Leg erases Gov’s ed reforms

John Fensterwald co-authored this article.

The Legislature’s budget package is missing many of Gov. Brown’s controversial education initiatives. A joint Senate and Assembly plan outlined yesterday protects transitional kindergarten, the science mandate, and the AVID program, rejects the weighted student funding formula, and offers districts a choice in how they’re paid for state mandates.

“This budget protects and invests in public education this year, and increases Proposition 98 funding by $17 billion over the next four years,” said Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez during a press conference Wednesday morning with Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

The overall budget plan that lawmakers will vote on this Friday would erase California’s $20 billion structural deficit, balance the budget for each of the next three years, and create a $2 billion reserve by fiscal year 2015-16, according to Pérez and Steinberg.

Spending for K-12 education would be $53.6 billion for the 2012-13 fiscal year. That’s about $1 billion more than the governor had anticipated. Because the budget assumes more revenue for education through the passage of Brown’s tax initiative in November, the state is obligated under Proposition 98 to start paying off the “maintenance factor,” the IOUs given to schools during bad times. But if the tax increase fails, the Legislature and governor are in accord on the need for cuts of $5.5 billion for K-12 schools and community colleges. That would translate to a K-12 cut of $450 per student.

About $2.9 billion of that would come from lowering the Prop 98 guarantee due to a drop in state revenues. The rest would be made up through shifting two expenses into Prop 98 that are currently funded outside the guarantee. Those are repayment of general obligation bonds for school construction and the Early Start early education program. (Go here to read more about that in an earlier TOPed article.)

In addition, the legislative package would include trailer bill language allowing K-12 schools to cut 15 additional days from the next two school years.

Weighty issue

The governor’s biggest loss, for now, is the weighted student funding formula. Lawmakers’ refusal to include it in the budget isn’t an outright rejection of the concept of a simpler, fairer finance system that sends more money to districts with high proportions of English learners and indigent students. And Brown is expected to bring up the issue again this summer. But many lawmakers felt that the governor was jamming them to accept sweeping changes without justifying the basis for his formula, while legislators from suburban districts called for restoring all of the money lost to cuts over the past four years before redistributing new money.

Rick Simpson, the deputy chief of staff for Speaker Pérez, said that lawmakers wanted more assurances that the money under a weighted formula would actually reach targeted students. As part of his reform,  Brown proposed giving districts total flexibility in deciding how the dollars would be spent. “If you’re going to deregulate the entire school finance system,” Simpson said, “and if you’re not going to regulate inputs, you ought to have an accountability system to make sure you get those positive outcomes. We have lots of disparate pieces that we refer to as accountability, but it’s not a system.”

High school science intact

Brown had proposed eliminating the mandate for more than two dozen K-12 programs, including (the most expensive) requiring schools to offer a second year of high school science. Dropping a mandate would mean that districts could continue offering a program by finding money in their existing budgets. Brown also proposed reimbursing districts a flat $28 per student for the remaining mandated programs.

Science teachers and the business community protested that the state shouldn’t retreat from its commitment to science education (see commentary on this page), and the Legislature agreed, keeping it and all of the current mandates intact. However, lawmakers didn’t increase the reimbursement rate either, so districts can expect to continue accumulating a big IOU for meeting the science mandate. The state has also gone to court, arguing that the $250 million cost on the books for offering a second year of science is way too high, based on a false assumption that high schools had to add a period to the day to accommodate it, according to Paul Golaszewski, an analyst with the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Applying for a straight $28 per student would be the easiest, quickest way for districts to be reimbursed for mandated costs. However, the Legislature also would continue to allow districts to submit bills detailing the cost of complying with mandates – and hope that the state accepts the claims.

Starting early

The joint budget proposal allowed the early childhood education community to exhale a bit, by denying a number of significant cuts that the governor was seeking. He wanted to cut the reimbursement to preschool providers by 10 percent, raise the financial eligibility requirement, place a two-year cap on families receiving childcare services while attending a school or a job-training program, and eliminate full-day preschool starting next year.

“The Legislature has really stood up for young children,” said Scott Moore, Senior Policy Advisor at Preschool California. No one got away unscathed, however, and childcare will be taking a $50 million cut and losing 6,000 spaces for children in full-day state preschool, the childcare voucher program, and the infant-toddler child development program.  That’s on top of a billion dollar reduction and 100,000 spaces lost since 2008. Still, said Moore, “it’s significantly less that we were fearing would be cut.”

CA breaks another bad record

More California school districts than ever before are heading toward insolvency. The State Department of Education’s Second Interim Status Report for 2011-12, released yesterday, named 188 districts with serious financial problems; of those, 12 have negative certifications, meaning they won’t be able to meet payroll and other bills for this academic year.

California schools that may not be able to make ends meet. (source: State Dept. of Education) Click to enlarge
California schools that may not be able to make ends meet. (Source: State Dept. of Education) Click to enlarge.

It’s a steep increase over the first interim report, released last February, which we wrote about here. At that time, there were seven districts on the negative list and 120 in qualified status. With the increases, more than 2.6 million of California’s 6.2 million school children attend schools facing uncertain financial futures.

“This is the kind of record no one wants to set. Across California, parents, teachers, and administrators are increasingly wondering how to keep their schools’ lights on, their bills paid, and their doors open,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in a written statement. “The deep cuts this budget crisis has forced — and the uncertainties about what lies ahead — are taking an unprecedented and unacceptable toll on our schools.”

Given the years of budget cuts to education, the new numbers didn’t come as a surprise to school finance officials, said Mike Hulsizer, head of governmental affairs for the Kern County Office of Education. But it will get worse if neither of the school tax initiatives passes next November. “There is no question that this understates the risk that districts are facing,” said Hulsizer, because many of the districts counted on funds from Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax increase in planning their 2012-13 budgets.

K-12 schools would receive an extra $2.8 billion if the initiative passes, but Brown is proposing cutting K-12 schools about $5 billion – $441 per student – midyear if it fails. Districts weren’t ordered to budget one way or another. Although some county superintendents wanted schools to budget for the worst-case scenario, others told school districts to plan either way, but make sure they have a Plan B in case of a negative vote at the ballot box. “The county’s position is that a district needs to be able to weather the trigger if it does happen,” said Santa Clara County Office of Education Superintendent Chuck Weis.  “If a district is already on the edge, then plan for the worst.”

Joel Montero, CEO of the state’s Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT), told a state Assembly committee two weeks ago that small and rural districts face the largest impact from another round of midyear cuts. “Small and tiny rural districts don’t really have an economy of scale,” said Montero. They don’t have enough money or students to absorb any additional losses, particularly when those losses come in the form of deferrals, the $9 billion-plus that the state owes to school districts.

Options for school districts that have run out of options. (Source:  Leg. Analyst) Click to enlarge.
Options for school districts that have run out of options. (Source: Leg. Analyst) Click to enlarge.

“So the decision that you have to make as a school district is whether or not you can afford to fund that deferral for the term and if you can’t then it becomes a cut for you in a way,” Montero explained to subcommittee members.

Five of the nine districts that received a negative certification fall into the small and/or rural category.  The tiniest, La Grange Elementary School District in Stanislaus County, will be shutting down at the end of this school year and sending its six students to other districts.

Two of the districts, Vallejo City Unified and South Monterey Joint Union High School, have already been bailed out by the state and are under a state-appointed administrator. Linda Grundhoffer, the Chief Business Official in South Monterey – formerly King City Joint Union High School District – said ever since the district went under state control in 2009 the onslaught of budget cuts “are just making it harder for this district to recover.”  The district is seeking to lower the interest rate on its state loan from 5.44 percent to 1 percent through legislation, but so far Senate bill 1240 and Assembly bill 1858 are on the suspense files in the appropriations committees of their respective houses.

In an unusual twist, this year’s negative list also contains a small but very wealthy district. At a little over $170,000, the median household income in the San Mateo County foothills community of Portola Valley is nearly three times the state average. But the district is now trying to stave off a state takeover after an audit found a shortfall of about $850,000 for this school year plus an additional half-million dollars allegedly misappropriated by the former superintendent, who’s already facing felony charges stemming from his tenure as chief financial officer in the neighboring Woodside Elementary District.

The list of districts on the negative and qualified lists may continue to set somber new records depending on what happens in November.  “Second interim certifications are assuming a better budget environment than realistically may be there after November,” FCMAT’s Montero told TOPed.  “Without that assumption, it is likely the numbers of qualified and negative districts would have been higher.”

CSBA: Vote for both tax plans

The state PTA backs the tax initiative financed by civil rights attorney Molly Munger; the California Teachers Association and the Association of California School Administrators endorsed the governor’s initiative. This week, the California School Boards Association decided to support both.

On Sunday, at the urging of CSBA’s board of directors, school board members in the Delegate Assembly voted 129-79 to encourage their constituents to vote for both tax proposals that will appear on the November ballot. They did so after an hour-and-a-half debate and after defeating, by voice vote, an amendment calling for CSBA to support only Munger’s “Our Children, Our Future” initiative. There was no motion to support only “The Schools and Local Public Protection Act of 2012,” which Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Federation of Teachers are sponsoring.

“We are facing a nuclear winter for funding for public education,” said CSBA Vice President Josephine Lucey, a school board member from Cupertino. “Districts cannot absorb more cuts and provide a decent education.” Delegates decided it was smartest to back both initiatives, Lucey said, after concluding, “Why should we be fodder for a fight” between the two tax campaigns or the anti-tax Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which would play up its opposition to one of the tax plans.

Brown’s tax plan was favored by a slight majority, 54 percent, in a poll last month by the Public Policy Institute of California, while Munger’s drew only 40 percent support in that voter survey. But Munger’s plan would provide substantially more money for K-12 schools, so it came down to a difference between “the purists and the pragmatists,” said Frank Biehl, president of the East Side Union High School District school board and a delegate from Santa Clara County. “One side said Munger’s would bring more money for a longer time with more flexibility. The other side said, ‘It’s not going to pass so what difference doe it make?'”

Biehl, who plans to vote for both, said another factor was that the CSBA didn’t want to cut off dialogue with Brown, who has met with the board of directors and responded to their concerns, such as changing his plan for a weighted student formula.

Both initiatives are expected to qualify for the ballot. Brown’s tax plan would raise between $6.5 billion and $9 billion by raising the sales tax ¼ percent for four years and the personal income tax between 1 and 3 percent for seven years on those earning more than $250,000. But most of the money would go toward shoring up the General Fund, with $2.9 billion going toward Proposition 98 next year; Brown would commit that to repay part of  $9 billion in deferrals, late payments to school districts.

Munger’s initiative would raise $5 billion in 2012-13 and then $10 billion for 11 years by raising the state’s progressive personal income tax less than a half-percent for lowest earners up to 2.2 percent for those earning more than $2.5 million. In the first three years, her plan would pay off $3 billion in state bonds, freeing up money for the General Fund, with the rest going toward K-12 schools and early childhood education. After that, all of the money would go directly to schools, on a per-student basis, and early childhood programs.

If, against the odds, Munger’s initiative won and the governor’s lost, the Legislature could undermine it by separately manipulating the General Fund to decrease Proposition 98 funding for education. Brown and lawmakers have become adept at that. There would be disputes if both initiatives passed. The one with the highest vote total would determine which clauses applied in areas of overlap (the rates on the personal income tax); the courts would likely be called on to sort through other issues.

In its press release on Sunday’s vote, CSBA made a strenuous case for more school funding while expressing little enthusiasm for Brown’s initiative. Quoting CSBA Executive Director Vernon Billy, it said, “CSBA opted for the dual endorsement because schools desperately need funding.” Yet, he and the CSBA leadership want to make it clear to the public that the governor’s initiative does not provide new funding for schools. Instead, it bolsters the General Fund with new revenue.

“‘Under the governor’s plan, schools would get back some of the billions of dollars that were redirected away from them and used to shore up the state’s funding gap in the last budgetary cycle. The governor’s initiative only restores some of the funds already owed to schools,’” Billy said.

Watching California public schools sink — a preventable Titanic

One hundred years ago last month, the cry “women and children first” echoed on the decks of the ill-fated Titanic. A century later, the ship carrying California’s future is listing in the water. However, it seems that today no one is willing to make a sacrifice: It’s every man, woman, and child for himself or herself.

California was once the envy of the country — beautiful beaches, good jobs, a booming economy, and the promise of the best public education system, including top-notch, affordable state colleges and universities. However, the economic seas became rough in 2007 with the impact of the recession. In an effort to keep California afloat, our leaders in Sacramento — unable or unwilling to right the ship by raising revenue — scrambled for items to dump overboard. The value of education plummeted as other budget items were given priority, and education funding became the primary target for cuts, suffering a disproportionate loss of revenue. From 2007-08 to 2010-11, K-12 education funding sustained 54 percent of the loss of revenue, although it represented approximately 40 percent of the General Fund. In contrast, corrections sustained just a 4 percent loss, despite representing approximately 10 percent of the General Fund.

As the recession persists, the captain and crew – Gov. Brown and the legislators – decide what will be loaded into the lifeboats to survive, but there’s little evidence that the children are first. (Lucky for prisoners, federal law makes sure they are at the front of the line.) Instead, lawmakers and the governor are accusing each other of failing to save the children and the integrity of our state’s educational system Gov. Brown has proposed one solution to right the ship, but it requires the children to stay on board until the voters send help by passing his tax initiative. He seems to have overlooked the fact that children may go overboard before help can arrive — their schools must open months before the actual amount of education funding is determined.

The impact of the recession and the sinking of California are wreaking havoc on the schools, as has been documented this month by reports from both the Legislative Analyst’s Office and EdSource. School districts have been left scrambling, throwing items overboard or rearranging deck chairs in a futile attempt to balance their loads. Many districts are forced to borrow funds to keep schools open when the state sends IOUs, adding to their debt burden. Since 2008, more than 40,000 teachers, counselors, nurses, librarians, bus drivers, etc. have been lost, with an additional 20,000 teachers plus thousands more school employees currently in peril. While some education bargaining units are negotiating to save themselves and their students, others seem willing to let those in third class (lower seniority) and their schoolchildren sink with the ship to save their own skins.

Our schools need adequate funding to open their doors before the tax initiative-funded lifeboat can arrive. And the truth is that even if it passes, the initiative provides little more than current funding levels. Because of the uncertainty of the initiative’s passage, districts are compelled to budget with worst-case funding scenarios. As California continues to pitch in the seas of the recession, it is truly the children who will suffer the most severe, long-term damage. They’ll suffer larger classes, shorter school years, the loss of “less important” programs such as music and the arts, the disbanding of professional learning collaborations with the shuffling of remaining teachers, and so on, leaving 6.3 million schoolchildren with permanent gaps in their learning.

One hundred years ago, when the Titanic sank, the world was stunned and outraged that so many lives were lost, and new, preventative measures were instituted to save lives. Years later, we are watching another ship, the public school system in California, go under. Where are the safety measures today for the schoolchildren of our state?  California was already 50th in the nation for student-to-teacher ratio in 2008, and that was before education funding suffered $20 billion in losses. How much more water will we allow our schools to take on before we step in to do something? Will we be able to tell the children of California that we did everything to save them, or will we sit by idly, shrug our shoulders, and point our finger at someone else and say that it was his/her fault? Unlike the Titanic, we can stop this disaster. We must call out “children first” to save them and the future of our state.

Tamara Hurley is a California native, a product of the state’s public education system, and a 24-year resident of San Diego. Trained as a scientist, she has spent the past eight years volunteering on behalf of her children’s public schools, from the classroom to PTO and PTA boards as well as on district, community, and school site committees and site governance teams. Tamara is a board member of Educate Our State, a statewide, nonprofit, parent-led, grassroots organization fighting for high-quality public K-12 education in California.

Help districts plan for disaster

Passing a state budget that assumes voters will pass a tax increase in November is unworkable for school districts, the Legislative Analyst’s Office has concluded. Instead, the nonpartisan LAO is urging the Legislature to pass a series of measures now that would allow districts to plan for a worst case scenario, including eliminating some program mandates, extending deadlines for laying off teachers, and making an even shorter school year optional.

“Although the state and districts continue to struggle with tight budgets, we believe the Legislature can take a number of actions to assist districts in managing their fiscal challenges,” the LAO wrote in presenting its third annual survey of districts and their responses to financial challenges.

In his budget, which he will revise in two weeks, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed that the Legislature build in his $7 billion tax increase – and then mandate $5.4 billion in K-12 cuts, including an approximately $450 per student general revenue cut if it fails. But cutting budgets in the middle of a school year poses substantial contractual and practical problems for districts, which is why 90 percent of districts surveyed by the LAO reported they’re not counting on extra revenues in building their 2012-13 budgets. Many would wait until 2013-14 to include new money if the initiative does pass. (Districts may also be reading tea leaves. The latest poll by the Public Policy Institute of California showed the initiative winning by a bare 54 percent margin.)

In order to soften the impact of budget cuts, the Legislature has given districts latitude to spend 40 categorical programs worth $4.7 billion as they want. Many have used the authority to stop funding adult education,  suspend purchases of textbooks and other programs. If they had their way, 80 percent of districts would terminate some earmarked expenditures, including Economic Impact Aid, the chief source of extra money for English learners and poor kids, highly successful Partnership Academies in high school, and the Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA), extra money for some low-achieving schools championed by the California Teachers Association.

Brown is proposing to permanently extend flexibility to nearly all categoricals as well, including class-size reduction, except he’d make that a key component of his finance reform, in which he would end categoricals and redirect the money to districts with English learners and poor children.

Since 2007-08, districts have cut 16 percent of administrators, 11 percent of teachers and 14 percent of counselors and other support personnel. Source: LAO. (Click to enlarge)
Since 2007-08, districts have cut 16 percent of administrators, 11 percent of teachers, and 14 percent of counselors and other support personnel. Source: LAO. (Click to enlarge)

The LAO qualifies its support for flexibility and for a phased-in weighted student formula. Concerned that districts might not spend money previously earmarked for disadvantaged students on those children, the LAO recommends either block grants or the adoption of restrictions until new accountability measures are put in place.

Other recommendations of the LAO:

  • Reduce the minimum school year from 175 days to 170 days and let districts decide whether to lay off staff or have a shorter year. The state would save $200 million for every day less, the LAO said. The survey revealed that 20 percent of districts have the minimum 175 days, while another 20 percent of districts have cut one to four days off the calendar.
  • Eliminate restrictions on contracting out non-instructional services and rules requiring the hiring of substitute teachers based on seniority, at a higher pay scale. The CTA and California Federation of Teachers will fight this proposal.
  • Change statutes to move the final date for laying off teachers from May 15 to Aug. 1. This would enable districts to factor in the final state budget in setting staffing levels. The LAO reasons that the change could save teachers’ jobs, since districts would no longer have to lay off more teachers than necessary in May while guessing how much the Legislature will fund K-12 education. (The CTA probably won’t like this idea either.)

About half of the 950 districts surveyed by LAO responded. They included eight of the 10 largest districts and 67 percent of the students in the state. Some of the findings:

  • Between  2007-08 and 2010-11, districts cut expenses 6 percent equal to $547 per student in response to budget cuts;
  • Districts have eliminated positions for 11 percent of teachers, 14 percent of support personnel such as counselors and 16 percent of administrators (CA already had the nation’s highest student to administrator ratio.)
  • While most districts have adopted some furlough days for teachers and staff, only 6 percent eliminated the automatic annual salary raises, based on longevity,  for teachers. Health care and benefit costs for districts rose 6 percent during this period.
  • Fully a quarter of surveyed districts reported that they cannot handle additional delayed payments from the state – deferrals – without cutting staff or programs, because they no longer can borrow internally or externally, from a county office of education or a bank. Brown has proposed paying down $1.6 billion of the $9.4 billion in deferrals if the tax initiative passes, but possibly adding another multi-billion deferral if the tax plan fails.

Low marks for Brown, not his ideas

California voters give Gov. Jerry Brown low marks overall for the way he has handled K-12 education. But, at the same time, they support some school reforms that he’s championing, including directing much of new revenue to poor students, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll.

The poll, of 2,005 Californians earlier this month, revealed that a slim majority of 54 percent of likely voters

Most likely voters back Brown's tax initiative. Source: PPIC. Click to enlarge.
Most likely voters back Brown's tax initiative. Source: PPIC April poll. (Click to enlarge)

continues to support Brown’s proposed tax initiative in November, although nearly two-thirds of likely voters – and 89 percent of Democrats – back raising income taxes on the rich, the key element of the plan. What they don’t like, with only 46 percent for, 52 percent opposed, is the other piece of the proposal: raising the sales tax for schools (Brown is proposing one-quarter percent for four years).

More Democrats than Republicans, Latinos than whites, women than men back Brown's plan for higher taxes. Source: PPIC April poll. (Click to enlarge.)
More Democrats than Republicans, Latinos than whites, women than men back Brown's plan for higher taxes. Source: PPIC April poll. (Click to enlarge)

In January, 68 percent of likely voters and 72 percent of all adults told PPIC they would back taxing the rich and raising the sales tax to raise money for K-12 schools. That was before the initiative had a title and summary, which was read to poll respondents in the latest poll, so there’s no simple comparison. Nonetheless, the 14 percentage point drop, to 54 percent, is worth speculation. It could be that the complicated wording of the summary turned off some respondents, or perhaps it’s reservations after being told that only a piece of the money will go toward K-12 schools. The proposals also “guarantees funding for public safety services realigned from state to local governments” and “addresses the state’s budgetary problem by paying for other spending commitments.” Whatever the reason, Brown will face a hard sell getting the initiative passed in November.

There may be a competing initiative on the ballot that would fund schools exclusively, more in tune with what voters say they want. But the PPIC poll is hardly good news for civil rights attorney Molly Munger’s Our Children, Our Future initiative. It would raise an estimated $10 billion by raising the income tax for nearly all earners, and that wasn’t popular. Only 40 percent of likely voters in the PPIC poll favored a general income tax increase, with 57 percent opposed. Most Democrats back it (56 percent) but only 42 percent of independents and 21 percent of Republicans.

Brown can have the satisfaction of knowing Californians say he’s handling education better (27 percent approval, 23 percent among likely voters) than the Legislature (22 percent approval overall, an astounding 10 percent among likely voters).

Voters could be holding the Legislature responsible for the cuts to schools: 90 percent of Californians and 92 percent of likely voters agree that the state budget situation is creating a big problem or somewhat of a problem for K-12 schools. Nearly all Californians (87 percent) believe the “quality of education” in the state is at least somewhat of a problem, with 58 percent saying it’s a big problem. That same percentage of public school parents, a subset in the survey, said they are very concerned about teacher layoffs at their child’s school. And 78 percent of all likely voters disapprove of the automatic cuts to schools that Brown is suggesting if the tax initiative fails.

Positives on elements of reform

Brown has proposed a weighted student funding plan, a major overhaul of how schools are funded and governed. The poll doesn’t ask about that per se, but the survey did ask about the key elements of the plan. For the most part, Californians approve of them, in concept.

Flexibility and local control: More than four out of five Californians (82 percent) want local control of school spending decisions, either within school districts (48 percent) or at the school level (34 percent). Likely voters are even stronger on the issue: 53 percent want decisions at the district level and 36 percent at the school site. The one region where this is less so is Los Angeles, where only 40 percent want decisions made by the district; 21 percent (twice the state average) would prefer power to remain in Sacramento. That sign of lack of faith locally should be a warning to the Los Angeles Unified School Board, which is proposing a $298 parcel tax in November.

Targeted funding for poor students: Brown would funnel significant portions of new dollars to low-income students and English learners. Californians strongly support helping the former, less so for English learners, reflecting ambivalence toward illegal immigration.

Most Californians (82 percent) believe that school districts in lower-income areas of the state have fewer resources than school districts in wealthier areas, according to the poll. More than two-thirds (68 percent) of Californians say districts with high proportions of poor children should get a bigger share of new funding. But only about half (52 percent) say more money should go to English learners. (Since about three-quarters of English learners are also poor, we’re talking about roughly the same children.) For likely voters, the level of support drops to 54 percent for the poor and only 40 percent for English learners. Democrats provide the largest support across the board.

Other interesting findings in the poll:

  • Only about a third (36 percent) of Californians think that the state’s per pupil spending for K–12 public education is less than other states’ spending; 27 percent believe it’s above average. (In straight dollars, it’s 37th and 47th when regional costs of living are factored in.)
  • If a school construction bond were on the local ballot, 62 percent of residents 53 percent of likely voters  say they would vote yes ; it takes 55 percent for passage.
  • If a parcel tax to supplement funding of local schools were on the ballot, 60 percent of Californians and 51 percent of likely voters would support it – about the same level of support as in past years. It takes a 66 percent majority to pass one. Parcel taxes are regressive since the tax is the same, regardless of the value of the property. Support is about even across regions, although most parcel taxes have been approved by voters in Bay Area school districts. Latinos (72 percent) and Asians (65 percent), younger Californians, those without a high school diploma, renters and those with household incomes less than $40,000 indicate the most support for a parcel tax.

Polling looks good for Brown

It was a fine weekend for Jerry Brown. He should be elated with the first polling on his revised tax initiative. And the California Teachers Assn., a strong supporter of his first initiative, has come around to back the new version, too, and committed $9 million for the June and November elections. At least a piece of that’s expected to help Brown round up signatures to get the initiative on the ballot, though how much has yet to be disclosed.

Results of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll of 1,500 registered voters show that 64 percent of voters back a temporary quarter-cent sales tax and higher income taxes on those making at least $250,000 ­– the compromise that Brown and the California Federation of Teachers agreed to earlier this month in merging their initiatives; 33 percent of those polled opposed it. Democrats were predictably for it (80-16) and Republicans agin (38-61); however, Brown did surprisingly well with independents, three-quarters of whom said they support the initiative, with 23 percent opposed.

Voters were told the money – $7 billion to $9 billion – would go toward public schools, community colleges, services for children and older adults, and local public safety, in line with the new initiative’s title (the School and Local Public Safety Protection Act of 2012) and summary. Brown can claim that because, while the revenue will go to the General Fund, a portion will go to K-12 and community colleges through Proposition 98, while $2 billion will support realignment, in which counties will permanently take responsibility for some social services and prisoners transferred to county jails.

The poll was taken in the days immediately after the deal between Brown and the CFT, but before the teachers union decided to stop collecting signatures for its Millionaires Tax, so pollsters asked about that one, too. CFT proposed a permanent, higher tax, though only for millionaires.

CFT’s initiative outpolled the hybrid tax plan 69-27, 5 percentage points higher. But business lobbies had already come out against CFT’s plan and may have waged war against it, so Brown’s tradeoff – sticking with a small sales tax and lowering the rates on the wealthy – could prove smart if business groups end up sitting on their hands.

“Jerry Brown may have pulled off a coup. By convincing the teachers to drop their initiative, he ends up with a compromise that still draws big levels of support,” Dan Schnur, director of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll, said in a statement.

The strong poll results on the initiative would appear to contradict Californians’ ambivalence about paying any new taxes. Asked whether the state’s $9 billion deficit should be resolved through a combination of taxes and cuts, as Brown proposed, or just cuts, 49 percent said do both taxes and cuts, while 45 percent said cuts alone. Apparently, respondents feel OK about taxes as long as they’re not getting the bill. (A full 80 percent also favor a $1 a pack tax increase on cigarettes, which is on the June ballot.)

That sentiment is reflected in the apparent opposition to the other tax proposal that may be on the November ballot, proposed by civil rights attorney Molly Munger and backed by the state PTA. It would provide $11 billion to K-12 and early childhood education by increasing the income tax across the board, though most families earning less than $50,000 would pay a negligible increase. It polls the mirror image of Brown’s new tax, with 32 percent in favor, 64 percent against. (Munger and the PTA face the challenge of explaining to voters that the increase will apply to their net incomes, after deductions, not to their gross incomes.)

The  endorsement of Brown’s merged initiative by CTA’s State Council of 800 delegates was expected, but critical nonetheless.

In a statement, CTA President Dean Vogel called the revised plan “a responsible and progressive plan that requires the wealthy pay their fair share in order to close the state budget deficit, restore funding to schools, colleges and essential public services and put California on the road to recovery.” He promised to work “with other labor unions and community groups to quickly qualify this initiative for the November ballot.” That implies that CTA will fork over some of the $4 million to $5 million it will take to get 1.2 million signatures by mid-May.

The State Council will meet again in June, at which point it could agree to additional spending on the November election.

Big price, little time for initiative

The California Federation of Teachers has stopped collecting signatures for its Millionaires Tax, throwing its full effort into an expensive race against time to qualify an initiative it negotiated last week with Gov. Jerry Brown.

The union had vowed to continue its own initiative drive as a backup in case the compromise effort with the governor was flagging. But there was always a question whether the CFT, slightly more than a third the size of the California Teachers Association, had the heft to succeed with one initiative, let alone two.

The new Brown/CFT initiative promises to be one of the most expensive, if not the most expensive, state signature drives. It has about seven weeks to collect around 1.2 million signatures: the minimum 805,000 signatures to qualify an initiative that includes a constitutional amendment, plus a cushion of 300,000 to 400,000 signatures. The compressed time frame has driven up the market price to $4 per signature for the new initiative – twice the $2 per name for other initiatives. And, come close to early May, that price may rise some more. That’s at least $4.5 million to $5 million to qualify the new initiative for November.

Jeffrey Freitas, CFT secretary/treasurer, told me that the campaign has promises for the money, and he’s confident it will come in. The CFT will put in at least “a couple million,” and other unions and grassroots organizations in its partner, the Courage Campaign, will deliver, too.

This week, signature collectors hit the street. With friends in high places, Brown was able to get Attorney General Kamala Harris’s office, his old shop, to approve the revised title and summary on the new initiative in three days, instead of a month or longer, in effect giving Brown three more weeks to gather signatures before the practical deadline to submit names to county election officials in early May. (The record, I’m told, is the 33 or so days it took to qualify Indian gaming on the ballot in 1998.)

This weekend could be critical. The CTA’s State Council, its 745-delegate decision-making body, will have its quarterly meeting in Los Angeles. It’s expected to decide how much money to spend for November, and how to spend it. The CTA, a key ally of Brown, couldn’t be happy that its junior brethren at the CFT have upped the price for initiatives. Since Brown at this point is still collecting signatures on his original initiative, the CTA faces the prospect of splitting and increasing its contributions. It and other unions are already facing another potentially costly battle against a “paycheck protection” initiative that would deny public unions the right to deduct members’ dues for political purposes.

Brown’s initiative called for a four- to five-year temporary tax, raising the sales tax a half percentage point and the income tax on individuals earning more than $250,000. The money, between $5 billion and $7 billion, would have gone to the General Fund. The CFT’s Millionaires Tax would have been a permanent tax increase, raising the income tax on those earning $1 million by 3 percentage points, and 5 percentage points on those earning more than $2 million. The money, between $7 billion and $9 billion, would have gone into a trust fund, with 40 percent committed to higher education.

The merged initiative calls for only a quarter percentage point increase in the sales tax for four years and a seven-year increase in the income tax on individuals earning more than $250,000. The rate increases for millionaires would be higher than Brown called for but less than the CFT proposed. The money would go to the General Fund, which faces as much as a $9 billion deficit.

The California Business Roundtable and the California Chamber of Commerce earlier this month came out against the CFT initiative but withheld support for Brown’s. What happens next is a matter of great speculation. Brown will need business backing, particularly if there is well-funded opposition to the new initiative. Occidental Petroleum and Kaiser Permanente are among companies that contributed to Brown’s original initiative, and Brown told the Sacramento Bee Tuesday that Occidental remains on board.

Loren Kaye, president of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education, which is affiliated with the California Chamber of Commerce, said that the Chamber remains concerned about the initiative’s impact on the business climate but had not yet begun talks with Brown. Robert Lapsley, president of the Business Roundtable, said that the organization’s board would not take up initiatives again until June at the earliest. It was unalterably opposed to the permanent tax increase proposed by the CFT; the seven-year increase will be looked at, he said, but the board had made clear that it would consider the larger context of the need for pension reform and other legislative actions to improve job creation.

Three-way overtures with Molly Munger

Meanwhile, lest she be forgotten, civil rights attorney Molly Munger launched  a 30-second TV ad in Los Angeles and San Francisco this week promoting the other tax initiative heading for November. Her Our Children, Our Future plan would raise $10 billion for early education and K-12 schools through an increase in the graduated income tax for 12 years – a “shared sacrifice, shared benefit,” in the words of campaign manager Addisu Demissie.

The ad makes the case for education funding and promotes a calculator that enables viewers to see how much money would go to their local school through the initiative.

The initiative is backed by the California State PTA, which has more than 1,000 volunteers in the field collecting signatures, according to Demissie. Because it would require a statutory change, not  a constitutional amendment, the initiative needs 300,000 fewer signatures than the governor’s to qualify.

The TV ad is not a response to those calling for the campaign to give way to Brown’s initiative, Demissie said. “It’s targeting folks receptive to our message to let them know there is reform on the ballot in November that will send money directly to schools.”

Brown would like Munger to drop her initiative, but hasn’t met with her. However, he told the Los Angeles Times he did briefly speak with her for the first time last week and that his wife, Anne, had an email exchange with Munger. “She sent my wife a nice email and my wife responded,” the governor told reporters. “And then she responded back. So that’s where we are. But we do have two incompatible initiatives.”

Brown, CFT cut deal for November

Now there are two.

Gov. Jerry Brown is halfway to having only one tax initiative on the November ballot, now that a coalition led by the California Federation of Teachers has agreed to merge its proposed tax with Brown’s in a deal that will raise more money from the wealthiest 1 percent for a longer period – with a portion of the extra money likely going to  the state’s community colleges and universities.

The agreement, announced Wednesday, leaves civil rights attorney Molly Munger’s $10 billion income tax initiative, devoted primarily  to early childhood education and K-12 schools, as the remaining potential competitor on the ballot. A spokesman for Munger’s Our Children, Our Future initiative insisted that the effort to collect signatures to qualify for the ballot would continue, but there will be renewed pressure on her and her ally, the state PTA, to halt the campaign or on Brown to reach an accommodation with them. Key business groups – the California Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable – have already come out in opposition to Our Children, Our Future, while not yet endorsing Brown’s plan. (Business will wait to see if the Legislature passes pension reform, its top priority.)

In grafting the CFT and the Courage Campaign’s Millionaire’s Tax of 2012 onto Brown’s Schools & Local Public Safety Act, the text of the governor’s initiative will remain the same; only four numbers will change. Brown agreed to:

  • Halve the sales tax increase from ½ to ¼ percent, reducing a regressive tax on the poor and middle class. It will run four years, starting Jan. 1;
  • Leave  the income tax increase on joint filers earning $500,000 at 1 percent, but raise the tax on joint filers earning $600,000 by 2 percentage points instead of 1.5 percentage points, and the tax on millionaires by 3 percentage points instead of 2 percentage points;
  • Extend the income tax to seven years, instead of only five years.

Brown had projected that his tax would raise as much as $6.9 billion per year, but the Legislative Analyst said that might be as much as $2 billion too high; the Department of Finance is saying the new initiative could raise between $7.1 billion and $9 billion, an additional $2 billion.

The CFT’s initiative had promised that 40 percent of its tax would be divided equally among community colleges, CSU, and UC, with 20 percent committed to K-12 schools and the rest toward social services and public safety. There’s no explicit commitment to higher education in the governor’s initiative, which would divert a portion of revenues from the sales tax and vehicle license fees to pay for public safety and some social services now the responsibility of counties and local communities. The rest would shore up the General Fund. But the CFT is expected to press for additional money for higher ed through the budget process – and call in its UOMEs.

It will take a massive effort to collect more than 1 million signatures by early May to qualify the revised initiative  for the November ballot. For insurance, Brown will also continue collecting signatures for his current initiative, in case the new one comes up short.

CFT’s initiative had outpolled the governor’s initiative, with 63 percent support vs 58 percent, in a Field Poll last month; Munger’s got slightly under 50 percent. But the CFT, the smaller of the two teachers unions, didn’t have a lot of money to wage a protracted campaign, especially if business interests were to throw money to defeat it. It also didn’t want to be blamed if a confused electorate defeated all of the competing initiatives.

But Brown, too, had reason to compromise. In a Public Policy Institute of California poll this month, the governor’s initiative drew only 52 percent support, down from 68 and 62 percent support in two earlier polls.

Recently, there was an escalation of words between Brown and the CFT after the governor called for the union and Munger to abandon their initiatives.

“It’s not going to happen,” CFT President Joshua Pechthalt said at a news conference last week. He vowed that the union was poised to spend another $1 million for its signature drive.

Earlier this year, Brown had paid a personal visit to Pechthalt’s home in Los Angeles to try to persuade the union to give up. He told the Sacramento Bee editorial board that he lingered to help Pechthalt’s 12-year-old daughter with a school assignment.

In the long run, it worked – a reminder to Brown how important it is to do your homework – or at least someone else’s.

Charters choose Brown’s tax plan

Charter schools and the state’s largest teachers union rarely find anything to agree about. But the California Charter Schools Assn. is now the second major education group, next to the California Teachers Assn., to endorse Gov. Jerry Brown’s $7 billion tax initiative. The 13-member board of CCSA, representing most of the 982 charter schools in the state, voted unanimously to support it last week, said Jed Wallace, CEO of the charter schools association.

Brown has been leaning on political leaders to exclusively back his tax plan in order to put the squeeze on sponsors of two competing tax initiatives gathering signatures and make them drop out. But Brown didn’t call him, and he didn’t need to, said Wallace. “The governor’s is the one initiative that attempts to put the states’ broader fiscal house in order while providing some resources to education,” he said Sunday.

Then there’s the not insignificant factor that charter schools know they can count on the support of Brown, who started two charter schools in Oakland. The other two competing initiatives – “Our Children, Our Future,” sponsored by the PTA and wealthy civil rights attorney Molly Munger, and the Millionaires Tax of 2012, by the CTA’s little sibling, the California Federation of Teachers, with backing by the California Nurses Assn. – would dedicate more money for schools. Brown’s half-cent sales tax increase and quarter of 1 percent increase in the graduated income tax would produce money for the General Fund, with about 40 percent going to community colleges and K-12 schools through Propositon 98. But, through a weighted student formula, Brown is also proposing to make funding more equitable and simpler, a long-sought goal of charter schools.

A recent report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office calculated that charters receive on average $395, or 7 percent less funding per student than district schools, and that doesn’t take into consideration extra facilities costs that many charters face. Most of the difference is in smaller categorical grants, and the difference is larger for new charters. Nearly all categorical funds would gradually disappear under a weighted formula, to be redistributed to districts based on the number and concentration of low-income and English-learning students they serve.

At a forum last week at CCSA’s annual convention, State Board of Education President Michael Kirst estimated that nearly all charter schools would fare better under Brown’s formula. Also last week, Brown attended a rally for charter funding equity at the state Capitol.

Brown is proposing to raise the sales tax by a half cent for four years and the income tax on those earning more than $250,000 for five years. Brown would commit most of the education money to pay down $10 billion in deferrals, money owed to schools that the state pays in the next fiscal year. Deferrals have especially affected charters, many of which have to borrow the money owed by the state at higher short-term interest rates than district schools pay.

Nearly all charter schools are nonprofit organizations, with restrictions on involvement in political elections. But they can provide information to parents on the impact of the various initiatives on their schools, Wallace said.

Neither the California School Boards Association nor the Association of California School Administrators has yet taken a position on which initiative to support. Of the other members of the Education Coalition, the teachers unions are split, and the state PTA is backing Munger’s $10 billion increase in the income tax.