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Children's advocates focus on raising money through the ballot box


Election Day in California, 2005. Credit: Ho John Lee, Flickr

A conference Friday in Oakland will focus on ways to put ballot measures focusing on children’s programs on future ballots. Credit: Ho John Lee, Flickr

In the face of federal gridlock and state budget shortages, veteran campaigners are holding an all-day conference in Oakland on Friday to teach advocates a potentially valuable skill: how to go directly to voters to raise public money for children’s programs.

“The federal government has left the building for now,” said conference leader and longtime San Francisco children’s advocate Margaret Brodkin. “It is essential right now that people figure out how to solve problems at the local level.”

Brodkin helped pass a 1991 voter initiative in San Francisco that set aside a portion of property tax revenue to benefit children’s services. The San Francisco Children’s Fund created by that measure now raises about $50 million a year, which it distributes mostly through a grant program for city agencies and private nonprofits providing services like early childhood education, after-school programs and job training for teenagers.

Local officials and educators know the challenges their communities face and are best suited to find solutions, Brodkin said. Solutions are hard to come by without funding, however, so she said the conference is focused on coaching attendees – mostly district officials, county office of education employees and advocates from local nonprofits – on effective ways to get measures on the ballot to pay for children’s services. Voter initiatives could include parcel taxes, soda taxes or other fees to benefit anything from expanded after-school programs to universal preschool, she said. Other initiatives could include efforts to set money aside from existing revenue streams to benefit children, similar to the the San Francisco Children’s Fund model.

“What I’m encouraging people to do is think creatively,” she said.

The conference, sponsored largely by two private philanthropies, the Sierra Health Foundation and the Rosenberg Foundation, was originally planned for about 80 participants, but 225 have registered to attend the event at the Waterfront Hotel.

“There is considerable interest around the state in how to create local dedicated funding streams with public dollars through taxes or fees or set-asides,” Brodkin said.

Parcel taxes have been the most common method for raising money for ongoing school expenses in California over the last several decades. The measures, which must be approved by two-thirds of the voters, assess a flat fee on each piece of privately owned property in a city. Two recent reports on the history of parcel taxes, one by EdSource and another by the Public Policy Institute of California, show that the majority of successful parcel tax measures have been passed in middle-class and wealthy communities in the Bay Area. Cities in southern, central and rural northern California have passed far fewer parcel tax measures.

The data showed that well-off, liberal, mostly white districts have been most successful at passing parcel taxes, said Margaret Weston, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute and co-author of the PPIC report.

“The districts that propose (parcel taxes) and succeed at passing them are very similar (to one another),” Weston said.

That shouldn’t necessarily indicate poorer, more conservative or more diverse districts couldn’t succeed, but there’s not enough evidence to say either way, because not enough of them have put such measures on the ballot, she said.

The keynote speaker at Friday’s conference, campaign strategist Larry Tramutola, is betting districts that don’t fit the current profile of successful parcel tax districts have more than a fighting chance of success.

“There’s a lot of reasons to give up before you try,” Tramutola said. “How many attempts have there been in lower-income communities? Not many. I think they could pass if people made the effort to do it.”

Tramutola, of Tramutola Advisors in Oakland, is a veteran political consultant on local tax measures who calls himself an activist for school districts. He pointed to Little Lake, a small elementary district outside Los Angeles where he helped pass a $48 parcel tax last fall, to show that it is possible to convince lower-income voters to approve a local tax measure for schools. Little Lake’s success should encourage other districts outside of the Bay Area to think creatively about how to raise money in their own communities, he said.

“People can’t follow the Little Lake model,” he said. “They have to think, ‘OK, what’s the El Monte model or the East L.A. model?”

Not every community is going to pass a parcel tax, Brodkin and Tramutola admit, but they say that’s not the only way to create dedicated funding for children. Brodkin pointed to the San Francisco Children’s Fund, which claims a few cents of every $100 of property taxes the city collects, as an example.

The trick, they say, is to stick to it. It took five years to create the San Francisco Children’s Fund, Brodkin said. And in the end, the measure got on the ballot by a petition of the voters, delivered to City Hall by children pulling little red wagons.

“The public will for a number of these things is often greater than the political will,” Brodkin said. “Oftentimes political leaders don’t want to put something on the ballot that might not pass.”

Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education. Contact her or follow her @lrmongeau.

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2 Responses to “Children's advocates focus on raising money through the ballot box”

  1. Melinda (Felice) Geiser said

    on October 2, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    Is the conference still open for registrations? please send me a link!!

  2. Paul said

    on September 28, 2013 at 2:51 am

    Encouraging the public to address education funding shortfalls through political action rather than voluntarism or charity is a big step in the right direction. The results are consistent (we can budget tax revenues from year to year), democratic (elected politicians, rather than non-elected volunteers and donors, make the decisions), and fair (there’s a taxation option — from ad valorem property tax to flat-rate parcel tax to consumption-based sales tax to graduated income tax — to suit anyone’s definition of fairness).

    Local scope, however, poses serious ethical problems. As Lillian points out, “the majority of successful parcel tax measures have been passed in middle-class and wealthy communities in the Bay Area. Cities in southern, central and rural northern California have passed far fewer parcel tax measures.”

    Is it fair to solve the education revenue problem just within the borders of one’s own school district, i.e., just for one’s own children?

    Is it fair to remove adequate baseline funding from the political agenda, by placating the most likely proponents? A voter who lives in a community prosperous enough to have passed local education taxes has less reason to throw his or her considerable political influence behind state-wide education taxes.

    Political effort should be focused on statewide taxes. While we’re at it, optional local education taxes (and monetary donations*) should go into a state pool, for redistribution on a per-pupil basis. These are unpopular positions, but the fact is that low-income children — the ones who stand to gain the most from a strong public school system — tend to live in places where local education taxes don’t pass, where donations are scarce, and where parents are too busy working to spare time for volunteering.

    * Here is a link to evidence of the inequities wrought by reliance on school fundraising, within a single large city: http://www.peopleforeducation.ca/pfe-news/fundraising-and-fees-toronto/ . It would be interesting to conduct similar analyses in California’s major regions, and to extend the scope from monetary donations to local education taxes (which don’t exist in Ontario, Canada, where this analysis was performed).

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