I was in upstate New York last weekend, flying low over farmlands and old industrial cities in one of those bumpy little "commuter" planes, then driving through small towns in areas that, I’ll say politely, have seen better economic days. And yet, everywhere I went, a landmark stood out: From the air and from the ground, the public schools seemed universally spacious and well maintained. They had nice baseball and football fields, all-weather tracks, and new playground equipment. I didn’t go inside, but I can tell you nonetheless that the schools in most of New York are way better than the schools in most of California.
And there’s a good reason for that.
My brother owns a house in Putnam Valley, a small town about two hours north of New York City. He bought it 15 years ago, for about $105,000, and while it has increased in value, it’s still assessed at way less than half of what I paid for my house in San Francisco. And yet he pays more property taxes than I do.
He’s a contractor, a small-business person, subject to the volatile whims of the home-building industry, and he’s trying to support two kids and save money for their college fund. He pays $5,000 a year in school taxes alone, and it’s a real burden.
But for that money, he gets to send his kids to public schools that are better than most $25,000-a-year private schools. He considers it a bargain.
In New York they spend about twice as much per student as we do in California. That money has to come from somewhere, and a lot of it comes from property taxes. This isn’t rocket science — even people educated in California should be able to figure it out: You want good schools, you have to pay for them.
Then I came back and met with Steve Westly, the state controller and the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for governor. Westly loves to talk about education — but he’s not even willing to commit to seeking changes in Proposition 13 that would allow for higher property taxes on commercial buildings to pay for the schools.
It’s this air of unreality we have in California. For 28 years, since the "tax revolt" movement was born in this state, politicians have pandered to the selfish among the voters (and that’s most of them, it seems) by saying they can have it all — for free. We’ve been promised a beautiful state with lots of parkland, top-rate public schools and colleges, massive spending on cops and prisons, stable union jobs for public employees, abundant water for thriving agriculture, extensive resources to meet urban problems … and low taxes for all.
Westly’s Democratic opponent, Phil Angelides, is at least honest: He promises the same sorts of things Westly does, but he admits that somebody will have to pay for them. He’s focusing on the wealthy, which is the right idea — this is a rich state, and the millionaires have done quite well the past few years. But the rest of us will get hit a bit too, and I hate to say it, but we should.
Because the teachers don’t have to be underpaid, the roads don’t have to be crumbling, the parks don’t have to be overcrowded, the hospitals don’t need to be teetering on the edge of collapse. We can have high-speed rail to LA.
Taxes are a small sacrifice for the public good. My parents’ generation seemed to get that. California’s baby boomers apparently don’t. SFBG