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CAPITOL JOURNAL

Help school districts by letting them raise their own tax revenue

To do so, the state Legislature would need to reduce the voter threshold needed for levying parcel taxes from two-thirds to 55%.

George Skelton

Capitol Journal

5:12 PM PST, January 16, 2013

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SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown wants to help inner-city schools at the expense of suburbanites. But there must be a better way to assist the disadvantaged than to trigger class warfare.

And there is. It is to give school districts a better opportunity to raise their own tax revenue.

That could involve reducing the voter threshold needed for levying parcel taxes from two-thirds to 55%.

This idea currently is kicking around the Legislature. But so far it hasn't been linked to Brown's new school-funding proposal, which I liken to robbing Peter to pay Paul.

"If a new school spending formula is going to be discussed, and if there are going to be winners and losers, one way to mitigate that is to give all schools better tools for raising revenue than they have now," says Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

Leno is proposing legislation that would allow school districts to raise parcel taxes for day-to-day operations by a 55% vote. They already can raise construction money by securing a 55% vote for bond issues.

Referring to Brown's proposed spending formula and his own parcel tax legislation, Leno says: "You can see how logistically the two interplay. The point they both have in common is greater local control."

Brown's plan also would provide more spending flexibility for schools by eliminating requirements for so-called categorical programs, such as busing, textbooks and career tech.

One philosophical problem with the parcel tax is that it's very regressive. The taxes aren't levied based on value or wealth, such as with property or income. A parcel that holds a bank building is taxed the same as one with a peeling bungalow.

But it's the only tax available to school districts.

Another idea being mulled over in Capitol backrooms is to permit school districts to also levy other types of taxes with voter approval — such as a sales tax. The Legislature could allow that simply by passing a bill on a majority vote.

But the sales tax still would need to be approved by local voters on a two-thirds vote. To reduce that threshold to 55% would require a state constitutional amendment — necessitating a two-thirds legislative vote and approval of the statewide electorate.

Allowing school districts more opportunity to raise their own revenue could be beneficial in two ways:

It would enable inner-city districts to help themselves without tapping suburban schools. Local voters, if they didn't want to pay a higher sales tax for their schools, could pass a parcel tax that would hit many absentee landlords.

Burdened by a two-thirds vote requirement, about half the proposed school district parcel taxes have failed over the last 30 years.

If Brown's proposed funding shift were approved by the Legislature, suburban districts could compensate for their loss by raising, say, a local sales tax.

I asked the governor at a news conference last week his view of enhancing school districts' local control by providing them more opportunity to raise their own revenue. He was noncommittal.

"I'm not prepared to opine on that," Brown replied. "You are right. You're raising a point of control and what are all the aspects of control. But I am not going to go there in January."

The implication was that maybe he'd go there in June when he's in deep budget negotiations with the Legislature.

Then Brown added, suddenly slapping on his fiscal conservative hat: "I'm also mindful of the fact that we just had a tax measure....

"The fact is, California is not bashful in collecting public revenue or raising funds. So I want to be careful. But certainly we're going to have a lot of discussions on that topic over the next couple of years."

It was Brown's soak-the-rich tax proposal, of course, that passed in November. He's wrong, however, about Californians' boldness on taxes. They hadn't passed a statewide tax increase since 2004, and that was another soak-the-rich measure.

Under Brown's radical school spending proposal, future state funding would be distributed much differently from the way it has been. Spending on poor children, English learners and foster kids would grow significantly faster. Funds for middle-class-and-up kids whose native tongues are English would grow more slowly.

This would tend to help inner-city schools and hurt suburban districts.

Brown called his proposal "fair, right and just.... A classic case of justice to unequals."

California's future, he insisted, "depends not on across-the-board funding, but in disproportionately funding those schools that have disproportionate challenges."

This ignores the fact that practically all schools — poor and better-off — have been hard hit in recent years by state budget slashing. They've lost counselors, librarians, art, music and even core courses. They still have a long road to recovery, to returning to the quality public education that once propelled the state's economy and helped brand California as a great place to live.

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) says a lot of the controversy over school funding is missing the point. California also needs school reform, he asserts.

"My main concern is that even if school districts get more money, there's no guarantee that money is actually going to get to the kids," Steinberg says. "We need stronger outcome-based accountability measures."

True. But meanwhile, California has fallen to 49th in the nation in per-pupil spending, according to the national publication Education Week.

California needs all types of school reform, including how we generate money for classrooms — without starting an education civil war.

george.skelton@latimes.com