Persuade, not threaten, me to vote for your initiative, Governor

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

A few Saturdays ago, my kids and I walked through a crowd of signature gatherers for ballot initiatives outside Trader Joe’s. Some of them all but tackled me as they pitched their proposals. All of them promised more money for education and a better future for my children. Unfortunately for the signature gatherers’ bottom line, I didn’t have time to stop. My children and their school had more immediate needs. We were on our way to a Dance-A-Thon, one of many “-thons” that California parents have organized to raise money for their schools.

It’s hard not to smile when you see a hundred kids dancing the Electric Slide. They’re so happy and innocent, they make you happy, too. But after an afternoon of dancing, they started getting tired and I started wondering, “Why are our children dancing non-stop for four hours to raise a couple of hundred bucks to offset the impact of the state budget deficit? How did we get into this mess and how are we going to get out of it?”

I probably wasn’t the only parent having those thoughts. I’m sure I wasn’t the only parent who’d been hit up that morning to support an education ballot initiative. The promise of the ballot initiatives is pretty tempting for public school parents who have seen the impact of budget cuts, dipped into their pockets to pay for after-school programs, and devoted an increasing amount of family time to fundraising. After a while, you’ll sign on to anything or support anyone who promises to stop the pain. That’s what Governor Brown is counting on when his tax initiative is up for a vote in November.

Still, like many Californians, the closer it gets to November, the more I’ll be thinking about that vote and what it means – just as I thought long and hard before voting in 2010 for Jerry Brown.

More than anything, I want to know whether the funding will benefit my children’s high-poverty school. I want to know that the money will be targeted to restore all the supports and services that have been eliminated over the last five years. I’d like to hear whether the governor has a positive vision for improving California’s education system and closing achievement and opportunity gaps. I want to know if he truly cares about making sure all kids have great schools and effective teachers. I want to hear whether he understands the hopes and dreams of the parents and youth living in a majority-minority state and an increasingly globalized world.

In all of these areas, I’m not getting many answers from our governor. When he ran in 2010, I read his education plan and believed his promises to use his long experience to bridge the partisan divide, fix California’s budget deficit, and end the use of budget gimmicks. Now, after seeing him fail to cross the partisan divide or fix the budget crisis, and watching him propose a set of budgets that include some of the worst gimmicks in state history, I’m not as trusting.

This lack of trust seems warranted even when the governor appears to be doing the right thing. For example, his weighted student formula (WSF) proposal would send education funding to school districts based on student need and fix longstanding inequities between rich and poor districts. This could be beneficial for high-need schools. Yet, the governor and his advisers have failed to include basic principles of financial transparency, accountability, and school-level authority on how the dollars are spent. In practice, this means that state dollars will flow to school districts with few assurances on how they will be spent at the school level or fix funding inequities between rich and poor schools. The governor won’t even fully implement the WSF model unless his ballot initiative passes and the state has paid off other funding owed to school districts.

And that brings me back to the signature gatherers. Supporters of the governor’s initiative portray it as a way to increase education funding. But when I try to figure out how this initiative is going to benefit my children’s school, I can’t tell. The only thing I have to go by is the governor’s budget, which projects over $5 billion in cuts to schools if I don’t vote for his initiative.

Now, the billions in cuts to schools terrify me, but a couple of things disturb me about this approach. First, the governor has failed to provide any positive reason or offer any educational vision that would move me, as a parent, to want to vote for his initiative. Instead, he is essentially telling me and every other parent in California, “I will cut your child’s school funding if you don’t vote for my initiative.” Now, I’ve heard that the governor is delivering similar strong messages of pain to any major interest group that doesn’t back his initiative or shows interest in an alternative initiative being promoted by the philanthropist and civil rights activist Molly Munger. And maybe this will work for him. But telling me that you’re going to punish my children, their classmates, and our school if I don’t support your initiative doesn’t really work for me.

In contrast, Munger provides a real vision for educational improvement. Her proposal sends the money directly to schools with additional dollars to high-need students. It requires financial transparency and stakeholder involvement in decision-making at the school level. It asks for shared sacrifice from all taxpayers. And it can tell me exactly how much additional money our Oakland school will receive in the coming years. These are the very elements that Brown’s weighted student formula proposal and ballot initiative don’t include. For parents focused on their kids and schools and advocates focused on equity, it is an attractive approach. Now that it is going to be on the ballot in November, perhaps our governor should spend less time fighting it, and more time learning from it. That would be in his best interest and certainly in the best interests of the state he was elected to govern.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust-West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

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11 Responses to “Persuade, not threaten, me to vote for your initiative, Governor”

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  1. DOnna Massa-Chappee on Oct 27, 2012 at 8:51 am10/27/2012 8:51 am

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    OHIO: One of the states that the election hinges on is Ohio because of its high number of electoral votes.
    What is a electoral vote? This is thoroughly explained by going to this URL

    Forty two years ago a National tragedy took place in this state of Ohio. Many of you remember this as if it was 911 however, some of you were not born yet! This was the kind of brutality that didn’t take place on College campuses let alone high school campuses This is how it was told to us on that most unfortunate day…

    The Kent State shootings—also known as the May 4 massacre or the Kent State massacre. It occurred at Kent State University in the U.S. city of Kent, Ohio, and involved the shooting of unarmed college students by the Ohio National Guard on Monday, May 4, 1970. The guardsmen fired 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine others, one of whom suffered permanent paralysis.

    Some of the students who were shot had been protesting against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Richard Nixon announced in a television address on April 30. Other students who were shot had been walking nearby or observing the protest from a distance.

    There was a significant national response to the shootings: hundreds of universities, colleges, and high schools closed throughout the United States due to a student strike of four million students, and the event further affected the public opinion, at an already socially contentious time, over the role of the United States in the Vietnam War.
    This was so graphically illustrated that it inspired many young people of this generation.

    “Ohio” is a protest song written and composed by artist/musician Neil Young in reaction to the Kent State shootings of May 4, 1970, and performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. It was released as a single, backed with Stephen Stills’s “Find the Cost of Freedom”, peaking at number 14 on the US Billboard Hot 100. Although a live version of the song was included on the group’s 1971 double album Four Way Street, the studio versions of both songs did not appear on an LP until the group’s compilation So Far was released in 1974. The song also appeared on the Neil Young compilation album Decade, released in 1977. This is the URL for the song “Ohio”

    I had the pleasure of seeing this incredible group in person perform many of their songs and ballads . The one song that will always stand out in my mind is when these four men, came to the front of the stage without their instruments archapello style, stood stoic and looked out into the audience and sang in perfect harmony “Find the Cost of Freedom.” I shall never forget it, it literally gave me goosebumps and chills. This is what a generation fought for, “Freedom and Change!”

    Ohio is the state we now look to in this next important race for presidency, it holds a history as to the principles we hold dear to us and are still fighting for. We have a President who wants Change and is training other Middle Eastern countries to build their own army’s of defense. Building hope and helping to develop, educate, inform, and inspire the Middle Eastern people of both genders to understand a Democracy. Most importantly, our President acting as Commander & Chief, is meeting and negotiating with leaders from around the world to unite as One World so we may never have to experience “The Cost of Freedom” buried in the ground…

  2. Linus on May 17, 2012 at 12:25 pm05/17/2012 12:25 pm

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    There’s a bill already in the CA ligislature as of May 15 (AB103) that will allow $3.5 billion to be deferred from our schools for 2012-2012 EVEN IF the governor’s tax initiative passes.  Don’t believe anything he says about increased money to schools.  It’s all a ruse, people.

    The PTA/Molly Munger initiative is the only initiative that will start to restore our schools.  Many of our school districts are hanging by a thread and the governor’s siphoning away more money last year due to his realignment plan, his initiative that only pays money that has already been taken from schools (maybe) and now his proposed Weighted Student Formula will further damage school districts that are already compromised.  PTAs and educational foundations can not fill in the huge gap that has been created.  Many districts don’t even have the resources for PTA fundraising and educational foundations — and so the gap widens even further for some -creating varying degrees of inequity, again – in an overall compromised system.

    The PTA/Molly Munger, Our Children, Our Future initiative relies on a broad based, sliding scale tax, after deductions. It sends money directly to our schools, NOT the Sacramento black hole!  It mandates parent input into how the money is spent and mandates strict accountability.  The initiative also makes it a felony to misuse the funds.  Got it Gov.?

  3. Shanin on May 16, 2012 at 9:11 pm05/16/2012 9:11 pm

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    Miguel, You claim there is no enforceable component to the Munger plan, but there are actually very strong provisions and protections written into the Our Children, Our Future Initiative to prevent the state from counting that money towards the Prop 98 guarantee amounts.  If the legislature were to attempt it, the state could be sued.  Molly Munger, a very successful attorney for children’s rights, has said she would very gladly take the case because she is sure she would win it.  If you want more information, or specifics, you can find it at    I have actually read the full language, and if you do as well, you will see that the state cannot legally steal that money and use the OCOF money as a replacement.
    As to the lottery, it has never been more than 5% of school funding, and is now around 1.5%.  It was never intended to be a big amount of money, but more like a little bonus.  Which is all it ever has been.  OCOF is VERY different.  It will be a transformative and significant investment in the education of our children.  And there are specific rules as to how the money can be used a and strict accountability component.  In fact it would open up the entire school budgeting process to more public visibility and scrutiny.

  4. Ze'ev Wurman on May 16, 2012 at 3:20 pm05/16/2012 3:20 pm

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    Richard Moore perfectly captures my own feelings. Send more money to Sacramento and it will be spent. On whatever. And then they will come again for more.
    It is always “for the kids,” “for our firefighters and police,” “for our colleges and universities.” Never for inflating the number of bureaucrats; never for their inflated pensions; never for more business regulations; never for more environmental regulations; never for more prison guards — yet that what much of it is spent on.
    As to el’s complaint about Repub’s “always cutting taxes” … when, exactly, were California taxes cut last thirty years? The best they ever succeeded  was not to raise them … temporarily.

  5. el on May 16, 2012 at 12:54 pm05/16/2012 12:54 pm

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    For the last two decades, California Republicans have had a one-size-fits-all approach to state budgeting. Times are good? Cut taxes. Times are bad? Cut taxes. Tax revenues are up? Cut taxes. Tax revenues are down? Cut taxes.
    It turns out this strategy cannot be pursued indefinitely, especially not without spending cuts, if your goal is healthy State governance.
    And so to cobble together the votes for a 2/3 majority to pass any budget – even one with the same priorities as last year, and in part due to term limits that ensured that the people voting had (a) short memories and (b) little responsibility for the eventual day of reckoning, we had unsustainable budgets for years as leadership threaded their way between the demands for services on one side of the aisle and cuts on the other, with neither able to give. Schwartzenegger’s car tax cut alone cost the state billions, because there were no spending cuts to match. Enron came and ate a nice big hunk of us as well. Budgets limped along for years with creative accounting. When the economic downturn hit, the music stopped, and we are where we are.
    The state budget is dramatically smaller in actual dollars than it was in 2008. The needs have not lessened. (California is roughly in the middle on state spending per capita in 2010.)
    I don’t see Brown’s statement as a threat as much as it is a matter of fact statement.
    Both initiatives are flawed, as initiatives always are. But either is probably better than where we are now.

  6. Richard Moore on May 16, 2012 at 11:38 am05/16/2012 11:38 am

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    A few years back I attended a discussion of politics by four previous governors. The four sat on stage, two on the right and two on the left. At one point, Pete Wilson said, “Look, every one of us will spend every dime you send to Sacramento. The difference is, they (Brown and Davis) will raise your taxes to get more.” Deukmejian nodded and no one disagreed.
    You voted for Brown. He will raise your taxes. Education gets 40% of whatever comes in.
    The biggest change over the last ten years was the irrevocable pensions set up for government workers, allowing them to retire at nearly full pay in their fifties. And the collapse of the tax base.
    Brown will ask for more, discover it is not enough, and ask for more again. And we will continue to vote to reelect incumbents and wonder why nothing improves.

  7. Reilleyfam on May 16, 2012 at 11:17 am05/16/2012 11:17 am

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    Keep it simple: the one thing FOR SURE that you know will happen if you dont vote for it = your school & kids money will be cut.

    You might not know what voting YES gets for you but you know for sure what voting NO will get.

  8. Keith Griffith on May 16, 2012 at 10:55 am05/16/2012 10:55 am

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    Arun, et al:

    I’m not really sure if I am prepared or qualified to discuss the differences between Mr. Brown’s proposal and Ms. Munger’s proposal, but I feel eminently qualified to weigh in on Arun’s gist.
    As a taxpayer, parent, teacher, and educational administrator; I have always been extremely supportive of measures to improve our public education system.

    However, having been robbed at gunpoint several times many years ago when I was a young college student working my way through school, I also remember the fear, anger, revulsion and the almost uncontrollable urge to vomit after the immediate threat had disappeared.

    There is really nothing quite like having the ice-cold hard muzzle of a very large pistol being violently embedded into the thin soft skin of your forehead directly above the bridge of your nose and hearing someone yell that they will pull the trigger and splatter your brains over the clean tile wall behind you “if you do not open that safe and give me all of your money in the next ten seconds” to get your complete and undivided attention…

    Yes, I somehow, obviously, managed to force my twitching fingers to spin the safe’s dial in the right direction and somehow got the right combination so I could give an angry man willing to kill me for the measley sum still in the safe after having already made the morning deposit; because it wasn’t worth losing my life over, but I will never forgot how it made me feel…

    Unfortunately, just like those long ago robbers, Mr. Brown has shown himself to be all too willing and able to use “his gun” if necessary to get the people of California to vote for his tax measure.  Does anyone really still doubt his threat to slash public school funding? I don’t

    If Mr. Brown really wants the undivided attention and support of the taxpayers of California, let me suggest that he instead try persuading us like the intelligent, caring, and  sentient human beings we are; instead of threatening our children and their long term futures like some two-bit armed robber willing to walk through a pool of his innocent victims’ blood for a few bucks.

    Not only is he more likely to see his proposal be approved by the voters, he doesn’t run the real risk of having to destroy our public education system, decimating the economic future of California, in order to prove his power of life and death over our children, if some small percentage of us decides they are sick and tired of getting pushed around or threatened by a desperate small-time crook who wants to take their precious money.

  9. Michael G. on May 16, 2012 at 10:53 am05/16/2012 10:53 am

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    Good point, Miguel, about the legislature decreasing state money to the amount equal to the Munger proposal.  Sounds exactly like what would happen.
    On the other hand, one of the arguments that seems to be coming from the Jarvis & Cie. against Brown’s proposal is that Brown’s proposed tax money would all be sucked up by the increase in pension liabilities for CalPERS and CalSTRS and that without meaningful pension reform you are basically providing no money for schools.  So you’ll get the increased taxes and *still* get 3 weeks cut from schools.  That seems about right too, especially with Greece, the Euro, and the world stock markets all collapsing in the next few months.
    But the money shortfalls are getting too big to not choose one.  So what to do – choose one and then both lose because they split the vote?  Vote for both and hope for the best?  I have no idea.

  10. Miguel on May 16, 2012 at 9:30 am05/16/2012 9:30 am

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    Is the glass half full or half empty?  Nobody is threatening you, but rather, stating that if additional funds do not come in, this will be the result.  You have chosen to take the position this is a threat to you and your children.  Most probably because of a bias in favor of Molly Munger and the idea more money is promissed to schools under her proposal.  Fair enough.  The problem with Molly Munger’s plan is there is no enforceable component to prevent the legislature from dimishing the current school budget by an amount equal to the money raised by Molly Munger’s initaive.  This makes Molly Munger’s iniative a general tax increase, no matter how it is written.  Look at how the state lottery worked out.

    Now, having been a school district administrator in the Oakland school district I think you owe the public an explanation as to why anyone should listen to you and your advice concerning how school’s are funded and how they spend there money.  Look at the money wasted on the study to determine if a new logo should be adopted.  Look at the fiasco that was ebonics.  Look at the fact the school district had to be taken over by the state because of the terrible financial mess the administrator’s put the school district in.

    I say, suppot Jerry Brown’s plan.  Give the man a chance.

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