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Politics Without Power

By Frank Gruber

Welcome to Santa Monica (and Malibu), John Deasy.

I sat in on The Lookout's interview with our new superintendent and I was impressed by his comment that he would involve himself in state government.

That's good, because, realistically, whatever people believe the cities of Santa Monica and Malibu should do, Sacramento is where the money for education is.

It was not always this way. My son Henry, who will start middle school at John Adams next year, and his friends refer to the years of their parents' youth as "the olden days." Well, back in the olden days, things were different.

Did you ever wonder why we have a special elected local government for schools, while cities and counties handle everything else? Apparently people once had the quaint idea that schools were so important, they needed their own government.

Children can't vote, and people knew that to protect the interests of children in their future, and the interests of society in education, they needed to insulate schools from politicians who might prefer to spend money on police, or potholes, or parks, or whatever cause, good or bad, they thought would win them more votes.

Local school boards had the right to levy taxes and the responsibility to do one thing and one thing only: educate future citizens.

Of course, nothing works perfectly. Schools reflected every ill that infected society as a whole. For instance, some localities are richer than others. Some have grown-ups who are more willing or able to pay more taxes for schools. The system was not fair.

In the 1970's the California Supreme Court held in the Serrano cases that school funding had to be equal around the state. The basic holding of Serrano was undoubtedly correct. It is wrong to base educational opportunities on the relative resources of communities.

There have been, however, serious unintended negative consequences from Serrano.

To balance funding, the state capped spending on education. When people in wealthy districts could not pay for good schools in their communities, many decided to pay for private schools, and the public schools lost important constituents.

(There is no limit to the tax subsidy private schools receive through tax-deductible contributions. For example, Crossroads, a local private school with 1,125 students, recently raised $17 million to build a sports facility. Assuming a combined federal and California marginal tax rate of 45%, that's a $7.65 million subsidy. By way of comparison, only $6 million of the $42 million the school district raised with Prop. X will be used for improving playgrounds and athletic facilities. That's for a district with more than 12,000 students.)

As it happened, the Serrano cases also had a lot to do with the voter anger that led to Prop. 13. The schools and the rest of the state's infrastructure have been declining ever since. But you can't blame short-sighted greed on a well-intentioned court decision.

Prop. 13 had, however, even a greater impact on school finances than the Serrano decisions, because of how it limited not only the property tax, but also the power of governments to raise, enact or raise taxes.

Some analysts say that there is no connection between money and the quality of education, but I take a very basic view. If schools are falling apart, if kids don't have books, if teachers don't have credentials and don't make enough money to stay in the profession, if there is no music or art, then schools need more money.

When I was a kid back in the olden days grown-ups built us schools. Today we don't build schools. We buy portable classrooms, stick them on asphalt, and still expect kids to respect public institutions.

But the worst unintended consequence of Serrano, and the worst intended consequence of Prop. 13, was not the direct impact on school budgets. No, the worst was that when school boards lost the power to tax, they became ineffective as advocates for children. This change in the political culture of school governance has been disastrous.

Most people would say that education is the number one priority for local government. But compare the powers of a city to those of a school district.

If a city wants to build new offices for its police and fire departments, but its bond issue doesn't pass, it can still issue bonds. If it wants more open space or housing, it might create a redevelopment district, and borrow $53 million to buy eleven acres of land. If there is a recession, and tax receipts are down, it can tax utility bills.

I don't begrudge these powers to the cities -- this is what government is about. But school boards lack these powers, and their weakness has permeated public education.

Look at Santa Monica. As the extraordinary votes in favor of the parcel tax and school bonds show, voters here value education more than anything. Yet our school board -- or its citizen surrogates -- must beg for support from the city because the state allocation is not enough to educate our kids, many of whom are low income.

The city has its own responsibilities -- parks, housing, police, etc. But haven't we turned the world upside down? What once had the highest priority now has the lowest.

At the state level, it's the same, although recent propositions have given schools more clout. But schools are still at the mercy of the governor and legislators who may have other fish to fry and constituents and lobbyists to please. At the moment we are buying electrons with money that should properly go to education.

I respect politicians, but what kind of politicians will be attracted to school boards that have no power? If politics is the art of getting things done, then a political entity that has no power may attract people who want to do good, but not necessarily people who are good at doing.

Public schools have a tough job and they do it better than most people think. But clearly there are problems. Especially in school governance. Problems that are minor in a district like ours, major in a district like L.A. Unified.

At the root of these problems is a political culture of helplessness.

I see two solutions, neither easy. One would be to amend the state constitution to return to local school boards the power to tax, while requiring the state to equalize funding.

The other would be even more radical. If state government is to be the source of funding for education, then we need a state school board with the power to tax and the responsibility to see that our children learn. A separate legislative body to make sure schools have enough money -- no matter what.

Meeting note: the next meeting of the Civic Center Working Group will take place 6:00 p.m., Monday, May 14, at the Civic Auditorium East Wing. Tours of the Auditorium will be offered at 5:00. Contact Andy Agle at 458-2275 with questions.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
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