Under the Influence: Money and Power in Politics

California Teachers Lobbying for Higher Taxes, Better Public Education

An estimated 800 CTA members met to discuss the potential cuts to education. (Photo: Catherine Cloutier)In the face of severe state budget cuts, the California Teachers' Association has been cozying up to Gov. Jerry Brown to lobby for higher taxes and to help minimize the damage to public education.

The CTA gave Brown $49,300 in campaign contributions for his 2010 gubernatorial run.

Now both want to extend higher sales and income taxes and fee increases for five years to soften projected blows to the education budget. They hope to put their tax extension initiative before voters in a June special election.

But getting the extensions to pass will be an uphill battle, and if they fail, funding for the 2011-12 school year faces a $4.5 billion cut.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson in early January declared California schools to be in a "State of Financial Emergency."

The governing body of the CTA met at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles on February 5 and 6. (Photo: Catherine Cloutier)Without the passage of the tax initiative, California would move into last place in per pupil spending nationwide, said Eric Padget, chairman of the CTA's Financing Public Education committee. The state currently sits at 43rd on that list.

For Jeanette Sansenbach, a third grade teacher from the Folsom Cordova Unified School District and a CTA representative, that decrease means the loss of an estimated $7,000 from her paycheck in the upcoming year.

Sansenbach's district plans to subtract six student days and add three professional development days to the school year to help cover an $11.5 million deficit, should the initiative fail. Salary rollbacks and 45 teacher layoffs are also on the horizon, raising fears of increased class sizes.

Sansenbach said elementary school class sizes are already at the state's capacity. "We have a lot of money spent on education. But we have a lot of students."

The CTA's governing members convened early this month at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in downtown Los Angeles to strategize on how to move the tax measures forward.

"We haven't seen what the initiative is, or what it looks like," CTA president David Sanchez said. "But we know now that we can help in drafting it and appealing to the public for support."

In addition to the temporary tax increases, the CTA wants Brown to consider other potential sources of revenue that could be funneled into public education.

David Sanchez serves as the president of the California Teachers' Association. (Photo: Catherine Cloutier)Sanchez said he would like to see the governor consider a tax on drilling, for instance. Unlike many states, California does not tax oil and water drilling.

The CTA also supports excluding commercial properties from Proposition 13 tax breaks and reincarnating the recently deceased Prop 24, which would have raised money for schools by closing tax loopholes for large and out-of-state corporations. Sanchez said CTA members from Merced and Fresno, two strongly Republican areas, have been pressuring their legislators to move the tax measure forward, but it won't be easy.

First, Democrats need the support of four Republican legislators (two in the assembly and two in the Senate), yet so far GOP members have been largely united against the plan.

Added to that, only a slim majority of Californians support Brown's special election, according to a recent study.

"Coming out of the starting gate being only barely over 50 percent in favor is not encouraging," said Bill Lucia, CEO of EdVoice, a non-profit organization dedicated to California education issues. "To feel good you want to be over 60 [percent]."

Another problem: tax-friendly Californians historically do not show up to vote in odd-year elections in large numbers.

On top of that, voters have refused tax increases two years in a row. In 2009, they rejected five CTA-supported propositions that would have increased taxes and shifted budget funds around to support education and other social services. And last November, they denied Prop 24, which the CTA spent about $7.5 million to support.

Anti-tax groups such as the influential, California-based Howard Jarvis Association say that instead of trying to pass tax hikes, educators should focus on using the funds already allocated to them. There is certainly evidence to support that position.

The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in D.C., found many schools could in fact boost student achievement without increasing spending by using money more productively.

In Los Angeles, where the school district claims per pupil expenditures hover near $10,000 a year, a Cato Institute study calculated that the real number is closer to $25,000.

"You're looking at a Harvard education right there," said Jon Coupla, president of the Howard Jarvis Association.

It should be noted that the Cato number includes bonds passed for school construction, and those funds cannot be used on academic programs.

Coupla said that his organization has been gathering more than sufficient funds to run an aggressive campaign against any proposed tax extensions, but he would not disclose how much.


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