The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
Better build schoolrooms for "the boy"
Than cells and gibbets for "the man"...  ...Eliza Cook, A Song for the Ragged Schools.

Commentary of the Day - Sept. 23, 2000:  Let's Fix Our Schools Now - Yes on Prop. 39:

The following commentary is based on an earlier one that The Irascible Professor published in support of Proposition 26, which was on the California ballot six months ago.  Proposition 26 would have eliminated the "supermajority" needed to pass school bond issues in California.  Proposition 39, which is on the November 2000 ballot would reduce the "supermajority" needed for passage to 55%.

The Irascible Professor is not fond of the initiative process.  In general, he feels that ballot initiatives tend to be poorly written, and that they often create more problems than they fix.  However, in the case of Proposition 39, which will appear on the general election ballot in California in November of 2000, he is willing to make an exception.

As is true in many other states, it takes a two-thirds majority to pass a school bond issue in California.  Thus, a relatively small minority of voters frequently veto new bond issues earmarked for the construction of new schools or the repair and modernization of old school facilities.  Proposition 39 - "SMALLER CLASSES, SAFER SCHOOLS AND FINANCIAL ACCOUNTABILITY ACT" - would change that.  If the proposition passes, it would then take a 55% vote to pass a school bond referendum.  The IP has read the details of Prop. 39 carefully.  Compared to most initiatives it is well drawn.

In addition to reducing the "super-majority" needed to pass school bond issues intended for the construction, repair, rehabilitation or replacement of school facilities, the act requires annual accountings to ensure that funds generated from the sale of bonds are used for the intended purposes.  It also requires that a fair share of the funds be made available to charter schools, and it forbids the use of bond proceeds for teacher salaries or administrative costs.

A surprisingly broad coalition supports the initiative, including numerous business and labor groups, the governing boards of the University of California, the California State University System, and the California Network of Educational Charters.

The Irascible Professor frequently has been critical of the quality of teachers and teaching in our K-12 schools.  However, he also realizes that if we ever want to attract competent teachers to the profession we must provide them with adequate salaries and reasonable working conditions.  While this proposition does not address the salary issue, if it passes it would go a long way towards improving working conditions for teachers and learning conditions for students.  Currently, many California public schools are overcrowded, which makes it difficult to implement smaller classes; and many other schools are in sorry states of disrepair.  The passage of Prop. 39 would make it easier to raise the money needed to address these issues.

Bond issues are a sensible way to fund school construction and repairs.  The interest rate on a typical California municipal bond is low, less than 6%, and the bonds generally are paid off over many years.  (However, the payoff period is always less than the usable life of the facilities that the bonds fund.)  Thus, the effective interest rate typically is only a few percent in constant dollars.

One of the best reasons for eliminating the two-thirds super-majority requirement is that it is undemocratic.  In an ordinary contested election for major public offices such as the presidency or senate seats a 10% difference between the vote for the winner and the vote for the losing candidate would be considered a major landslide.  A 33% difference is unheard of in such elections.  It is sometimes argued that because bond issues are repaid from the property tax, that property owners (a minority) should have a greater say in deciding the issue.  However, this is a specious argument.  All except the homeless pay property taxes.  Landlords simply pass along the taxes to their renters.  Good schools benefit all of us.

Let's begin to solve our school facilities problems here in California.  Vote YES on Prop. 39!

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