Prop 30 Would Affirm "California Promise" to Education, Social Mobility
By Dan Aiello
Advocates of universal access to higher education fear California voters, faced with two competing education tax initiatives will fail both, effectively abandoning the state's historic commitment to provide access to higher education for all.
Proposition 30 will provide funding to California's K-12 schools, but additionally will fund the state's university, state college and community college systems to offset state budget cuts that have already endangered access to the educational opportunities once guaranteed all qualified students by the state under its Master Plan on Education.
Prop 30 will raise revenue through a temporary quarter cent sales tax increase and a temporary income tax increase on wealthier state residents.
Education Funding Imperiled by Competing Propositions
A second education-funding initiative, Proposition 38, would fund only California's K-12 public schools through a permanent sales tax increase. Similar in funding K-12 schools, the two initiatives are dissimilar in how they raise revenue and for how long; only Prop 30 provides funding to the state's colleges and universities, as well as to public safety.
Prop 30 asks voters to approve a 4-year quarter-cent sales tax hike, a tax paid by all citizens, but one that terminates in a reasonable period of time, along with a 7-year income tax targeting California's wealthiest citizens, also temporary.
Prop 38 asks voters to approve an income tax hike on most of the state's residents and the increased tax is permanent.
Education advocates are still curious why Proposition 38's sponsors would not have agreed to offer voters a single ballot initiative if, in fact, education funding was their goal. Political strategy dictates coalition building on initiative issues because, in elections where initiatives compete, voters have historically chosen the status quo.
In politics, the consistency of voter behavior in the ballot booth is used as a means of cooperation between like-minded advocates or as a weapon of destruction by weaker opponents in California's political initiative battles.
"In a simple contest, when only one initiative is presented to voters, a campaign can focus on the advantages of the proposal over the status quo," wrote Gregory Tung, MPH, citing Levine J. Gilbert, MD in an article on the Tobacco industry's tactics in defeating no-smoking measures published in the American Journal of Public Health in March, 2009.
"Competing initiatives, regardless of the subject matter, generally are introduced by moneyed interests with the primary goal of defeating an original proposal," wrote Gilbert.
Prop 38's sponsors deny their campaign is intended to bring down both initiatives, but the question is justified by past California initiative campaigns.
In 2005, Schubert Flint Public Affairs, now FSB Core Strategies, was hired by the pharmaceutical industry to thwart California's pro-consumer Prop 79, which would have put limits on the profits of drug manufacturers that had been reportedly gouging consumers. The industry's image was so poor at the time, Schubert Flint concluded they would have been ineffective in voicing opposition.
Schubert Flint's solution was to play what amounts to an initiative "shell game."
Instead of opposing Prop 79, Schubert Flint introduced a pro-pharmaceutical industry initiative that became Prop 78 during a special election. Prop 78's language mimicked Prop 79 and muddled its pro-consumer message. Schubert Flint's campaign successfully put out a message that confused voters, who subsequently voted down both initiatives. The FSB Core Strategies website lists the Prop 78 campaign loss in the company's portfolio under "victories."
Prop 30 advocates are asking voters to see how Prop 30 differs from Prop 38: temporary, not permanent, tax increases and support for California's colleges and university systems - built to provide the state's best and brightest affordable access to higher education which, in turn, offers opportunities for upward social mobility. The state's commitment to provide those opportunities to every qualified student regardless of income - known as "the California Promise" - was set forth in the 1960 Donahoe Act, and has since defined California society and driven the state's globally-competitive and diversified economy.
Moral Commitment, Initiative-Connected
It's the history lesson of California's commitment to education that compels supporters of Prop 30 to fight for this governor-sponsored initiative. Even the connection between the state's colleges and universities and the initiative process used Tuesday by voters to determine their fate is intriguing.
Political reformers like Governor Hiram Johnson, who at the turn of the century established the initiative process as a sort of direct-democracy "checks and balances" system for our Republic as a safeguard against future corruption or special-interest stranglehold upon the legislature, also began construction of California's state colleges and universities.
California's investment in higher education is at least as compelling a story as the discovery of gold at Sutter's Fort or the rise from merchant to robber baron of figures such as Huntington, Stanford, Hopkins or Crocker, though voters deciding the fate of California's education system may not know it.
Reformers such as Johnson believed higher education offered opportunity and believed it was a moral responsibility of the government to raise up its people. So strong was their faith in their endeavor that rather than refer to UC Berkeley, UCLA, Cal Poly or Sacramento State as institutions of higher learning, they referred to them as the "moral institutions" of the California Republic.
The purpose of California's promise to educate the state's best and brightest was as much equal rights as it was democratic principle, but the result benefited the purest model of capitalism.
A workforce more educated than other states or global markets drew high-tech industries to California, the same industries that today drive the global economy. The universities and colleges, allowed to excel and be the best in any subject, provide genetic research advances to vineyard, orchard and crop growers, medical advances to healthcare, technology advances to Silicon Valley and the movie industry, while every year graduating thousands of qualified Californians to help industries and companies grow or establish new companies and new industries to our diversified economy.
Access to Education
Access to a California college education, through state-sponsored loans or programs such as Cal Grants, is disappearing. Cal Grants was among the first "non-essential services" on the state budget chopping block in 2009, when Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) tried in vain to garner concern for the program from Californians.
"The Cal Grants program has helped so many of the best and the brightest of California's high school students," explained Brownley. "Cal Grants ensures that higher education is not only for the wealthy, while assuring students that if you have the ability, you can go to college."
Jesse Gordin of Sacramento, 32, is one of California's "Promise" alumns. Gordin is living the life he long envisioned, that of a California elementary school teacher. But Gordin tells California Progress Report his story would have been very different if not for the grants, loans and lowered tuition offered through California State University, Sacramento.
"When I was 18 I was kicked out for being gay," Gordin told CPR. "My father was a pastor at Calvary Pentecostal Church (Modesto) and my mother was a housewife in charge of raising 6 kids," said Gordin, who attended Johansen High School.
After being thrown out of his family's home and cut off from any kind of financial assistance, Gordin said, "I lived on the streets for a couple of years, unable to go to college because I was not considered independent (in the case of financial aid) until I was 25 years old, says Gordin. In Gordin's case, his parents made a deliberate effort to prevent him from achieving a college degree by refusing to provide financial information, a statement that they would not assist him financially.
However, Gordin's parents only succeeded in delaying his education. "I was forced to make a choice: either work and have a roof over my head or be homeless and go to school. I chose the roof and food."
But their prejudice-driven efforts ultimately were proven futile when California's promise made to their son - access to higher education and his teaching degree - was fulfilled a few years later.
"At 25 I became eligible for financial aid and was able to work part-time while going to school full-time," said Gordin. "Had it not been for the Pell and Cal grants I would not have been able to get my degree and be able to teach today."
Gordin says he has remained grateful to California taxpayers for the opportunity to live the life he dreamed of, one which nearly was taken from him by prejudice and bigotry.
Repeated Cuts to Education Presaged Need for Prop 30
Brownley's 2009 Cal Grants press conference, held on the campus of Sacramento's City College, was attended by just one reporter. Several Cal Grant recipients joined Brownley to argue against the impending cuts.
Sokline Hing, a first generation American citizen and Cal Grant recipient was just entering UCLA. A second student, Rena Leng after attending San Joaquin Delta Community College utilizing two Cal Grants of $1,551 dollars was seeking her degree at the University of the Pacific. Joaquin Sasteneda, then a recent graduate of Sacramento State, said the loan essentially placed him on a level playing field with students from more affluent backgrounds.
"What was key for me about Cal Grant," said Sasteneda, "was that it offered me additional time to take internships, do the McNair scholarship program, do the Sacramento scholarship program and do an internship at the Capitol. None of that would have happened without the Cal Grant because without it I would basically have had to have been working full time."
As far back as 2009, Brownley challenged cuts to these education access programs, saying they would "cripple our long term work force" needs.
"California's economy will require 41 percent of the state's workforce to have at least a bachelor's degree," while a 2009 Public Policy Institute of California study shows that without state-subsidized loans to California's students, California industry will find a California that can provide only 35 percent of it's industry's workforce demands. Industries will be faced with the choice of importing workers or moving operations to a more educated populace.
"It's not only a moral question, it's the right thing to do for the state," said Brownley. "It's also an economic question, because if we don't produce the college graduates our economy needs we're going to have to say, 'okay we're not going to produce the educated workforce so we're going to have to import from China and India and other places the workforce our industry needs.'
"That begs the question," said Brownley, "which future would you prefer? Would you prefer to grow our own or would you prefer to import the workforce, and I think the answer to that is clear: we'd prefer to grow our own."
By 2010, California had reduced its financial commitment to higher education by 43.5 % while fees charged to students had risen by 103%.
In 2011, The Civil Rights project at University of California, Los Angeles concluded what Brownley had argued two years earlier, stating "The greatest threat to California's economic future is complacency over the educational crisis facing us today."
Many Californians believed the loan programs were abused or served little public value, only individual gain. But for Gordin and other qualified students, these programs changed, even saved, lives while producing a highly educated California workforce.
Of the approximately 88,000 students awarded new scholarships by the Cal Grants program last year, 36,080 came from households with income less than $20,000. And Cal Grants recipients who were the first generation of their family ever to attend college had increased by 49% in 2010.
On November 6th, Proposition 30 aims to shore up an eroding public education system that was once the envy of world, and to help ensure that the next generation California's workers and businesses have the same opportunities that have made the Golden State the economic powerhouse it has been. If the measure fails, California will likely be facing even harder times ahead for students, schools and business.
Dan Aiello reports for the Bay Area Reporter and California Progress Report.