But is the SAT a good way to measure the school system’s academic performance? One criticism is that these scores may fluctuate based on the share of students taking the test. The theory is that a higher participation rate can drag down the average, given the inclusion of more low‐achieving students. If that’s true, then the SAT‐score decline in California may be larger than it at first seems, because the participation rate was actually 4 percentage points higher in the mid‐1970s than in 2010.
The increasing participation of lower‐scoring minority students is also frequently offered to dismiss the decline in SAT scores during the 1960s and 1970s, but this argument, too, is unpersuasive. Nationwide, the scores of white students alone also declined, and there is little reason to imagine California was an exception to the national pattern.
One valid critique of the SAT is that only a third of high school seniors take the test, and so it is not representative of the entire student population. While that’s true, those SAT takers represent the students most likely to go on to higher education and to become leaders of industry. When a massive increase in spending is accompanied by a fall in the performance of these students, it is a grim sign for the school system and for the state’s future.
Finally, it is true that a $7 billion tax increase would at least preserve a certain number of public sector jobs, even if those jobs have not, and likely will not, improve educational outcomes. But if that $7 billion is not taxed out of the free‐enterprise sector of California’s economy, it will preserve or create private‐sector jobs when it is spent or invested. And, contrary to the pattern shown in the accompanying chart, jobs in the free‐enterprise sector do produce things that people value: from movies and music to citrus fruits and cellphones — thus generating new revenue. Tax away that money and you take away those private‐sector jobs and revenue.
The final question boils down to this: Can Californians afford to tax $7 billion out of the productive sector of the economy and get nothing in return for the damage it would do?