Education

COMMENTARY: California schools to be spared divisive statewide election battles this year

Credit: Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times/Polaris

Billie Montague, 2, puts a vote sticker on her nose while watching her mom, Ashley Montague, vote at Marina Park Community Center on election day Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020 in Newport Beach.

Not so long ago, it looked as if California’s education system would be at the center of several explosive, and inevitably expensive, electoral battles this year.

That’s because four initiatives, which would have had varying degrees of impact on public schools, seemed headed for the November ballot.

In each case, their sponsors had gotten the approval of the state’s attorney general to gather the required signatures to get on the ballot.

But three of the four — the initiatives that promised to be the most divisive — failed to get the signatures they needed.  Only one — with the opportunity to make a real difference in children’s lives — is still bound for the ballot. (More on that later. )

Apparently uncowed by the total failure of the recall campaign against Gov. Gavin Newsom, some Republicans planned on putting a radical “school choice” initiative on the ballot. If successful, it would have provided as much as $14,000 to every parent who enrolled his or her child in a private or religious school.

Parents would even have been able to bank some of the money and use it years later to underwrite their child’s tuition in any public or private university, in or outside California.

But Republican backers of the idea couldn’t agree on wording for the initiative. So, they put forward two almost identical initiatives (see here and here) that differed only on a couple of points, undercutting each of their campaigns from the start.

Only one of the so-called choice initiatives got a significant number of signatures — some 200,000 — but that fell far short of the 1.5 million signatures needed to ensure it qualified for the ballot.

One reason is that the campaign raised only a tiny fraction of the millions of dollars required these days to get the necessary signatures.

Another initiative, breathtaking in its scope and simplicity, sought to abolish collective bargaining for the state’s public employees. While not directly aimed at schools, one of its main targets would have been the California Teachers Association, representing over 300,000 teachers. That would have guaranteed a huge fight not only with the CTA, but multiple other unions.

This effort was the brainchild of billionaire Tim Draper, a venture capitalist who, more than two decades ago, got a school voucher initiative on the ballot. That one was soundly rejected by 70% of voters.

This time, Draper didn’t even begin to collect signatures, blaming unions for having to abandon his initiative. “The unions intimidated the signature gatherers so much, that I couldn’t get a team to gather signatures for a reasonable price,” he told me in an email — without offering any details as to how that might have occurred.

Yet another planned initiative would have amended the California’s constitution to require the state to provide a “high quality public education.”

On the face of it, that would have been a welcome addition to the constitution, which currently only guarantees students a “free public education.”

But the seemingly innocuous initiative, which even attracted some bipartisan support, would have reignited a battle triggered by the ultimately unsuccessful Vergara lawsuit  that nearly a decade ago challenged teacher tenure and workplace laws in the state.

In fact, the chief organizer of this year’s “quality education” initiative was David Welch, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who was the leading force behind the Vergara lawsuit. He believed the initiative would have achieved some of the same objectives, including “launching many lawsuits to challenge the status quo of tenure, of the inability to fire bad teachers,” as he explained to the Wall Street Journal,

But Welch’s initiative also never began gathering signatures, at least in part because of the expense of getting over a million signatures, at a possible cost of $10 or more per signature.

My sense is that deep-pocketed donors, especially conservative ones, are skittish about spending large sums of money to wage electoral fights against Democrats in the wake of the failed Newsom recall campaign.  And, if the signature gathering is any guide, it is also an indication that Californians are looking for practical and positive solutions for their local schools, rather than reviving old political and ideological battles

Fortunately, an initiative that is refreshingly ideology-free seems certain to be on the ballot. Its purpose: to designate $1 billion in state funds to expand arts and music programs as part of the school curriculum.

Instead of draining dollars from public schools, as the “school choice” initiative would surely have done, “this will help every local school in California,” said former Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner, who is spearheading the initiative.

And in contrast to the other stalled initiatives, the initiative was able to garner over 1 million signatures in a short period of time, far more than the 623,000 it needed.

The campaign has attracted support from a plethora of entertainers, musicians, educators, and labor organizations tied to the arts. And it is well funded, having raised over $6 million through the end of March — far more, by multiples, than the other stalled initiatives.

Over $2 million came from Beutner himself. Steve Ballmer, the billionaire former CEO of Microsoft, put in $1.5 million. Other $1 million-plus contributions came from the Fender Corporation, and Phil Rosenthal, the creator of the hit sitcom “Everyone Loves Raymond,” and his wife, actress Monica Horan.

The initiative tackles a core problem: many of the course offerings that once got students excited about school, including arts and music, have been eviscerated in many districts.

So voters will thankfully be spared having to decide on initiatives that threatened to divert energy and resources from the task of educating children, and — based on current political realities in California — had little chance of succeeding.

At least they will be able to vote on an initiative with the potential to transform the lives of Californian’s youth for generations to come.

•••

Louis Freedberg, formerly executive director of EdSource, is a veteran reporter and analyst of California education. He can be reached at [email protected].    

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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