Lights, camera, taxation

Peter Richardson is a Sacramento writer

Coach Carter joins a long line of movies about hard-nosed teachers, administrators and coaches who lay down the law for—and ultimately redeem—their disadvantaged urban students. It’s based on the life of Ken Carter, a strict disciplinarian who required his Richmond High School basketball players to maintain a 2.3 grade-point average. When several didn’t, he locked the gym and refused to let his undefeated team practice or play until their grades were satisfactory. Conflict ensued, but the team overcame its obstacles. The media jumped on the story, and Carter made the most of it. He wrote a book, collected some awards and became a national celebrity.

I liked the movie, partly because Kenny Carter was a teammate of mine in high school. (Another was Stan Van Gundy, Shaquille O’Neal’s coach in Miami.) But Carter’s story masks a less uplifting one about Richmond’s schools, whose finances remain desperate. Carter dramatized that issue, too, once pushing a scooter from Richmond to Sacramento to press for higher teacher salaries.

Unfortunately, the district’s money problems couldn’t be solved with a scooter. Their origins are complex, but the short version is this: When Carter and I went to those schools, they were funded in large part by Richmond’s rich commercial-property tax base. Then the courts ordered the state to equalize funding across districts, and Proposition 13 made it more difficult to raise property-tax revenue. Over time, the state equalized funding by “leveling down”—at least compared with spending in other states.

Dissatisfied with the results, wealthy neighborhoods passed parcel taxes and raised private money to support their schools. Richmond’s options were more limited, but two years ago, foundations helped fund its sports and arts programs, which otherwise would have been cut. And last year, local voters passed a modest parcel tax. Even so, the district still needs to cut $7 million this year to balance its budget.

Sacramento pops up a few times in Coach Carter, but it plays a major role in the story behind the movie. Now, more than ever, the state government controls school-district funding, and the results are nothing to brag about. Like their neighbors in Oakland and Vallejo and across California, Richmond schools are in serious financial trouble. And all the wind sprints in the world won’t change that.