Poll: Tax with ed reforms is winner

A new poll has confirmed what Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, and others in the 2012 Kids Education Plan coalition expected: An initiative coupling school reforms with a tax increase dedicated to education has a good chance of winning at the polls a year from now.

The qualifiers are important. Less than a majority of respondents said they would be willing to pay a general state tax increase to support state services, including education, but not exclusively for schools. A slight majority said they’d be willing to pay more if it’s exclusively for education. But that rose to two-thirds if paired with the general reforms that the Kids Plan has been promoting. They include giving local districts more control over spending decisions and the hiring and dismissal of teachers.

Neither a sales nor income tax increase drew a majority support when suggested as a new general state tax.
Neither a sales nor income tax increase drew a majority support when suggested as a new general state tax. Click to enlarge. (EMC Research)

“The reform piece is needed to bring folks together,” said Lempert. “It provides a clear path for voters.”

It’s also needed to pick up the financial support of the business community, which will be needed to sustain a long campaign against likely anti-tax opposition.

The Kids Education Plan coalition, which includes the Association of California School Administrators,

Support grew when the income or sales tax was proposed as a tax dedicated to education. Click to enlarge. (EMC Research)
Support grew when the income or sales tax was proposed as a tax dedicated to education. Click to enlarge. (EMC Research)

United Way of Greater Los Angeles, the advocacy group Education Trust-West, Bay Area Council, and San Francisco-based Silver Giving Foundation, commissioned the poll of 600 voters in mid-November by EMC Research in Oakland, a marketing and opinion research firm that has done polling on education issues. Lempert released a six-page summary of the results.

The coalition has not yet written its own initiative. Instead, Lempert has taken on the role of broker, trying over the next month to coax deep-pocket sponsors of several emerging tax initiatives to compromise on one proposal. And that includes Gov. Jerry Brown, who’s said to be days away from announcing a tax initiative that he has been working on with the California Teachers Association. When Republican legislators killed his plan to extend tax increases as part of this year’s budget, Brown pledged to go to voters in 2012.

Push for one tax initiative in November 2012

There is general agreement, based on past elections, Lempert said, that voters would find multiple tax measures confusing and turn them all down. “We are focused on getting one measure on the ballot,” he said.

Today, Los Angeles attorney Molly Munger and a nonprofit she co-founded, the Advancement Project, are expected to send their initiative to the Attorney General for vetting. It would raise $10 billion for preschools through high schools, primarily from the wealthy, by increasing the personal income tax by 1 percentage point. Last week, the Think Long for California Committee, led by billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, proposed government reforms and also a $10 billion tax increase by extending the sales tax to services while lowering the personal and corporate income taxes. Higher education would get half of the money, but preschools and early childhood programs would get none.

Besides differences in who would be funded, there are advantages and liabilities to both proposals. The personal income tax is volatile, so a broader sales tax would provide more revenue predictability. But businesses that provide services, from attorneys to nail salons, will fight a new tax. The CTA will likely oppose Munger’s plan, because it would not mix the new money with Proposition 98, which funds pay increases and health benefits. CTA has already condemned Think Long’s plan for wiping off the books about $14 billion owed to schools. Munger’s plan has elements of the reform favored by Lempert’s group, such as providing bonus money for low-income children and giving school sites more say over how money is used. But those reforms would apply only to new money, not existing Prop 98 funding.

Precise wording of the poll questions is important. A USC/Dornsife poll found that 64 percent of respondents said they’d be willing to pay more taxes to support education. There was no mention of making this tax contingent on reforms.

However, the EMC poll teased out the distinctions:

  • “A narrow 53% majority agree and 43% disagree with the statement The most important thing our schools need is more funding.” The support rises to 66 percent when framed, I would be willing to pay more in taxes for schools if it went along with significant reforms to our state education system.
  • Only 39 percent said they would favor, with 58 percent opposing, a 1% increase in the income tax to provide general fund revenue “for uses such as education, social services, public safety and corrections.” That rose to 55 percent supporting, 42 percent against, when proposed as a dedicated tax for education. (Poll respondents weren’t told that under the state’s progressive tax structure, those earning more than $300,000 would pay the bulk of the new revenue.)
  • 44 percent said they would favor, with 52 percent opposing, a ½ percent increase in the sales tax to provide general fund revenue. That rose to 61 percent supporting, 36 percent against, when proposed as a dedicated sales tax increase for education.

Lempert isn’t talking publicly about specific reforms that the coalition wants. Respondents were read a question citing four general reforms:

  • Create a revised K through 12 education funding system for California that gives control over spending decisions to local communities and educators instead of the state legislature;
  • Require complete financial transparency and accountability for all education spending;
  • Give local school districts more control over teacher hiring and dismissal decisions; and
  • Provide substantial new funding for California schools by implementing a fair, broad-based new statewide tax for education.

However, the pollster then got more detailed, asking respondents about specific ideas, indicating which changes the coalition is interested in:

  • 80 percent favored making it simpler to dismiss underperforming teachers while preserving their right to appeal;
  • 79 percent favored requiring local districts to adopt a comprehensive teacher quality plan governing the recruiting, hiring, training, and evaluating of teachers;
  • 74 percent favored requiring that teachers have four years of experience, instead of two, before receiving permanent tenure status;
  • 72 percent favored expanding access to quality preschool and early childhood education programs;
  • 72 percent favored requiring districts to create a teacher compensation plan, developed with public input, detailing the pay structure for teachers;
  • 66 percent favored setting a base funding level for each student, with more for high-needs students;
  • 59 percent favored allowing district tax measures (parcel taxes) to be passed by 55 percent majority instead of the current 67 percent;
  • 55 percent favored significantly increasing statewide education funding with a broad-based tax raising between $6 billion and $8 billion per year.

Ruth Bernstein, a principal with the pollster EMC, said that the 59 percent support for dropping the threshold for a parcel tax, while lower than other reforms, was higher than in the past. She said she interpreted the 55 percent support for an $8 billion statewide tax as a sign that voters want reforms if they are going to pass a tax of that magnitude.

“We are seeing heightened awareness about the need for more funding,” Bernstein said, “and awareness of structural changes that are needed.”

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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