PTA unites behind an initiative to transform and fairly fund our schools

This holiday season, one item at the top of wish lists for most parents is a public school system that delivers a well-rounded education for all students – one that prepares them for college, career, and adulthood. The future of our state and our economy depends on it.

Unfortunately, school budgets have been decimated by $20 billion in cuts in just the last few years. Essential programs for students have been eliminated or cut dramatically.

One thing I see and hear firsthand when I visit local communities throughout the state is that parents, educators, and community members have had it with these cuts.

In a recent survey, nine out of every 10 local PTA leaders and members rated “adequate school funding” as extremely important – the highest response by far to any policy issue. In particular, parents and PTA members believe more funding is needed to restore the arts, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and physical education; as well as to reduce class sizes and add back counselors, school libraries, and librarians.

Californians see something really scary happening: An entire generation of children is being denied the public education program they need to succeed in the workforce and in life.

We cannot let this happen.

That’s why the California State PTA is planning ahead for November 2012.

The November 2012 statewide ballot presents an opportunity we can’t afford to miss for our children. That’s when voters will have a chance to do something truly transformative for our public schools by passing the Our Children, Our Future: Local Schools and Early Education Investment Act, which was submitted to the Attorney General last week.

We’re urging everyone to unite around this measure, sponsored by the Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization. Here’s why.

First, the Our Children, Our Future: Local Schools and Early Education Investment Act is the boldest and most thoughtful proposal out there. It proposes to raise the most new money solely for K-12 schools and early childhood education programs – approximately $10 billion per year. Our state faces a number of serious challenges. This measure seeks to confront the most important of those: strengthening our public education system.

The new money must be used to improve students’ academic performance, graduation rates, and readiness for career, college, and life. The infusion of desperately needed resources will help schools restore and expand the educational program for all students, with more instruction in the arts, physical education, STEM, vocational and career education, and other courses that help keep students engaged in school and prepared for 21st century careers.

Funds can also be used to reduce class sizes; hire more counselors, librarians, and school nurses; or extend learning time through longer school days, a longer school year, or summer school – all components of a well-rounded education that have been cut to the bone in recent years.

Transparency and accountability

Second, the Our Children, Our Future: Local Schools and Early Education Investment Act proposes important reforms that ensure transparency, oversight, and accountability.

The new revenue will be placed in a trust account, and the Legislature will be prohibited from interfering with local schools and districts over how to use the funds. Local parents, educators, and staff in every school community, including charter schools, will be empowered to provide input into how the new funding is used, with local governing boards authorizing the decisions. Every school and district must report clearly on how the money is used and what outcomes are achieved.

This would be a powerful reform because it takes a giant step toward real local control – as well as meaningful parent and community engagement.

Third, the initiative will help close the achievement gap. In addition to enabling all schools to provide a more complete range of courses and academic support services, the initiative provides additional per-student funding to support low-income children and English language learners. Plus, 15 percent of the total revenue from the initiative will be targeted to expand access to early childhood education and preschool programs, which are proven to increase school readiness and help to close the gap.

To generate the needed revenues, the initiative relies on a broad-based, graduated income tax increase. Polls show that voters will support such a tax increase if they know the money goes directly to their local schools.

Californians understand that school funding has been cut too deeply. Our children cannot wait any longer for legislators to get their act together to address what our State Superintendent of Public Instruction has called a “state of fiscal emergency” for our schools.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about the “fierce urgency of now.” The time is now for all of us to get behind a bold plan that will provide real opportunities and a well-rounded education for all students.

We owe it to them.

Carol Kocivar of San Francisco is president of the California State PTA. She has served as president-elect, vice president for communications, an education commission member, and on numerous committees with the California State PTA. A past president of the San Francisco Second District PTA, Kocivar has worked as a journalist, attorney, and ombudsperson for special education. The California State PTA has nearly 1 million members volunteering on behalf of public schools, children, and families. The PTA also advocates at national, state, and local levels for education and family issues. For information:

Initiative: $10B for K-12, preschool

An initiative that would raise $10 billion for K-12 education and preschools by raising the state income tax, primarily on the rich, will be submitted to the Attorney General’s office for review this week, the first step for placing it on the November 2012 ballot. The initiative would target low-income students, who’d get a larger piece of the funding.

The Advancement Project, a national civil rights organization that’s been active in California, is sponsoring the initiative. Its primary creator and financier at this point is Molly Munger, a wealthy Los Angeles civil rights attorney who co-founded the Advancement Project. The daughter of Charles Munger, Warren Buffett’s investment partner and vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, she says she and others will put up the millions of dollars needed to qualify and promote it. The California State PTA has already endorsed it exclusively – ahead of other tax initiatives for schools that are being floated about.

Despite a flagging economy and an unemployment rate stubbornly in the double digits, supporters of more money for schools say they’re heartened by recent polls showing Californians are disturbed by severe cuts to public schools and are willing to pay higher taxes. That includes one by pollster Mark Mellman for the Advancement Project that found that 57 percent of very likely voters would favor its plan, with a third of respondents opposed and 9 percent undecided, a result that “stunned” her and “suggests a once in a generation opportunity,” Munger said.

Last week the Think Long Committee for California, a tax reform group led by billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, also floated a plan to raise an additional $10 billion, but only $5 billion would go to K-12 schools and community colleges, and it would do so primarily by extending the sales tax to services, from car washes to attorney fees, while lowering the personal and corporate income tax rates.

The state’s 5 percent personal income tax raises about $50 billion; Munger’s plan would bring in an additional 20 percent by raising the rate an average of 1 percentage point. But it would keep the current system’s progressivity, so 92 percent of the extra money would be paid by families earning more than $70,000, with 50 percent, or $5 billion, coming from those earning more than $300,000, Munger said. For those couples with taxable income above $5 million, the marginal tax rate would rise 2.2 percentage points to 12.5 percent; they’d pay the most.

The personal income tax has fueled growth in state spending, but it’s a volatile tax, tied to the stock options and fortunes of a sliver of rich Californians. That’s why tax reformers behind Think Long want to broaden the sales tax.

Munger’s plan would take a different approach to leveling the roller coaster ride. Annual revenue that exceeds the increase in the average per capita income in the state would be set aside to pay down the state’s debt for school bonds, which accounts for about half of the state’s indebtedness, she said. That should free up money for future needs.

Money to follow the student

Between property taxes and the state’s general fund, about $45 billion funds Proposition 98 K-12 spending, so Munger’s plan would immediately boost money for schools by nearly 20 percent (community colleges would not be included) . However, the new revenue would go into a separate fund, protected from the Governor’s and Legislature’s subverting Prop 98 and finagling with its arcane rules.

Fifteen percent of the $10 billion would go toward supporting and expanding early childhood and preschool programs, which currently reach only 30 to 40 percent of qualified children, according to a summary of the initiative (the exact wording wasn’t yet available). The remaining 85 percent, or $8.5 billion, would be divvied up as follows:

  • 70 percent of the total in a flat grant per public school student, including students in charter schools, with middle school students getting 20 percent more than elementary school students and high school students getting 40 percent more – reflecting the higher cost of educating older students;
  • 18 percent would provide additional per capita money (about $670) for low-income students eligible for federal Title I aid;
  • 12 percent per student funding for instructional materials, school site technology, and teacher training.

The initiative will state that the new money is not to be used to increase school salaries and benefits; no more than 1 percent can be used for administration.

The money-follows-the-student formula, weighted toward the poor, combines elements of transparency and equity that school finance reformers have been clamoring for. Schools will be required to show how the extra revenue has been used, and the information will be posted on a state Department of Education website, Munger said; parents will then know if districts have heeded their recommendations on how the money should be used in their children’s schools, such as to restore arts, hire more teachers to reduce class sizes, expand STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) offerings.

Assemblywoman Julia Brownley, who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, has similar elements in AB 18, the main finance reform bill that will be worked on next year.

The initiative would begin the transformation, Munger said. “When the model is out there, it gives a push to change the larger finance structure without piling it all in one ballot initiative.”

Hers and Think Long’s are two of several education initiatives that could collide on next November’s ballot. Gov. Brown and the California Teachers Association have yet to announce  their plan to raise money for K-12. A proposal to tax oil and natural gas production, with money to K-12 and higher education, is gathering signatures.

Some tax advocates are hoping proponents will split their differences and put one initiative on the ballot that business, labor, and education reformers can agree on.

For her part, Munger said she’s open to talk in the next month and a half, while her initiative awaits the AG’s review. But she and supporters don’t want to substitute a progressive tax – the personal income tax – for a divisive, more regressive tax, she said. “We are pleased with a proposal that seems to be most reflective of what voters want to do this year,” she said.