Defunding 101–Part II

Crumbling schools in Detroit. Photo from OHM Advisors/Alpha Facility Solutions

My last two blog posts documented that despite calls from the left to defund the police and from the right to defund the FBI, money for both of those organizations has increased steadily over the years. I then promised to let the reader know about an important government service that actually has been starved of funds, year after year: the schools.


I’m personally familiar with what happened in California. I moved there 1974, when that state’s public school system was the pride of the nation, and was still living there when voters took an axe to the schools—and all public services—in order to save on their property taxes. Now, compared to the other states and D.C., California’s school system is near the bottom. It ranks 37th in quality, 48th in safety, and 50th in teacher-student ratio. Here’s how that happened:

In 1978, Proposition 13 was put on the ballot. It would roll property tax rates back to 1975 levels, would set them at 1% of a property’s sale, and would bar them from being raised more than 2% per year. It also dictated that the state legislature could not raise taxes for any reason without approval from two-thirds of both houses. California’s cities and counties would be held to the same two-thirds rule. My ex’s skinflint landlady urged us to support the measure. We voted no, but it passed overwhelmingly.

Proposition 13 was a boon to established homeowners, especially the elderly, as it meant their property tax would not go up along with current market value. New buyers did not benefit, as the tax was assessed based on the purchase price. The biggest boon, however, was to corporations, because commercial property frequently changes hands in ways that don’t trigger reassessment. According to Capital & Main, “…such transactions usually do not involve a straight-up buyer-to-seller sale. Ownership migrates through such devices as real estate investment trusts, private equity buyouts, corporate purchases of companies, publicly traded stock sales, bank mergers — requiring no change of name on the deed that a local county tax assessor would note… Today, 57 percent of industrial/commercial properties in L.A. County haven’t been reassessed for nearly 20 years. In the Bay Area, 56 percent of commercial properties haven’t met a tax assessor’s gaze in two decades and 22 percent still have assessments based on property values dating back to 1975 levels.”

All public services suffered as a result of Proposition 13. There was no state money for parks, road repair, fire services, or health and welfare. The crisis center in Santa Cruz, California closed, and my wife, Sylvia, who was employed there at the time, found herself out of a job. Localities tried to make up some of the difference for public services by imposing sales taxes and/or charging more for bus fares and trash pickup. All of these fees are regressive, hitting the poor the hardest.

The schools were hit particularly hard. In grades K-12, spending per pupil dropped from fifth place in the nation in 1965 to fortieth place in 1985. From the school year 1976-77 to the year 2016-17, funding per full-time-equivalent student at the University of California fell from slightly more than $23,000 to about $8,000. During that time California State University funding per student also fell by about 25%, from slightly more than $11,000 per student to slightly less than $9,000. In response, both university systems found it necessary to increase tuition dramatically.

The Nation

A similar history of educational spending for each state would fill a book. If we look at the nation as a whole, the United States puts 11.6% of public funding toward education, considerably below the international standard of 15.0%. Those figures include federal, state, and local contributions.

In the United States, we spend 4.96% of our gross domestic product on education, while other developed nations spend an average of 5.59%. According to the Century Foundation, a public policy research institute, “The United States is underfunding its K-12 public schools by nearly $150 billion annually…School districts with high concentrations of Latinx and Black students are much more likely to be underfunded than majority white districts, and face much wider funding gaps, an average deficit of more than $5,000 per student.”


The Economic Policy Institute refers to a “teacher pay penalty,” when teachers, all else being equal, are paid less than other college graduates. From 1979 to 2021, average teacher pay in the United States, adjusted for inflation, went from $1,052 to $1,348 per week. In contrast, the average pay for other college graduates with a similar level of education went from $1,364 to $2,009.

If you adjust for inflation, teachers nationwide are earning an average of $2,179 less per year than they did a decade ago.

Teachers are paid for classroom time only, but they also put in significant amounts of unpaid overtime, preparing lessons, grading papers, and attending staff meetings. They often work ten to eleven hours per weekday and three to four additional hours on weekends.   Compare this with the police, who get paid for every extra hour, including waiting to testify in court, or the FBI’s “availability” pay, where investigators receive an additional 25% of their salary for being available to work more than 40 hours a week, regardless of whether they actually put in the extra time or not.

You Get What You Pay For

In 2018, U.S. teenagers ranked 8th in reading, 11th in science, and 30th in math compared to students from other countries. This may not be a problem, though, depending on your point of view. After all, a recent U.S. president famously declared, “I love the poorly educated.”

One Response to Defunding 101–Part II

  1. Esther Newton September 4, 2022 at 5:49 pm #

    this is tragic. Having spend a lifetime in public universities, I can testify to the cuts that started happening in the 1970s in the New York State system. At one point when you ran out of chalk (remember chalk? you could only get one or two pieces at a time and when you left the classroom too bad for you if you forgot to take the chalk with you, you’d never see it again.
    Where I finished teaching, at the University of Michigan, the student body, of which I was a member class of ’62, had gone from all Michigan residents who earned a B+ in high school with low tuition, plus out of state students who paid more but still within what a middle class family could afford, to wealthy students both national and international who could foot the inflated tuition bills and a lot of them live in swanky condos. Of course K-12 teachers have it worse, much worse. Forced to teach to tests, unpaid for overtime (this is true of college level too) and disrespected even more than, professors, and of course now under attack for teaching about racism, homophobia and transphobia, or even about our existence, it seems.

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