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Now that California school buses will be running for at least another year, why not let districts use them to make a little cash on the side – the side of the buses, that is. State Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff has introduced a bill to do just that. SB 1295 would allow school districts to sell advertising space on the outside of school buses and keep the revenues.

“California’s fiscal mismanagement has resulted in budgetary woes for our state’s public education system,” said Senator Huff in a news release. “My legislation provides a new and needed source of funding for our schools at no cost to taxpayers.”

There’s no solid estimate yet of how much money the ads could generate.  Eric Thronson, who prepared the analysis of SB 1295 for the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, said one advertising company he checked with charges advertisers anywhere from $40 to more than $200 a month, and the company takes its cut from that.

Colorado was the trendsetter, approving bus ad regulations almost 20 years ago, and districts there have met with mixed success. Colorado Springs, the first district in the country to advertise on the outside of buses, takes in about $40,000 a year, but that’s out of a total budget around $225 million.   Another Colorado district with 103 buses earned only about $3,000 a year and recently made some changes in the hopes of increasing its earnings to $10,000 a year.

The anti-tax group, CalTax, anticipates much higher revenues in California.  In a report released earlier this month, the organization estimates that advertising on the outside of buses could raise $31 million in annual revenue for school districts.

Whether it’s on the high end or low, Sen. Huff cites the recent fiscal status report released by the State Department of Education showing that 127 school districts are in danger of not being able to pay their bills within the next two years as evidence that school districts need more freedom to raise money.  “The senator’s feeling is that any amount of extra revenue is welcome, and it gives school districts freedom to use it how they want,” said Huff’s spokesman William Bird.

School bus as moving moving billboard for schools. (Source:  Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood). Click to enlarge.
School bus as moving moving billboard for schools. (Source: Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood). Click to enlarge.

Rural Southern Humboldt Unified School District is ready to start moving on the ads.  Last week, the school board passed a resolution in support of Huff’s bill and posted a sample letter on its website for parents and other residents to send to their local state senator. Last January, when the mid-year trigger cuts eliminated school bus service, the district sent two busloads of students and parents to Sacramento and successfully lobbied lawmakers to restore the funds.

“It’s an indication of how desperate rural districts are to maintain their transportation,” said school board member Barbara Lindsay.  Humboldt is both tiny and huge. It has 780 students in kindergarten through 12th grade attending seven schools scattered around 773 square miles.  As it is, some children spent two hours each way on the school bus.

“The rural school children are the ones who really need to go to school,” explained Lindsay. “A lot of our kids live so rurally that they really need a place a to go to socialize with kids their age.”

Too little for too much

California is already one of 26 states that expressly permits, or doesn’t disallow, advertising inside school buses.  Districts can also sell space on the exterior of campus buildings, lunch tables, in hallways, and in yearbooks or other school-related publications, said Huff’s spokesman, Bird.

SB 1295 has also been amended since it was first introduced to set some parameters for size and content of the ads.  Districts cannot display ads for the following:

  • Tobacco, alcohol, guns, or anything sexually explicit
  • Discriminatory content or nature
  • Implies an endorsement by the school district
  • Is political in nature or relates to a political activity, campaign or candidate
  • Is false, misleading, deceptive, or promotes an illegal activity or antisocial behavior

Additional rules set restrictions on where the ads can be placed and how big they can be so they don’t block the bus drivers’ line of sight, distract other drivers so much that they don’t see the flashing red lights on the bus, or pose any danger of falling off.  But none of the arguments is swaying critics.

Campaign for a Commercial-free Childhood opposes the ads on moral grounds.  “It’s terrible that schools today are struggling financially.  But commercializing children’s education is not the answer,” says the group on its website.  “Advertising on school buses will exploit a captive audience of students, turn schools into endorsers of products that may be harmful to children, and could make the buses less safe.”

So far, however, there is no research to show that buses with ads on them are more likely to be involved in accidents. But given the potential physical danger and manipulative impact on children, they’re simply not worth the income, argues the watchdog group Public Citizen.

“School districts that permit bus advertising generate revenues that are a drop in the bucket when compared to their total budgets,” according to the organization’s report, “School Commercialism:  High Costs, Low Revenues.”

Huff’s bill passed the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee and is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday.  A separate bill, AB 1448 , by Assemblymember Warren Furutani would “prohibit the Legislature from reducing funding for home-to-school transportation below the amount established in the Budget Act of 2011.”  That measure cleared the Assembly Education Committee last week with bipartisan support, and now heads to appropriations.

Barbara Lindsay, the school board member in Southern Humboldt Unified School District, is rooting for and working toward getting both bills through.  Lindsay runs her family’s cattle ranch, and doesn’t want to have to leave the area because there’s no money for buses.  “It’s still a really good place to raise kids,” she said, “if you can get them to school.”

Mixed results using iPads

A study conducted in four California school districts found that students studying Algebra I on an iPad did no better overall than students equipped with a traditional textbook.

The results of the 2010-11 study – the largest to date – disappointed Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, the publisher that commissioned the research and had expected better outcomes from the new technology. But at the same time, a company executive  said the firm remains undeterred in developing its digital textbooks and was heartened by scores in Riverside Unified, the one district in the study where students using iPads markedly outperformed their peers. In a white paper that the company published, putting a positive spin on the research, the Riverside teachers in the study extolled the software, which it said motivated students to take charge of  their learning.

HMH Fuse, the software that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt developed exclusively for the iPad, comes equipped with many nifty features: more than 300 video tutorials by the textbook’s author, a scratch pad for note-taking, icons that provide links for support, an ability to record notes by voice, and animated views that walk students through sample problems. Students I spoke with last year at a San Francisco middle school that was part of the study said they liked the features and found them helpful. (HMH has since then improved the note-taking capability, after students complained about its limitations.)

The study found no particular iPad feature directly contributed to math improvement, but collectively they kept  students more engaged; there were also indications – though no hard numbers – that students with iPads did more math at home and after class. The students using the software who did outscore other students tended to have better attitudes, said Denis Newman, president of Empirical Education, the Palo Alto firm that did the research.

Riverside Unified students using Houghten Mifflin Harcourt's Algebra program on an iPad scored 9 percentile points higher than students using the company's Algebra textbooks, an impressive difference. Source: research by Empirical Education, Inc. (Click to enlarge.)
Riverside Unified students using Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's Algebra program on an iPad scored 9 percentile points higher than students using the company's Algebra textbooks, an impressive difference. Source: research by Empirical Education, Inc. (Click to enlarge.)

But overall scores on the California standardized tests and the publisher’s year-end course exam averaged nearly the same for students using iPads and textbooks, after controlling for pretest and demographic differences – except for Riverside, where there was a 9 point increase in the percentile ranking, a significant amount, for those using an iPad. Put another way, by the district’s analysis, 78  percent of students using iPads scored proficient or above on the Algebra CST; 59 percent scored proficient using textbooks.

78 percent of Riverside students using an iPad to learn Algebra I scored proficient or advanced on the state Algebra CST, compared with 59 percent using a standard texbook by the same publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Source: research by Empirical Education.  (Click to enlarge.)
78 percent of Riverside students at the Amelia Earhart Middle School using an iPad to learn Algebra I scored proficient or advanced on the state Algebra CST, compared with 59 percent using a standard textbook by the same publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Source: Houghton Mifflin. (Click to enlarge.)

Empirical Education did a rigorous analysis, using 11 teachers in six schools across four districts: San Francisco Unified, Fresno Unified, Long Beach Unified, and Riverside. They taught a combined 34 classes ­­– 23 sections with textbooks and 11 sections with iPads, chosen at random. Most of the teachers volunteered to be part of the iPad study, but at least one teacher who proved to be a Luddite was assigned to the study. By the end of the year, nine of the 11 teachers said they would continue to use the iPad if given the choice (sorry, but HMH took them back).

Why the big difference with Riverside? Empirical Education found that the two teachers in Riverside used the iPads as a teaching tool much more extensively than the other nine teachers in the study, and the students used the iPads many more minutes per week in class than all but one of the others – a possible connection.

‘Personalized learning devices’

But Riverside Superintendent Rick Miller has another explanation.  The district has been proactive in deploying mobile technologies among its 42,000 students; it has learned that the best strategy is to encourage students to make iPads and tablets their personalized learning devices, as indispensable as cell phones. Allow students to download their own applications, including music, and they’ll be more prone to access math videos and use the technology for learning. Others districts adopted more restrictive policies, at least at first: They reportedly locked up iPads when they weren’t in use and didn’t allow students to take them home.

The other difference, Miller said, is how the teachers used the iPads. Riverside’s two teachers who volunteered for the study weren’t chosen because they were tech-savvy; they hadn’t owned Apple products. But, Miller  said, they were good math teachers who came to recognize opportunities for differentiating instruction and for assigning  videos at home to introduce concepts.

John Sipe, HMH senior vice president and national sales manager, concurred. “In Riverside, teachers were more comfortable from the beginning. They let the technology organically change the classroom structure and front-load instruction.”

In retrospect, said Sipe said, the company should have done a two-year study, because there was a learning curve to the new technology. And it would spend less time at the start of the year teaching teachers on using the device and more time on classroom strategies with the software.

This year, Riverside has expanded its use of HMH’s iPad Algebra program to four classes in the middle school that participated in the study. However, without the free iPads, students have to supply their own, which has led fewer low-income students to participate. (Parents can buy inexpensive insurance to cover theft or damage.) Meanwhile, Riverside is charging ahead with going digital, experimenting with multiple devices and free and proprietary software in multiple subjects.

HMH Fuse sells for $59 retail; districts can buy it for $49 with a six-year use. It’s also now available for  $19 for a use of one year. Miller said that if  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt releases an app that can run on cheaper Android-based tablets, which will soon sell for under $200, then Riverside would deploy the HMH Fuse program much more extensively. Sipe said an Android app might be available this fall.

Buck up, California, and learn from Rhode Island’s big pension reforms

Rhode Island is a tiny state with just over one million people in one thousand square miles. California is 37 times more populous and many times that size. And yet, when it comes to public employee pension reform, the tiny state of Rhode Island is acting both bigger and bolder.

For years, Rhode Island lawmakers watched fearfully as the state’s required pension contributions, the second-fastest-growing line item in its budget, exploded, doubling from 2003 to 2010. Without significant reforms, the liability was on track to double again by 2013. Lawmakers knew that if the pension liability remained unchecked, it would severely limit funding for other budget priorities.

California finds itself on a similarly unsustainable path. Earlier this month, the California Teachers’ Retirement Board announced that the $152 billion pension fund faces a $64.5 billion shortfall over the next three decades, an increase of $8.5 billion from last year. To put this in perspective, California spent $64.4 billion on K-12 education during 2010-11. Unless California acts to make its pension system more sustainable, the K-12 education budget – along with other important government priorities – will likely be carved up to feed the ever-growing pension deficit.

In Rhode Island, despite the growing recognition of the pension problem, the political obstacles to fixing it were high: The state is heavily unionized, and Democrats have held the legislature since World War II. But faced with numbers that threatened to devour the rest of the state’s $8 billion budget, an unlikely alliance between Gov. Lincoln Chafee (elected as an Independent), State Treasurer Gina Raimondo, a Democrat, and legislative leaders who were getting pressure from their home-district unions to avoid making any significant changes to the pension system, proposed and pushed through historic pension reform, saving $4 billion.

While most states just patch over their pension problems by slashing new teacher pensions or trimming minor provisions, Rhode Island made painful but necessary changes to its whole system. The reform law raised the retirement age for most workers and created a hybrid plan that combines a 401(k)-style account with a smaller defined benefit. The law also suspended cost-of-living increases to retirees for five years; after that, retirees will receive increases only if the pension fund is healthy. These changes, crucially, apply to new, current, and retired employees. While the law likely faces a legal challenge, the lawmakers wrote the bill to deflect that. They ensured that the reforms reflected a critical financial situation, used a temporary adjustment, and sought to share the burden across current employees, retirees, and taxpayers – a formula that also worked for similar reform in Minnesota.

California should take Rhode Island’s example to heart. Last fall, Gov. Jerry Brown acknowledged California’s dire financial situation when he released a bold 12-point proposal for pension reform. The proposal includes fundamental fiscal reforms such as raising the retirement age for new employees from 55 to 67, enrolling new employees in a hybrid plan, and increasing employee contributions to one-half of total pension contributions. The Democratic-controlled Legislature, however, continues to punt on substantive reform, focusing instead on relatively insignificant measures like eliminating pensions for convicted felons.

But while the political will is lacking, public will is not. In a nonpartisan poll last December, 83 percent of Californians thought that public pension costs were a problem. Sixty-eight percent of adults and 64 percent of public employees favored switching to a 401(k)-style plan. And earlier this year, in a surprising piece of political one-upmanship, the Republicans in the Legislature announced a package of bills identical to Governor Brown’s proposal.

California’s Democrats are beginning to look dangerously out of touch with budget realities – and with their constituents. Bipartisan support is crucial for pension reform, if only because the bar for implementing the governor’s proposal is high. Since teachers’ pensions are not subject to local collective bargaining, it will take nothing short of an amendment to the state constitution – a high bar indeed.

While California should recognize the serious consequences of pension reform for state employees and retirees, the state must act to secure pensions and protect its budget. Rhode Island is small but played big. California is big, and it needs to stop playing small.

Sarah Rosenberg is a policy analyst at Education Sector. Her research interests include teacher quality, public employee pensions, school improvement, and rural education. Before graduating from Duke University with a master’s degree in public policy, she taught high school English in rural North Carolina as a Teach for America corps member.

Kindergarten for all comes of age

For being so young, kindergarteners have incited more than their share of quarrels in California. State lawmakers and governors argued for a decade about how old kindergarten students should be, before voting in 2010 to raise the age to five. At the same time, they created Transitional Kindergarten (TK) for those who miss the new cutoff. Gov. Brown is currently trying to repeal the TK component.

Then there’s been the ongoing debate among experts over full-day versus part-day kindergarten, and how much play time in either the short or long day ought to be given over to real academics. The 3 R’s are winning.

Now, flying in a bit under the radar are two bills that would make kindergarten attendance mandatory in California. That kindergarten isn’t already required might surprise some people, but only 16 states and Washington, D.C. require kindergarten. Like California, New York is considering a change in its law. What is required in California is that school districts offer kindergarten; it’s up to parents whether to send their children or wait until first grade to start them in school. Not surprisingly, the bills are causing people to take sides in the schoolyard.

Last week, in a party line vote, the Assembly Education Committee approved AB 2203, by Assemblymember V. Manuel Pérez (D-Coachella), which would lower the age that California kids must start school from 6 to 5. Tomorrow, the same committee is scheduled to vote on AB 1772, introduced by Assemblymember Joan Buchanan (D-Alamo). Her bill has a slightly different take on the idea. Rather than changing the compulsory education age, AB 1772 makes kindergarten a mandatory prerequisite for enrolling in first grade.

“Ultimately, there is overwhelming evidence that indicates the earlier we start to educate our children, they’re going to be better off, they’re going to be more successful,” Assemblymember Pérez told the committee last week.  “The focus of kindergarten, what students are expected to learn, has changed significantly in the last fifteen years.”

Today’s youngest students are learning to read, do simple math and even understand scientific concepts, like knowing that water can change back and forth from a liquid to a solid state.  “In essence, it’s the new first grade,” San Francisco kindergarten teacher Catherine Sullivan testified at last week’s committee hearing.

Although it’s voluntary, kindergarten is very popular in California.  According to the state department of education, nearly 472,000 of eligible children attended public or private kindergarten last year – somewhere between 90 to 95 percent.  But elementary school teachers say those 25,000 to 50,000 children who don’t attend are at a serious disadvantage.

There’s still an emphasis in kindergarten on developing children’s socialization and behavior, and that’s especially important for Pam Makovkin’s students.  She teaches first and second grade special education students at Anderson Elementary in San Jose’s Oak Grove School District.  “These kids need to be taught regular school relationships, social relationships, what the expectations are at school; you have to sit, you have to listen,” said Makovkin.  “If they don’t know that when they get to me they have a really difficult time.”

It’s nearly as difficult for students in regular education classes.  Luke Allen has two to three students a year in his first grade class at Anderson Elementary who didn’t attend kindergarten. They’re still learning the alphabet while the rest of the class is learning to read.  It’s a common topic of discussion among first grade teachers, said Allen.  “Teachers are frustrated by how that leaves the students disadvantaged.”

Organized opponents

The bills seem to have caught some education advocates off guard.  The California School Boards Association just started querying its members last week.  As of yesterday, the California Kindergarten Association hadn’t seen the bills.  And the Association of California School Administrators will be discussing it at next week’s board meeting.

But it’s not an entirely new issue in California.  As far back as 1997, a similar measure failed in the Senate Education Committee.  Another bill never made it out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee in 2008.  In between, former Gov. Gray Davis vetoed a bill and, in his veto message, gave opponents of AB 2203 and AB 1772 some key talking points.

“I believe parents should retain the right to choose an education program for their 5-year old children,” wrote Davis.  Assemblymember Chris Norby (R-Fullerton), a member of the Education Committee, read that sentence aloud at the hearing.  Those are the words of Gray Davis when he vetoed an identical bill, said Norby, “and I think they’re words that we should heed today.”

“Democrats take away parental freedom:  mandatory kindergarten bill passes Democrat-controlled committee in California,” warned a headline in last Friday’s issue of the online publication, All Right Magazine (subtitled all right, all the time).

“Our parental rights and home school freedoms in California are under attack in an unprecedented way this year,” wrote the Home School Legal Defense Association in an E-lert on its website.

Assemblymember Buchanan’s bill attempts to address this concern by requiring kindergarten but leaving it up to parents to decide if they should enroll their child at age five or six.  “This is because there are situations in which a child may benefit by delaying enrollment until the next school year when that child is better prepared (developmentally, socially or in other ways) for Kindergarten,” Buchanan wrote in an email.  “We believe parents, often with input from teachers and other professionals, should have the ability to make that decision.”

No love for Gov’s comm. college plans

Two months after the release of the budget trailer bill, the Department of Finance yesterday was unable to provide specific details on Governor Brown’s sweeping proposal to change the way community colleges are funded.

At a hearing before the Senate’s budget subcommittee on education, community college officials also questioned the reasoning behind that proposal and others that were considered and rejected following a yearlong review by the Student Success Task Force on community colleges.

The governor has recommended eliminating the current model, which funds community colleges based on how many full-time equivalent students (FTES) are enrolled, and replacing it with a system built around how successful colleges are at meeting performance standards. Schools would receive a 4 percent annual increase in their base budget for reaching those goals.

But at Monday’s hearing, finance officials couldn’t say what the standards are or how they’ll be measured. “We don’t have those metrics,” Juliana Morozumi told the panel. When pressed for some examples by Senator Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood), she indicated that successful outcome would probably include degree completion and transfer rates.

In an uneasy exchange, Wright suggested that some colleges could be penalized under this system for having a large number of students who just take a couple of classes they need to improve their job skills.  “That’s why I said we’re still working on it,” answered Morozumi.

The Legislative Analyst’s office and community college officials gave the governor a verbal pat on the back for raising the issue of accountability, but doubted this plan would fly. For starters, it would be a hard sell to legislators because it removes much of their authority for allocating resources to community colleges. It also leaves little time to develop what would probably be controversial accountability criteria and measurements by the time the final budget is approved. Additionally, the Student Success Task Force took a strong stand against performance-based funding.

“I appreciate the governor’s interest in reform and I’m hopeful he will buy into the reforms that we have suggested in the Student Success Task Force,” Chancellor Jack Scott said during a phone call last night. “To suddenly change the whole system to outcomes I think is frankly improbable.”

Sample student success scorecard (source:  Student Success Task Force report) Click to enlarge
Sample student success scorecard (source: Student Success Task Force report) Click to enlarge

The Chancellor’s office already has a working group developing metrics for student success scorecards recommended by the task force to promote better accountability and transparency.

Budget is bigger priority

Most people at the hearing saw the discussion of how to fund community colleges as something of a distraction compared with the issue of how much funding the schools will receive.

In the past three years, community colleges have lost about $1 billion (not including de facto cuts from no statutory COLA increases), and there’s a chance that will go even higher before the current school year is out.  Already in 2011-12, community colleges have taken more than half-a-million in reductions.

  • $400 million reduction in general fund apportionments
  • $102 million in mid-year trigger cuts
  • $149 million “February surprise” from lower than expected property taxes and student fee revenues (despite an increase in fees from $26 to $36 per unit)

There’s also a chance they’ll have to eat another $146 million this year if revenue from the dissolution of county redevelopment agencies is lower than the Administration’s estimate.

“I think this represents a very very major challenge for our districts and it’s possible that some would not be able to make it,” said Community College Vice Chancellor of Finance Dan Troy.

Colleges are hoping that Gov. Brown will give some indication of what the rest of this year looks like financially when he releases the May revise budget in about a month.

Next year is a white-knuckle unknown.  If the Governor’s tax initiative passes, $218 million will go toward paying down the community college deferral.  If it fails, the deferral stays and the colleges absorb an additional $30 million in programmatic cuts and, most likely, another mid-year trigger cut.

Enrollment has fallen by 400,000 since the cuts began. (Source:  Community College Chancellor's office). Click to enlarge.
Enrollment has fallen by 400,000 since the cuts began. (Source: Community College Chancellor's office). Click to enlarge.

At a time when more people need postsecondary education to be prepared for the increasingly skilled requirements of decent-paying jobs, these reductions are having the opposite effect.  Community Colleges have lost 400,000 students in four years, falling from a high of 2.8 million to 2.4 million today.

Students are being turned away at Ohlone College in Fremont, the chair of the Board of Trustees told the subcommittee.  “The demand has grown over 44 percent in 15 years, said Greg Bonaccorsi.  But funding cuts forced the school to scale back courses and now “students are being turned away,” said Bonaccorsi.   “It violates the tenet of public education.”

A lot hangs on Prop 98 ruling

The onus was on the attorney for education groups suing the state: convince a skeptical Superior Court judge that the governor and Legislature violated voters’ will and the minimum school funding requirement under Proposition 98 by diverting billions in tax revenue from the General Fund last year.

“There will be no such thing as a minimum guarantee if the state can manipulate it for political purposes,” attorney Deborah Caplan told San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Harold Kahn on Wednesday.

Judge Kahn issued this one paragraph preliminary ruling on Tuesday then entertained 90 minutes of testimony on Wednesday.
Judge Kahn issued this one-paragraph preliminary ruling on Tuesday then entertained 90 minutes of testimony on Wednesday. Click to read.

In a one-paragraph preliminary ruling the day before, Kahn wrote that nothing in the wording of Proposition 98 precluded the Legislature from shifting $5 billion in sales tax and vehicle license fee revenue to a separate account reimbursing counties for taking on some state responsibilities – even though the move shorted K-12 schools and community colleges about $2 billion. That would have been their share under Prop 98, had the $5 billion remained in the General Fund.

But Kahn did give Caplan the bulk of a 90-minute hearing, extending through the lunch hour Wednesday, to make her case, and, notwithstanding his vigorous questioning, left open the possibility that she may have changed his mind. Kahn is expected to issue his final ruling within 30 days.

The case, brought by the California School Boards Association, Association of California School Administrators, and three school districts, has significant potential implications – immediate and long-term – for Prop 98, the initiative that voters passed in 1988 requiring that roughly 40 percent of the General Fund go toward schools and community colleges. With a victory, the governor and Legislature could create special funds at will to ignore voters’ stated priorities by reducing the General Fund and guarantee for schools. And Brown could use a win in this case to support his call for $5 billion in cuts to K-12 schools and community colleges if his proposed tax initiative fails in November. In that case, Brown is proposing a different manipulation: shifting $2.4 billion in school construction bond payments from the non-Prop 98 portion of the General Fund into Prop 98 – essentially a school funding cut.

Obligation to suspend or ‘rebench’

The plaintiffs don’t dispute the governor’s and Legislature’s ability to fund schools less than the constitutional guarantee. But Prop 98 requires a two-thirds vote to do so and prescribes how the money owed to schools will be paid back.*  In this case, the Legislature simply ignored the constitutional obligation to suspend Prop 98 (Republicans, jamming Democrats, made it clear they wouldn’t vote for suspension).

The plaintiffs also don’t deny that the governor and Legislature can shift money out of the General Fund or create special accounts. But ever since the passage of Prop 98, the Legislature has recalibrated the General Fund – “rebenching” in Prop 98 lingo – to make sure that Prop 98 wasn’t affected. This was the first time that reconfiguring wasn’t done, Caplan said.

The state’s position, which Kahn adopted in his ruling, was that rebenching is not in the language of Prop 98 and was not mentioned in the initiative’s ballot literature. If the Legislature has adopted rebenching by statute, it can undo it by statute if it chooses.

“Voters could have applied Proposition 98 to all revenues in the state, but they said only the General Fund,” Deputy State Attorney General Daniel Powell told the court. Shifting sales tax revenue to the counties for realignment of services was a valid purpose, not a manipulation, he said.

As Kahn asked Caplan, “If the voters or drafters of 98 wished to avoid evasions or manipulations of the General Fund, couldn’t they have put in language to state that? There is no such language there.”

But Caplan said what voters wanted was clear from the language of Prop 98 and the ballot arguments. Voters were promised that Prop 98 would take the politics out of financing decisions; the term minimum funding guarantee itself  “is inconsistent with allowing the state to manipulate it at will.” Otherwise, there would be “no integrity” to the initiative, she said.

Furthermore, the Legislature demonstrated that it understood Prop 98’s intent in adopting rebenching as implementation legislation soon after voters passed the initiative. “The state has rebenched many times over the years and honored the principle repeatedly, sometimes to the state’s benefit,” Caplan said, but also to protect education funding levels.

Abe Hajela, an attorney with School Innovations & Advocacy who has been part of the plantiffs’ team, told me that it is unreasonable to expect voters to anticipate all efforts to undermine an initiative, then write them into the Constitution. That’s the purpose of  implementation legislation.

The sales tax diversion was part of a deal that Brown cut with the California Teachers Association to pass the budget last year. But the statutory wording reflected CTA’s and legislators’ ambivalence. It said that passage of a tax initiative by November 2012 would make the sales tax shift to counties permanent but that schools would be made whole with the additional revenue. If the initiative failed, schools would be paid back what was diverted over four years.

But that was then. Brown is now reneging on that promise and is proposing to cut K-12 and community colleges further if the tax proposal fails. That’s all the more reason, the ed groups argue, that the constitutional guarantee must be protected.

* Update: It would be more accurate for me to say that the law prescribes how funding levels will  eventually be restored if the Legislature suspends Prop 98. The dollars lost in a suspended year are not paid back. For the Legislative Analyst’s Prop 98 primer explaining this, go here.

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.

A win for Transitional Kindergarten

Gov. Brown’s latest proposal to eliminate Transitional Kindergarten hit a wall yesterday in the state Assembly. By a 3-to-1 vote along party lines, the budget subcommittee on education finance rejected the governor’s plan.

“Eliminating the TK mandate would be a huge step backward for the state and early education,” said subcommittee chair Susan Bonilla, a Contra Costa County Democrat, citing research on the benefits of giving not quite five-year-olds a year of kindergarten readiness. “We expect to see lower retention rates, less remediation, fewer special education placements, and higher test scores,” she said.

State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who introduced the bill that created TK in 2010, said the action by the subcommittee sends a strong message that he hopes will “reduce the level of anxiety among parents and district administrators throughout the state” who have been left with great uncertainty about the future of the program.

Ever since Gov. Brown released his first budget plan for 2012-13, he’s been floating various proposals to get rid of TK, making it something of a moving target that has changed from week to week.

As a result, some districts have held off on planning for TK or enrolling students for next year’s program out of concern that the state won’t fund the program.

I’m confused and frustrated because the district keeps saying TK is coming, but doesn’t say when,” Elizabeth Ruiz, a registered nurse and the mother of twins in the Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, told members of the subcommittee, struggling through a bout of laryngitis. Her children turn four in October and will miss the new kindergarten cutoff by nine days. Unless her district implements TK, Ruiz said, she’ll have to keep the twins at home for a year, under her mother’s care. “I cannot afford $1600 a month for private preschool,” explained Ruiz.

Parents (l to r) Felicia Jones, Elizabeth Gonzalez-Ruiz, Jennifer Roggia and Melissa Vernon testified, urging subcommittee to keep TK intact. (Photo by Baron) Click to enlarge.
Parents (l to r) Felicia Jones, Elizabeth Gonzalez-Ruiz, Jennifer Roggia and Melissa Vernon testified, urging subcommittee to keep TK intact. (Photo by Baron) Click to enlarge.

Nearly two dozen parents, teachers, child care workers, and advocates packed the small hearing room to testify. All but the private child care providers urged the panel to keep the TK law intact.

Tuesday’s vote spelled relief for parents Jennifer Roggia and Melissa Vernon, who each has a son in a pilot TK program run by Gilroy Unified School District. Each mom has younger children and feared the district would end the pilot if the governor’s trailer bill succeeded.

Both said their boys have matured socially and academically after just a few months in the program.

“Unless you have a child in the program or have a child that age you don’t understand,” said Roggia. “We see the benefits in our kids.”

Vernon agreed. Now that her son has adjusted to the social world of school, he’s starting to learn academics, like basic math. She sees TK as a question of equity for families like hers and Ruiz’s who can’t afford private preschool and don’t qualify for a state subsidy. “Each kid deserves the same starting point,” said Vernon.

Now that the governor’s proposal is off the table in the Assembly, it heads to the state Senate. If it dies there, it’s a good bet that TK will survive. However, the governor could still include another variation in his May revise budget plan, or try to get it reconsidered when the budget goes to the conference committee, said a spokesperson for Sue Burr, Gov. Brown’s key education adviser.

Sen. Simitian suggested that two thumbs down in the state Legislature should send a signal to the governor. “I would be pleased if the administration would withdraw the proposal.”