Call for one tax on November ballot

Later this week, Gov. Jerry Brown will get a letter from education and business leaders worried about the prospect of multiple tax initiatives in November. Their message: The only hope for addition to revenue is subtraction on the ballot.

But in calling for Brown to persuade sponsors of various proposed initiatives to coalesce around one initiative, the letter will ask Brown to bend as well. The signers favor combining higher taxes with “real structural reform” – an idea missing from Brown’s proposal for a temporary $7 billion per year sales and income tax increase.

“If there are multiple revenue-raising measures on the ballot, none are likely to pass. We can’t let that happen to our kids,” wrote Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, an advocacy group for early childhood education, in a note to a letter that he is circulating to like-minded leaders. Lempert is asking them to sign the letter by Thursday.

Ted Lempert of Children Now is asking education leaders and advocates to sign this letter that will be sent to Gov. Brown.
This is a draft of the letter that will be sent to Gov. Brown. Click to enlarge.

Besides Brown’s initiative, which a number of public employee unions back, there could be three to a half-dozen competing tax plans on the November ballot, several of which could be backed by well-funded campaigns. These include big taxes on millionaires and on oil production in California.

There’s general consensus that more than one tax initiative, splitting the votes of already tenuous tax supporters, would doom all to fail. As yet, at least publicly, there’s been no sign of compromise. But with time running short to start collecting signatures, negotiations for a deal would have to happen in the next few weeks.

Lempert is calling on Brown to lead the talks.

Lempert is a leader behind The 2012 Kids Education Plan. It calls for a $6 billion to $8 billion unspecified tax exclusively for early childhood education and K-12 schools. It also outlines broad elements of reform that it says should be part of any tax increase. They include lowering the super-majority requirement for passing local school taxes, simplifying the convoluted school funding system, and adopting “workforce reforms” (code for perhaps changing state teacher tenure and evaluation laws). The two-dozen organizations that have signed on to the Plan include two members of the Education Coalition – the Association of California School Administrators and the California School Boards Association; the Bay Area Council, representing Bay Area businesses, and United Way of Greater Los Angeles; the parents groups Educacy and Educate Our State; and advocacy groups Public Advocates and Education Trust-West (see related post by Ed Trust-West Executive Director Arun Ramanathan). Some of those groups are expected to sign the letter to Brown as well.

Brown is going to have to strike a delicate balance.

If he agrees to all of the key elements of The 2012 Kids Education Plan, the California Teachers Association may withdraw its support and money. But Lempert and others will counter that combining reform and revenue is the only way to get business executives and philanthropists to pony up for what promises to be an expensive campaign.  A proposition backed only by labor won’t win, they’ll argue.

(See summary of proposed initiatives.)
Here's a summary of proposed tax initiatives. Click twice to enlarge.

Brown’s tax plan would increase the General Fund, which faces a $13 billion deficit next year; only a piece of it would go to K-12 schools and community colleges (roughly 40 percent). Education advocates argue that a tax increase dedicated to schools has the best, if not the only, chance of passing, and have several recent polls to back that up.

The Our Children, Our Future initiative, sponsored by civil rights attorney Molly Munger and backed by the California PTA, would raise $10 billion exclusively for K-12 and early childhood programs by raising the state income tax,  hitting high-income earners the hardest.

But late last month, Munger indicated she’s sensitive to Brown’s dilemma and the state’s overall fiscal crisis. She submitted an alternate version of her initiative that would divert $3 billion of the $10 billion in new revenue for four years to pay down the state’s bond indebtedness. The effect would be to free up $3 billion in the General Fund to address the state budget deficit, without raising the obligation to schools through Proposition 98.

That’s the type of movement that all sides must show to head off defeat by circular firing squad in November.

Poll: Tax with ed reforms is winner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Push for one tax initiative in November 2012

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

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

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

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

However, the EMC poll teased out the distinctions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The case for/against CALPADS

For all of the shortcomings in its implementation, the data system CALPADS has always had plenty of supporters. Gov. Jerry Brown is clearly not among them. He’s proposing to kill funding for it and CALTIDES, a related database yet to be built. I’ve asked five longtime backers to argue why both systems should be saved, and an opponent – a teacher who shares Brown’s skepticism toward standardized tests and statewide databases – to make the case for defunding them. Brown has called for stripping funding for the two systems as part of an overall look at how data can best be used at the local level and whether the state is putting too much energy and attention on standardized tests.

CALPADS (California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System), which came online last fall and is scheduled to be completed next year, collects data on student achievement, enrollment, teacher assignment, and other statewide student information like dropout and graduation rates. CALTIDES (California Longitudinal Teacher Integrated Data Education System) would become the central repository for information on the state’s teacher workforce.

Arun Ramanathan: Kids no longer forgotten

Having kids has forced me to look at the world differently. Back in my twenties, I worked with adults with mental illness and addictions, and with very troubled adolescents. I looked at them and saw people who had made adult choices.

Now that I have kids, I look at people who have “fallen down” and see them as the children they used to be. I imagine the paths they’ve taken and think about the unnecessary sorrows they’ve lived through. Twenty, even 10  years ago, a child could “fall down” academically or in school attendance, and one person might know and be able to help. Today, we are lucky to be able to collect the kind of data that allows us to identify and help the kids who have fallen down and pick them up with targeted supports and interventions.

The problem in California is that this work only happens in isolation in forward-thinking districts and charter schools scattered around the state. As a result, millions of our children fall through the cracks and end up in places like our justice system. With a statewide data system that tracked these students and eventually linked into other government data systems, it wouldn’t have to be this way. We could focus on treating symptoms instead of the resulting diseases.

That’s the promise of CALPADs and CALTIDES. They are the statewide foundation upon which we can build a better future for our children, especially the millions of California’s youth who are low income, highly mobile, or stuck in places such as our foster youth system. Fully funding these systems is an adult decision that we ask our leaders to make on behalf of California’s children.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization.

Joe Simitian: For well-informed choices

Both CALPADS and CALTIDES were created to serve two primary purposes: 1) Report required testing and accountability data to the state and federal governments; and 2) Provide state and local policy makers with accurate longitudinal data in order to meaningfully evaluate education policy and investments.

Longitudinal data, the ability to link data from year to year for each individual student and teacher, is important.  It allows educators and policy makers to see changes over time for individual students, groups of students, or teachers.

In the past, school districts would submit aggregate reports summarizing certain student and teacher statistics for a particular point in time. These aggregate reports provide useful ‘snapshot’ data, but the data from one year’s report often can’t accurately be compared to the data from another year, because each snapshot is of a different cohort. For example, under the current system, when the state compares the achievement of English language learners from one year to the next, it can’t accurately distinguish progress because aggregate data doesn’t distinguish between the old and new sets of students.

Longitudinal data will enable policy makers to compare the achievement from year to year, and more accurately evaluate which programs improve student performance and which ones don’t. Similarly, longitudinal data could also be helpful in evaluating the outcomes of teacher credential programs, or the effectiveness of certain professional development activities.

Policy makers don’t yet have the information needed to make smart, well-informed choices for schools and kids. Taking an extended time-out on funding for CALPADS and CALTIDES won’t help solve the state’s budget problem. The $3.5 million targeted for elimination is one-time federal funding.

It has been a long, slow haul, but California has made significant progress with CALPADS and CALTIDES over the past few years. Now is not the time to stall out or forfeit our gains. If anything, the difficult decisions that the budget crisis presents can only underscore the value of meaningful data to the policy and decision-making processes, and to millions of California students.

State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto) is the author SB 1614, which authorized the creation of CALTIDES; SB 1298, which established a process for schools and universities to report data using existing unique statewide student identifiers; and SB 885 (currently pending) to take the next step toward establishing a statewide education data system.

Margaret Gaston: Critical data on our teaching force

In 2001, the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning and SRI International compiled and distributed data showing that over 42,000 members of California’s teaching workforce lacked even the minimum requirements to teach, and that vastly disproportionate numbers of those underprepared teachers were assigned to low-performing schools serving economically disadvantaged children of color. That information, which documented a severe shortage of fully prepared teachers and pervasive inequities among schools, garnered headlines and drove policy changes to strengthen California’s teacher development system. The revelation of this stark data also challenged the common practice of assigning the least prepared and novice teachers to schools where students arguably need accomplished veteran teachers the most.

Today, policymakers and educators would not have access to that same data. Last year’s veto of funding for the CALPADS system by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger badly damaged California’s ability to collect and analyze data about the status of teaching and student learning. And now, with the further loss of funding for the CALPADS and CALTIDES data systems, the gap in the availability of reliable information upon which sound policy decisions can be made would be even wider.

We support Gov. Brown’s proposal to reform the state’s data collection systems, making them less bureaucratic and more helpful to school- and district- level decision-making. But we would argue for using what has been developed and paid for thus far as a base for further improvement.

CALPADS is also designed to collect and house critical data on the teacher workforce. That information is essential to developing an adequate pool of teachers with the training, knowledge, and skill necessary to ensure all students are able to reach the high academic goals Californians have set for them. It also reveals the subject matter areas – like math and science – and assignments where teachers are needed most. In times of tight budgets, this data is even more important: Legislators, policymakers, and educators must have the current and accurate information necessary to help them target and leverage limited resources in ways that make every nickel count. Without CALPADS and CALTIDES, California is once again flying blind in its quest to strengthen public education.

Margaret Gaston is president of the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning.

Rick Miller: Statewide data does matter

Before transitioning to CALPADS and a statewide student identifier system, if a school reported that a student transferred in-state, there was no way to verify the information. But several years ago, after years of infighting, California finally established a unique identifier system and now tracks students between schools and districts. Now, when this data is published, if a district reports that a student transferred to another school and the student doesn’t show up, the student is classified as a dropout on the originating district’s watch. As a result, schools throughout California have tracked down and re-enrolled many of these students. Real-life students have returned to further their education. Statewide data matters

CALPADS is also designed to provide critical information about students: Do they need special education? What courses have they taken? Have they taken the CELDT? With a statewide data system, all of this information can follow the student, saving time and avoiding unnecessary retesting. When the data in CALPADS is linked to CALTIDES, California will be able to measure effectiveness of teacher preparation programs and other educator workforce trends. Ideally, California will eventually have a statewide data system that allows us to track programs across the state so we can judge effectiveness and better broker expertise.

These are all common-sense uses of a statewide data system that the governor’s shortsighted budget proposal puts in jeopardy, without saving one cent for the state, as the system is 100 percent federally funded. If we consign the collection and use of student-level data to districts and schools, we abandon the ability to learn from each other and leverage successful approaches throughout the state. We need information to know what is working well and what is a waste of time and money. In this era of scarcity, using a high-quality data system to inform and foster a continuous learning cycle  – and using federal dollars to do it — just makes sense.

Rick Miller is a principal at Capitol Impact, an education policy advisory firm.

Ted Lempert: Save, fix, and expand it

Gov. Brown is right in asking questions about how CALPADS will support education in California, but wrong in taking an action that will waste millions and undermine progress made thus far.

Ninety-nine percent of districts are successfully using CALPADS to report enrollment. Eliminating funding for the data systems now is the technological equivalent of repealing class-size reduction on the second day of school. Eliminating this funding would create unnecessary turmoil for districts, which would need to retool in the next few months in order to comply with basic federal reporting requirements. It would further undermine basic data functions that CALPADS will fulfill, including:

  • Providing the minimal system needed to effectively manage over $50 billion in educational programs.
  • Efficiently monitoring student mobility, dropout, and records transfer when students move between districts.
  • Ensuring compliance with assurances that California gave when securing $4.9 billion in federal stimulus money.

CALPADS provides efficient uses of data, including automated matches to certify 1.4 million students as eligible for free school meals without further application; it ensures the timely transfer of student records, eliminating delays while identifying at-risk students; it eliminates redundant assessments for English learners as well as those with special needs; and it consolidates several major data collections into one.

Advocates agree that simply meeting No Child Left Behind reporting requirements will never provide the most meaningful benefits that CALPADS can provide. Largely because the original scope of CALPADS has been restricted since its inception, it does not currently provide more robust data linkages, warehousing, dashboards, and reporting needed to fully support state and local needs.

However, CALPADS has finally provided California with the technological equivalent of an advanced operating system; it can readily support more robust data functions when the governor is ready.

Ted Lempert is president of the advocacy group Children Now.

Anthony Cody: Put more faith in teachers, not data systems

We do not need CALPADS. We already have far too much money, time, and energy spent on student performance on tests. The emphasis on these tests has led to a profound distortion of instruction, consuming huge amounts of learning time and vast resources. The bottom line is that these tests are blunt instruments compared to the fine work of a dedicated and intelligent teacher, working in collaboration with peers. The limited information from these tests does not grow in usefulness simply because it is developed in ever finer and more sophisticated detail. Rather, this lends a false air of mathematical certainty to decisions that are much better made by the human beings in direct contact with students.

If not CALPADS, then what?

We have placed far too much faith in data systems, and far too little in the capacity of our teachers and students in responding to the learning challenges they face. California is a huge and diverse state. We can tap the creative potential of our teachers best when we actively engage them in designing curricula and assessments that correspond to the interests and needs of their students. There is so much phony rhetoric about how important and precious teachers are. It is time to give teachers real responsibility – not just for preparing students for tests, but for the complex challenge of life in the 21st century.

An 18-year veteran teacher, Anthony Cody coaches science teachers in Oakland Unified. His blog, Living in Dialogue, is published by Education Week.