Election 2012 Could Mean a Brighter Future for Education
By Lisa Schiff
California's public education community has been breathing sighs of relief following the results of last week's voting extravaganza. Not even considering the historic re-election of President Barak Obama and the related repudiation of the Republican Party's effort to further restrict our civic and social rights, the results for California were immense. For our public schools, the most critical result was the passage of Proposition 30, which through leveraging a sales tax increase and raising income taxes on the wealthy will raise revenues to the General Fund and stop the automatic budget cuts to all levels of public education that were set to be enacted come January if Proposition 30 had not passed.
Those of us who couldn't stay up to watch the votes roll in went to bed on Election Day under a cloud of anxiety generated by Proposition 30's trailing vote count. By contrast, Proposition 38, the competing measure that focused solely on public education funding and that would not have prevented the automatic cuts, was clearly losing from the earliest set of returns. As we all now know, the morning's results brought the relieving news of Proposition 30's passage, with a final tally of 54.2% of votes cast as "Yes" votes. Proposition 38 received a resounding defeat with 72.3% votes cast as a "No" vote.
Without a doubt, Proposition 30 gives public education supporters some time to pause and take stock. With the automatic budget cut disaster averted, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to think carefully about next steps. One area of reflection must center on Proposition 38 and what can be learned from both its rise and defeat. Without surveys or other analysis, we can only speculate about this outcome, but some conclusions seem reasonable. In particular, we have to question the narrow support 38 received, with the California PTA as the only major endorser from its earliest days. This heavy involvement along with the PTA's unwillingness to join the large numbers of organizations supporting Proposition 30 in turn isolated the PTA itself from the voters.
For months Proposition 38 was pushing a problematic strategy of separating education concerns from everything else and casting the automatic budget cuts as a distinct issue. This approach, with the California PTA's implicit backing, placed many panicked K-12 education supporters in a bizarre position of supporting two measures in opposition to each other. This high-risk situation was completely unnecessary and it's critical that the PTA ask itself why it persisted in supporting a proposition that posed such danger not only to the K-12 community, but to other areas of education and to the state as a whole. Clearly California voters understood the issues and the consequences, so why didn't the PTA? What does the discrepancy between the electorate and the PTA indicate about the role of that organization going forward? Is its relevance only located at the individual school level or can it revamp itself into a more effective, in-tune statewide organization?
Answering these questions is essential, because as we head into the post-election world some new opportunities are revealing themselves. Most significantly is the possibility of a super-majority in the state legislature, which means that the Republican stranglehold on changing revenue efforts - i.e. raising or altering tax structures - might now be possible. If in fact this is the case, organizing the education community around targeted, long-lasting, significant changes will be essential. We have no idea how long this balance of power will last, so we must take advantage of it now. The most obvious battle to take on is Proposition 13. Education supports will need to reject the Proposition 38 strategy of asserting that K-12 needs are supreme above all others and join with elected officials such as Tom Ammiano and Phil Ting who have been working for years to revise this measure and who have a holistic, integrated view of how it needs to change and the wide scope of benefits that change will bring. This is the time to embrace coalition building and to resist efforts to create hierarchies of need. But such an approach has not been the usual tactic for public education supporters, so we will have to relearn our organizing strategies and actively look for partners with whom we can work. We will have to be humble enough to understand the crises in other areas, such as health care and housing, areas that are just as decimated as education.
Though not as dramatic as the statewide results, San Francisco's education election results were also interesting. The Board of Education (BOE) race was highly contested, with the teachers' union, United Educator's of San Francisco (UESF), refusing to endorse any of the incumbent candidates based on their vote to bypass seniority in issuing pink slips for designated low-performing schools, a decision that was eventually overturned. UESF assembled a slate of newcomers, only one of whom, Matt Haney, was ultimately elected. This marks a departure in San Francisco BOE races, since in the past UESF endorsements were typically an excellent predictor of outcomes. The significance of this is not clear, but one reading certainly points to a highly independent electorate. Haney will join incumbents Sandra Fewer, Rachel Norton and Jill Wynns in January as they head into one of the most interesting moments in public education we've seen in California for some time. Though undoubtedly sincere, Haney has quite a bit of work to do to come up to speed on the many complex issues facing San Francisco's public schools; hopefully he will be a diligent student and scale the learning curve quickly.
No review of the elections would be complete without acknowledging the historic re-election of President Obama and the equally historic repudiation of the restrictive world view put forth by the Republican Party. The days following the elections have been filled with the public confusion of the members of that party, who cannot seem to fathom that a politics based on exclusion, fear and primacy of the market is out of sync with the values of a growing proportion of the population. Ironically, some of those same attitudes that were rejected overall can be found in the first-term education policies of President Obama, though they were cloaked in clever rhetorical disguises like "Race To The Top." A second-term poses many possibilities for something dramatically different and better. Will we see a new Secretary of Education, one who has a rich store of knowledge about child development and sound education practices? Will Obama take this opportunity to eschew the simplistic standardized testing that has driven a mechanical curriculum benefitting no one except the companies making educational materials? Will we see a focus on basic, sound standards and a true commitment to supporting a rigorous, engaging, well-rounded educational experience for all children? Will the federal government acknowledge that the funding disparities and expectations across and within states is a true crisis in our nation that requires federal involvement? And finally, will the connection between the harsh realities of poverty and the physical, mental and social health of our country's children be spoken out loud and explicitly addressed?
Californian's, particularly those within the education community, have more to engender hope than ever before in recent memory. From the state level to the federal, doors are opening for the changes we seek, but we can't wait to be invited across those thresholds. Instead, we need to link our arms and walk firmly through those doorways, together.
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. This article originally appeared on BeyondChron.