Californians who care about the future of our state have both a once-a-generation opportunity and an urgent challenge: to marshal the resources needed to ensure the well-being of our children.
California has more children living in poverty than any place in the country, and continues to have lower education funding than all but a handful of states – despite the passage of Proposition 30 and the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). And many children’s services, from childcare to mental health, have seen dramatic budget cuts for over a decade. At the same time, the California economy (the ninth largest in the world) is improving, property values are increasing and many groups are already positioning their causes for anticipated new revenues. For everyone’s benefit, our children must be first in line so that we can ensure that they are healthy, live in supportive families, are ready for school, have safe places to learn and grow, and are fully prepared to transition to college and careers.
There are many compelling reasons to look to the local level – to cities, counties, school districts – to raise resources for children. As the state’s new funding formula reflects, policymakers are pushing decisions and actions for change to local communities, while sadly, as Bruce Katz, author of “The Metropolitan Revolution,” puts it: “The feds have left the building.” But it’s not just that we have no choice about acting locally: More importantly, the public is much more likely to support local measures than state and federal ones – even new taxes and fee increases. When the electorate can see concrete potential benefits down the street, increasingly they will vote for new revenue measures.
Pollsters report that the welfare of children is the one issue that cuts across partisan political lines, and polls exceedingly well in all types of communities – rich, poor, rural, urban, conservative, liberal. One of the state’s most successful political consultants, Larry Tramutola, who has helped children’s advocates win campaigns in every corner of the state, says that success is a matter of knowing how to organize at the local level – neighbor to neighbor, parents talking to parents. The potential of a strong local children’s constituency is great, but untapped in many communities.
San Francisco has transformed children’s services and enabled schools to reinstate core programs through its groundbreaking Children’s Fund, which it passed as a portion of property tax revenue, and its similarly structured Preschool for All/Arts and Sports. This demonstrates the enormous benefits of local funding streams. And yes, that’s San Francisco, but it’s time to stop saying “it can’t happen here.” Lessons learned about overcoming public resistance and entrenched interests in places like San Jose, Oakland and Santa Rosa can inform work throughout the state.
There are many options for local revenue streams, and it is important to think creatively and expansively, as well as look at the full range of opportunities and services our children need. Bonds and parcel taxes are most familiar to educators, and they can be used strategically – crafting measures collaboratively with city or county partners, such as city recreation departments. Measures that combine community interests and appeal to a broader constituency have been effective – such as violence prevention and law enforcement through funding for social and educational services, along with police. What makes sense in every community’s culture and economy will be different – whether it is corporate headquarters, the tourist industry, developers, growers of various crops (from marijuana to grapes), or entertainment and sports venues which are required to pay a greater share. Advocates for children are considering soda taxes, hotel taxes, real estate transfer taxes, as well as budget reallocations that ensure children get their fair share of existing resources more effectively used for prevention than expensive intervention down the road.
For the past year, I have traveled around the state and assessed the status of advocacy for children in 41 of our 58 counties. My findings are encouraging. Most counties and cities have created networks of children’s service providers that collaborate to achieve common goals. Some are convened by county offices of education – and all create a cross-sector collaboration of stakeholders who can provide the nucleus for local movement-building. Many places have passed bond measures – even in places considered politically “conservative” or opposed to government funding. And dozens of communities have passed parcel taxes, even with a two-thirds threshold. (And this threshold is likely to be reduced to 55% in the coming years, vastly increasing the likelihood of passage).
A recent conference sponsored by my organization, Funding the Next Generation, launched what could be a movement to create a new way of generating resources. It brought together networks that included public and private service providers, elected officials and community activists from 31 California counties, most determined to take some kind of next steps toward creating new local revenue streams for children in their communities.
No one thinks this will be easy – it is a journey. Some communities will start by creating a Children’s Budget for their city or county, documenting current expenditures, identifying gaps, and determining costs of priority unmet needs. Others are poised to delve immediately into exploring ballot measures. And we know that one measure is not enough. A local revenue support system for children resembles a quilt with various pieces stitched together: increases in budget allocations, creative fees, mitigations, taxes and maybe even a new kind of taxing district.
Good policy is infectious. As one community experiences benefits, surrounding neighbors want the same. So let’s begin the local organizing for children’s funding streams. California needs a new generation of pioneers. Our children don’t have time to wait.
Going deeper: For more information about what is possible in your city or county, go to: www.margaretbrodkin.com/projects.
Margaret Brodkin is founder and director of a new initiative, Funding the Next Generation, sponsored by the First 5 Association of California. As former Executive Director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, she led San Francisco’s efforts to create its groundbreaking Children’s Fund.