Dartmouth College Economics Working Paper No. 03-08
70 Pages Posted: 20 Sep 2003
I argued that California's school-finance decision, Serrano v. Priest, which required equalized school spending, caused Proposition 13, which decimated property taxes in 1978. Kirk Stark and Jonathan Zasloff offer evidence to the contrary in a paper published in 50 UCLA Law Rev. 801 (2003). They found that school districts with larger proportions of high-income and elderly voters, not those with high tax-base per pupil, accounted for the dramatic vote swing from a defeated 1972 property-tax-limitation initiative to the successful 1978 vote. I show that their results are entirely consistent with my hypothesis. The Serrano decision undermined support of the local property-tax system by residents of high-income school districts because it insisted that all districts spend the same amount per pupil. Serrano especially alienated older homeowners of the better districts, who had formerly tolerated high levels of school taxation and spending because it enhanced the sale value of their homes.
I also parry Stark and Zasloff's claims that institutional problems, rather than Serrano-compliance, forestalled the legislature's response to the tax revolt. Narrative evidence shows that the 1977-78 California legislature had committed so much of its budget to responding to Serrano that it did not have enough funds to respond to the 1978 property-tax revolt. The nature of the Serrano decision, which insisted on both spending equalization and tax-base sharing, made it impossible for the legislatures to revisit the costly school-finance bill once it appeared that Proposition 13 had a good chance of passing.
The article's title refers to my discovery that the named plaintiff, John Serrano, Jr., was a suburban resident who had actually been well served by the California public school system and was demographically similar to supporters of Proposition 13. After discovering that the "property-rich" Los Angeles Unified School District was inadequate for his bright children, Mr. Serrano moved his family to a better, though "property poor," school district, where his children did well in school. Serrano was a middle-class, college-educated social worker. Although the lawyers who fostered the case regarded it as a logical continuation of Brown v. Board of Education and its subsequent busing remedies, Serrano himself was anti-busing. He was a named sponsor of an anti-busing initiative that was passed in 1979. It was, ironically enough, eventually overturned by the courts.
Keywords: school finance litigation, property tax, tax revolt, referendum and initiative, Tiebout model, California
JEL Classification: I22, D72, H73
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation
Fischel, William A., Did John Serrano Vote for Proposition 13? A Reply to Stark and Zasloff's 'Tiebout and Tax Revolts: Did Serrano Really Cause Proposition 13?'. Dartmouth College Economics Working Paper No. 03-08. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=438621 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.438621