Molly Munger’s challenge


Posted on 05 December 2011

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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.

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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.

Let me see, California has an admitted 12% unemployment rate (higher if those who had quit the job market were still in it) and a tax revenue base that is collapsing. But, Molly wants (in her blessed liberal heart) to solve this problem by increasing taxes!!

Great. So this just accelerates the middle class job flight. and, of course, the tax base just crumbels more....

You are confused...and not that bright...but this kind of right wing blather, and debunked talking points, are par for the course for those that troll this site (and sadly dumb it down).

But, you are right about one thing (which is a record for right wingers that come to this site, so congrats on that), Ms. Munger's mistake is in taxing the middle and lower income Californians...taxing the super rich and big business is exactly what's needed to address the revenue crisis and our collapsing schools and safety net...and infrastructure...and on down the line.

Quit thinking about yourself. One percent taxes across the board without possibility of the government stealing it, for our children... She isn't trying to solve the tax crisis, she's trying to get out future on track. You can't do it all. And never once did the article mention she wanted to fix the tax inflation in California, so either you don't know how to read or you are just as ignorant as the other disapprovers of this bill.

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I think the Munger proposal is a good one. First, because it focuses on a specific issue - School funding. By and large, except for the neanderthals, voters favor adequate funding for schools.
Second, the part about by-passing the legislature is of value. The legislature, including the Democrats, deserve their 22% support.
A problem will be to sort out which of the competing proposals can win.

For the 2007-08 school year, the Los Angeles Unified School District spent $29,780 per student. The district also has the country’s second lowest graduation rate of 40.6%.

from: http://www.calwatchdog.com/2010/08/20/lausd-spends-30k-per-student/

You could send those kids to some mighty fancy private schools for $29,780 per student. So, is the problem really funding.

CA public school teachers the highest paid in the nation. CA students rank 48th in math achievement, 49th in reading.

from: http://www.lao.ca.gov/reports/2011/calfacts/calfacts_010511.aspx page 36

You're not a neanderthal, but facts hurt, if you're delusional -- like kryptonite hurts superman.

Neither education--nor any other state program--should get another penny until they show how they spend their present funding. K-12 schools only spend about 60% of their budget on the classroom. Liberals always want to tax more; they presume that each and every tax-funded program is necessary and the money is spent well.

I like Molly Munger. Her hearts in the right place and she is a true champion for California's children, however, this initiative is doomed to fail unless it comes with significant reforms to our public education system.

Where are the reforms? the voters won't reach into their pockets to continue to pay bad teachers and a failing system. We can't keep throwing more and more money at failed policies. Tie increased revenues to genuine reforms and the voters will pass them...get rid of tenure for bad teachers, tie teacher performance to pay, give schools and districts the ability to incent and promote good teachers and good teaching practices, instead of the people who have hung around the longest.

California's schools languish at the bottom of the nation and its not just because they are badly funded, its also because the CTA, and the rest of the teachers unions have been dictating education policy for too long and their primary objective as unions is not to provide good education to our children, its to provide job protection to their members. They will always choose their members over our kids.

Show me a tax initiative that comes with genuine reform and I'll vote for it in a heartbeat, but I won't shovel more money down the bottomless pit of California's broken school system.

(parent of a child in a CA public school)

I agree with almost everything you say except that California schools are badly funded. Check the reference I gave you. LA spends almost $29,000 per student per year. This is LAVISH funding. Use common sense. You could send those kids to them most exclusive private schools for that money.

So, the problem with LA schools is not funding.

$29,000 would be lavish if all went to the classroom. In a typical school district, only about 60% of the education dollar goes to the students. (teacher salaries, books, etc). The rest is overhead--much unnnecessary. Read the good article in SF Chron(December 9, 2011, page A 22) by David Sirota. Teachers are not to blame.

The system is broken and tax increases aren't going to fix it. Public schools have plenty of money and plenty of waste. I have a good friend who has worked 25+ years in maintenance and his hours have been cut, but administrators all got raises. I work 70+ hours a week and my husband also has a full-time job so that we can afford to send our kids to private school -- which costs far less than $29K per kid. I could send SIX kids to the school my kids go to for $29K a year. Obviously, private education isn't always an option. I don't think that teachers as a whole are the problem -- I think it's bloated administration the cost of government mandates--many of which are ridiculous and completely unrelated to the actual education of kids.