(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.