Friday, October 26, 2012


Jerry Brown, the governor of California, in an interview this week with the Financial Times, said that his plan to tax the highest income earners in California in an effort to boost education funding is the moral thing to do.  

The tax increase, which is on next month's ballot as Proposition 30, will effectively raise taxes by 3% on the top 1% of income earners in the state.  The proposition will temporarily increase taxes on those earning more than $250,000 per year, with additional increases for those earning more than $500,000 per year, and even greater increase for those making more than $1million per year.  Support for the proposition has waned in recent weeks, and Brown is making the circuit warning Californians that if we fail to pass the proposition, schools will have to be closed for up to an extra three weeks per year.

Brown, in his interview, said that "the richest 1 percent" of California have a "moral obligation" to pay more in taxes in order to keep schools open.  He went on to quote from the Bible saying, "Luke 12:48 says: 'For those of whom much has been given, much is required.'"  Finally, he excoriated opponents of Proposition 30, calling them "finance guys."

I'm not sure that all the opponents are "finance guys"; I'm an opponent, and I don't think I'm a finance guy.

Unless by "finance guy" he means someone who makes decisions based on the financial reality of a situation.  In which case, maybe I am a finance guy.

To be clear: I'm not among what Brown calls the "richest 1 percent" (a classification, incidentally, that's a little dishonest in that the tax has nothing to do with wealth; it's based on income).  I'm not going to be faced with any additional tax based on my income here, so I'm not simply trying to protect myself.  Furthermore, my children are enrolled in public school, so it's not simply a case of "I don't care; it doesn't affect me."

I'm insulted, though, that Governor Brown has framed this through the lens of morality--as if those who vote no on Proposition 30 are in some way immoral.  Because that view, while perhaps expedient given Brown's need to fund schools now (and certainly convenient in that it ignores some other, painful realities associated with public education) is dishonest in its narrowness.

In 1920 the cost to educate a student in a US public school (excluding buildings and construction and a few other capital costs) was about $540 (in inflation adjusted numbers--that means this is the cost in today's dollars).  According to the California Department of Education, the cost to educate a student in California (in a public school), again excluding building and construction, as well as food services and community services, in 2010-11 was $8,323.

$8,323, not including meals and the actual buildings themselves!  That means that in 90 years the cost to educate a student went up by over 1,500% (again, remember that all numbers are in today's dollars).  It costs us over 15 times as much to educate a student today as it did in 1920.

What have we gained by continuing to increase our investment in public schools?  Here are some statistics that should give us some perspective:

  • In the period between 1955 and 1983, nationally, math scores based upon the national norm Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) administered by the Educational Testing Service actually declined!  
  • According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress Long-Term Trends tests, since the last 1960's, there has been no change in math scores amongst high-school 17-year olds.  The same test shows a sharp decline in science scores beginning in the 1970's; the scores have still not risen to 1960's levels!  

Of course, I think that, at this point, I'm arguing against a phantom opponent.  There's almost nobody out there arguing that public education is fundamentally just fine; even the public educators and unions seem to agree (for the most part) that dramatic improvement is needed in public education.

But the argument seems to always center around money.  As evidenced by Governor Brown's proposal.  His comments seem to imply that if high income earners would simply relent and pay more in taxes, education would get better.  But it seems to me that we have a very long history of trying that very thing.  I think that a 15-fold increase in public education funding (after adjusting for inflation) over 90 years should give us enough history to know whether or not more money makes for better education.  And we're all in agreement that it doesn't seem to work.

So I would argue that our Governor's "morality" argument is either ill-informed (maybe he just doesn't have the data) or a desperate and dishonest attempt to convince California's voting population into voting blindly, without doing any research.

I tend to be eternally optimistic about our voting population; I believe that they are, on the whole, smarter and more inclined to think deeply than the average politician (like Brown) would seem to believe.  It's clear to me that Governor Brown hopes that by playing to a sense of "moral outrage" over our high-income fellow citizens not kicking in more money to bail out public education, he can get us to vote blindly without examining the data--data which tells a story that is in stark contradiction to what Governor Brown would have us believe.

So ask yourself this: is this really a case of "moral obligation"?  Do the high-income earners in California really have a "moral obligation" to kick in even greater amounts of money to fund a system that has been overwhelmingly overfunded over the last century--and which has proven to be increasingly less effective has the investment has risen?

Call me a "finance guy" if you must, but in my admittedly simplistic way of looking at things, there's a point in time at which you begin to throw good money after bad, and a wise person makes the decision, at that point, to stop throwing money at things, and instead try to actually fix what's broken.

The moral failure, in this case, is the shameful waste that has led us to continue to pour money into a failing system, and nobody has had the courage to stand up and cry out for a change to the system itself.

My vote is NO on Proposition 30--not because I'm immoral, but because I believe it's immoral to perpetuate our legacy of wastefulness and mediocrity.  My vote is for one of my elected representatives to simply speak the truth.

Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein, "What's Really behind the SAT-Score Decline," Public Interest, no. 106 (Winter 1992): 32-56

Rebecca Moran and Anthony D. Lutkus, NAEP 2004 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance in Reading and Mathematics (Washington: U.S. Department of Education, 2005), p. 17;ds/fd/ec/currentexpense.asp