When Sarah and Charles Woodson moved into their middle-class North Oakland neighborhood, their son was just a baby, but their new neighbors already had questions about his education.
"They would ask, 'What are you going to do when it comes time to enroll in elementary school?'" she says.
The couple didn’t think too much of it until their son turned 4, and they could no longer avoid the question. As they learned about their local public school system, they began to understand why the subject was such a source of anxiety for neighbors. They stayed up late, weighing their options in emotional conversations that dredged up their own school days.
California’s 40-year-old Proposition 13 never came up in those discussions, but its profound effect on the state’s education system helped shape them nonetheless.
This decision by voters in 1978 dramatically changed how the state funds education. It intertwined with key court decisions in the 1970s to transform a system of local control that had existed in California for more than 100 years. Decisions once made by local officials, over how to spend funds for schools and how to educate and evaluate students, shifted to state policymakers.
Before Proposition 13, local property taxes were the main source of K-12 funding. California school districts had a great deal of autonomy. They had their own tax bases and set their own tax rates. The state guaranteed a base level of funding for each pupil and districts used their local taxes to increase funding to the desired level.
On average, local property taxes made up 60 percent of school funding, while the state kicked in around 30 percent, according to UC Davis professor Thomas Timar. The quality of public schools was determined by local preference and how much a district could pay.
In the late 1960s, for instance, the Baldwin Park Unified School District in Los Angeles County spent $577 per pupil. Meanwhile, Beverly Hills spent $1,231, though it taxed itself at half the rate. The reason for the disparity was clear: In Baldwin Park, total assessed property value translated to less than $4,000 per child, while in Beverly Hills, it equaled over $50,000 per child.
By the 1970s, California’s Supreme Court found this system of funding violated the state’s Constitution. To bring the system into compliance, the state stepped in to reduce disparities between districts.
‘They Cut Maintenance, Assistant Principals, Librarians’
Legislators were working to follow the court’s order when voters approved Proposition 13.
Because Proposition 13 slashed the tax rate, property tax revenue dropped by almost 60 percent in the year after it passed. “In one fell swoop it really decimated the amount of money available to schools at the local level,” says San Diego State University professor Jennifer Imazeki, who studies the economics of K-12 education.
The state stepped in to make up some lost local funding, and though a hefty budget surplus cushioned the blow initially, cuts were inevitable. “They immediately dropped summer schools and adult education,” says State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, who was also at the board’s helm in 1978 when Proposition 13 passed. “Then they cut vocational education and counseling. They cut maintenance, assistant principals, librarians.”
Charles Woodson was an elementary school student in Oakland in the years after Proposition 13 passed.
“School back then was really, really rough,” he says. “There wasn’t a lot of structure. Each year I had a different principal.” He remembers teachers coming and going, and an exasperated substitute teacher telling his class: “I’m never coming back here again!”
“I learned how to survive,” Charles says, “but I can't tell you that I learned how to read and write and do arithmetic.”
Denise Saddler was president of the Oakland teachers union from 1986 to 1992 and worked as a teacher in the district for years before that.
“Prior to Proposition 13 we had a robust music program, we had funded libraries — there was also a city library in every neighborhood that was open all the time and had summer programs,” she says. “There were a lot of after-school programs for kids. There were many more opportunities.”
After the proposition passed, school dance and art programs were axed, she says, and so were school-funded field trips.
There were at least two teachers’ strikes in Oakland in the ‘80s.
Many had imagined the court’s mandate to reduce disparities would raise poor districts up, but Proposition 13 changed the calculation. Spending did begin to level, but it leveled down.
“One might say it was ironic,” says Bill Koski, director of Stanford Law School’s Youth and Education Law Project. “We saw this equalization, but we also saw a relative decrease in school district revenues, especially compared to the rest of the United States.”
When adjusted for inflation, California spent about $7,400 per pupil in 1977, about $1,000 above the national average, according to data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics. By 1983, California’s per pupil spending had dropped to $6,700, dipping below the national average, where it has generally stayed.
Between 1970 and 1997, per pupil spending in California fell more than 15 percent relative to spending in other states, according to a report from the Public Policy Institute of California.
Koski says education spending in California has never really recovered from the enactment of Proposition 13.
“We went from among the highest-funded school districts in the country to among the lowest-funded school districts,” Koski says.
The California Budget & Policy Center ranked California 41st in the nation in per pupil spending, when taking into account cost of living in each state. During the 2015-2016 school year, California schools spent $10,291 per student, about $1,900 lower than the national average, according to the center.
Proposition 13’s limits on local funding are a key reason other states outspend California, according to Kirst.
“They have a three-legged stool of funding,” Kirst says of other states. “They have federal, they have state and they have local property tax. We have a two-legged stool.”
Today, California’s districts get about 60 percent of their funding from the state and a little over 30 percent from local sources, according to a recent report by Imazeki.
New work from the American Institutes for Research estimates California would need to boost K-12 funding by 32 percent, or about $22 billion, in order for the state to meet its education targets.
‘We Brought It on Ourselves’
Imazeki says coming up with that money is a tall order.
“People can't expect that there will be easy answers,” she says. “But I do think that making adjustments to Proposition 13 is at least a start. It's not a panacea, it's not a silver bullet, but it is a start.”
For his part, Kirst doubts voters will mess with Proposition 13.
“It’s a bedrock of California political culture,” says Kirst, who sympathizes with today’s voters, and those of 1978.
“We brought it on ourselves,” he says, arguing that as long as policymakers fail to address the underlying issue of sky-high housing costs, voters will cling to Proposition 13’s protections.
Kirst thinks the state will likely need to find money somewhere else. His vote: Extend sales taxes to services, especially services used by higher-income Californians.
But even more money for schools won’t undo all the changes wrought by Proposition 13. Because as the state assumed responsibility for funding schools, it also assumed control.
“He who has the gold sets the rules,” says Kirst. “We created from Proposition 13 a massive centralization of California's state education policy.”
An overhaul of the school finance system in 2013 aimed to shift control back to local communities. But it has yet to undo what Kirst sees as another important part of Proposition 13’s legacy: a loss of confidence in public education.
“People lost a feeling of ownership in their schools,” Kirst says. “We have this strong tradition of local public education. Nobody else has anything like the American local school board, and, therefore, once you begin to remove power from that base you begin to erode public confidence.”
In the decades after Proposition 13, private school attendance rose: From 1970 to 1990, private school enrollments increased among California’s well-off families from 14 to 21 percent.
‘What Are Our Options Now?’
When it came time to pick a school for their son, Sarah and Charles Woodson were wary of their local elementary school, Sankofa Academy. On paper it did not look good: Only 7 percent of students meet state math standards, and 12 percent meet English standards.
Sarah toured the school anyway. She loved the beautiful library, but there was no librarian. She learned the school had been relying on an interim principal, and she talked to a teacher who sounded frustrated and overwhelmed. The teachers she liked told her they didn’t know if they’d stick around for the next year.
After the tour, Sarah and the other parents stood on the front steps with crinkled brows.
“You could tell they're all kind of trying to act like they're really considering the school,” Sarah says. “But you can tell that they're really not. And they're thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what are our options now?’ ”
Sarah and Charles say they want better for their local school. They just don’t know how to make that happen.
“I love this community,” Sarah says. “I think it's important to invest in a community, and I think one of those big investments is sending your child to the local public school.”
But in the end, she and Charles made the difficult decision to send their son to a private school. They hope one day they’ll feel confident enough in their local schools to move him into public education.
The California Dream series is a statewide media collaboration of CALmatters, KPBS, KPCC, KQED and Capital Public Radio with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the James Irvine Foundation and the College Futures Foundation.