Californians believe schools need more funding — will they vote that way?

by Vernon M. Billy

This November’s election will be unlike any we’ve seen in recent memory. Our Presidential election cycle has been, shall we say, “unique.” While California’s upcoming election isn’t nearly as interesting, we do have a whopping 17 statewide ballot measures that voters must sift through on election day.

This election has huge implications for our state’s schools, but the sheer size of the ballot presents an obstacle for California voters — so much so, that existing voter support for education could be impacted at the polls.

That can’t happen. Not this year.

In August, PDK released its annual national poll of the public’s attitudes toward public schools. One of this extensive poll’s signature questions is, “what do you think are the biggest problems facing the public schools in your community?” If this were a game of “Family Feud,” this would be the easiest “number one answer” in the history of the game. The answer was funding, by a 10-point margin.

Equally unsurprising is the trend line of response data to this question over the last 10 years, compared to how the economy fared during the same period. You can see in the chart below that the number of adults who identified funding inadequacies as the top issue facing schools swelled to north of 30 percent between 2008 and 2009, just as the stifling hold of the recession began to tighten, and it endured through 2013–14.

You can see a similar path in the responses to a question posed here in the Golden State by the Public Policy Institute of California, which asks in its annual statewide survey, “do you think the current level of state funding for your local public schools is more than enough, just enough, or not enough?” These responses also ascend as the economy descends in 2010, when excruciating budget cuts for education were becoming a grim new norm.

Contextually, these two questions do differ in how they’re presented, but they both accomplish a similar goal in getting to the root of public perception about what ails our public schools. This is also significant in the way the two polls differ. With the economy now in better shape, you can see the responses in the national poll decreasing since 2013. Does this mean there are assumptions that when the economy is doing well, then schools must be getting more of the funding they need?

If those assumptions are indeed out there, Californians are not succumbing to them. In 2015 and 2016, even with Proposition 98 spiking and Proposition 30 revenues still in full effect, more than 60 percent of Californians still agree about education funding: It’s not enough.

Not only do Californians resoundingly agree that schools are underfunded, but they indicate they are willing to exercise their vote to do something about it. In April, 62 percent of likely voters indicated that they would support an extension of Proposition 30’s income tax provisions for 12 more years — the measure now known as Proposition 55. However, in PPIC’s updated September poll, that number dips to 54 percent, with 38 percent indicating they would vote no.

Despite the dip in polling, Proposition 55 can still pass, if those 54 percent of voters exercise the ballot stamina needed to sift through all 17 statewide ballot measures and cast their vote for Proposition 55.

PPIC’s Mark Baldassare makes a glum prediction in an August editorial:

“We should expect the default option this fall to repeat the recent trend: Californians will vote ‘no’ on initiatives when they’re faced with a barrage of conflicting information…the dollars spent by opponents to sow confusion and doubt will tend to matter more than the dollars spent by supporters to make the case for a change.”

School governance leaders know that the reality behind Proposition 55 is very cut and dry, and voters need to be aware of this reality as well. If the measure does not pass and the existing income tax revenues expire, we are taking a step — nay, a tumble — back in the wrong direction. With Proposition 55 revenues, the minimum projected growth from the Department of Finance for LCFF funding in 2018–19 is $2.5 billion or higher. Without them, LCFF growth is projected at $835 million.

These projections evoke two fundamental questions. One, if the state’s revenues experience another dip in the coming years, how exactly are California’s school districts going to break their fall this time if those revenues are gone? Two, how will California’s schools be expected to offset future cost increases without an extension of these revenues.

While General Fund levels remain a relative mystery for the future, cost burdens for school districts do not. Increases in employer contributions to CalSTRS alone will increase about 2 percent each year between now and 2018–19, with a total hit to LEA’s of $4 billion. If Proposition 55 does not pass, California’s schools could lose as much as $4 billion in revenues.

A burden now falls on school governance leaders, as stewards of our children’s education, to do all you can to support Proposition 55 and to help ensure that voters remain supportive of funding education. This action is critical not only for Proposition 55, but for Proposition 51, the $9 billion school facilities bond. The most recent PPIC poll indicates that support for the bond among likely voters is waning to 47 percent who would vote yes, with 43 percent voting no and 10 percent still undecided. In this final push before the election, school and county board members must serve as ardent advocates for our schools and help ensure the passage of these measures.

As we steamroll toward the November 8 election, the landscape of education funding could look very different on November 9 — we all have a crucial role to play in what that landscape will look like.

Vernon M. Billy serves as the Chief Executive Officer/Executive Director for the California School Boards Association. This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of California Schools magazine, a publication of CSBA.