Thursday, November 4, 2010

Why Oakland Measure L Failed

By now it is pretty clear that Measure L has fallen around 3,500 "yes" votes short of passage.

The measure would have taxed each property in Oakland $195 to pay for schools. The teachers' union took no position on its passage, because it would have allowed some of the money to go to charter schools.

The simple answer for why the measure failed is that Oakland's public schools are terrible. But this explanation is not quite as true as it once was. In fact, Oakland's API scores have improved pretty dramatically over the last decade.

Most of this improvement is a consequence of gentrification. Nowadays, we see groups of parents all enrolling their kids at a public school, which pushes out the lower-income kids bussed from the ghetto, improving the school dramatically.

Still, running a school district does cost money, and successful school district in the region typically require some type of parcel tax assistance to be successful.

To increase the odds of passage, I would suggest that the school district make the following changes the next time they place a parcel tax on the ballot:

  1. Make the tax charge residents on a per-house and per-unit basis, not per-parcel. This better matches the revenue to the number of residents, and it doesn't punish people and entities that own vacant land. One of the reasons there was opposition to Measure L is that some folks would pay far more than $195/year because they own additional lots. Asking for money from these additional lots risks strong opposition for relatively little increase in revenue.

  2. The union needs to accept that the measure will fund both regular schools and charters. Most likely, the future of educating inner-city kids lies in charter schools. Certain charter methodologies appear to significantly improve urban kids' performance. And, as these are adopted nationwide, unions will have to accept a smaller role.

  3. Focus on the schools' improved performance. Don't just complain about being underfunded.

That third point is extremely important. Oakland's school district should actively publicize the fact that the schools are improving.

And, the district should encourage parents to give public schools another shot. The simplest way to increase funding in the school district is to attract additional pupils.

Several local elementary schools have already experienced significantly higher parent adoption because of efforts by parents' groups to increase enrollment. The district should actively encourage neighborhood enrollment at such schools as Montera and Skyline, both of which would improve dramatically if more local kids attended them.

The bottom line is that Oakland residents will reward success, so long as the payment bears some relationship to the services offered.