California’s Budget and K-12 Schools

The California Capitol Building

Most Californians know that our state’s budget and our system of financing K-12 schools is a mess. Some Californians know that there will potentially be two different tax initiatives aimed at solving that mess on the November ballot. And very, very few Californians know any more than that. How could they? Our state’s fiscal problems are so enormous, so complicated, and so intractable that after a while it all becomes just pops and buzzes for most people.

Earlier this week I had an incredible opportunity to spend a few days in Sacramento learning more about California’s K-12 school funding and about the two tax initiatives that are currently gathering signatures for the November ballot. I went as part of the Sacramento Safari, sponsored by California PTA’s 33rd District, as a parent representative from the Manhattan Beach schools. (Disclosure – in my “day job” I work for the California State University system, but my trip here was just as a parent and PTA member.)

We had some great meetings with legislators and staffers who spent time explaining all of the details and the politics behind various pieces of legislation and the two potential initiatives. Unless your idea of a great time is poring over big stacks of legislative documents and policy reports, you probably just want to hear the condensed version. That’s why I’ve boiled what we learned down to a few simple questions and answers:

What is the budget problem?

An empty Senate chamber

It’s definitely not pretty. Out of a $90 billion budget, California faces a $9.2 billion deficit.  In January the governor released a 2012/13 budget proposal filled with cuts aimed at addressing the budget gap. Here’s the hitch: The budget relies on the passage of a tax initiative (proposed for the November ballot) to close the gap. If that initiative fails to gain a spot on the ballot, or fails to win passage, a “trigger” mechanism will kick in and necessitate further cuts throughout the state. The “trigger” would cut $4.8 billion from K-12 school funding, a reduction that could translate into a school year shortened by three weeks.

California’s schools, meanwhile, rank 47th nationally in per-pupil spending, and rank dead last in terms of class sizes. Over the last three years, according to the California PTA, more than $20 billion has been cut from California schools, and more than 40,000 educators have been laid off. Parents, students, teachers, administrators, and community members are fuming about California’s crumbling educational system, and many have vowed to take action.

How can the budget be fixed?

As one legislator put it, “The budget is extremely complex. But you can boil it all down to two things; revenue and spending. If you need to balance the budget, you either need to increase revenue or cut spending.” Most in the education community would agree that there have already been enough cuts, which is why they are looking for ways to increase revenue (at least temporarily).

What are the proposals to raise revenue?

Inside the Capitol dome

Governor’s Initiative: The governor’s proposal would raise taxes on Californians earning above $300,000 and would raise sales taxes 1/4 cent. It is estimated to raise $6 to $7 billion per year, and it would last for seven years. A portion of the money raised would go to schools, but the majority would go toward fixing California’s structural budget problem. Note: This initiative is slightly modified from the governor’s initial version because in recent weeks he has worked with union groups and those advocating a “millionaire’s tax” to create a new compromise version.

“Our Children, Our Future”/Munger Initiative: This proposal, drafted by civil rights attorney Molly Munger and supported by the California PTA, would increase taxes across the board (on a sliding scale, with the wealthier taxpayers paying a larger percentage) to raise between $10 and $11 billion per year for 12 years. During the first four years, 60% of revenues go to K-12 schools, 30% to repaying state debt, and 10% to early childhood programs. Thereafter, 85% of revenues would go to K-12 schools and 15% to early childhood programs. The funds would be allocated to local school sites on a per-pupil basis and could not be used at district headquarters. To find out how much your school would receive, see this benefits calculator.

What are the prospects for these two initiatives?

Both initiatives face the immediate hurdle of securing enough signatures to get on the ballot. They are up against an April 20 filing deadline.

Even if they both make it on the ballot, tax initiatives historically have a very difficult time winning passage. The fact that there are two competing initiatives might make it hard for both (or either) to win. Advocates for the governor’s initiative argue that his is the most immediate way to solve the crushing budget crisis, and any competing initiatives distract from the cause. Advocates for the Munger initiative argue that schools have suffered the most, and schoolchildren deserve this immediate and direct aid to preserve their quality of education.

What else is on the horizon for education?

There are several efforts underfoot to reform school funding in California. Notably, AB 18 (Brownley) would attempt to overhaul the school finance system beginning in 2015/16. Other pressing issues include transitional kindergarten (the governor has proposed to eliminate funding for it in his new budget); funding for physical education, arts, and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) courses; and funding children’s health and early childhood development.

However, most political types agree that California’s budget is the “elephant in the room” and that all of these other issues will likely remain secondary until the structural problems are solved.

What can I do to help?

Sen. Ted Lieu accepts a "PTA Votes" pin from our delegation after our meeting

Educate yourself. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office is a great place to start – it’s filled with reports and nonpartisan information about school funding and the California budget.

Talk to your legislators. They want to know personal stories and anecdotes about how California’s budget problems are affecting your schools, and they want to hear from “real people” like us. Our team was struck by one legislator who told us in his office, “We’ve heard from a lot of union people and associations, but we haven’t had too many parents in here.”

Remember the three V’s: Vocalize, volunteer, vote. If you feel strongly about these issues, speak out. Volunteer to gather signatures or help educate others in the community. And of course, make sure to exercise your muscle at the ballot box (and remind your legislators that you vote!)

Got questions? Email me at southbaysparkle (at) gmail (dot) com or tweet me at @SouthBaySparkle.

Sacramento Safari

Image via California Department of Parks and Recreation

Many parents of school-aged children are active at the school or district level, but did you know that there are entire teams of parents who are working at the statewide level to track legislation and work toward sound policies for our kids? Our statewide and regional PTAs dedicate their time to advocating for school children’s needs in Sacramento, and the people who lead this effort are just regular parents like you and me.

This week I’m taking a few days off from South Bay Sparkle and the Jolly Tomato to head up to Sacramento for the Sacramento Safari, a three-day advocacy training and legislative visit with a group from the 33rd District of the California State PTA (The 33rd District cuts a wide swath through L.A. County) . There will be a total of 69 adult and student delegates lined up for a full schedule of legislative briefings and visits to our lawmakers.

Of all the times (and seasons) to visit Sacramento, this is a tough one. Our state is facing a multi-billion dollar budget deficit and school districts are grappling with budget cuts, larger class sizes, and aging facilities. Although the California PTA has a detailed platform of advocacy goals in the areas of education, parent involvement, health, and community concerns, one of the top priorities this season is to secure adequate funding for education to ensure that every child reaches his or her potential.

It’s a big job, for sure. I’ll report back on what I’ve learned when I return from Sacramento.