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California voters to decide crucial school-related ballot measures on taxes, teen voting and race-based admissions

Linda Jacobson | November 2, 2020



From left, Adrianna Zhang, Norman Yee, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and Sarah Ginsburg posted signs in support of the city’s Proposition G, which would allow 16-year-olds to vote in local elections. (Adrianna Zheng)

Supporters of three education-related ballot initiatives in California are hoping the potential for what one advocate called “record-shattering” turnout on Tuesday will give their measures a lift at the polls.

Voters in the Golden State will decide if a tax assessment formula that has been in place for more than 40 years should be amended — potentially providing more than $4 billion for public schools. They will also decide on bringing affirmative action back in college admissions and allowing 17-year-olds to vote in primaries.

The California measures are three of about a dozen statewide education-focused measures on the November ballot across the country on issues ranging from raises for teachers in Arizona to the future of sex education in Washington state. Proponents of tax measures are hoping that voters will look beyond the immediate economic downturn and approve long-term funding increases for public schools. Voters in multiple locations will also have an opportunity to approve new or existing early-childhood education programs.

In California, Proposition 15 would amend Proposition 13, often blamed for the state’s school funding problems. Passed in 1978, the measure — long considered a third rail in state politics — requires both commercial and residential properties to be taxed based on their purchase price. That restriction forces schools to rely more on state funds, especially income taxes, which can be less stable. Proposition 15 would create what is known as a split roll in which taxes on commercial and industrial properties valued at over $3 million would be assessed at market value.

(Rodin Eckenroth / Getty Images)

In a state where per-student spending is consistently below the national average and half of what New York spends, the measure would “provide some significant dollars” for schools, said Ted Lempert, a former state assemblyman and president of Children Now, an advocacy organization. The measure has been slipping in recent polls, but if it passes, it could initially help districts implement hybrid attendance plans, in which some students attend school in the building and others continue distance learning, and eventually increase staff-to-student ratios.

“We rank near the bottom in counselors and nurses,” Lempert said, adding that when schools have support personnel, in addition to teachers, students can be more successful.

Opponents of Proposition 15 argue it’s a terrible time for a tax increase given the pandemic and the recession, and cite it is another example of the state creating an unfriendly climate for business owners.

Proposition 16 asks voters to repeal a measure they approved in 1996 that prohibited governments and public institutions, including colleges and universities, from considering race and sex in admissions and contract decisions. Coming amid national attention to racial equity issues, the measure has support from voters, Lempert said, but added that they’re also confused “because the voters themselves” approved the ban in the first place.

Without affirmative action, Lempert said, schools have less information to make admissions decisions, especially since the state is no longer requiring applicants to submit entrance exam scores.

“There’s a huge equity divide at college entrance,” he said.

Some opponents argue, as plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Harvard University have, that reinstating affirmative action would hurt Asian students, While the California legislature didn’t place the measure on the ballot until the summer, Lempert said it’s not impossible that “record-shattering” voter turnout could lead to the measure’s approval.

Finally, voters will decide whether to join 18 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing 17-year-olds to vote in primaries and special elections if they will turn 18 by the general election. San Francisco voters will decide whether to take the youth vote a step further, allowing those who are 16 to have a say in local elections. Supporters of the measure say it will help instill voting as a habit.

“Youth are getting involved in such new ways because of the pandemic,” said Adrianna Zhang, a junior at Lowell High School in San Francisco who also serves on the city’s Youth Commission. A similar measure was defeated in 2016, but received 48 percent of the vote. Zheng thinks this time it will pass. “We’ve garnered so much more support. There are so many more volunteers who are phone banking,” she said.

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