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Public schools: A return to ‘haves’ v. ‘have nots’?

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POSTED June 28, 2010 1:35 a.m.
California’s public education could be moving toward another crisis that could ultimately undermine local control.

The stage is being set, ironically, by school districts where voters have passed parcel taxes so far in order to counter state funding cutbacks. Sixteen of the 20 districts that had parcel tax elections so far this year managed to reach the two-thirds approval threshold.

John Rogers the head of the UCLA Institute for Democracy was quoted by the Associated Press as noting the votes are simply widening the disparity between districts adding, “Across the state, the pain is felt everywhere, but because of the unequal distribution of wealth some areas are able to respond.”

Rogers is not just whistling in the wilderness.

It could revive the angst that led to the landmark Serrano v. Priest decision rendered by the California Supreme Court in 1976. It was a lawsuit brought in 1968 by a group of parents of several Los Angeles Unified School District students - one of them was named John Serrano - against then California State Treasurer Ivy Priest.

It took a broad shot at disparity between school districts - particularly high wealth-low tax districts and low wealth-high tax districts - arguing that the way public education was being funded it had failed “to meet the requirements of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the California Constitution.” The crux was those in low wealth districts were forced to pay a higher tax rate than those in high wealth districts in order to obtain for their children the same or lesser education opportunities afforded students in wealthier districts.

The California Legislature’s response to the court decision was shot out from under them when voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978. That led to dropping a property tax based solution that in turn led to more reliance on state funding.

It is an important point to remember that Proposition 13 alone did not torpedo school funding based on property taxes. Serrano v. Priest played a big role.

Seven years after Proposition 13 and the switch to more state financing of local districts, the Los Angeles Superior Court found the requirements of the state high court decision on Serrano vs. Priest had been met.

So what’s the rub?

You can beat your last dollar that Serrano v. Priest will be revisited again by a parent in a low wealth district as the disparity for funding grows.

This would do one of two things. It could force yet another court decision that would knock California education funding sideways again as it did over three decades ago or it could encourage the legislature to reduce the threshold for parcel taxes to pass to support local schools from two thirds down to 55 percent.

The reducing of the threshold in itself is not problematic. It is if enough of them get in place. It would again point out how the “haves” versus the “have nots” can afford to keep teachers and programs. You might argue what’s the big deal that if a community wants to tax itself to enhance education it should be allowed to do so. Just one little problem: In California, it is a state school system and not individual school districts. Yes, there are local school boards but the state constitution clearly makes it a state responsibility.

If the disparity again widens the odds are great someone will get the courts to intervene. It increases the potential for the state to find a way to highjack parcel tax revenues with the court’s help. That would be the beginning of the end of any local say in taxes.

All it takes is for the high state court to tie the tenants of the Serrano v. Priest decision into wide gaps between districts that can tax themselves to retain a certain level of public education and districts that lack the wealth to do so and you will have chaos that will make what’s is going on today seem like a walk in the park.

This, of course, could be avoided if the California Legislature manages to rethink state government, shrink the bureaucracies, and overhaul how people are taxed wi
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