Molly Munger’s challenge
By Peter Schrag
You have to hand it to Molly Munger – for courage, maybe, or maybe just for Quixotic dedication.
Munger, a Los Angeles civil rights lawyer and former federal prosecutor, has devoted much of her career, and part of her considerable fortune, to expanding early childhood education and to equity for poor and minority children in our desperately underfunded schools.
Last week she formally —and audaciously -- launched a campaign to raise an additional $10 billion a year in taxes for preschools and K-12 education.
And that’s taxes not just on the rich, and not on oil companies or smokers, the legendary man behind the tree. Munger wants to pass an initiative next November calling for an across-the-board one-percent increase in income taxes on everybody except those with the very lowest incomes.
Unlike other recent tax reform proposals, hers would maintain the progressivity of California’s system. With some other provisions (outlined below), however, it would also reduce the effects of California’s volatile income tax revenues that conservatives, always trying to lower rates on high incomes, often like to complain about.
Munger is the daughter of billionaire Charles Munger, a partner of Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway. But unlike other deep pockets who parachute in now and then, or drop their cash from high altitudes into one or another political campaign, Munger, co-founder of the Los Angeles-based Advancement Project, has been working the cause of education equity and adequacy for the better part of two decades.
It was Munger and her partners who successfully sued the state to end the discriminatory bond-funded state school scheme that routinely put projects in low-income districts low on the priority list and thereby helped unlock the great Los Angeles school building boom that followed.
Munger knows – sort of knows at least – that her initiative is sailing right into the teeth of California’s howling anti-tax winds. She says that initially she only wanted to start an ongoing “conversation”, but when she saw poll numbers indicating that voters, by a 57-33 margin, would support a proposal like hers – the numbers, she said, “stunned” her -- she decided to press on for the November 2012 ballot.
That 57 percent positive number is still awfully slim, given the normal erosion of support as the vote approaches and the opposition – which in this case is likely to be intense – mounts. But Munger says that pollster Mark Mellman believes that given the growing public realization of the crisis in the public schools, that pattern won’t hold.
Nor, for similar reasons, does she seem troubled by the prospect of locking up yet another tax for a single purpose. “This is the least popular tax,” she said, “for the most popular cause.” In effect, she’s making a virtue of the difficulty. Probably no across-the-board income tax increase, she seems to be saying, has a chance to pass except for this purpose. She’s probably right.
In most polls, she said “waste beats kids,” meaning that voters chose elimination of “waste” – real or imagined -- over increased revenues. Now for the first time, “kids beat waste.” Although that may not prove out at the polls, it’s an elegant way to put it.
But there are other concerns as well. It’s hardly a secret that Munger’s could well become part of a stampede of government reform and revenue initiatives at the polls next year, among them ballot measures from richly-funded groups like California Forward and Think Long, from Gov. Jerry Brown, from unions and others. If several of them qualify, the state’s overwhelmed voters are likely to reject them all.
But apart from the uncertainties of her political course, the Munger initiative, called “The Our Children, Our Future: Local School and Early Education Investment Act,” shows a lot of smart policy planning.
To mitigate the effects of the up-and-down swings in income tax revenues, it directs some of the money generated during unusual spikes in tax payments, say in capital gains taxes, to paying down the state’s school bond debt.
The rest, representing close to a 20 percent increase in overall school spending, would go to a restricted fund that could only be spent, according to a weighted student formula, in schools and in programs directly related to school activities. Only 1 percent could go to administration and none could be used to increase salaries. There may be no way it can prevent districts from taking other money and throwing that on the bargaining table, but at least it recognizes the problem.
Nor would the legislature be allowed to back money out of the constitutionally mandated Proposition 98 funding stream. Munger says her initiative’s language is tight enough that she’d be delighted to litigate any suit if the state tried to get around it.
Fifteen percent of the expected $10 billion in additional revenue would go to expand preschool programs and early childhood education. The balance, which would go to K-12, would follow the kids, whether they’re in regular public schools or charter schools, with more going for low-income students.
Although the initiative lays out the funding formula and the general purposes for which the money may be used – instruction in a wide array of subjects; reduced class sizes; additional counselors, librarians and nurses, support for English learners – it’s the local district that will control the money. The governor and legislature are specifically prohibited from meddling with it or from interfering in its use. In addition, all the funds would be subject to rigorous oversight and accountability and public reporting standards on how they’re being used.
For all its policy wisdom the initiative is likely to generate questions. Where do state curricular and testing standards end and local curricular control begin? If a school hires new staff, will they be covered by the existing contracts and thus subject to the same salary increases as others in the bargaining unit? From which pot will those increases come? If the new funds pay for additional math or science or history classes, will they be subject to the state’s curricular frameworks?
But the larger hurdle is getting the measure passed – or maybe even getting support from schoolhouse unions, which may see some of its provisions as infringements on their jurisdiction. So far Munger has only the endorsement of the state PTA, which highlights the absence of other key groups.
Still, as a challenge to voters who say they’re willing to pay more in taxes for schools if the money is kept out of the hands of Sacramento politicians, it could be a powerful indicator. If next November’s ballot isn’t overcrowded, especially by wacky ideas like those of Think Long, it might be a real test.
Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His newest book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale. View his past work on California Progress Report here.