New political terrain holds promise for California schools

by Lisa Schiff, California Progress Report

My daughter came home from school the other day frustrated and angry. She had been excited the evening before because she’d learned that having finished The Odyssey her ninth-grade English class was now going to tackle Beowolf. We discussed the different translations and decided to compare the version we had at home with the one her class was going to read once she got the book. The next night she handed me, with a gesture of disgust, a used double-sided photocopy of the classic; no "real" book, just a set of rather worn stapled pages.

Trying to be positive, I read a few passages and commented that the translation wasn’t bad. But from her perspective the quality of the translation was secondary – the more important thing was that this wasn’t really a book. Apparently there wasn’t enough money in the school budget to buy a full set, so they had to read these passed-down copies instead. She understood the tight finances, but even so, she felt dismissed and unimportant. To her the message was that students didn’t matter enough to make sure they had actual books to read.

All of us involved in supporting public education in California have maddening stories like these to share, stories that have provided much of the fuel to our work for gaining more resources for our classrooms. Such incidents provide the living detail to the well-worn saga of the decline of public school spending in California, a decline that for the 2010-2011 school year had our state ranked at 46th out of 50 in per-pupil spending.

But that spending decline has been accompanied by a frustration with the lack of investment. This counterforce finally reached a sufficient level to force a critical change with the November 30th elections. The passage of Propositions 30 and 39 and the establishment of a new Democratic supermajority in the state legislature mean new influxes of revenue for our schools and the possibility of making major structural changes to the sources of revenue and how those monies get distributed.

For those of us focused on the nail-biting effort to get Proposition 30 passed, the positive impact of Proposition 39 on public schools may have gone unnoticed. Proposition 39 closes yet another corporate loophole that in the past allowed multistate corporations to choose the tax calculation formula that would minimize the amount they owed to California. Now, with some notable exceptions like cable companies, these corporations will simply pay a tax based on the sales that occurred in the state. $500 million in new revenue is expected in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, $1 billion the following year, and more thereafter. Half of the money (or up to $550 million) will go into a "Clean Energy Job Creation Fund" and the rest will go into the general fund.

Schools win here on one, possible two counts. First, when the total revenues rise, the share going to schools also rises. The good news there is pretty obvious. The second possible win rests on the use of the resources in the "Clean Energy Job Creation Fund" and still needs some organizing to make it happen.

The Center for the Next Generation (TCNG) is proposing that we do just that, with a whitepaper calling for that fund to have school facilities as its first focus. Their argument springs off of research out of UC Berkeley that has identified a huge need for school facility modernization and/or capital improvement to address aging and energy inefficient buildings and unhealthy environments for the students and educators in them. TCNG posits that this use of the revenue fulfills the mission of the fund in the most beneficial of ways. Updated school buildings will be less costly to operate, will improve the health of the people in them every day, and will spur job creation and training in the clean energy sector. The positives here for the state as a whole are remarkable.

While the specific education benefits of Proposition 39 may have flown under the radar, the implications of the super majority in regards to Proposition 13 did not. Proposed changes to this "third rail" piece of legislation are already in the works. Just recently State Senator Mark Leno announced that he will seek to revise Proposition 13’s threshold for passage of local school parcel taxes, reducing it to 55%. Such a change will have mixed results across the state, since it will reflect the uneven economic distribution that schools already struggle with. Wealthier communities will be able to raise more money; poorer communities will not. (See the California Budget Project’s excellent overview of California school finance for more about the relationship between parcel taxes and school budgets.)

Increasing education funding in an equitable manner has to be tackled at the state level, with a more drastic revision to Proposition 13, the kind State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano is proposing with the closure of the corporate loophole. The increased revenue from this effort would raise the state’s overall revenue, thereby increasing the baseline funding for all students. This is the kind of change we need to see happen.

The Democratic super majority in California’s State Senate and House of Representatives holds the potential to transform the state in significant ways that could have a tremendously positive impact on our shared social needs, of which public education is clearly among the most important. Rational efforts to address the financial situation of our schools have long been held hostage to the no-tax pledge among Republicans, which, in the absence of a Democratic supermajority, has meant a continued impoverishment of our schools.

This new balance of power provides a chance to look at the State’s overall financial situation afresh and to reconsider how to achieve and ensure the budgetary health of our schools. No less important, this new political climate offers another opportunity for the school community – an opportunity to take a path towards achieving our goals through alliances with those in other areas who are also depending up on these new politics to change their worlds.