Prop. 13 school bond isn’t really for the kids

In the arguments and advertising in support of Proposition 13 on the March 3 ballot, the proponents are trying to convince the voters it is all “for the kids.” As with previous education ballot measures in California, a parade of disasters is predicted unless the proposal in question is approved.

True to form, the opening argument set forth in the official voter information guide intones ominously, “Despite research showing students learn better in classrooms which are modern and safe, too many school buildings are dilapidated, unsafe, and unhealthy. Thousands remain at risk of wildfires or earthquakes. Others are contaminated with lead, mold, asbestos, and other hazardous materials.”


The first question taxpayers should ask is if things are this bad, where has all the previously voter-approved bond money gone? Let’s review some recent school bond measures already authorized by voters: Prop. 1A in 1998 ($9.2 billion); Prop. 47 in 2002 ($13.05 billion); Prop. 55 in 2004 ($12.3 billion); Prop. 1D in 2006 ($10.4 billion); and Prop. 51 in 2016 ($9 billion). In addition to tens of billions of dollars in new debt, there’s a nearly equal amount owed in interest costs.

And the lottery? It was sold to voters as a big step toward fully funding education. And what about Proposition 98 (1988), which mandates that at least 40% of the state’s general fund be spent on education? There is no excuse for even one classroom anywhere in the state of California still having unsafe conditions. Taxpayers and parents should demand to know which school buildings are unsafe.

But perhaps the allegedly unsafe conditions are merely a cover to conceal what this is really all about. The proponents of this year’s Proposition 13 are spending millions on advertising (featuring, of course, the obligatory firefighter) in an effort to convince voters that “our kids deserve better.” Turns out that the big funders of the more than $6 million in campaign costs have a lot to gain from more debt and higher spending.

First, it should be of little surprise that public sector labor organizations have contributed to this measure in big numbers, with the California Teachers Association kicking in half a million dollars. While we have no doubt that individual teachers care very much for their students, keep in mind that union leaders have different priorities. Al Shanker, the former head of the American Federation of Teachers, a large national labor organization, encapsulated CTA’s approach best when he said, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” The motivation here is that if bond money is spent on education facilities, it helps to free up more of the district’s money for salaries and benefits.

Second, construction companies, engineering firms, architects and trade unions are big financial backers of Proposition 13 for obvious reasons. Whether new schools are needed or not, these interests stand to do well financially with all the new business. (A dirty little secret in California is that the state has experienced declining enrollment in three of the last four years, calling into question such a massive bond for fewer students.) As a bonus to the trade unions, construction projects having so-called “project labor agreements” will have priority to receive the bond dollars.

Finally, home builder companies have combined to give over $1.5 million to the effort as part of a deal cut with Gov. Gavin Newsom to block or limit the fees that school districts charge developers who are building new housing. According to the Legislative Analyst, “school districts would be prohibited from assessing developer fees on multifamily residential developments (such as apartment complexes) located within a half-mile of a major transit stop (such as a light rail station). For all other multifamily residential developments, currently allowable developer fee levels would be reduced by 20 percent moving forward.”

Our kids deserve safe and clean classrooms in which to learn. But let’s not fall for this trick again. This bond measure is primarily for the benefit of special interests.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.