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USC Dornsife/Times Poll

Californians willing to pay higher taxes for better schools

Even in tough economic times, 64% in a USC Dornsife/L.A. Times Poll say they would shell out more for taxes to boost public-school funding.

November 19, 2011|By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times
  • Students study Spanish at Huntington Park High. School. A new poll has discovered broad-based support for levying higher taxes to benefit public schools, even in a grim economy.
Students study Spanish at Huntington Park High. School. A new poll has discovered… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)

A strong majority of California voters is willing to pay higher taxes to boost funding for public schools even in a grim economy, a new poll has found.

After three years of budget cuts that have battered schools with extensive teacher layoffs and deep cuts in art, music and other programs, 64% of those surveyed said they would shell out more for schools.

The consensus was broad, crossing both genders and all races, ages, regions, income and educational levels. One exception was conservative Republicans, with only 34% willing to pay more for schools. But 60% of Republicans who described themselves as moderate or liberal and three-fourths of Democrats said they would support such a move.

"I think we've reached a tipping point on the willingness of voters to pay more taxes" for schools, said Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, which co-directed the bipartisan poll for USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles Times. "Across party and ideology in tough times, to favor a tax increase on yourself is pretty impressive."

Laura Hurley, a Ventura County resident, was with the majority. She is a Republican and an older voter, belonging to two groups the poll showed were less inclined to back increases in their own taxes for more school spending. The 66-year-old bank retiree said she worries about cuts across the state's education system, with a niece anxious about keeping her teaching job and a son struggling with public university tuition hikes.

"I think it's awful," she said of the squeeze on schools. "Education is very important, and if we have to pay a little bit more, that's OK."

A majority of those polled said California's public schools were in bad shape, with two-thirds giving them a grade of C or below and about half saying they were getting worse. Respondents criticized funding shortages, wasteful spending on administration and bureaucratic barriers to innovation and reform.

About half supported the right of parents to demand, by majority vote, sweeping changes at low-performing schools. These could include reorganizing staff and curriculum, converting to charter schools or closing campuses altogether. Last year, California became the nation's first state to extend that right to parents in a law known as the Parent Trigger.

Voters were far more upbeat about their local schools than those statewide. The poll found that 64% said the campuses were doing an excellent or good job preparing their children or grandchildren for college.

Vance Fleming, a 53-year-old construction inspector near Fresno, said budget cuts in the Sierra Unified School District had hurt athletic, agricultural and foreign language programs. But he said his 13-year-old son is still managing to get a good education.

Fleming, who described himself as a conservative Republican, said he opposed tax hikes for schools until local education officials improve their financial management. He pointed to officials in his district who spent millions on what he called an unneeded "Taj Mahal" administration building.

"The public wants to make sure that any additional funding for education is being used effectively and goes directly to the classroom and not to more bureaucracy or administration, which they see as a greater problem than a lack of funds," said Republican pollster Linda DiVall of American Viewpoint, which co-directed the poll.

Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, added that voters were most supportive of taxes for local needs. "Voters will pay more … as long as they are confident the money will be spent in their own communities."

Such sentiments could boost various efforts underway to qualify a school funding initiative for the November 2012 ballot. A report issued last week by the state Legislative Analyst's Office projected a $3.7-billion shortfall in the current budget, which could trigger more than $1 billion in cuts from kindergartens through high schools.

Aside from tax increases, voters expressed near-agreement on what else they would do to improve local schools. Substantial majorities said more parent involvement, smaller class sizes, more dollars directed to the classroom and apprenticeships for new teachers would help.

Most respondents said they've seen the effects of the funding crisis in their schools: bigger classes, fewer arts programs and more out-of-pocket spending for supplies.

David Garcia, a 21-year-old Democrat and Ventura College student, said cuts in high school counselors had contributed to several classmates' falling off track and dropping out of school. He said he would be willing to shell out more taxes to improve schools — even though he makes minimum wage at a smoothie shop.

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