By Mike Lewis
April 17, 2012 (Sacramento)--The figures behind the state’s educational crisis are alarming. According to the California Teachers Association, California ranks 46 nationally in per-pupil funding, with over $20 billion cut from public schools and colleges statewide in the last four years. More than 40,000 teachers have been laid off during that same time, yet partisan gridlock has stalled any solution in Sacramento.
Concerned educators warn that our state’s public education is on life support. While there is consensus that the system is broke, or close to it, there are philosophical differences on just how to fix it.
Petition gatherers are out seeking signatures for three competing ballot measures. Each would fund public education through changes in tax laws. One would fund schools by taxing oil companies for drilling off California’s coast. Governor Brown’s plan would tax only wealthy Californians. Yet a third measure would spread the cost among nearly all taxpayers. Time is short, since the deadline for obtaining signatures to get any of the measures on the November ballot is April 27.
The initiatives seeking inclusion on the November ballot are:
· the Tax Oil for Education Funding, or Initiative 1522, co-authored by Peter Mathews and Paul Garver
· Governor Jerry Brown’s initiative known as the School and Local Public Safety Protection Act (SLPSPA) of 2012
· the Our Children, Our Future (OCOF) Initiative, by Molly Munger
In a quirk of the California initiative process, it is possible that all three plans could obtain the minimum number of signatures, all be placed on the November ballot, and all be approved by the voters. If this occurs, according to Ashley Johansson, Initiative Coordinator in the state Attorney General’s office, then “…the proposition with the most votes will prevail.”
Mathews, professor of political science, lead proponent and co-author of Initiative 1522, admits it’s an uphill battle to gain enough signatures in time to place his measure on the November ballot; he concedes Gov. Brown’s proposal stands the best chance of being approved by the state voters. However, Mathews sees critical differences between his plan to tax oil companies and the other proposals.
In a phone interview with ECM, Mathews said a key difference is shelf life; he believes the permanent feature of Initiative 1522 makes it more advantageous. “If the Governor gets [his initiative] passed, it will only be temporary,” Mathews explained. “The tax on the higher income will be for seven years and the sales tax will be for only four years [under the Governor’s plan], so you will see a cutback in education funding in four to seven years.” By contrast, his tax-the-oil companies plan would generate permanent revenues.
The OCOF plan would spread the cost over many more taxpayers. It would impose a slight tax increase on income (after all deductions) for all individuals earning $10,000 and up and for all joint and head of household returns of $17,500 and up.
Mathews criticized OCOF, saying it is needlessly harsh on the lower income families. “We feel that’s going to hurt a lot of working poor people...[Initiative 1522] does not tax any individual. It only charges a severance tax on oil companies to take our common resource: the oil of California.”
Matthew estimates his Initiative 1522 would raise $4 billion each year for kindergarten through university, with 100% of the funds going to education, specifically: $1.5 billion (37 percent) to K-12; about $1.7 billion (38 percent) to community colleges; $600 million to California State Universities (14 percent), and $500 million (11 percent) to the University of California. Mathews believes Initiative 1522 goes beyond dollars and cents. “It allows the individual California voters to take power back into their own hands instead of relying on the Legislature or the Governor,” he said.
The Governor’s plan would increase taxes for couples earning half a million dollars or more, as well as individuals earning over a quarter of a million dollars. Proponents of the Governor’s revised plan claim a revenue increase of almost $9 billion, though the Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated $6.8 billion for 2012-2013.
In addition to education, the Governor’s measure would help fund “public safety programs such as local police and child protective services,” according to the Governor’s official request (version 3, dated March 14, 2012) to revise the title and summary of the SLPSPA Initiative, obtained via the state Attorney General’s website. It is unclear what portion would be assured for education and the Governor’s initiative team did not respond to our request for comments.
According to a poll conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California on March 7, Governor Brown’s revised initiative has a 52 percent approval majority among likely voters.
A key ally of the Governor’s plan is the 350,000-member California Federation of Teachers, which climbed onboard when a compromise was reached to raise the income tax on those individuals who earn $500,000 or more a year ($1 million for couples) by 3 percent, instead of the Governor’s original plan of 2 percent. The compromise would also lower the state sales tax increase from a half cent to a quarter cent. Other changes from Brown’s original proposal include raising the income tax hike for those earning $300,000 to $500,000 to 2 percent, from 1.5 percent, as well as extending the income tax increase on the wealthy from five years to seven years.
The severity of the state budget crisis is not lost on local educators or political leadership.
Chancellor Cindy Miles, Grossmont Community College District, referred to the dire straits of the state budget in an e-mail to educators, writing that “the latest projections from the state Legislative Analyst’s Office suggest Governor Brown’s proposed budget will be short by $6.5 billion.” Miles feels the governor’s revised tax initiative does offer some hope amidst the gloom. “The new merged initiative promises to “prevent further cuts to education” through a progressive tax structure raising income taxes for upper income earners…” she wrote in the same e-mail. Miles described the measures being taken by the District Strategic Planning & Budget Council for a “worst case scenario” shortfall, which includes the “freezing [of] overtime, comp time, travel, and purchases unless they are determined to be of an absolutely critical nature.” According to Miles, “no layoffs are even being discussed, much less planned.”
Locally, East County Democratic Club co-President Bonnie Price forwarded an e-mail from the California Democratic Party statewide officers to her membership, urging them to support the Governor’s initiative by “circulating petitions among your circle of friends,” and encouraging registration assistance for those not already registered to vote in order to be qualified to sign petitions. Price appealed to the importance of preparing Californian students for global competitiveness, citing the near-bottom national rankings in critical study areas.
“Our kids need this initiative to be on the ballot and pass, so they're not third class citizens in a third world nation,” she wrote. “ Our California's students have tested at 47th and 48th on recent national tests in math and reading. Preparing kids to compete globally requires better scores than that!”
Supporters believe Governor Brown’s tax increase initiative would be more beneficial than the other proposals in reducing the state’s budget deficit, while simultaneously funding education, public safety and social services.
Critics, such as Our Children, Our Future author and Los Angeles attorney Molly Munger, believe there would be too much hands-on of the increased revenue by state lawmakers instead of funding school districts directly, as OCOF proponents claim to be a characteristic of their plan.
While recent polls have the OCOF proposal lagging behind Governor Brown’s initiative, Munger continues to enthusiastically campaign. According to a USC Dornslife/Los Angeles Times poll on March 26, in a head-to-head survey, 64 percent favored Governor Brown’s initiative, while 32 percent said they would vote for OCOF. The USC Dornslife/L.A. Times poll surveyed 1,500 registered voters via telephone, and has a 3 percent error rate.
Attempts to contact Munger for this story were unsuccessful. In an interview with the Associated Press on March 23, Munger disputed the benefits to education of the Brown initiative, and wanted to “tell voters that her initiative is the only one that would dedicate billions of dollars in additional funding to K-12 schools and early childhood education.”
Using the benefits calculator on Munger’s OCOF Web site, the Santee Elementary School District would receive more than $5.3 million for school year 2013-2014, and more than $9.3 million for 2017-2018. Lakeside Union Elementary School District would collect almost $4.6 million in 2013-2014, and almost $8 million for 2017-2018. Munger has backed her tax initiative with millions of her own money, as well as financing television ads.
On March 15, Torlakson announced in an official press release the issuance of preliminary layoff notices to thousands of teachers. In the statement, Torlakson said “Teachers across the state have rightly come to dread March 15. Though the very future of our state depends on California’s teachers, today many will receive a layoff notice that suggests just the opposite—and will now spend months in limbo, worrying about their futures and the future of their students. Every pink slip being issued today is an unwelcome and undeserved blow to the morale of the teacher who receives it. They should also remind all of us of the urgency of finding the will and the resources to end the financial emergency facing our public schools."
School boards are required by the California Education Code Section 44955(b) to make the final decision on layoffs by May 15.
In the Legislature, partisan gridlock has stalled all efforts to raise revenues for education or other causes, with Republicans standing united to oppose all new taxes or tax increases. As a result, the Governor and other initiative backers aim to take their cases for funding public education directly to the people of California via the ballot box.
For more information on Initiative 1522, SLPSPA, and OCOF, visit their respective Web sites: http://www.rescueeducationcalifornia.org; http://www.protectschoolsandpublicsafety.com; and http://www.ourchildrenourfuture2012.com. Voter registration forms are available at the California Secretary of State Web site, www.sos.ca.gov/elections/elections_vr.htm.