On a recent morning in Sacramento, a group of 8th graders from Hanford experienced a middle school ritual: a tour of the State Capitol. They climbed upstairs to a balcony that looks down on an expansive room covered in lush carpet.
“This is the Assembly,” teacher Melanie Hill told her students as they looked at the chambers below.
Then she asked a question: Why are the Assembly chambers decorated in green?
Thirteen-year-old old Caitlin Cabral had the answer: “Money.”
Time for a lesson in government and politics.
Money is the business of the lawmakers in the state legislature, Hill told her students.
"They create tax laws. That’s how the government gets money to run schools, build roads, all that the things we have,” she said.
Last year, California lawmakers cut funding for public schools and community colleges by $5 billion dollars. The cuts shave off $800 in spending for each student. It’s like chopping three weeks off the school year.
But the so-called "trigger" cuts go through only if voters reject Proposition 30 on the November ballot.
Hill predicts if Prop 30 fails, she’ll end up with a lot more kids in her class.
“If our class sizes get much larger - and my 37 is an honors’ group, so they’re there to learn - but if we get students who are not as motivated, it’s not going to be teaching anymore. It’s going to be babysitting,” the teacher said.
Prop 30 would nullify the “trigger” cuts. If voters pass it, the state would collect up to $6 billion extra in annual tax revenue for seven years. Some would come from a quarter-percent hike to the state sales tax, with the rest from higher income taxes on people who earn more than$500,000 a year.
Josh Pechthalt with the California Federation of Teachers says schools can’t afford more cuts. He knows the cost first-hand: He has an 8th grader in the L.A. Unified School District.
“She’s got more days off this semester than we’ve ever seen before,” Pechthalt said. “The library is open after school one day a week. And this is a very good school...this is a middle class community and yet they’re struggling to make ends meet. In fact, every teacher puts out a request at the beginning of the semester, y‘know, ‘Please contribute for art supplies.’”
California’s Legislative Analyst, the non-partisan office that advises lawmakers on fiscal policy, says Prop 30 will protect schools from deeper cuts next year, but probably won’t increase funding much.
That’s because the state can count Prop 30 revenue toward its existing funding obligations to public schools and community colleges. As a result, money in the state’s general fund that would have gone to schools is freed up. Lawmakers can spend the dollars on other state programs.
The California Parent Teachers Association argues that Proposition 38 would do a better job for schools. The ballot measure’s sliding-scale income tax hike goes directly to early childhood programs and K-12 schools, and toward paying down state debt.
Lee Ann Daly, who heads the PTA at LA Unified’s Palisades Charter Elementary School, moved from New York City two months ago. She said she’s shocked by what constant budget cuts have done to California schools.
“You feel it very directly," said Daly. "I mean, my kids don’t go to a full school day every day of the week. That was absolutely not the case in the New York City. We get three weeks off at Christmas. That was definitely not the case in New York City.”
Daly said missed days hurt everyone, particularly working parents who rely on schools to keep their children safe during the day. “When you take that away, you leave some people with very few alternatives," she said.
Prop 38 won’t send new money to community colleges, the University of California or California State Universities - the three branches of higher education in the state.
It also won’t stop the billions in “trigger” cuts that take effect if Prop 30 fails. But the legislative analyst expects an estimated $10 billion dollars a year for 12 years in new tax revenue from Prop 38 will eventually make up for the cuts.
Bottom line: Prop 38 infuses more funds into K-through-12 and pre-school education. Prop 30 supports a wider swath of educational institutions and public safety services. Neither solves all of California’s education woes, but either would give a booster shot to a system worn down by years of budget cuts.