School Beat: Mobilizing Support for Public Education

by Lisa Schiff on March 3, 2010

Reinstating simple majorities for budget and revenue decisions in Sacramento and for passing local parcel taxes. Closing corporate loopholes in Proposition 13. Suing the state of California for adequate funding for monies for schools as enacted in Proposition 98. These are the major actions discussed at last Thursday’s energizing “Funding Our Future” Town Hall meeting organized by six fed-up moms from one San Francisco elementary school (Sherman) and attended by almost 1,000 folks representing over 70 schools who share their frustration and are ready to make some change.

High energy and high expectations filled the room on Thursday, bolstered by the presence of elected officials and leaders who promised to talk about solutions to the endemic and catastrophic funding crisis our schools are facing. From San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) Superintendent Carlos Garcia’s call to sue the state for adequate funding, to Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s bill to make progress on eliminating the corporate loopholes in Proposition 13, to State Senator Mark Leno’s legislative efforts to levy surcharges on entertainment tickets to raise dedicated money for arts education (noting that California ranks 51st — behind Guam — in arts spending) and his proposal to reinstate, possibly only at the local level, the vehicle license fee, which he reported has lost us $30 billion in the general fund this year, saving each individual car owner only $200 per vehicle.

Debbie Look, State Legislative Director of the California PTA, mentioned the PTA’s role in getting signatures to lower the threshold for setting local parcel taxes and, most exciting, signing on as a plaintiff on a lawsuit against the state arguing that the current funding system is unconstitutional. And everyone agreed that eliminating the super majority for passing budget and revenue measures was essential.

State Senator Leland Yee pledged to not “blink” and refuse to bass budgets that include education. The inspiration in the room came not only from the ideas that were proposed, but from some of the very sobering realities that were described. Tom Ammiano and State Senator Fiona Ma underscored Governor Schwarzenegger’s consistent efforts to eliminate Proposition 98 and its guaranteed funding for schools. Mary Perry, Deputy Director of EdSource described the byzantine rules for getting money to schools and more importantly, the difficulties often encountered convincing the public that schools don’t have enough money.

Although the primary blocks to sufficient and reliable financial support for education lie in Sacramento, some local concerns were also raised. Hard questions posed to the panel and special presenters included whether or not businesses in San Francisco were contributing enough, whether the legislators on the panel were spending too much public money on their own offices, and finally, if the SFUSD itself was making fair and appropriate budget decisions, as one teacher and parent challenged the proposed cuts that the SFSUD administration was anticipating, namely the near 900 pink slips that will be going out, mostly to teachers, and the increases in classroom sizes.

These issues pale in comparison to the extended crisis created by the super-majority, Proposition 13 and the persistent public misunderstanding regarding California’s education spending. Tackling the latter set of intertwined elements will be a daunting task, for which there is no “magic bullet,” as State Senator Leland Yee cautioned the room. In contrast, SFUSD Board of Education (BOE) President Jane Kim challenged the audience in the face of these huge obstacles to hold on to our anger and use it, stating that “the magic bullet is courage,” courage to push forward for the changes we and our children need without waiting for change in Sacramento.

Attendees of the Town Hall left the room with information about many ways in which to channel both our anger and our courage. From the March 4th Day of Action this Thursday to budget meetings, there are a lot of opportunities to make good on our intentions and ground those actions in solid information. Some of the major events include the following:

March 4th Day of Action In Support of Public Education

Across California, supporters of public schools from Kindergarten through higher education will be engaged in a wide variety of rallies and marches. In San Francisco, school communities are converging in various locations throughout the City, convening at a 4:30pm rally at the State Building at 505 Van Ness with the teachers’ union (UESF), from where there will be a march to the Civic Center at 5pm

SFSUSD Community Budget Meetings

Get up to speed on the budget realities for our district and participate in a discussion of how to address some of the most serious funding cuts we’ve seen. Call 415-249-9293 for child care or interpretation needs.

• March 3, 2010; 6-8pm
Horace Mann Middle School; 3351 23rd St. (at Valencia St.)

• March 10, 2010; 6-8pm
Thurgood Marshall High School; 45 Conkling St. (near Silver Ave.)

• March 11, 2010; 6-8pm
Francisco Middle School; 2190 Powell St. (at Francisco St.)

Eliminate the Super Majority for Budget and Revenue Decisions
Gather signatures to get the California Democracy Act on the November ballot, so that voters can re-establish the simple majority threshold requirement for all budget and revenue decisions in Sacramento.

Remove Proposition 13 Loopholes for Corporations
State Assembly member Tom Ammiano is starting the ball rolling on pulling apart the individual and commercial protections in Proposition 13. This effort can be helped along by increasing the numbers of people publicly supporting this. Join San Francisco’s Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting’s http://www.closetheloophole.com/ campaign to keep the momentum going.

Establish a 55% Threshold for Education Targeted Local Parcel
The “Local Control of Local Classrooms Funding Act” would put on the November ballot a measure to reduce the threshold for communities to set their own parcel taxes to 55% from two-thirds. The PTA is endorsing act and asking its members to gather signatures.

Lobby Your Legislators by Phone
The San Francisco PTA and Funding Our Future are organizing a month long Calling Campaign, targeting a different legislator’s office each day to ask what actions s/he is taking to secure education funding. Talking points, scripts and calling information will be provided. Email your name and zip code to Michelle Parker at legislative@ sfpta.org with “Calling Campaign” in the subject line to join in. The California PTA also has an excellent set of materials for lobbing whenever and wherever you can.

Support a Lawsuit for Adequate Education Funding in California
The California PTA, the California School Boards Association and the Association of California School Administrators will be joining together as primary plaintiffs in a soon to be filed lawsuit against the State of California calling for adequate funding of education.

Stay Informed and Connected
The Funding Our Future website will continue to be updated with information about actions to be involved in.

Tomorrow’s marches and rallies will be an energizing moment in what all of us surely recognize as a long struggle over the months and possibly years to come. Hopefully we are in the worst phase of it now, that instant just before we have mobilized our strength, our hopes, and as BOE President Kim noted, our anger.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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