The Decline of the West

RICHARD REEVES

September 22, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

Los Angeles. -- California, once the jewel in the crown of democracy, once a golden place where children were offered the best education in the world, free -- that California hit bottom the other day. In standardized national reading tests, fourth-graders in the state's public schools tied for last with Mississippi, a state once seen as the heart of American darkness.

This has been coming for more than 15 years, since California chose its old over its young in 1978 with the passage of Proposition 13. Those 1978 Californians voted to trade lower property taxes for themselves -- and only for themselves, because newcomers pay higher rates -- in exchange for diminished education spending for other people's children.

Money is not everything in education. The national tests show Utah's children doing well despite low educational spending. But California is a much richer and more attractive place than most, and that has created problems that do require more public will and money, too.

Before the passage of Proposition 13, the state routinely ranked in the top five of educational spending -- and achievement. Since then it has steadily dropped into the bottom 10 of the 50 states.

The initiative, approved by 65 percent of 1978 voters, effectively capped the property taxes of old residents. Now, with the state in recession, there is simply not enough money available to maintain the standards of education from kindergarten through the magnificent University of California system. Per-capita spending for the state's public-school students last year was roughly $4,600, more than $1,000 less than the national average and half the spending in states such as New York and New Jersey.

The reaction in the state capital of Sacramento on Wednesday to public evidence of its descent only makes matters worse. First, said state officials, California has enormous numbers of students from poor families and neighborhoods and of students who do not speak or read English well. True, but the state exercised the option of excluding 11 percent of its students from national tests because their English skills were considered inadequate.

Then, William Dawson, the acting superintendent of public instruction, released a pile of other statistics indicating that the best of California's public-school students do better than national averages on some college placement tests. Hooray! That apparently was meant to show that California can still provide high-quality education if it wants to. Or, at least it once did for the generation of kids who are now college age. They just happen to be the kids who began school before the bombardment of Prop 13 hit.

Proposition 13, in effect, removed California's schools from local control and turned them over to the state government in Sacramento and to teachers' unions. Property-tax revenues were reduced by 57 percent in the first year and, soon enough, counties and cities and towns were cut out of the money loop and the state itself collected and redistributed income and sales taxes in ''bail-outs'' directly to school districts. One result is that organized California teachers, the largest campaign contributors in state elections, are still among the highest paid in the country -- it's just that there are fewer of them now in proportion to rising enrollments.

And, at both state and local levels, Prop 13 and successor initiatives mandated that new taxes and tax increases had to be approved by two-thirds of voters or of the Legislature or of both. Since then, California's government has been structurally underfunded. Somebody had to pay the price, and the '78 adults decided it would be children, particularly the children of newcomers, those Californians unlucky enough not to own a home in 1978.

The issue was framed as whether old people could afford to keep their homes as property taxes increased in a booming real-estate market. The fact that they were getting rich as the value of their homes multiplied was ignored. They simply were against change and had the voting power to block it -- two-thirds of the voters then were homeowners.

California is an old place now -- at least politically. Children and younger families have little voting power. The old people, who have no financial incentives to move, are staying put and passively exercising what Alexis de Tocqueville called ''the tyranny of the majority.''

The voting majority are people with their futures behind them, and they obviously care little for other futures -- particularly the futures of children of darker hue. Why should they care? Their children, even their grandchildren, are educated now. They will be dead by the time other people's kids take over. And California may be dead by then, too.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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