Big win for schools as Prop 30 defies polls

by Kathryn Baron and John Fensterwald, EdSource

California schools’ rendezvous with rock bottom is over.  A massive grassroots campaign, an eleventh hour surge in advertising and strategic targeting of likely voters pulled Proposition 30 over the halfway mark yesterday, giving both Gov. Jerry Brown and California public schools and community colleges a victory. With all of the vote reported, Prop 30 led 53.9 to 46.1 percent.  The initiative is expected to raise nearly $7 billion for education this year by raising income taxes on the wealthiest Californians and increasing the state sales tax by a quarter-cent for the next four years.

‘I know some people had some doubts, had some questions ‘ can you really go to people and ask them to raise their tax’? Brown told supporters celebrating at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Sacramento Tuesday night. ‘We had a lot of obstacles. We overcame them.’

The same can’t be said of Proposition 38, the other school funding initiative on the ballot.  Voters soundly rejected it by a margin of nearly 3 to 1.   Southern California attorney Molly Munger, who, with her husband, put $47 million of her own money into the campaign, and generated ill will with ads taking aim at Prop 30, conceded defeat in a written statement in which she thanked her supporters.   ‘This year you helped raise awareness dramatically about the importance of increasing taxes to support public education,’ Munger said.  ‘Transformational change takes time and we are committed to staying the course until our state truly does tackle this school-funding crisis.’

For now, advocates for increased school funding will have to be content with the same level of spending as last year.  Proposition 30 will raise the level of minimum funding for K-12 schools and community colleges by $2.9 billion, but in the first year, there won’t be any additional money available for new programs.  For this academic year, $2.2 billion of the new revenue raised by the initiative will go toward paying off part of the $9.5 billion in late payments to schools and community colleges, known as deferrals.  Like any debt that’s paid down, a reduction in deferrals frees up money that could be used to increase funding for schools in the 2013-14 school year.

According to the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analysts Office, K-12 education spending for the current year will remain pretty much flat at $7,530 per student.  Had Prop 30 failed, however, public education faced a catastrophic $6 billion in trigger cuts, including half a billion from state colleges and universities.   For some school districts, such as the state’s two largest, Los Angeles and San Diego Unified, those midyear cuts would have lopped as many as 20 days off the school year, according to a survey by EdSource Today.

Joel Montero, head of the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, a public agency overseeing school district finances, had also warned that several dozen districts would have been forced into  bankruptcy if voters rejected the initiative.

Even though districts can exhale this morning, many still face acute financial pressure following years of cuts and borrowing to cover the state’s late payments.  Santa Ana Unified will have to take out a loan for more than $70 million this year, said the district’s Chief Business Official Michael Bishop.  And there is another wrinkle to the success of Prop 30; districts won’t see any of the money until the end of June 2013, creating a cash crunch for many of them.

But schools and community colleges aren’t focused on the shortcomings of Prop 30 this morning.  ‘Schools will no longer be in the crosshairs,’ Jonathan Kaplan, senior policy analyst at the California Budget Project, bluntly put it.  ‘Districts will have more breathing room; they’re moving in the right trajectory.’

Prop 30’s win is something of a come-from-behind victory.  Although yes voters remained ahead of no voters in statewide polls, the initiative seemed stuck below 50 percent in recent weeks, with 14 percent undecided as recently as last week.  Internal polling by the California Teachers Association gave it an edge.

Turnout and early voting also helped, said political analyst and Sacramento State Communications Professor emeritus Barbara O’Connor.  ‘Unions’ and Democrats’ ground game has been all over the place.’

Unions and grassroots organizations went door-to-door, staffed phone banks and registered new voters ‘ nearly a million in the last 45 days preceding the deadline, including 31,000 new voters from California State University campuses. The parent-led group Educate Our State reached its goal of recruiting 10,000 supporters who pledged to vote for both Props 30 and 38, said founder Crystal Brown.

The victory was essential for the governor, who vowed not to raise taxes without the support of voters, and had a personal stake in the passage of Prop 30.  He barnstormed throughout the state and on TV ads in recent weeks, including a swing through five cities on Monday alone.

Prop 30 proved to be an expensive campaign, and Brown needed the $69 million in contributions it received to counter the $50 million raised by Prop 30 opponents. They included Molly Munger’s half-brother, Charles Jr., who donated $35 million to defeat Prop 30 and promote Prop 32, which would have limited unions’ ability to make political contributions, and an anonymous $11 million donation made through an Arizona organization, Americans for Responsible Leadership, that state officials have accused of money laundering. With ads that blanketed TV over the final days, Brown had the resources to win the war on the ground and in the air.