Reform/revenue plan for ’12 ballot

A  partnership of education, parent, and business groups is aiming to put on the November 2012 ballot an initiative combining sweeping education reforms with a tax increase dedicated to preschool to twelfth grade, called The 2012 Kids Education Plan.

In a short statement (see below), the dozen groups used the code words for fundamental changes in school funding and personnel laws like teacher tenure without yet citing specifics: “a student centered finance system, true transparency, significant workforce reforms, and new investments in education through a statewide broad based revenue source and lowering the voter threshold on local revenue” (a reference to the current two-thirds majority needed to pass a parcel tax).

Joint statement by the groups and individuals in The 2012 Kids Education Plan.
Joint statement by the groups and individuals in The 2012 Kids Education Plan.

Ted Lempert, president of Oakland-based Children Now, said the groups were considering a tax that would raise $6 billion to $8 billion annually for education – the equivalent of roughly an additional $1,000 to $1,330 per student – an amount that would recover much of the state funding that has been cut over the past three years. While a big ask in a recession, it would still fall shy of raising California’s per-student funding to the national average.

Those who have signed on to the effort so far include one member of the Education Coalition, the Association of California School Administrators; Children Now; Bay Area Council, a San Francisco-based business group; United Way of Greater Los Angeles; Education Trust-West; Public Advocates; San Francisco-based Silver Giving Foundation; the new parent groups   Educate Our State, Educacy and Parent Revolution; and three prominent superintendents: Mike Hanson of Fresno Unified, Chris Steinhauser of Long Beach Unified, and Tony Smith of Oakland Unified.

At this point, Lempert said, it’s still in the discussion phase. Over the past month, Lempert said, he and others have reached out to other groups that have signaled interest but have not committed, like the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, California PTA, and the California Teachers Association (no official comment yet from the CTA). Also, “key folks in the Brown administration are interested in what we are pushing,” Lempert said. “I hope they get behind this.”

The presidential election ballot is expected to be jammed with initiatives, including pension and state governance reforms. Lots of ideas for tax increases –  reconfiguring Proposition 13, hitting up millionaires, taxing oil production to support higher education – are floating around, though still in flux. Lempert said that a broad-based tax that business groups could support, focused on pre-K to grade 12 education, would most appeal to voters and have the best chance of passing. With big backers behind it, a Kids Education Plan would dominate, if not chase off, other initiatives.

If $6 billion, tied to reforms, sounds familiar, that’s because Gov. Schwarzenegger’s bipartisan Committee on Education Excellence, led by Ted Mitchell, a Democrat, recommended the same amount and strategy four years ago. Schwarzenegger blew off the committee’s report, but the ideas – many stemming from the voluminous studies Getting Down to Facts in 2007 – and the approach have been simmering on back burners. “The concept is to do it all together, to put it in one package and get it done,” Lempert said. “You can get more money for education if it includes reform.”

The need to settle on the initiative’s wording and to start collecting signatures by January at the latest leaves only about two months to reach agreement on which reforms and which tax. Consensus will demand few hard-and-fast positions.

A student-centered finance system with transparency is shorthand for replacing the complex system of legacy-based funding, with dozens of categorical grants, with a system based on student needs, with more money for poor students and English learners.

The principle behind workplace reforms, Lempert said, is removing obstacles in state law preventing districts from exerting more control over hiring, including tenure, and promoting and dismissing staff. Three groups in the coalition – United Way of Greater Los Angeles, Public Advocates, and Education Trust-West – have pushed for more rigorous evaluation systems. Public Advocates also represents plaintiffs in the suit Campaign for Quality Education, charging that the state inadequately funds its schools.

Several key bills now before the Legislature would address some of the initiative’s key reforms: Assemblywoman Julia Brownley’s AB 18 on school financing and Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes’ AB 5 on teacher evaluations. But, reflecting both the compressed timing and uncertainty over whether the Legislature will pass strong bills, the coalition intends to write the reforms into the initiatives, leaving perhaps companion bills to the Legislature.

In an email, California State PTA Executive Director Paul Richman said that the PTA disagrees with this approach, while expecting to support one ballot measure funding education next year. “We believe new funding to restore programs that have been cut for students is foremost and that other potential reforms, many of which we’d get behind, can be accomplished legislatively,” he said.

Dennis Cima, vice president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, another likely ally of the effort, said that the organization agrees with many of the priorities  in the initiative and could support a broad-based tax, but will be watching to see what else is being proposed for next November. Noting that an initiative can be a blunt instrument, he said, “Is the ballot the best way?”

It may be if the intent is to ensure that reforms are passed, not watered down or frittered away by the Legislature.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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