Proposition 2’s New Reserve for K-14 Education Is Unlikely to Have Impact, Though Local School Districts’ Reserves May Be Affected

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts highlighting key components of the CBP’s analysis of Proposition 2, which will appear on the November 4, 2014 statewide ballot.

As we have blogged about recently, setting aside funds in good economic times to help meet the challenges that arise during economic downturns is a sound budgeting practice — and one California voters supported when they approved Proposition 58 in 2004. Proposition 2, a constitutional amendment placed on the November 4, 2014 ballot by the Legislature, would rewrite the rules governing deposits into and withdrawals from the state’s existing Budget Stabilization Account (BSA) — and, as we explained last week, would require the state to pay down “budgetary debt” for the next 15 years.

Proposition 2 also would create a new state-level budget reserve for schools and community colleges called the Public School System Stabilization Account (PSSSA). However, our recent analysis explains that because deposits into the PSSSA would only happen under limited circumstances, they would be unlikely to occur until at least 2020-21, and in most years thereafter. Without deposits into the PSSSA, this new reserve would not have dollars to provide to schools and community colleges during an economic downturn. As a result, Proposition 2’s impact on state funding for K-14 education would likely be negligible.

While deposits into a new state-level reserve for schools and community colleges would be unlikely for many years under Proposition 2, much attention has focused on a provision of a new state law — Senate Bill 858  — that would take effect if voters approve the ballot measure. The provision in SB 858 could limit the amount that K-12 school districts are allowed to keep in their local school district budget reserves. However, this cap would only take effect in a year after a transfer is made to the new PSSSA, which means school districts would not likely be required to limit their local budget reserves until at least 2021-22. SB 858, which would not apply to community colleges, could place a limit on most local school district reserves between 3 percent and 10 percent of a district’s annual spending. Unlike the provisions contained in Proposition 2 itself, which would be placed into the state Constitution, the Legislature could revise or repeal this cap on local school district reserves with a simple majority vote. Moreover, county offices of education could exempt school districts from the cap on local budget reserves for up to two consecutive years.

The focus on local K-12 district budget reserves as part of the debate around Proposition 2 is understandable. Schools suffered significant cuts in state support as revenues plummeted during and in the aftermath of the Great Recession. Some school districts were able to buffer these cuts with dollars they had saved in their local budgets. Despite the likelihood that the cap on local budget reserves would not take effect until at least 2021-22, some school districts may spend down their local reserves to bring them closer to the cap in the new law. To the extent this occurred, local districts would have fewer dollars available for economic uncertainties, such as tough budget years.

As is often the case, voters may find it difficult to sort through all of the issues raised by a ballot measure as complex as Proposition 2. But one thing is clear: Voters should not expect Proposition 2 to solve the problem that drops in state revenue mean for K-14 education funding.

— Jonathan Kaplan