Policy & Finance > Elections

School initiative's bumpy road to the ballot box



The thicket of obstacles Governor Brown and his allies have run into in trying to convince voters to approve his initiative to raise funds for schools and the state budget underscores the extreme hazards of trying to convince California voters to raise taxes, even for a cause they’re predisposed to support.

A combination of an unexpected and bitter rivalry among pro-education forces that should have been allies, greater than expected and deeper-pocketed opposition to the Brown initiative, and voters still struggling to cope with the enduring economic downturn in a state that reflexively votes against tax increases have all conspired to make it impossible to predict victory on November 6.

Instead, school officials and other education advocates are filled with a sense of dread that neither Prop. 30 nor Prop. 38, the rival initiative sponsored by civil rights attorney Molly Munger, will get the simple majority they need on November 6, resulting in an automatic $5.4 billion in “trigger cuts” to schools and community colleges.

The PPIC poll released Wednesday affirms their fears. For the first time, support for Prop. 30 among likely voters has dipped below 50 percent – to 48 percent – while only 39 percent say they will support Prop. 38, the Munger initiative.

That represents a significant shift in public attitudes from when Brown first presented his plan almost a year ago.

A PPIC poll last December showed that 60 percent of likely voters supported his core idea of raising income taxes on people earning $250,000 and bumping up the sales tax by a half cent.  Based on California’s history, that represented just about the maximum number of voters who could be expected to support a tax increase of any kind.

At the time, the field of school funding initiatives was crowded with two others, the California Federation of Teachers’ so-called “millionaire’s tax” and the Munger initiative, supported by the California State PTA, which Munger had announced a month earlier.

To the huge relief of education advocates, in March Brown combined his initiative with the CFT’s “millionaires’ tax” initiative, which at the time was receiving even higher levels of voter support. The merged initiative reduced the proposed sales tax increase to a mere 1/4 cent, while raising rates on high income earners. Perhaps not surprisingly, a USC/Dornsife poll at the time showed voters supporting it even more strongly than Brown’s original proposal – an almost unheard of 64 percent of likely voters indicated they would vote yes.

The outlook for victory in November could not have looked brighter.

But since then support for Brown’s initiative has trended downwards. A  Field Poll in July showed only 54 percent of voters supporting it. By September the number was “scarily close” to 50 percent, in the words of Field pollster Mark DiCamillo.

When Brown and the California Federation of Teachers  merged their initiatives in March, many education advocates hoped the same would happen with the Munger initiative. Or a truce would be declared. It never did. Unlike the CFT, which bowed to the reality that it would not be able to raise the funds needed to mount a full-scale campaign on behalf of its initiative, Munger, the daughter of billionaire and Warren Buffett lieutenant Charles Munger, felt no such pressures.

Instead, the vitriol between the two campaigns increased.  It reached a point where Munger accused Brown in a TV interview a few weeks ago of being “utterly deceptive” in suggesting in his ads  that all funds raised by his initiative would go to schools.

Her ads lumped Brown among “Sacramento politicians,” implying that his initiative was simply a scheme to siphon off funds for unspecified governmental purposes.   Within days she was convinced to withdraw the ads.

On either side were education advocates with the same good intentions to raise funds for California’s struggling schools, resulting in a rivalry that could well contribute to confusion among voters. That in itself could make them more likely to vote no on both initiatives.

What also could not have been predicted was the potency of the opposition that would emerge to Prop. 30 from anti-tax and anti-union forces, perhaps because of the major backing it has received from the California Teachers Association and many other unions. Another unexpected development was that some of the same forces opposed to Brown’s initiative also became active supporters of Prop 32, the hot-button initiative that will make it more difficult for unions to contribute to political campaigns.

Until this fall, the pro-Prop. 30 forces were way ahead in the fundraising stakes, and Brown continued to work on mitigating California’s anti-tax reflex. In September, the California Chamber of Commerce, breaking with its tradition of opposing virtually every tax increase, decided to remain neutral on the issue. An exuberant Brown said its decision had “cleared the way for victory” for Prop. 30. For a while, it  looked like Brown might  make it through to election day with a major fundraising advantage.

But the new landscape of political fundraising, which allows for almost unlimited, anonymous contributions, and the ability of the superwealthy to change the direction and outcome of a campaign by dipping into their own bank accounts whenever they wish, soon kicked in.

Multibillionaire Jerry Perenchio, former head of the TV network Univision, along with John Scully, former CEO of Pepsi and Apple, chipped in. But their contributions paled in comparison to those made by none other than Charles Munger Jr. – Molly Munger’s brother – who has poured nearly $23 million into the combined anti-Prop. 30/pro-Prop. 32 campaigns.

And last week a Phoenix nonprofit corporation called Americans for Responsible Leadership gave $11 million to the California Small Business Action Committee, a leading force in the dual campaign in favor of Prop, 32 and against Prop. 30.

Adding to Brown’s difficulties is that he is waging this campaign at a time when California’s economy is still struggling to recover from the Great Recession, making voters more skittish than ever about having to pay more in sales taxes.

The anti-Prop. 30 campaign is now understandably focusing on the proposed sales tax increase, which affects all Californians, rather than the income tax increases on high earners. One mailer sent out this week by the Small Business Action Committee, for example, emphasized that Prop. 30 would bring California “the highest sales tax in the country” and make “everyday items that families need, like gas and clothes” more expensive.

According to the PPIC poll, 8 percent of likely voters have yet to make up their minds on Prop. 30, down from the 11 percent undecided on last month’s Field Poll. But those hoping that undecided voters will vote for their measure shouldn’t count on it. The Field Poll’s Mark DiCamillo said that of voters who by now haven’t been sold on the arguments on the “yes” side, “most of them end up resolving the conflict by voting no.”

Said the Field Polls DiCamillo, “The burden of proof on any proposition is always on the ‘yes’ side, because generally speaking, a proposition is intended to change the status quo. Voters have to be convinced of its worthiness. They don’t give either side the benefit of the doubt.”

The cumulative effect is that supporters of both Prop. 30 and Prop. 38 are fighting a do-or-die battle to convince voters to approve tax increases to underwrite a public education system that continues to fall behind many other states – hoping for the best while bracing for the worst.

Confused about the similarities and differences between Props. 30 and 38? Check out this first-of-its kind EdSource infographic

Filed under: Elections, School Finance, State Education Policy

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15 Responses to “School initiative's bumpy road to the ballot box”

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  1. Gary Ravani on October 26, 2012 at 2:34 pm10/26/2012 2:34 pm

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    Boy, Edward James Olmos speaks on education. Wow! He’s not an educator but he played one in a movie once.

  2. Evergreen on October 26, 2012 at 12:14 pm10/26/2012 12:14 pm

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    I actually agree, and am leaning toward supporting prop 38. It is more responsible, and it is a big step in the right direction in that the funds are restricted. The entire state budget should be this way, not just education. So EVEN if Sacramento would look at the passage of Prop. 38 and decide to further raid education budgets coming from the General Fund, the passage of Prop 38 would be a step in the right direction for responsible expenditure of taxpayer revenue…absolutely agreed! I still cannot contemplate CTA’s endorsement of Prop 30 over Prop 38…kinda stinky.

  3. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman on October 25, 2012 at 10:20 pm10/25/2012 10:20 pm

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    Navigio, I would like to hear what you believe the California Charter Schools’ signing on for the Governor’s Prop 30 means? Obviously you are uneasy about it, but I don’t know what you’re driving at. Unless you see CCSA as one of the many special interests that will receive some kind of quid pro quo if the measure succeeds?

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    • navigio on October 26, 2012 at 12:42 pm10/26/2012 12:42 pm

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      Frances, yes, your last sentence is my concern. To be honest, I am even surprised that CTA is siding with 30 given that they have much more to gain from 38, but given they are part of the educational ‘system’, that is maybe more understandable (as is the fact that part of 30 was authored by a sister union). But charters are explicitly intended to bypass some components of the ‘system’, including the standard district overhead and some accountability. From that standpoint it seems very odd that they would want to empower district to the exclusion of themselves (at least to the proportional exclusion, given their claims that they are already disproportionately underfunded).
      In reality, I think I know why they are siding with 30 and I believe its because quid pro quo goes both ways. The part that baffles me is I find it hard to believe anyone who runs a charter school believes they cant do more for their kids with what 38 offers. If thats true, it means they are sacrificing whats best for the kids for political purposes. And that is what bothers me.

      • el on October 26, 2012 at 9:20 pm10/26/2012 9:20 pm

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        Perhaps the objection is more like mine, that the restrictions on the funds for only new staff or new spending doesn’t fit with their needs. In our district, taking away general fund money and then giving this big pot of money.. that we can’t use in accordance with any of our current priorities is not exactly inspiring.

        I was rereading the initiative closely, though, and upon reflection, I am not sure what happens if an LEA decides to fund an existing classroom position with this money. Perhaps you only have to have a public hearing and declare your intent?

        I suspect the other reason many groups chose 30 over 38 is that they believed that the lesser tax would be easier to pass.

  4. Jill H. on October 25, 2012 at 6:05 pm10/25/2012 6:05 pm

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    I would imagine CCSA’s support of Prop 30 is because it’s members (Charter Schools) will receive a proportional share of the revenue raised by 30, and are not specifically promised part of 38….While any cuts that occur will hit Charter and Traditional schools alike, many charters get many, many dollars less per student, and at least in my district facilities are not shared equitably as called for in prop 39 and the Bullis decision.

    To me that fact that many charter schools can do quite well, at least equal to traditional schools, and often better – proved there is more than enough money in education – if it was spent wisely. Using exotic 40 year bond money to buy iPads, that will end up costing taxpayers $2500 each, probably 30 years after said iPad is long gone, broken, stolen, or just obsolete – does not make me inclined to support either measure as a voter.

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    • navigio on October 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm10/26/2012 12:32 pm

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      Why do you say 38 does not apply to charter schools? It specifically does that:

      ” (a) “Local education agency” or “LEA” includes school districts, county offices of education, governing boards of independent public charter schools, and the governing bodies of direct instructional services provided by the state, including the California Schools for the Deaf and the California School for the Blind.
      (b) “K-12 school” or “school” means any public school, including but without limitation any charter school, county school, or school for special needs children, that annually enrolls, and provides direct instructional services to, pupils in any or all of grades kindergarten through 12 and that is under the operational jurisdiction of any LEA. The term “kindergarten” in this part includes transitional kindergarten.”

  5. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman on October 25, 2012 at 5:00 pm10/25/2012 5:00 pm

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    The public schools of California are grotesquely underfunded and face a crisis at the end of the coming year. Citizens, including “Evergreen,” should set aside doubts and division and vote for Molly Munger’s PTA Prop 38. It will be good for children and good for grownups too. Passing prop 38 will be a cause for celebration at a time when there seems to be little to cheer about in our damaged electoral process.

  6. Evergreen on October 25, 2012 at 4:08 pm10/25/2012 4:08 pm

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    You will have to look at the Governor Brown’s budget. He raised spending by billions of dollars, then stipulated that in order for education to receive level funding from 11/12 to 12/13 that voters must approve an amount roughly the same as the budget increase to come from new taxes. The general fund was raided, education was the pawn. That’s more or less common knowledge at this point.

  7. Evergreen on October 25, 2012 at 1:53 pm10/25/2012 1:53 pm

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    I love this paragraph: “But the new landscape of political fundraising, which allows for almost unlimited, anonymous contributions, and the ability of the superwealthy to change the direction and outcome of a campaign by dipping into their own bank accounts whenever they wish, soon kicked in.” As if unions don’t do the exact same thing…which is why the education system, at least in part, is in peril.

    The high speed rail project is a total bust. It was sold to voters as Project A, but in reality will be built as Exhibit Z. It is a waste of taxpayer funds which most voters no longer want because the parameters changed so greatly from the time they voted to now when the benefit is much less, the cost is much more.

    You don’t need to waste your time convincing California senators and legislators that education is a priority. They already know it is. What they, and Gov. Brown did not anticipate was that the general public would call them out for coercion. Rather than prioritize funding for education as they should have, they earmarked for everything BUT education, and then through a bone out for us on a thin film of ice. Governor Brown gambled. And it looks like he is going to lose his bet. Had Governor Brown not added $7Billion in new spending to the new budget or diverted general fund dollars away from education in order to fund other unnecessary facets of our bloated government, the polling might look a lot different than it does now. Californian’s are realizing that we cannot continue to afford so many programs and so great a luxury in our salaries, pensions, and insurance. The state’s leadership should not be the last to adjust to the new realities; they are supposed to be the leaders and the experts, but that does look to be the case.

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    • el on October 25, 2012 at 2:52 pm10/25/2012 2:52 pm

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      Tell me, specifically, where these billions of dollars of luxurious, unnecessary state spending can be found. I honestly want to know.

  8. el on October 25, 2012 at 12:18 pm10/25/2012 12:18 pm

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    High speed rail was approved by the voters and the project long predates Governor Brown. It also makes a great deal of highway and airport spending unnecessary. I don’t see it at odds with education any more than filling potholes is at odds with education.

    I think both initiatives are messy and flawed, but they don’t have to be at odds with each other. Munger’s raises more money from more individuals; Brown’s raises less money. Munger’s has more restrictions on how the money can be spent, and in ways that I find highly problematic for my own local situation. Brown’s backfills sorely needed district general funds.

    Neither particularly protect schools against future budget shortfalls or downturns or against a legislature determined to walk around them and cut general fund money.

    Fundamentally, it’s essential that one of them pass, and it’s my preference that the other one fail by only the slimmest of margins, so that the legislature gets the message that education is important to the voters, important enough to pay for. Important enough that it informs their vote for their legislator.

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    • navigio on October 25, 2012 at 12:28 pm10/25/2012 12:28 pm

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      I agree with the concern about the impact (ie lack thereof) of high speed rail. I wish there were more complete information on that topic. I did notice that the state had recently approved something like $6B for that, but upon closer reading, most of that was for the issuance of voter-approved bonds (ie money that hasnt been raised or spent yet), and the rest is for federal matching grants. Even of that money, a large portion is for upgrade of existing rail infrastructure. So its not clear to me that this project has spent much of anything yet, let alone at the expense of something else, nor that it will ever do that at a state budget level given that it is raised through bond issuance.

  9. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman on October 25, 2012 at 11:52 am10/25/2012 11:52 am

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    The truth is that Prop 38 is a laser-focused initiative to benefit public pre-schools and K-12 education. Prop 38 raises taxes for a while, has a sunset provision, and does not include a regressive sales tax. Also, Prop 38 sponsor Molly Munger has deep pockets and is willing to spend her personal fortune for this good idea that she believes in — without having to answer to competing political special interests who absolutely will siphon off proceeds from the Governor’s Prop 30 for other purposes as part of the political quid pro quo bargain for their support. Prop 38 is clean and straightforward. Prop 30 is messy and competes with Prop 38 which qualified for the ballot first. The Governor should have joined Munger or stepped back and let her go for it with his blessing.

    A regressive sales tax and potential siphoning of funds are the great weaknesses of the Governor’s Prop 30. Special interest groups who favor Prop 30 have come down like a ton of bricks on Ms. Munger, slandering her and even conflating a conservative relative’s causes with her own, damaging prospects for Prop 38’s passage. It is tragic because Munger’s Prop 38 is a reasonable measure that would Do Good for Children and deserves to pass muster. For god’s sake, the California PTA and Edward James Olmos endorse Prop 38.

    Meanwhile Governor Brown has enraged the no-taxes-ever-crowd by continuing to press his mad and expensive high-speed rail folly and proposing to build a massive Sacramento River Delta water diversion system, all the while threatening to decimate public education from pre-school to the university because the State is out of money. He has not been strategic in his enthusiasms and, sadly, it looks like we may pay the price for his self-indulgence.

    Still, I hope Californians will vote for Ms. Munger’s Prop 38: it is reasonable and limited and will accomplish an improvement in funding our K-12 public school education system which, at present, stands at a low 47th among 50 states.

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    • navigio on October 25, 2012 at 12:18 pm10/25/2012 12:18 pm

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      And I would add to that, that one of the greatest quid pro quo ironies of this election cycle is the CCSA’s endorsement of prop 30 over prop 38. That is truly baffling and should raise concerns for anyone who believes in traditional public schools, or what prop 30 will really mean for them.

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