Nearly half a million of California’s voters are teachers. Like other voters, they will soon have to decide how to mark their November ballots. They will certainly scratch their heads over Propositions 30 and 38, competing measures that would ease the damage of four years of steady budget cuts.
Should teachers vote for Prop 38, which would bring significant new money to each school and provide funding for preschools? Or for should they vote for Prop 30, which would bring less money to education – but has the backing of the governor?
The California Teachers Association (CTA), the state’s largest teachers union, has committed to support the governor’s measure, and has officially taken a neutral position on Proposition 38. But as the CTA’s top leaders fan out to campaign this month in lieu of their usual quarterly meeting, one has to wonder if their hearts will be in it. When it comes to sustaining funding, either measure would do for the moment, and Prop 38 would establish a longer period of commitment.
The CTA’s State Council is an elected body of nearly 800 representatives that normally meets four times a year. State Council members are union members with sufficient interest in union issues to take time out for this sort of thing, elected by those with sufficient interest in union issues to vote. It’s a big group. Usually, the State Council convenes in the ballroom of the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, a cavernous 26,108-square-foot space that may be the only meeting space in the state large enough to accommodate it. For perspective, only two parliamentary bodies in the world have more members than the CTA State Council: China’s National People’s Congress (3,000) and the United Kingdom’s House of Lords (827).
Making decisions in such a large body is no easy task. Because it is so large, the CTA State Council can only meet occasionally. Its meetings are often raucous, and divisions show. Nimble changes in position are out of the question.
When the State Council set its neutral position on Prop 38 in the summer, the politics of the moment were quite different. The issue at the time was whether to support the governor’s ballot measure or to support yet another measure promoted by the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), CTA’s friendly competitor for union affiliation. Supporting three measures was unthinkable, and there was doubt at the time that Prop 38’s backers would put forward the money necessary for a serious campaign. When the time came for a vote, the State Council chose to cast its lot with the governor.
Usually, the California State PTA aligns with the CTA on ballot questions, but in this case they have not done so – the State PTA supports only Prop 38, as does Education Trust-West. Meanwhile, the campaign for Proposition 38 is proving quite well-funded after all, with a war chest of about $30 million to make its case to voters.
The governor sees Proposition 38 as an unfortunate distraction. He wants voters to pass Proposition 30, which aside from four years of help for the General Fund also includes constitutional “realignment” provisions that would permanently shift some of the responsibility for public safety, health, and social service programs from Sacramento to the counties.
Voters with an appetite for detail can revel in the similarities and differences between the measures by studying the well-crafted comparison sheet created by Mary Perry. However, many education-related organizations including the California School Boards Association, Children Now, and Educate Our State, have endorsed both measures. This position seems to be gaining traction. In a nod to “When Harry Met Sally,” Educate Our State is calling on California voters to support both measures. They call this a “yes! yes!” position. [Note: The link is for mature audiences only.]
The most emotionally packed arguments in the campaign for Prop 30 relate to the disturbing prospect of automatic “trigger cuts” to education. If Prop 30 fails, the education budget will automatically be cut, and those cuts will be passed to school districts. Backers of Prop 38 call this “hostage taking.” If passed, Prop 38 would leave the Legislature with plenty of capacity to fill gaps.
In all the back and forth about which ballot measure does a better job, it is significant to note the extent of agreement: (1) there is a pressing need for additional funding to educate California’s children; and (2) a voter initiative is necessary to obtain it. These two measures are quite different, neither is perfect, and certainly there will be plenty of unintended consequences. But most advocates are burying their differences in the interest of passing something rather than nothing. If neither passes, the trigger cuts will take effect, and the odds of a rescue from Sacramento’s lawmakers seem remote.
Once upon a time, initiatives were imagined as an unusual “safety valve” to allow voters to serve as legislators of last resort. But the structure of California government has stood this imagined model on its head. Initiatives can pass with a well-funded campaign and a simple majority vote. Legislation is harder. Bills involving money must pass two legislative bodies by a 2/3 vote in each, and then secure the signature of the governor.
(For background on why California’s funding for public education has fallen so far behind the rest of the United States, go here.)
Jeff Camp is the primary author of Ed100.org, a primer on education reform options in California. He co-chairs the Education Circle of Full Circle Fund, an organization that coordinates small teams of volunteers working in support of great nonprofit organizations that need a little help to get to the next level, whatever that may be. A visual summary of Ed100 can be found at here .