A Pathway to Helping Public Schools
A growing number of leading Californians, worried over the state of public education in California, are taking their concerns to voters through ballot initiatives in November 2012. One of the most ambitious plans comes from Molly Munger, president of The Advancement Project, a policy, communications and legal action group committed to social and racial justice.
Her initiative, Our Children, Our Future, would raise $10 billion a year for California schools through a measure that asks nearly all state taxpayers to contribute. Here, she explains how her approach would work, what it would do and why it’s so necessary.
Q: What were the most compelling facts about the state of California’s public education that inspired your decision to act? In other words, why now?
Investing in our schools and early childhood education is the best thing we can do for the future of our economy and our state. But today, California is shortchanging its children and its future. Our state ranks 46th nationally in what we invest to educate each student, and budget cuts are putting our schools even farther behind. We also are shortchanging our early childhood development programs, which many studies confirm are one of the best educational investments we can make. Our underfunded public preschool programs serve only 40 per cent of eligible 3 and 4 year olds. Only five percent of very low income infants and toddlers, who need the support most, have access to early childhood programs.
An entire generation of children is being denied the public education program they need to succeed in the workforce and in life. We cannot let this happen. We can and must do better. We need to act now to invest in local schools and students to kick start the process of transforming our schools and the opportunities available to our kids. A better‐educated workforce will help grow California’s economy and jobs and increase the state’s competitiveness. It is time to make a real difference: no more half‐measures, but a real, transformative investment in the schools on which the future of our state, economy and families depend.
Q: Given the widespread support by at least half the body politic for balancing the state budget with spending cuts, why are you proceeding with an initiative that raises taxes on all nearly all California tax‐payers?
Recent polling demonstrates that a clear majority of voters wants more spent on K‐12 education. A recent USC Dornsife College/L.A. Times statewide poll found that 64 percent of registered voters would pay more taxes to improve school funding, as long as they are confident the money will be spent in their own communities. The Our Children, Our Future Act does exactly that. All the K‐12 money goes directly to local school sites on a per‐pupil basis. Every child and every local school will benefit, and there’s a 1% cap on spending going anywhere but to actual school sites to improve educational outcomes. This tax proposal is a smart, fair‐share approach that asks everyone to pay a little to benefit our kids, our economy and the future of our state.
Q: Why have you chosen individuals, rather than businesses or corporations, as the source for new education funding?
Certainly, no one likes paying more in taxes, but we cannot expect our schools to improve without investing more in them. What we can’t afford is the status quo when you consider that our kids and the future of our state are at risk. We should all share in the cost of improving schools because we will all share in the benefits of a better educated, job-ready workforce that will help grow California’s economy, create jobs and increase our state’s competitiveness. Our Children, Our Future makes sure the cost of investing in our schools is fair to all taxpayers by asking those with the highest incomes to pay the most. The initiative raises income tax rates on a sliding scale from four-tenths of one percent to 2.2% on multi- millionaires. The rate increases only apply to incomes after all deductions have been taken, and exempt the first $14,632 of income after all deductions (on joint returns). It’s a small price to pay that makes possible the investment we need for the future of our children and our state.
Q: Others, including Governor Brown, are planning their own revenue‐raising initiatives for public education. Do those efforts hurt you by bombarding voters with differing approaches or help you by raising the issue to such high decibel levels? Or maybe both?
It is too premature to make any ballot predictions at this time, but what we do know is that voters clearly want a transformative change in our schools. The Our Children Our Future Act is the only measure designed to provide a transformational investment directly to local schools and early childhood education to ensure children are prepared to succeed from the day the enter Kindergarten to the time they graduate high school. It is the only measure that would raise new revenues solely for education, and requires the new school funding it provides to be spent to improve academic performance, graduation rates and vocational, career, college and life readiness. Our Children, Our Future is also the only measure that directs K‐12 funding per‐pupil directly to local schools, requires local decisions with community input, public disclosure, school site budgets and independent audits.
Q: What has been the response among teachers for your approach, and how much support can you expect from their union leaders, in as much as the California Federation of Teachers is supporting a competing initiative?
We are in the very early stages of reaching out to various stakeholders, but, generally, the response so far has been very good. We began reaching out to stakeholders concerned about the future of our children and state early in the drafting process and continue to do so now that we have filed the initiative. In this process we have met with many members of the education community, the business community, and many others. However, most organizations do not take positions on initiatives until the have been filed or qualified for the ballot. An exception is the PTA, which has announced its early and enthusiastic support for Our Children, Our Future, calling it “truly transformative for our public schools.”
Q: One of your big selling points is that only 1 percent of new revenues would go toward administrative costs, and that could help generate support among voters who fear throwing more money at a big bureaucracy. But how will that strike administrators and teachers, whose support for the initiative would be helpful for passage?
In the last three years alone, more than $20 billion has been cut from California schools,essential programs and services are evaporating, and more than 40,000 educators have been laid off. California teachers now have the largest class sizes in the nation and inadequate classroom resources. While the new funds raised by Our Children, Our Future cannot be used for across the board salary or benefit increases of any type, the new money can be used to fund new staff positions, school programs, and courses. Students, as well as teachers, will benefit from smaller class sizes, up‐to‐date teaching materials and technology, and new school libraries, school nurses, and counselors in their schools.
Our Children, Our Future also empowers administrators and teachers with the control to invest the money where it is most needed in their own schools. The measure takes Sacramento politicians out of the equation by sending the new money straight to local schools, giving teachers, administrators, parents, and community members unprecedented access, input and review of local school budgets and related decisions.
Q: If the intent of the measure is to allow local districts to control the new revenues, what mechanism will be in place to assure that the money is spent as the measure intends?
This initiative contains tough, effective accountability provisions that require oversight, audits and public disclosure. It requires that the funds be audited by an independent third party to make sure they are only spent for authorized purposes. Anyone who knowingly violates the allocation or distribution provisions of the act will be guilty of a felony. Each year schools must report to parents and the community how the money was spent and what outcomes were achieved with it. The transparency, accountability and public input and disclosure provisions will ensure that elected school boards and school staff will be held accountable for ultimate outcomes. The measure also provides an extra layer of accountability by ending the tax increase after 12 years unless it is reapproved by voters. That gives our schools enough time to demonstrate how the new funds have improved educational outcomes, while protecting taxpayers.
Q: How do you respond to critics who say raising money for education is useless without reforming the relationship between the state and local school districts as well as the criteria for hiring and firing teachers?
The correlation between California’s dwindling investment in its schools and the increasing challenges they face is indisputable. We cannot afford to wait for political interests and politicians to agree on sweeping “reform” before we give our schools the help they need, and our kids deserve. Our Children, Our Future joins the new investments our schools need with reforms that focus on improving outcomes for students. Instead of a “one size fits all” approach to reform, it ties new revenues to each student and each school site. It requires local spending decisions made with community input. It forces school boards to pay attention to each local school by requiring school‐site based input and school‐site budgets that set goals for educational outcomes and report on results. It requires publicly disclosed independent audits to make sure every dime is spent only as authorized.
The local decision‐making, community involvement, transparency and accountability required by the initiative will drive performance based on local needs and priorities. Where performance is lagging these same reforms will give parents, communities and schools the tools they need to make additional changes to improve student outcomes.