School Beat: Schools and Another Special Election

by Lisa Schiff on April 23, 2009

California’s bad habit of holding “special elections” continues strong as we once again find ourselves parsing the rhetoric over the half dozen measures on the May 19th ballot. Four out of the six (1A-1D) directly affect children, covering everything from mucking in the formula for guaranteeing minimum school funding to selling future lottery revenue. Two propositions – 1A and 1B – have specific import for the funding of public schools.

Proposition 1A tackles California’s rainy day fund, renaming it the Budget Stabilization Fund (BSF) and setting up two subaccounts – one for the general budget and one for education payments, specifically the minimum guaranteed funding required by Proposition 98. Most importantly though, Prop 1A dramatically expands the amount of money required to be in the BSF, from 5% to 12.5% of General Fund revenues. Payments of 3% of a given year’s estimated General Fund revenue would be required to be paid into the BSF until that 12.5% limit is reached.

Having a solid rainy day fund is a good thing, as any San Franciscan can attest to. Prop 1A has some serious flaws in it though, which are well outlined by the California Budget Project. One of those is the relatively faulty test for determining when a BSF payment should not be paid, a test that is determined by the population growth and the Consumer Price Index (CPI), but which does not adequately reflect the costs of services covered by the State government. This same issue complicates the test for when BSF funds could be released to support basic services, meaning that it may be difficult to get that emergency money to work for us when we want it most.

Proposition 1B is all about paying back money that is owed to schools under Proposition 98, now and in the future, drawing on resources in the BSF in order to do so. While it exists separately on the ballot, it can only take effect if 1A passes.

The implications of these measures are difficult to discern, even with such helpful analysis from organizations like the California Budget Project and the League of Women Voters. Adding complexity to the matter is the support of these measures by Governor Schwarzenegger, someone not known to be a friend of public schools and who has repeatedly used the expensive tool of special elections to go after education funding.

If that were the end of it, then this special election would be similar enough to past special elections, meaning we could be fairly certain that Propositions 1A and 1B held nothing but bad news for our schools and students. But this time around the Governor has some interesting partners championing these two measures, including the California PTA and the California Teachers Association. Even that support is not clear cut though, as the California Federation of Teachers is adamantly opposed to 1A, but supports 1B in so far as it represents a reiteration of the financial obligations already due to schools.

There may be a smoking gun in all of this however. The California Budget Project identifies an important link between Proposition 1A and Senate Bill 8, which was passed during the budget negotiations. Dependent upon the passage of 1A, SB 8 put forward by Ducheny would give Schwarzenegger what he’s always wanted — unilateral authority to cut spending at any point during the year. Not only that, SB8 would also allow the conditions for such cuts to be determined by a Governor appointed Director of Finance. This will be the third time the citizens of California will have had to fight the Governor on this issue, but clearly it won’t be the last.

The measures in this special election individually have troubling aspects, but the biggest cause for concern is that singly or as an entire package they do nothing to address the serious fiscal problems facing California. The real issues that our Governor should be tackling is a tax structure that is broken and out dated and spending priorities that are not in line with the fundamental values and needs of the state’s residents.

Proposition 13 has never been good for California, and it is most certainly hurting us now. Loopholes and outright give-aways for corporations and wealthy individuals push the publicly-shared fiscal responsibility for our collective needs on those who have less. Budgets that focus on saving these types of shelters while spending increasing amounts of public dollars on prisons and wars as opposed to education and caring for the most vulnerable among us need to be turned inside out.

Parents, students, teachers and other education community members have been advocating for a change in spending priorities and the need to refashion our state’s revenue strategies to support those priorities for years. Sandra Tsing Loh, perhaps California’s wittiest parent and author of Mother On Fire, has been one of the many voices calling for this transformation and has organized state-wide events to get the message across to elected officials in Sacramento. This Saturday she will be speaking at the Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco’s Annual General Meeting at the Women’s Building, where she will no doubt talk about her latest effort, the second annual Children’s Rally in Sacramento on June 23rd.

In the years under Schwarzenegger’s reign, it’s felt as though we’ve been walking in circles, cycling through the same set of debates about money and spending. May’s special election is just another such loop and represents no progress, no fundamental structural change in supporting education or any other social need. This time though, our house seems divided, leaving the outcome entirely unclear. Our state’s financial organization and authority structure could be quite different once all the votes are tallied and it may not be for the better.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School 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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