The welcome passage of Proposition 30 by voters this week will help avert an immediate fiscal crisis in our schools. But it will not undo the damage of years of underinvestment in public education in the state.
Additional help could come from those who contributed to any number of federal, state or local campaigns during the just-ended electoral season.
While California and the nation have recorded political contributions in the billions of dollars, schools still face enormous needs, as EdSource’s “Schools Under Stress” report documented.
It is true that a disproportionate share of funds spent on political campaigns have come from millionaires and billionaires.
But millions of small donors also generously opened their pocketbooks as well.
So here’s a modest proposal:
Contributors to political campaigns should consider donating matching amounts to schools and school districts of their choice. Those newly elected (or re-elected) to public office, especially those who profess to believe in a free, high-quality public education for all children, should encourage their backers to do so.
Contributors would have the satisfaction of making a lasting investment in America’s future – our children – in contrast to having their funds end up mainly in the pockets of high-paid political consultants and the bank accounts of broadcast and other media outlets.
There is already a mechanism for contributors to channel their funds to the schools of their choice by going through the nonprofit, tax exempt foundations that exist in many schools and districts.
In California, there are an estimated 675 education foundations raising funds, typically for specific programs in their schools or district rather than for general support. In districts where no such foundation exists, the California Consortium of Education Foundations has offered to serve as an intermediary and channel funds to schools of a donor’s choice.
While some local education foundations are able to raise millions of dollars for their schools, they are the exceptions. The vast majority of foundations raise less than six figures annually – and ideally donors would contribute to schools and districts that are most in need.
This would be an entirely volunteer effort. The appeal would be rooted solely in the belief that Americans who collectively have opened their pocketbooks for political campaigns would be moved by a similar sense of civic responsibility to do the same for schools.
Ideally, contributions would be made throughout the election season. But it is not too late to do so.
In 1978, before the passage of Proposition 13, California spent at or even slightly above the per-student average in the United States. Today its ranking has slipped to 47th.
In terms of actual dollars, the numbers are equally alarming. A decade ago, California spent an average of just under $700 less than the average for the rest of the country. Today, that figure has widened to nearly $3,000.
Just imagine the impact on schools if contributors to political campaigns would make equal donations to programs to benefit children in schools of their choice across the state.
What’s more, this is an initiative that would not be limited to the super-rich. The millions of Americans who have made smaller contributions to presidential candidates – or candidates for their local school boards – could also participate. At a time when teachers increasingly must spend their own money for basic classroom supplies, every extra dollar going into the classroom would help.
Louis Freedberg is executive director of EdSource. Carl Cohn, the immediate past president of EdSource and former school superintendent in Long Beach and San Diego, is a member of the California State Board of Education. An earlier version of this commentary appeared on September 1 in the Sacramento Bee.