Evidence supports effect of Prop 13 on education

The debate over California’s faltering public education system — now ranked 48th in the country — pits those who fault the influx of illegal immigrants into the state against those who fault Proposition 13, the 1978 referendum that capped property tax increases in the state.

Those who hold Proposition 13 responsible make the stronger case.

True, California’s public schools are charged with educating a lot of illegal immigrants. Currently 15 percent of the children enrolled in the state’s public schools fall into this category. True too, some of these students struggle with English, which depresses their scores on standardized tests.

However, educating illegal immigrants is hardly a recent challenge for California — and the state used to do a good job of it. In 1980, over 4 percent of the state’s population was illegal. While today the percentage is almost 7 percent, this increase is too small to explain the state’s plummet from near the top to the bottom in the educational rankings.

Neither can the challenges of educating children for whom English is a second language explain declining education quality in California.

The U.S. Department of Education reports that the percentage of children aged 5-17 who have difficulty speaking English rose from 4.1 percent in 1980 to 5 percent in 2009. The increase may have been slightly higher in California (Department of Education data are national) but clearly the increase is too small to explain dramatically declining educational measures.

There is also the question of why falling measures of educational achievement would be pinned on illegal aliens in the first place. Is the claim the xenophobic one that these children are dumber or less academically ambitious and prepared than legal residents?

Not usually. Usually the claim is that illegal immigrants place a financial burden on the school system that is not offset by the taxes they pay.

In the short run, this appears to be true. A frequently-heard estimate is that educating illegal immigrants costs California $7.7 billion annually.

However, in the long run, it’s not clear that this charge is entirely fair. Illegal immigrants after all pay property taxes too, at least indirectly through rent, and funding for public education is never a pay-as-you go affair. Parents are rarely taxed at the full cost of educating their children when their children are in school, but make up for this by paying school taxes before and afterward.

School funding requires generational, not annual, accounting.

Once this issue of generational accounting is raised, it merits mention that illegal immigrants help shore up Social Security.

Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary of Social Security, estimated that in 2007 contributions by illegal immigrants represented to a net gain to the system of between $120 billion and $240 billion. Thus, while illegal immigrants are a burden to the schools, they are a boon to the retirees.

But whether or not illegal immigrants are a net economic loss or gain to the country (an issue that is hotly debated by economists) the interesting thing is that those who blame illegal immigrants for California’s collapsing school systems ultimately really argue that California’s schools are failing because they lack money.

Well, this is the explanation that those who emphasize the role of Proposition 13 start with. They point out that educational funding in California has been cut in half since this tax-cutting law went into effect (an estimate advanced by Ronald G. Corwing of Ohio State University). This has in turn left California’s schools without the resources they need to educate any child — legal or illegal — as adequately as they could back when California was able to boast one of the best public school systems in the country.

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