In this weekend’s LA Times, the Think Long Committee, which includes prominent billionaires like Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, announced that they are going to place a $10 billion dollar tax hike on the November ballot with the additional money going to support public schools. The details of this plan include provisions that citizens earning less than $45,000 a year would pay no income tax and those earning up to $95,000 a year would pay only 2% income tax. According to the Financial Times, “The Think Long for California committee is being bankrolled by Nicolas Berggruen, a Paris-born billionaire, who has vowed to spend heavily to get the committee’s recommendations on the California ballot next year – and to convince voters to approve them.” It is interesting to note that Berggruen is well connected in California. In a recent meeting in Los Angeles, both Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger joined him, along with former White House officials Condoleezza Rice and George Schultz to talk about how to help California’s economy.
As a public school advocate, it would make sense for me to back this initiative—but I am not yet ready to support it for two reasons. First, I am not ready to support this new tax initiative because I honestly do not believe that more money is the answer to the public school crisis in California. Make no mistake; it would be great to restore much of what has been cut from public schools over the last five years. But, this crisis is also a great opportunity for California to innovate and transform public education. If we could effectively transform California public education much like how Steve Jobs transformed Apple, we would not only improve education for the kids in California, but also we could be a beacon for the rest of the country on how to reinvent public education.
I believe that the current model of how we educate our children in this state (and this country) does not work well for most children. If California Public Education was an investment bank back in 2008, the Federal Reserve would have let it fail just to put it out of its own misery—extremely erratic performance over time, little quality control with employees, guaranteed raises and virtual job security after three years, expenses that are guaranteed to rise regardless of the income that comes in each year.
We have a unique opportunity during this crisis to make systemic changes to how we educate our children and how we manage our public schools. A vote to pass this tax hike would only put more of a burden on our citizens and put off—once again—dealing with the fundamental failure of the operational structure of the California public school system; a system where expenses are locked on a perpetual growth curve with both employee raises and artificial cost of living increases as determined by the California Department of Education. It is a bizarre organizational and business model.
Citizens across the economic spectrum are disenchanted with the public school model that all but guarantees jobs to employees after two or three years of service—where mediocrity is rewarded with annual raises. Citizens also are fed up with our children being held hostage by our state politicians up in Sacramento because they lack the political will to balance the state budget during difficult economic times. Why? Because the state politicians continue to pay homage to the biggest political donor in the State of California—The California Teachers Association. Over the last ten years, The CTA has been the most influential spender in California politics; spending more money on politicians and to influence California voters than Chevron, AT&T, Philip Morris and Western States Petroleum Association combined.
The second reason why I am not yet ready to support this new tax proposal is that I am opposed to the process of using a ballot initiative to make such an important decision. Just as in previous years, special interest groups like the CTA and the Jarvis Taxpayers Association have hijacked ballot initiatives like this to further their own specific goals. Rather than end run Sacramento with such a dangerous game, citizens ought to force Sacramento politicians to make these hard choices—after all, it is what we pay them to do. When we let the state legislature off the hook and make decisions by referendum, we end up with such unintended consequences like the high-speed rail fiasco or situations like Prop. 8.
That being said, I am empathetic to the furstration felt by Mr. Schmidt and Mr. Berggruen. We all are frustrated with what is happening in California with both its public school funding cuts and ailing economy. I applaud this group's creativity and effort to accomplish what Sacramento has been unwilling to do for the last five years. I would be more inclined to support such a proposal if the funding and tax hikes were tied to guaranteed education reform initiatives such as enforcement of the Stull Act across the state as it relates to performance evaluations, repeal of tenure laws, and stronger laws to support the expansion of public charter schools across the state.
It is ironic that the California referendum movement was born at the beginning of the 20th century in response to a pathetic state congress in Sacramento where politicians were bought and paid for by special interest groups like the Railroads. In 2011, nothing has changed except that now the players are Big Oil, the CTA and other special interest groups that continue to undermine good governance and fiscal responsibility within our state. I am not yet ready to support the Think Long Committee tax proposal. But, given the options with our political fat cats up in Sacramento, I would not be surprised if there is building momentum to pass such a referendum.