to being cooked.  We need to turn the heat down, before it’s too late.

Please visit Make it Fair  or Evolve CA


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