Special Election for Education Issues in California

Teacher tenure, paycheck protection, budgeting on ballot

California schools are in trouble–both fiscally and academically. On July 8, the California controller’s office reported that, after years of deficit spending, 552 school districts overspent a total of $682 million in the 2003-04 school year. Sixty-two of those districts told the state they either cannot or may not be able to pay the bills they owe for the 2003-04 school year–and also could have trouble paying those they will owe in the next two years. Moreover, 142 of California’s 982 school districts and more than 1,600 individual schools failed the requirements of No Child Left Behind in 2004.

It is against this backdrop that California voters will be asked to decide three major initiatives in a special election November 8 that will significantly impact education reform in the state.

Reforming Teacher Tenure

Proposition 74, the Put Kids First Act, would change California’s teacher tenure laws by increasing the amount of time new teachers must wait before they are covered by job-protection rules, from the current two years to five years for a certified position. It would allow school districts to dismiss any employee after two consecutive unsatisfactory performance evaluations.

In California, administrators can terminate teachers without cause before they get tenure; afterward, administrators must go through a lengthy, expensive process involving documentation and hearings.

The coalition advocating teacher tenure reform, Citizens to Save California, reported in its Prop. 74 fact sheet that the reform “gives more authority to local principals and school districts to decide whether a teacher is performing and meeting their students’ needs, and it allows them to take a longer look at teachers before granting them lifetime tenure.”

A statewide survey conducted in June by Field Research Corp. of San Francisco found 61 percent of likely voters supported the measure, 32 percent opposed it, and 7 percent were undecided.

Obtaining Consent for Contributions

The Public Employees’ Right to Approve Use of Union Dues for Political Campaign Purposes Act–also known as Paycheck Protection, or Prop. 75–would prohibit labor organizations from using dues or fees for political contributions without annual written consent from employees. It also would require unions to retain copies of the forms and keep detailed records of funds received and political expenditures made.

After a similar paycheck protection law took effect in Washington in 1994, the number of school employees giving voluntarily to the Washington Education Association’s political action committee plummeted from 49,000 to 11,000.

Prop. 75 supporters-including the sponsor, the National Tax Limitation Committee-say it will give public employees the freedom to choose whether their union dues are spent on politics. The June Field poll found 57 percent of likely voters were inclined to vote yes on paycheck protection, while 34 percent of likely voters were inclined to vote no.

Reformulating School Finances

The Living Within Our Means Act (Prop. 76) would significantly impact the state budget by changing the school finance formula under Prop. 98, a constitutional amendment Californians passed in 1998 guaranteeing that education spending will always go up, even during economic downturns. Because of Prop. 98, California schools always receive at least 40 percent of state revenue or, at a minimum, the same amount they received the previous year, adjusted for inflation and enrollment growth.

The requirement to receive increases over the previous year’s funding can be especially burdensome when the legislature appropriates funding above the minimum guaranteed increase, during years with high state revenues. Between 1997 and 2001, the California legislature appropriated more money than was required under Prop. 98. That higher funding became the base funding requirement afterward, because Prop. 98 mandates future funding be based on actual funding, not the minimum guarantee.

Prop. 76 is designed to give the legislature more control over education funding by allowing it to suspend the minimum funding under Prop. 98. It also would end a requirement to repay schools when funding is reduced. In addition, the proposition would prevent appropriations above the minimum guarantee from adding to future base revenues.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) explained the need for Prop. 76 and other budget reforms in his State of the State address in January.

“We don’t have a revenue problem,” Schwarzenegger said. “We have a spending problem. In fact, the way the formulas now work, we will never catch up. No matter how well we do, the current system is programmed to spend even more. It is on automatic pilot. It is accountable to no one.”

Gathering Opposition

The June Field poll found California voters are generally satisfied with Prop. 98 funding. Forty-seven percent of likely voters said they would be likely to vote against Prop. 76, 31 percent in favor, and 22 percent undecided.

The teacher unions are collecting substantial membership dues to fight the three initiatives. At the National Education Association’s annual convention in July, Secretary-Treasurer Lily Eskelsen told delegates at the convention’s budget hearing the group already had sent $2.5 million to the California Teachers Association (CTA) to battle paycheck protection and the teacher tenure measure.

At the same time, the CTA approved a $60 per teacher fee increase to raise $50 million to fight the education initiatives on the November ballot.

Schwarzenegger has officially endorsed both Prop. 74 and Prop. 76, but at presstime he had not publicly announced his position on the paycheck protection measure.

Lisa Snell is director of education and child welfare at Reason Foundation.