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Dueling initiatives vie to fund state education system

There is little question that the California education system is in trouble. By 2010, per-student spending at public schools in the state had slipped to 35th in the nation, according to statistics released by the US Census Bureau on June 21.

Education Week painted an even bleaker situation in its 2011 Quality Counts report, rating California 47th in per-student spending.

The former figure is being cited by Governor Jerry Brown and Pasadena-based civil rights attorney Molly Munger as they press for the passage of their respective tax measures, which will both have a place on the November ballot. 

California public schools, which have the largest class sizes in the nation, have been wracked by budget woes in recent years. The Education Coalition estimates that cuts in state public school spending for the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 school years alone totaled nearly $17 billion.

Earlier this summer, lawmakers scrambled to pass a budget that closed a $16 billion shortfall while protecting education. Despite their efforts, the $92 billion budget approved on Wednesday, June 28 reflects $2.4 billion in further cuts to education.

Governor Brown’s initiative

California schools stand to lose a lot more if Governor Jerry Brown’s tax initiative—Temporary Taxes to Fund Education, Guaranteed Local Public Safety Funding—fails at the polls. The constitutional amendment would raise the state sales tax by a quarter-cent for 4 years, and increase the income tax on Californians making more than $250,000 for the next 7 years.

The governor projects that the tax hikes would raise $8.5 billion in the fiscal year beginning July 1, with 89 percent of education-earmarked proceeds going to K-12 public schools and 11 percent allocated to community colleges. The bill’s passage would also guarantee funding for public safety services realigned to local governments.

If the tax initiative is voted down, a series of $6 billion mid-year cuts built into the budget, most of these affecting education, will be triggered.

The $5.4 billion in possible cuts to K-12 schools and community colleges would include drastic measures like a reduction in the school year from 175 days to 160 for 2 years, bringing California to a tie with Colorado for the shortest school year in the country. Cuts are projected to make for a loss of about $458 per student in kindergarten through high school.

“Cutting alone really doesn’t do it,” Governor Brown told reporters on the release of his budget plan. “And that’s why I’m linking the serious budget reductions—real increase to austerity—with a plea to the voters: Please increase taxes temporarily on the most affluent and everyone else with a quarter of a cent sales tax.”

According to a recent Field Poll found California voters divided on Brown’s initiative, with 52 percent in favor and 35 percent opposed. Supporters, including Claremont Unified School Board member Steven Llanusa, say Governor Brown had little choice but to craft a budget hinging on the passage of a tax initiative to fully fund education.

“The best way to solve the funding crisis in education is to pass the ballot initiatives Governor Brown is proposing,” Mr. Llanusa said. “If this tax proposal does not pass, we will not be able to afford what we have in the past.”

Critics of the initiative say a responsible budget should be able to stand on its own, regardless of the results of the November election.  Trigger cuts, they assert, represent unfair coercion.

 “This budget frames Brown’s tax proposal in November as the following offer: vote for the tax, or the kids get it,” Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, said in a Wednesday, June 27 article in the Washington Post. “The question is whether voters will find that message appealing.”

A July 5 editorial in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune—headlined “Our View: A gun to voters’ heads on ballot”—put it more bluntly. “Maybe the initiative should be written in letters snipped from magazines, like a ransom note. Fork over $8.5 billion, or the kid gets it.”

Governor Brown defends his tax initiative as “fair.”

“Our state budget problem was built up over a decade, and it won’t be fixed overnight,” he noted in a statement after signing the budget. “These temporary increases will ensure funding for our schools until the economy improves.”

Molly Munger’s proposal

Molly Munger, the author of the Our Children, Our Future measure that will challenge Governor Brown’s initiative, believes support for education should be a collective effort.

With this in mind, her initiative would raise taxes on all but the poorest of Californians. She calls for an increase in personal income tax rates on earnings over $7,316, using a sliding scale that would levy an additional 0.4 percent on the lowest earners and an additional 2.2 percent on individuals earning over $2.5 million. The tax would end after 12 years.

“As Californians, we all should share in the cost of improving our schools and early education programs because we all share in the benefits that better schools and a well-educated workforce will bring to our economy and the quality of life in our state,” she has said. 

She estimates the tax will net $10 billion to $12 billion per year. For the first 4 years of the tax’s enactment, 30 percent of revenue would be used to pay down state bond debt. The remaining 70 percent will be used exclusively to fund early childhood education and K-12 public schools. For the following 8 years, 100 percent of tax proceeds will be allocated for school funding.

Critics say that Ms. Munger’s tax is untimely, asserting it will split support for much-needed education revenue.

In an earlier interview with the COURIER, Sue Keith—a Claremonter who serves on the Citrus Community College District Board of Trustees—said she prefers Governor Brown’s proposal, because Ms. Munger’s initiative fails to allocate funds for the beleaguered community college system.

Supporters of Our Children, Our Future are likely impressed by the emphasis Ms. Munger placed on accountability when crafting her initiative.

Munger’s Act limits what schools can spend from these new funds on administration, no more than 1 percent, and insures the new funds can’t be used to increase salaries and benefits.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com

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