“Theoretically All Children Are Equal. Practically This Can Never Be So”: The History of the District Property Tax in California and the Choice of Inequality
by Matthew Gardner Kelly - 2020
Background/Context: Dealing mostly in aggregate statistics that mask important regional variations, scholars often assume that district property taxation and the resource disparities this approach to school funding creates are deeply rooted in the history of American education.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: This article explores the history of district property taxation and school funding disparities in California during the 19th and 20th centuries. First, the article documents the limited use of district property taxation for school funding in California and several other Western states during the 19th century, showing that the development of school finance was more complicated than standard accounts suggest. Then, the article examines how a coalition of experts, activists, and politicians worked together during the early 20th century to promote district property taxation and institutionalize the idea that the wealth of local communities, rather than the wealth of the entire state, should determine the resources available for public schooling.
Research Design: This article draws on primary source documents from state and regional archives, including district-level funding data from nine Northern California counties, to complete a historical analysis.
Conclusions/Recommendations: The history of California’s district property tax suggests the need for continued research on long-term trends in school finance and educational inequality. Popular accounts minimizing the historical role of state governments in school funding obscure how public policies, not just market forces shaping property values, create funding inequalities. In turn, these accounts communicate powerful messages about the supposed inevitability of funding disparities and the responsibility of state governments to correct them. Through increased attention to long-term trends in school funding, scholars can help popular commentators and policymakers avoid assumptions that naturalize inequality and narrow the possibilities for future funding reforms.
In the spring of 1918, school administrator C.L. Phelps complained that the state of California no longer had, in a technical sense, a system of public schools. The trouble for Phelps related to recent trends in school finance. The burden of supporting the common schools is being shifted from the State and county to the district, he complained (Phelps, 1918, p. 260). Phelps was right. During the early decades of the 20th century, school finance in California was transformed. Few school districts raised a property tax to help pay for elementary schools for much of the states early history. For example, only 8% of the school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area levied a district property tax to pay for elementary schools in 1890. Ninety-two percent of the school districts in the region were funded through sources completely unrelated to the wealth of the local district. Dollars flowed freely across school district boundaries. By 1920, the organization of school funding in the state shifted. Sixty percent of the districts in the San Francisco Bay Area were regularly collecting a district property tax to help fund their schools. Only 40% of districts were exclusively funded through sources that continued to redistribute wealth across school district lines.
In this paper, I examine the rise of the school district property tax in California. I explore how experts in public finance and school administration, organizations like the California Teachers Association and California Taxpayers Association, and state politicians came to accept the idea that the wealth of local communities, rather than the wealth of the entire state, should determine the resources available for public schooling. I concentrate on how these groups not only embraced public policies that expanded the use of the district property tax in the early 20th century, but reframed inequality between school districts as an inevitable and thus unchangeable feature of public education systems. As they recast district inequality in ways that concealed their role in creating it, I contend that these experts, activists, and politicians gave new forms of power and legitimacy to resource disparities between school districts.
The history of local educational financing in California enriches existing scholarship in three ways. First, exploring the rise of Californias district property tax complicates current understandings of the role local districts have historically played in school finance. Researchers have long studied taxation and school finance, past and present. Dealing mostly in aggregate statistics that mask important regional variations, however, scholars have maintained that communities always used district property taxes to fund their schools, with some states increasing state support during the 20th century (e.g., Brimley & Garfield, 2008, pp. 7980; Ryan, 2010, pp. 124125). In this paper, I show that this pattern was not universally true and that the development of school finance during the early 20th century was far more complicated than most accounts suggest. In the 19th century, California and several other Western states developed an alternative approach to school funding that eschewed district-level funding and the inequities that came with it. After the abolition of Californias statewide property tax in 1910, however, this earlier approach to school funding was abandoned. Moreover, the changes that facilitated the rise of the district property tax in California spread beyond the state. The early experiments in public finance that abolished Californias statewide property tax influenced reformers across the nation (Mehrotra, 2013; Teaford, 2002). Since the 1850s and 1860s, educational innovations in California attracted attention from national audiences, shaping school reform in other states. Historians of the United States during the postwar era have given much attention to California and its approach to school finance, detailing how the states experience with school finance litigation and the property tax revolt shaped national politics (Brilliant, 2010; Self, 2003). In this paper, I illustrate how the earlier history of school finance in California also deserves sustained attention.
Second, the history of the district property tax in California brings into view the importance of school finance for historians of education. On the balance, historians have given limited attention to the evolution of school finance over time, especially in Western states during the Progressive Era. Scholars interested in the origins of public education have long discussed school finance in the context of the Northeast, especially in relation to the abolition of rate bills (Beadie, 2010; Kaestle, 1983; Kaestle & Vinovskis, 1986). Historians of postwar America have also given substantial attention to equalization efforts and tax revolts after 1945 (Brilliant, 2012; Martin, 2008; Sracic, 2006). With the exception of recent work by Scribner (2016), Steffes (2012), Walsh (2018), and Westberg (2017), however, historians of education rarely discuss the politics of school finance outside of these contexts. Yet debates over school finance reflected fundamental questions about the meaning of education as a public good. Do the tax dollars raised for education belong to a local school district, the entire state, or the broader national community? Is it reasonable to expect schools to serve national or state purposes but fund them in ways that ensure tremendous disparities between communities? How large can you make inequalities between school districts before you stop having a public state system and find yourself left with something else altogether? These were all highly contested questions in the early 20th century, questions revealed by debates over the district property tax and missed by historians who ignore the evolution of school finance.
Third, the history of Californias district property tax suggests the need for those of us focused on the present to spend more time examining the evolution of inequality and our own assumptions about the past. This paper emphasizes the role of state governments in school funding during the late 19th and early 20th century. Historical accounts minimizing that role obscure how public policies, not just market forces shaping property values, create funding inequalities. In turn, accounts that neglect this point communicate a powerful message about the inevitability of disparities and the responsibility (or lack thereof) of state governments to correct them. Funding disparities, and inequality itself, seem natural when we underestimate the role public policies have played in their creation. This point is particularly important because historians and school finance scholars are not the only ones who discuss the long-term evolution of school funding. Courts, politicians, the media, and education policy scholars in general often draw on historical narratives about the past when they discuss school funding. In a present where contributions to education by many state governments have decreased substantially over the past decade, the stories we tell about long-term trends have consequences for the kinds of policies we propose for the future (Leachman, Masterson, & Figueroa, 2017). The history of Californias district property tax, then, illustrates the importance of educational research investigating the historical assumptions embedded within our contemporary discussions of education policy. Failing to conduct that research, this paper ultimately suggests, can naturalize inequality and narrow the possibilities imagined for the future.
THE SCIENCE OF PUBLIC FINANCE, TAX REFORM, AND THE LOCAL BENEFITS OF PUBLIC SCHOOLING
Economic experts and fiscal reformers transformed public finance in California during the Progressive Era. In 1910, they successfully leveraged the states new referendum system to abolish Californias statewide property tax. The change, then called Amendment No. 1, shifted the way the state of California collected and distributed taxes (Blackford, 1976; Doerr, 2000; Mehrotra, 2013; Teaford, 2002). On paper, this shift promised to capture more revenue from public service corporations within the state, ideally forcing organizations like the Southern Pacific to pay a greater share of taxes. In practice, this new tax regime left unchecked a widening gap between spending and revenue at the state level. At the same time, the cost of educational provision increased, and local communities found a growing gap between educational spending and state support. More and more communities were forced to levy a local property tax to support their schools.
The movement to abolish Californias statewide property tax was directed by Carl Plehn, a scholar of public finance at the University of California. Plehn chaired the finance committee that recommended the abolition of the statewide property tax and the separation of state and local revenue. In his official report that would form the basis for Amendment No. 1, Plehn and his colleagues connected schools to the benefit theory of taxation. In the process, they weaved into the emerging science of public finance, and eventually state policy, the narrowly conceived vision of public education embraced by community boosters and municipal reformers. The separation of state and local revenue, the committee argued, was founded on the notion that schools primarily benefit local communities and, as such, should be funded locally. The theoretical principle for the separation of State from local taxation, Plehn wrote in the Commission on Revenue and Taxations report, is found in part in the natural distribution of functions between State and local governments (Committee on Revenue and Taxation, 1906, p. 27). This natural distribution, he continued, clearly defined the appropriate beneficiaries of schooling in narrow terms:
The activities of the local governments, such as the protection of property by the police, the fire departments, the local courts, the construction and maintenance of roads, streets, bridges, and the like; the provision for schools, the care of the sick and of the poor, redound distinctly, directly, and peculiarly to the benefit of local real estate owners, or local industries and enhance and sustain the value of real estate and of other tangible property in the localities. This has always been the ground for making local governmental expenses a local charge. (p. 42)
In their emphasis on how the provision for schools . . . redound[s] distinctly, directly, and peculiarly to the benefit of local real estate owners and enhance[s] and sustain[s] the value of local real estate, the authors of the report recast the purposes of schooling in the familiar terms of boosters and real estate developers. The vision of schooling contained within the report seemed fundamentally at odds with much of the Progressive Era writing on schools. Whether they were defined as valuable institutions for Americanizing immigrants or providing economic opportunity to individual children, schools were often discussed in terms of a broad national project, one that transcended the boundaries of the school district. Plehn and his colleagues, with the weight of their expertise, recast the purposes of schooling and the public it served, fully containing it within the boundaries of the school district. Plehn and his colleagues also expanded on the local character of schools by casting doubt on the states role in funding them, extending the notion that schools were local rather than state institutions:
The $4,000,000 collected by the State for the support of the common schools is only nominally State revenueit is in reality local revenue. Save for the supervision exercised by the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education, the control and management of the schools is a matter of local government solely. The State collects, apportions, and disburses the school monies as an agent for the districts. (1906, pp. 1718)
In framing the states role in collecting and disbursing money for schools as a matter of local revenue, the authors of the report rendered the idea of redistribution problematic. How could it make sense for a wealthy community to provide financial assistance to the schools of a poorer community if the money collected by the state for these purposes was only nominally State revenue? If the State was merely an agent for the districts as Plehn and his colleagues argued, the use of anything other than a district property tax seemed to make little sense, despite the massive inequalities that reliance on a district property tax would create.
Thus, the writings of Carl Plehn and the Committee on Taxation and Revenue created a theoretical justification for the notion that the state should redistribute less money between local school districts. Plehn and his colleagues used the developing science of public finance to support the idea that schools served a local, rather than statewide, public. In accepting the logic of the Committee on Taxation and Revenue, voters translated into state policy these ideas about the nature of the states role in education, a move that dramatically altered the nature of school funding within the state.
THE RISE OF THE DISTRICT PROPERTY TAX
The passage of Amendment No. 1 placed the states support for schools in a precarious position. The idea that the benefits of public schooling redound distinctly to local property owners made the broader notion of statewide school support seem dubious. If local property owners were the primary beneficiaries of schools, why would the state use anything other than local property taxes to support education? Moreover, the passage of Amendment No. 1 removed an important source of school funding from the states budget by eliminating the state property tax. Although the amendment specified that the state school fund should have first claim against state revenues, it did not guarantee a specific amount for state support. Instead, schools would compete each year for an undetermined portion of the states revenue, revenue that public service corporations seemed determined to keep as low as possible (Blackford, 1976, pp. 146171). The measure, then, placed the prospect of future increases in state school support in a perilous position by making any attempt to maintain or increase state school support subject to yearly legislative wrangling in an environment of retrenchment and rampant intrastate rivalries. The amendment, on the balance, produced a dramatic transformation in California school finance as the states proportional role in school funding dramatically declined over time and local district property taxes became increasingly important for local communities seeking to fill the gap.
While they were ultimately unsuccessful, opponents of Amendment No. 1 made clear the adverse impact the referendum would have on state school support. The editors of The Los Angeles Herald opposed the amendment for its potential impact on state school support, expressing dismay that the adoption of the amendment will upset the present legislative provisions for raising a state fund to support the public schools and the state university (The Constitutional Amendments, 1906, p. 6). State Senator A.E. Boynton provided a similar justification for his opposition to the amendment, citing his belief that the amendment would impair the school fund (Amendment No. 1, 1910, p. 4). Californians were not unaware of the impact the amendment would have on state school support, though it seemed to have little impact on the final success of the measure.
Senator Boynton proved to be prescient. Intercity rivalries in the legislature complicated attempts to increase state school support. The growing power of the notion that schools served a local rather than statewide public thwarted almost every effort to increase state school support. When the legislature moved to increase state school contributions in the 1911 session, heated controversy developed around the method of apportioning the funds. The trouble related to the fact that many state legislators interpreted the bill not in relation to a statewide educational project, but to a series of competing local public school systems. The bill was fairly straightforward, designed to shift the apportionment of state funds from a census child to average daily attendance system. Trouble started, however, when state lawmakers began discussing the bill in terms of its prospective winners and losers. The editors of the San Francisco Call dismissed the measure as an effort to favor Los Angeles in school apportionment. Los Angeles would be the greatest gainer, and the two largest losers would be San Francisco, $28,084, and Alameda, $6,487, they wrote (Coghlan Defeats Benedict Measure, 1911, p. 5). The legislature was eventually able to reach a compromise after delegates from San Francisco secured an amendment to the bill, prompting the editors of the Los Angeles Times to exclaim to readers, South is Beaten in School Fight (South is Beaten in School Fight, 1911, p. 6). Although some education leaders attempted to remind state politicians that money paid in school taxes belongs to the schools of the state and not the individual communities, their exhortations seemed to fall on deaf ears (Bay City Protest Will Be Unheeded, 1911, p. 12). According to one observer, the entire discussion of school finance produced a lengthy debate in which each member of the assembly appeared to consider it his bounded duty to discuss in detail just how the proposed new law would affect the school districts of his own particular county (Amend School Bill for Cities, 1911, p. 2). The Superintendent supported this fragmented view of the states role in schooling, eventually releasing official statistics documenting the gains and losses each county could expect under the terms of the new system, a practice that would continue with future finance bills (Sacramento Would Gain, 1911, p. 3).
The difficulty that intercity competition and the separation of sources created for attempts to increase state school support became even more pronounced after 1914. In November of that year, the state of California abolished another important source of revenue for the states school system, the poll tax. The abolition of the tax produced a $3 million deficit in the school fund. As a result of the change, San Franciscos school system was short $104,000 in 1915 and $130,000 in 1916 (S.F. Schools Face $104,000 Deficit, 1915, p. 1). Each district in the state lost approximately $1 per pupil in 1915 dollars (New Bill Increases Public School Funds, 1915). Some communities responded by withholding teacher salaries (Teachers Must Wait, 1915, p. 9). Other communities simply closed their school systems early (Fall River Mills Schools to Close, 1915, p. 5). When the state finally responded to what many considered an emergency in school finance, the state only restored three quarters of the money lost from the tax (Shortage in School Funds, 1915, p. 1). Taken together, these trends left schools across the state in a difficult position. If they did not remain open for eight months, they would lose all state support (Shortage in School Funds, 1915, p. 1). Most districts were left with few options and were forced to raise a district property tax, resulting in a profound shift in the way schools were funded (Schools May Run, 1915, p. 3).
These shifts in school support were theoretically justified by the writing of experts like Plehn, and they resonated with popular narratives framing public schooling as a local, rather than statewide, public good. Nevertheless, these changes were not without controversy. A small but vocal opposition criticized the transformation in California school finance initiated by the work of the Committee on Revenue and Taxation. For critics, the trouble related to the district property tax. While scholars in the present assume that the district property tax was a universal and inevitable feature of American public schooling, some Californians considered the district property tax strange and highly problematic. Critics worried that the state was retreating from its responsibilities and, in the process, redefining the very nature of schooling in the state. For several years in California, a commentator wrote in the Sierra Educational News, protests have been repeatedly voiced at the increase being put upon the locality, either the county or city, and at the diminishing help from the state in the support of schools (Keppel, 1919, p. 121).
The critics were right. As the state abolished existing sources of school funding, district and county property taxes became increasingly important for school finance. Educational costs expanded across the country between 1890 and 1920 as school districts created high schools, evening schools, kindergartens, and other ancillary institutions. The shift in school funding in California was not simply a product of expanding educational offerings and new costs, however. Excluding financial data related to costs like construction, high schools, kindergartens, and evening schools makes clear the scope of the funding transformation that worried critics like Keppel. While state aggregate contributions to elementary schooling technically increased between 1890 and 1920, the increase was small in comparison to the states growing population and enrollments. As Table 1 demonstrates, per-pupil state contributions for elementary schools decreased between 1890 and 1920, while per-pupil contributions from counties and school districts increased. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the state was responsible for 60% of the total expenditures for elementary schools in 1890. By 1920, the state was providing only 23% of the money spent on elementary schools in the region (see Figures 1 and 2).
For critics, the problem with this shift in school support was not simply that the state was shirking its responsibilities, but that the state was redefining what it meant to have a public education system. Since schools were increasingly funded through taxes that did not redistribute wealth between communities, some critics wondered how anyone could claim that California continued to have a state system of schooling. The legislature is not doing its duty towards the public schools, which are State institutionsnot county institutions one newspaper editor lamented. The matter of providing for the public schools should not be passed to the counties, this critic continued, for the schools are not county institutions. Public education is for the benefit of the State. . . . Education knows nothing of county lines (Teachers and Poll Tax, 1915, p. 2).
The real trouble with declining state contributions to public schooling was not that it increased the salience of county lines, however. Many counties were close to the legal maximum in their ability to generate revenue through property taxes. The state stipulated that counties could only raise a certain percentage of their assessed valuations in property taxes to support schools. For poorer communities or communities that purposely kept their assessed valuations low, this meant that they were going to have trouble raising enough money to cover the states declining share of school expenditures. County taxes, moreover, seemed to make less and less sense to Californians who were opposed to the idea that wealth should be redistributed between communities in order to pay for schools. As a result, it was the local school district that came to assume an increasingly important role in California school funding. This fact terrified critics of the narrow public imagined by boosters and experts like Plehn. California has shifted the burden of Education from the State to the counties and the districts; and many of the counties are forcing the districts to carry an undue burden, Keppel observed (1918, p. 587).
Keppel was correct in pointing out the increasingly important role of local school districts in educational finance within the state. Indeed, local district taxes played a minimal role in school finance in 1890, but a profoundly different role by 1920. As Table 1 illustrates, the states shrinking role in funding was accompanied by a growth in the role of local districts. District per-pupil spending for elementary schools increased between 1890 and 1920, from $10.86 per pupil to $14.36 in 1920 dollars. State contributions decreased during this same period, from $29.34 per pupil to $14.31 per pupil in 1920 dollars. While 40% of the money spent on schools in the San Francisco Bay Area was derived from county and district taxes in 1890, most of that money came from countywide taxes, a revenue source that could redistribute tremendous amounts of wealth between school districts. Indeed, only 13% of total school expenditures were derived from district property taxes in 1890.2 In Alameda County, wealth from Oakland was redistributed to fund rural districts like Eden Vale, a small district in a poor farming area with low property values. In Sonoma County, Santa Rosas wealth was applied to isolated rural schools like Alder Glen. In Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties, the wealth of cities like San Jose and increasingly wealthy suburbs like Mayfield was redistributed to help poor districts in underdeveloped and impoverished areas. The story was the same in Napa, Marin, and Solano counties. In fact, so much wealth was being redistributed through county taxes in 1890 that fewer than 10% of the school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area even raised a district property tax in that year. In other words, over 90% of the school districts in 1890 were being funded by revenue sources that did not limit educational resources to local wealth. All of this changed dramatically after the Separation of Sources Act and the abolition of the poll tax. By 1915, almost 30% of the school districts in the region were raising a district property tax and thus relying on revenue sources that could not redistribute wealth across school district boundaries. By 1920, this figure jumped to 61%. The change was not isolated to larger urban districts. As Table 2 demonstrates, districts of every size increased their reliance on property taxes for elementary school funding between 1890 and 1920. Among districts enrolling more than 500, 100500, 3099, and fewer than 30 elementary school students, a similar pattern unfolded: The number of districts raising a property tax and the average amount of per-pupil expenditures derived from district sources increased at a dramatically higher rate than changes in the number of districts within each category. For example, the total number of districts educating fewer than 30 elementary school students increased 36% between 1890 and 1920, while the number of districts educating between 30 and 99 students decreased 31%, perhaps because of efforts to subdivide rural districts into even smaller units. In districts of both sizes, however, the number of districts levying a property tax increased dramatically: 456% among districts educating 30 to 99 elementary schools students and 1,580% among the smallest districts. As districts of varying sizes and wealth increased their use of district property taxation, variation in average per-pupil expenditures derived from district property taxes increased as well, also reflected in Table 2. Increased reliance on district property taxes strengthened the relationship between the uneven distribution of property wealth and the uneven distribution of educational resources.
This financial shift only made school district boundaries more contested and the idea that schools served a statewide public more precarious. District lines became more important as the wealth within each district came to play a greater role in determining how much money a community would have available for school spending. Even a small amount raised in district property taxes could impact on how local communities imagined their school district boundaries. The pattern was clear in Marin County. In 1890, school district boundaries in the region were fairly insignificant for elementary school funding. With the exception of four school districts out of 33, every district within the county was funded exclusively through county and state sources. As a result, the local wealth of 29 of the districts within the county did not impact how much money the state spent on elementary schools. Money easily flowed between the borders of these districts. By 1920, the funding of elementary schools was transformed, and the wealth of local communities alone determined the amount of money available for elementary schooling within 30 districts.
The growing number of districts raising a local property tax led to an increase in the number of communities unwilling to allow children to cross school district boundaries for school attendance. County and district officials, in reacting to changes in the states approach to school finance, helped further police school district boundaries in the Bay Area. For example, as late as 1911, Santa Clara County school officials were distributing state and county aid to the schools where children attended school, rather than the schools closest to where their families resided. Changes in the states approach to school finance, however, prompted the superintendent of Santa Clara County to rethink this practice, interpreting the bevy of public finance legislation as a clear mandate to stop distributing county school funds to children crossing district lines. The change upset the San Jose superintendent, who interpreted the shift as manifestly unfair since the city educated 147 such outside children in the previous year (School Department, 1912, pp. 89).
As it became more and more difficult for children and money to freely cross school district boundaries, disparities between districts became even more pronounced. In measuring equity in school finance, contemporary scholars of school finance often calculate the coefficient of variation in per-pupil expenditures between districts. The metric is the ratio of the standard deviation to the mean, and this measure controls for inflation. In this context, a greater coefficient of variation indicates greater inequality between districts. When using the coefficient of variation to represent inequality between school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area, it becomes clear how much more unequal schooling in the region became as communities increasingly came to rely on district property taxes for revenue (see Figure 3). In 1890, disparities between school districts were high, with a coefficient of variation of 0.54. Contemporary finance experts consider .1 an equitable coefficient of variation (Guin, Gross, Deburgomaster, & Roza, 2007). By 1920, disparities between school districts grew, and the coefficient of variation increased 22 percent to .66. The combined increase in the use of state and county taxes also increased disparities between counties across the state. In 1890, the coefficient of variation in per pupil expenditures between counties was .18. By 1920, this figure increased 372%, to .85. Keppel (1919) recognized the increasing inequality and discussed its implications for both educational opportunity and the meaning of Californias state system. Certain of the counties are forcing the districts to carry an undue burden, he worried, explaining that this trend was producing a situation where there is no such thing as reasonable equality of educational opportunity since many district communities were rich in children and poor in assessed valuation (p. 121). The California Teachers Association (1918) adopted a resolution in 1918 critiquing this trend in finance while also making clear its implications for the very meaning of education in the state:
The burden of supporting the common schools is being shifted steadily from the state and county to the district, and more and more our state common school system is becoming a district system with ever-increasing inequality of educational opportunity for the children of the elementary schools. Wealthy districts can do all things for their children, while poor districts can do almost nothing. (p. 25)
According to the logic of these critics, it was a state system Californians were dismantling and a district system they were creating in its place (Phelps, 1918, p. 260).
THE SCIENCE OF SCHOOL FINANCE AND THE ART OF CHANGING THE SUBJECT
While critics contended that state leaders in California were dismantling a state system of public education and replacing it with a district system, experts in school administration and finance, in conjunction with economists like Plehn, continued to provide theoretical justification for the expansion of the district property tax in the state. In some instances, these experts framed the district property tax as ideal for financing education. In other cases, they redefined the problem confronting school finance in California, masterfully diverting attention away from declining state contributions. In both instances, scholars wove powerful ideas about the precise scope of the public served by state schooling into their expert narratives, leveraging their expertise to counter the criticism that the district property tax and its disparities contradicted the premise of a public, state education system.
How experts defined the problems confronting the states school system shaped the solutions they proposed. While some school administrators defined the problem with California education as a problem of declining state contributions, public finance experts like Plehn continued to view the issue differently. According to experts in public finance, the problem in California was not the states decreasing fiscal role in education, but the way state contributions were being spent unwisely. In addition to viewing schools as a local rather than state responsibility, Plehn (n.d.) questioned the logic of observers who called for increased state educational support:
The mere spending of more money has not, as he [Charles Elliot] hoped it would, lessened the barbarian vices, prevented crime, abolished foolish, false or degrading narratives or fiction, removed medial delusions made for happy marriages and homes, or elevated our social and political or industrial systems. . . . I fear that the schools have not improved in like measure as their costs have risen. (p. 19)
Since schools had not, in fact, managed to accomplish the long list of expectations Americans projected onto them, Plehn called for increased economy, not increased spending from the state. The only remedy, he argued, is that these vast and complicated expenditures shall be carefully scrutinized, and justified, item by item. This is the essence of all economy, he concluded, and under present conditions economy is necessary (Plehn, n.d., p. 19). Policymakers, his work on public finance suggested, should focus on rearranging a shrinking pie, rather than increasing its size.
Plehns criticism of rising school costs reflected a broader concern with increased educational expenditures across the nation. While parsimonious taxpayers always worried about educational spending, concerns over public school costs assumed new forms in the 1910s and 1920s. Popular publications regularly criticized public school expenditures during these years, insisting that the amount of money spent on education no longer produced the returns public school advocates had supposedly promised. The Ladies Home Journal ran a series of articles in 1912 criticizing almost every aspect of the American public school system. Insisting that Americans have invested nearly a billion dollars in the public school-system and that each year they contribute over four hundred million dollars more toward the same end, the editors of the popular magazine framed their entire critique around increasing costs and diminishing returns. Surely for so huge an outlay the returns should be stupendous, the editors stated before methodically seeking to demonstrate that American public schools were, in fact, an utter failure (The Case of 17 Million Children, p. 3).
Public commentary on the problem of educational costs increased after World War I. As Steffes (2012) points out, the war convinced many observers that American education was failing the nation and its citizens. National statistics on draft rejections, for example, revealed a shocking number of illiterate and physically unfit rural Americans (p. 95). Increases in educational expenditures and the idea that American schools were in desperate need of reform created a receptive audience for the idea that school spending and student outcomes were out of synch. Henry Pritchett, the President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, contended that Americans had grown critical as to whether the system of education for which they are paying is justifying itself in the results which it brings forth (Pritchett, 1922, p. 173). Pritchett also became a prominent critic of spending levels, insisting that Americans were wasting millions on educational fads and frills (Quoted in Cost of Education, 1927). John Butler, a faculty member at San Francisco State Teachers College, lamented the power of this rhetoric, criticizing the panic over school expenditures that he felt was creating a nation-wide wave of retrenchment in school expenditures (Cost of Education, 1927).
The topic of educational spending also came to occupy the work of new experts in emerging schools of education. Ellwood Cubberley was one of the first scholars to advocate the systematic study of school finance. Starting with the 1905 publication of his revised doctoral dissertation, School Funds and Their Apportionment, Cubberley spent much of his career articulating an underlying theory of school finance and using that theory to inform proposed policies. Unlike Plehn and some other critics of educational spending, Cubberley insisted that education was a statewide public good. He consistently argued that education was a statewide concern and that, consequently, schools must receive funding from the state. Cubberley insisted, moreover, that this funding should be used to equalize educational opportunities between communities. In developing his theory of state school support, Cubberley contrasted his view of education with growing popular narratives connecting education to local development, contending that the maintenance of good schools is not, like the maintenance of sewers or streets, a matter of local interest. Instead, Cubberley insisted that education was a common good (1905, p. 4). Cubberleys formulation of state school support became influential nationally, prompting one historian to argue, the theory of state school support began with Cubberley (Johns, 1969, p. 183).
Historians often remember Cubberley as a staunch proponent of state funding and a vocal critic of local control. Cubberleys views on the role of local taxation in school finance were far more nuanced, however. At the same time that Cubberley developed a national reputation as a proponent of state school support, he also celebrated the state of Californias declining role in school finance and emphasized the importance of district taxation for state education systems to reformers across the nation. Cubberley never criticized the growing importance of district property taxes in the state. As state contributions in California reached historic lows in the 1920s, Cubberley praised the states finance system as a model at the precise moment that a broader conversation about the appropriate role of state governments in school finance was developing (Steffes, 2012, pp. 95106). In part, Cubberleys praise made sense given the limited role some states played in school finance at the time. Even as the district property tax became increasingly important in California, the state continued to redistribute more wealth than many Eastern states. As Cubberley pointed out in a national report commissioned by the American Council of Education and written with Stanford colleague Jesse Sears, the costs for education in California are better equalized than in most states of the Union (Sears & Cubberley, 1924, p. 347). At the same time, Sears and Cubberley went out of their way to celebrate the tax reform measures that initiated the process of declining state support. They praised the separation of sources, insisting that the segregation of operative property from non-operative property for taxing purposes . . . has, in certain respects, been a good thing for the support of education in the state (Sears & Cubberley, 1924, p. 347). After considering other alternative methods of financial support, moreover, Sears and Cubberley used the report to conclude that California has the best system in place. In the same year that Californias state share of school revenue dropped to 12%, while the share of individual school districts rose to 64%, they insisted that there was no better alternative approach to financing the states schools (California Department of Education, 1926, p. 719). The present laws for equalizing the burdens of support have been an important contributing element in making long term and adequate support possible, they concluded (Sears & Cubberley, 1924, p. 348). The inequality that did exist within the system, they argued, had nothing to do with declining state contributions, but rather the small size of rural districts. The chief inequalities still existing are due to the retention of the little school district as a taxing unit, they contended (Sears & Cubberley, 1924, p. 348). Increasing the size of the poorest districts, rather than challenging the rise of the district property tax, represented the appropriate course of action under their logic.
In discussing school finance in California, finance experts like Cubberley and Sears directly challenged critics who questioned the states increasing reliance on the district property tax. Cubberley outright dismissed criticisms of Californias declining state contributions in a report he prepared for a legislative committee in 1920. Despite the dramatic transformation in the nature of the states educational finances over the previous 10 years, he insisted that the final structure of California finance was more than satisfactory. Larger districts, not more wealth redistribution between them, was the appropriate course of action in his mind:
The financial structure of the California school is and for long has been good; the important needs of the states school system have seemed to your Committee to be rather along the lines of better administrative organization, the provision of a much better type of schools for rural people, the establishment of Junior Colleges, and the further extension of certain parts of the public school system. (Report of the Special Legislative Committee on Education, 1920, p. 10)
In casting the issues with schooling in California within these terms, Cubberley directed state policymakers away from trends in declining state support that seemed to disturb critics like Keppel. In defining the problem confronting California education in organizational rather than fiscal terms, Cubberley distracted away from the network of state policies that created unprecedented levels of resource inequality between school districts in the first place.
Cubberley did not simply help shift the conversation away from the topic of declining state contributions to education in California. He also created further theoretical justification for the explosive growth of the district property tax, and by implication district inequality, within the state. Indeed, in theorizing the need for state support, Cubberley consistently emphasized the continued importance of local taxes in education, framing the local district tax as an indispensable component of any effective state finance system. Throughout his writing, Cubberley stressed the need for the state to equalize some educational opportunity by apportioning funds according to need. Need alone, however, should not determine state apportionments, Cubberley argued. Instead, he insisted that local effort must also be taken into account and rewarded by the state (Cubberley, 1905, p. 73). It was a wise and generally accepted educational principle, Cubberley argued, to distribute aid in such a manner as will not destroy the local taxing instinct (Cubberley, 1905, p. 32). Although he insisted that this principle should not be used to deny help to poor schools, he also viewed the disparities that might develop because of local effort in often-celebratory terms. Cubberley discussed the need for state finance systems to ensure that local communities essentially paid their own way, describing the value of baits to encourage local expenditures and expressing concern over any funding scheme that might place local effort at a discount (Report of the Special Legislative Committee on Education, 1920, p. 89).
This emphasis on the centrality of local taxes and the value of local effort in school finance allowed Cubberley to theorize a public education system that was a public and state system, but financed in ways that ensured drastic resource disparities between communities. For critics, the growing use of local property taxes compromised the status of education in California as a public, state system. For Cubberley, public state systems could be truly public and statewide even when they were unequal between districts. This view led Cubberley to dismiss equity as an impossible goal in school finance and education more broadly. Theoretically all the children of the state are equally important and entitled to have the same advantages, Cubberley wrote. Practically this can never be quite true, he continued (1905, p. 16). In case there was any confusion, Cubberley insisted that a system redistributing wealth across the entire state to support schooling was totally undesirable:
If all the cost of education in California were borne by the state as a whole, and paid from the permanent funds, from federal grants, and from a state tax laid on the entire wealth of the state, inequality of maintenance burden could be removed. With such a provision, however, would almost surely go complete control of the schools by the state and so the disappearance of all local responsibility. This has not been accepted as sound social and educational theory in the democratic form of political organization. (Sears & Cubberley, 1924, p. 265)
Downplaying the concern of critics, Cubberley developed an argument about the use of local property taxes as a necessary form of democratic, local control.
As state policy created new and unprecedented forms of inequality between school districts in California, the emerging science of school finance normalized this development. The amount of money spent on schools has never wholly determined the quality of education offered to students. Nonetheless, ideas about who should pay and how much money should be redistributed to fund schools reflected unspoken assumptions about the precise meaning of the public served by public schools. As educational experts like Cubberley played an increasingly important role in spreading and shaping school reform nationally, they helped justify the inequities of the district property tax in California and its persistence in other states.
TAXPAYER ORGANIZATIONS, TEACHER UNIONS, AND THE DISTRICT PROPERTY TAX
The rise of the district property tax received a degree of respectability from experts like Plehn and Cubberley. It also became increasingly acceptable to some of the states most engaged and influential organizations: the California Taxpayers Association and California Teachers Association. Members of the California Taxpayers Association, for example, became connoisseurs of educational policy, helping to spread Plehns expert narrative casting the problems facing education within the state in terms of growing costs, not declining state contributions. In 1917, the organization created a Bureau of Educational Investigation. The director of the group, Wilford Talbert, explained the purpose of the special bureau in terms of the need to get better educational results for the money spent (quoted in Callahan, 1962, p. 116). Indeed, the organization shared Plehns assumption that the problem confronting schools in the state was not the increasing reliance on revenue sources that exacerbated educational disparities between districts, but the way too many districts mishandled existing revenue. The criticism that the state was pushing its burden onto local districts was misguided, according to Talbert and his colleagues. The educator who continually cries for more money for the public schools is only inviting disaster for the institution he cherishes, Talbert insisted (1918, p. 22). The entire premise that increased expenditures could produce anything positive for the schools was fatally flawed in Talberts mind:
The problem of the efficient and economical administration of the schools is one which calls for at least as serious study as the raising of the maximum corn crop per acre. In neither case does the amount of money spent have very much to do with the results. Efficiency comes rather from using the right methods. (1918, p. 22)
The evidence connecting increased funding and increased equality of opportunity was perhaps tenuous, but the consequences of the growing reliance on the district property tax were clear. The more the state refused to increase its contributions, the more it refused to redistribute wealth to support schools, and the more it accepted disparities between school districts.
It was members of the California Teachers Association (CTA), especially rural school administrators, who were the most vocal opponents of the district property tax in California. Critics of the district property tax like Mark Keppel and C. L. Phelps used editorial space in the CTAs official journal to prosecute their case against the inequities of local school funding and the assumptions about the definition of public that justified the states shifting approach to school finance. At various meetings of the CTAs regional divisions, moreover, members passed resolutions advocating for the expansion of state school support, especially for increased teacher salaries (State Meetings, 1920, p. 25).
At the same time that some CTA members advocated increased state school support, others accepted and reiterated Cubberleys view that the states role in financing education must never challenge the use of local taxes in educational finance. While CTA officials insisted that school funding was a statewide responsibility, they framed this responsibility in limited terms. For example, rather than advocate a return to previous levels of redistribution and state support, the CTA supported reforms that would ensure local communities continued to assume a large responsibility for school funding. The editors of the Sierra Educational News claimed that education is a state responsibility but that the state should only assume half the expense of maintaining Californias public schools (Notes and Comment, 1919, p. 47).
Each call for increased state funding by CTA officials seemed to include similar caveats. In a call for increased state support published in March 1919, members of the organization qualified their claims. Keppel (1919) explained, Very naturally it would be a mistake to relieve the locality (even if the county be the organization unit) from any considerable part of the expense of maintaining its schools (p. 121). Despite the organizations active legislative agenda and yearly legislative wrangling, the organization largely focused on reforms other than increasing state contributions. While members of the CTAs politics committee did play a crucial role in securing the passage of a new finance bill in 1919, the bill did little to check growing district inequality within the state. In fact, the CTAs commitment to wealth redistribution across district lines was so tepid that they actually opposed earlier versions of the bill that were considered too extravagant in their redistributive zeal. The organization actively opposed an alternate bill by State Senator Sharkey that would have increased state contributions to $21.00 per pupil. Instead, the groups supported a more modest bill introduced in the Assembly that would only increase per-pupil contributions to $17.50 (Chamberlain, 1919, pp. 76-79). Even when they advocated increased state contributions to education, members of the CTA managed to do so without challenging the rise of the district property tax and concomitant inequalities. At first glance, the 1919 bill seemed poised to alleviate some forms of district inequality despite the CTAs professed reverence for the district property tax. The bill increased the states contributions to education from $6.9 million to $8.9 million. At the same time, however, rampant inflation, rapid population growth, and expanding course offerings increased the costs of education dramatically during the same period. As a result, even though state contributions technically increased, the states proportion of support continued to decrease, from 20% to 15%. The remaining costs would again be derived from district property taxes.
Moreover, although the CTA addressed issues of finance, supported the passage of a new finance bill in 1919, and would later spearhead a constitutional amendment in 1920 designed to again increase school support, the organization spent much of its time not talking about the states declining fiscal role in California education. The CTA, like the new class of experts they frequently referenced in their publications, mastered the art of changing the subject. In this sense, the organization helped further divert attention away from growing district inequality within the state.
The CTA focused most of its reform proposals on organizational changes that would ostensibly improve the quality of poor schools without also challenging the network of state policies that created the poverty of these schools in the first place. Through an emphasis on the improved training and supervision of teachers in poor rural schools and increased consolidation of small districts with low tax bases, the CTA shifted the conversation about schooling in the state away from declining state contributions and the increasing reliance on district property taxes. The organization was clear about its agenda. What we need, one member explained, is rural supervision, the County Unit, Consolidation of Schools, the appointive County Superintendent and teachers trained for rural life and teaching (The County Unit, 1918, p. 12). In some cases, the CTA even praised the financial structure of public education in California, seeking to focus attention instead on the management of schools (Editorial, 1919, p. 55). In the character of the teaching body, in equipment and supplies, in financial support, in buildings and grounds, in an enriched and workable curriculum and in popular patronage, one member wrote in 1919, California measures up well with any of the States East or West (Editorial, 1919, pp. 5556). According to members of the CTA, the troubles confronting schools in the state were the result of poorly supervised teachers. The weak point in our system, as of most State systems, the same CTA member argued, is in the management of our elementary schools (Editorial, 1919, pp. 5556).
Thus, organizations like the California Teachers Association and the California Taxpayers Association lent further legitimacy to the use of the district property tax in California by refocusing conversations about education reform within the state. The CTA would help pass a new funding bill in 1919 and a constitutional amendment related to school finance in 1920, two changes that increased state support but left completely unchecked the growing use of the district property tax within the state. In using their influence and power to accept or ignore a degree of district inequality in the state, both the California Teachers Association and the California Taxpayers Association helped further legitimize the notion that Californias state system of public schools need not distribute financial resources equally.
CONCLUSION: THE CALIFORNIA CASE AND THE CHOICE OF INEQUALITY
The history of the district property tax in California is not just a footnote to a broader story about how state governments progressively increased their role in school finance during the 20th century. Californias earlier approach to school funding for elementary schools in the late 19th century represented an alternative to an unequal system of school finance that rarely allowed money for the states schools to freely flow across school district boundaries. Californias alternative approach to school funding was embraced in many states west of the Mississippi, an insight that resonates with Beadies (2016) work on the underappreciated role of the state in the history of education in the North American West in general. In North Dakota, only three school districts raised a local property tax to support their schools in 1890 (Mitchell, 1890). In Nebraska, only 10.4% of the money spent on public schools within the state was derived from local property taxes in 1870 (Metzger, 1965). In Nevada, less than 4% of the money spent on schools was from district property taxes during the 18971898 school year (Cutting, 1899). In Arizona, only 9% of the money spent on schools was derived from district property taxes during the 19151916 school year (Bureau of Education, 1918). Further east, the use of local property taxes for schooling was not even legal in Indiana between 1854 and 1884 (Reynolds, 1997). Even in New England, Connecticuts state school fund in the 18th century enabled it to support early schools without communities needing to rely on local taxes (Kaestle, 1983, p. 11).
The rise of the district property tax in California was nationally significant, shaping the nature of school finance across the country. Policymakers in California have always shaped the work of education reformers nationally, especially in other Western states. Some Western politicians even copied Californias early educational legislation verbatim (Netherton, 1895, pp. 9, 25; Swett, 1911, p. 180). Californias shift toward the district property tax developed alongside a growing national conversation about the appropriate role of state governments in school finance and the principle of equalization. At the precise moment that new experts and state reformers were borrowing from one another and developing the de facto national system described by Steffes (2012), Californians deconstructed their alternative approach to school funding and helped the disparities of district-level funding triumph. As an experiment in public finance, moreover, Californias 1910 abolition of the statewide property tax served as a national model. Historians associate the spread of similar separation of sources reforms with Californias influence (Mehrotra, 2013, p. 217; Teaford, 2002, pp. 5254). Even Plehns language about how the benefits of public schooling redound distinctly, directly, and peculiarly to the benefit of local property owners took on a life of its own, ending up in tax commission studies from states as far as Arkansas and Nebraska (Bar Association of Arkansas, 1916, p. 114; Nebraska Special Commission on Revenue and Taxation, 1914, p. 134).
Discussions of how school funding developed in the past are never isolated to obscure or technical writing by disciplinary specialists. Courts, state lawmakers, and the media often repeat inaccurate stories about the past. For example, writers in popular publications Education Week and The Atlantic have trouble discussing school funding without referencing colonial Massachusetts and the supposedly eternal American tradition of funding schools through local taxes (Semuels, 2016; Viadero, 1999). Although the aims of public schooling have changed since the 17th century, the critical role of property taxation in funding education has endured, the authors of a recent article in The Economist similarly explain (Americas School Funding More Progressive, 2017). Historical accounts minimizing the states role in school funding during the 19th and early 20th centuries frame resource disparities between school districts as the unavoidable product of differences in property values, not the contested public policies linking those values with educational resources. The use of the district property tax was not inevitable, and the disparities created through local financing have always represented a choice among alternatives.
In the past decade, many states have failed to maintain their commitment to school funding (Leachman, Masterson, & Figueroa, 2017). A growing number of educators have fought to bring attention to the need for better school funding through teacher strikes and demonstrations in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and Colorado (Romero, Healy, & Turkewitz, 2018). The perspective of history makes one thing certain: How we decide to fund our schools has always involved choices among alternatives. Only by acknowledging our collective role in making those choices in the present can we allow ourselves to imagine different paths for the future.
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SCHOOL FINANCE DATA FOR THE COUNTIES OF THE SAN FRANCISCO BAY AREA
Unless otherwise noted, the school finance data contained within this chapter were obtained from the Common School Reports on file at the California State Archives in Sacramento, California. These data focus on per-pupil expenditures for the school districts in the San Francisco Bay Area, defined here as the school districts in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, Solano, Sonoma, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties. These counties reflected the diverse patterns of development found across California during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and thus provide a valuable cross-section of rural, suburban, and urban school districts. The districts examined include rural and sparsely populated farming districts, emerging suburban communities, small and moderately sized villages and towns, and larger cities like Oakland and San Jose (Scott, 1959). In collecting finance data, one of my main concerns was the use of the district property tax in the region and the shift away from the use of county and state property taxes. As a result, these data do not include San Francisco public schools. In San Francisco, the existence of a single school district within a single city and county makes it impossible to disentangle district and county taxes.
In collecting data, I calculated per-pupil expenditures for every elementary school district in Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, Solano, Sonoma, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties for the 18901891, 18951896, 19001901, 19051906, 19101911, 19151916, and 19201921 school years. Each county superintendent report includes the amount each district received from district, county, and state taxes and the total number of pupils within each district. Assuming that county superintendents were consistent in their data collection, this dataset does not include money raised for capital projects funded through school bonds. In some cases, however, local districts may have needed to levy a local district tax to make interest payments on existing bond obligations.
Data points were missing or illegible in a handful of cases. At times, this was because new districts did not yet receive funds recorded by the county superintendent or old districts had lapsed but were still listed in county reports. In other cases, data was illegibly written. In both circumstances, the districts with missing data were dropped from the dataset. For 1890, missing or illegible data forced me to remove Orinda district in Alameda County and Laguna Joint district in Marin County. After removing these districts, the dataset for 1890 had 480 school districts. For 1895, missing or illegible data forced me to remove Pacheco district in Marin County; Fairview, Sunnyside, and Pleasanton districts in Santa Clara County; and Kidd Creek district in Sonoma County. After removing these districts, the dataset for 1895 had 547 school districts. For 1900, missing or illegible data forced me to remove Knoxville and Lone Tree districts in Napa County; Fairview district in San Mateo County; Sunol, Purisima, and Agnew districts in Santa Clara County; and Hot Springs and Joy districts in Sonoma County. After removing these districts, the dataset for 1900 had 469 school districts. For 1905, missing or illegible data forced me to remove Knoxville and Lone Tree districts from Napa County; Fairview district in San Mateo County; Comstock and Harve districts from Santa Clara County; Blue Mountain and Olive districts from Solano County; and Crocker, Davis, Jenner, and Rodgers districts from Sonoma County. After removing these districts, the dataset for 1905 had 504 school districts. For 1910, missing or illegible data forced me to remove Shafter district in Marin County; Knoxville and Lone Tree districts in Napa County; Pharis district in San Mateo County; Blue Mountain district in Solano County; and Tinite, Tan Bark, Litton, Guala, Frei, and Fort Ross districts in Sonoma County. After removing these districts, the dataset for 1910 had 508 school districts. For 1915, missing or illegible data forced me to remove Vista district in Alameda County; Fairview district in Santa Clara County; Laguna and West Union districts in San Mateo County; Morning Light district in Solano County; and Creighton Ridge, Fort Ross, Ocean View, Plantation, Rose Hill, and Sacil districts in Sonoma County. After removing these districts, the dataset for 1915 had 511 school districts. For 1920, missing or illegible data forced me to remove Alamo, Jersey, and Shelby districts in Contra Costa County; Laguna district in San Mateo County; Fairview and Las Mananitas districts in Santa Clara County; American Canyon, King, Montgomery, and Mountain districts in Solano County; and Fort Ross, Hot Springs, McMillen, and Mountain districts in Sonoma County. After removing these districts, the dataset for 1920 had 505 school districts. The final dataset for per-pupil expenditures for all seven years had 3,524 total data points. The data used in the paper excludes funding for new school buildings and revenue derived from bonds. All construction data was reported in a separate category. In 1915 and 1920, however, five districts in Sonoma County had astronomically high per-pupil expenditure figures. For at least one of these outlier districts (Cloverdale), a local newspaper (the Press Democrat) reported the completion of a new, $30,000 school building on May 19, 1917, on page 3. This suggests, perhaps, an error in reporting by district officials in these places. In response, I decided to exclude these districts from the manuscripts data analysis.
To assess school district inequality, I used the coefficient of variation to illuminate how disparities in per-pupil expenditures changed over time. There are several reasons for my decision to use this metric. First, the coefficient of variation (the ratio of the standard deviation to the mean) is resistant to inflation and thus provides a convenient way to compare per-pupil expenditures over time. Second, Kaestle and Vinovskis (1986) use this metric in their study of 19th-century Massachusetts, one of the only detailed historical studies of variation in school spending between school districts. Finally, the coefficient of variation is an established metric used by contemporary scholars to assess equity in school finance.