California schools will be spared 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 mother, Ashley Montague, vote at the Marina Park Community Center on Election Day Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Newport Beach.

Not too long ago, it looked like California’s education system would be at the center of several explosive and inevitably costly election battles this year.

That’s because four initiatives, which would have had varying degrees of impact on public schools, appeared to be heading into the November ballot.

In each case, their sponsors had obtained approval from the state attorney general to collect the required signatures to appear 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 potential to make a real difference in children’s lives – is still up for the ballot. (More on that later.)

Seemingly intimidated by the complete failure of the recall campaign against Governor Gavin Newsom, some Republicans were planning to put a sweeping “school choice” initiative on the ballot. If successful, it would have provided up to $14,000 to each parent who enrolled their child in a private or religious school.

Parents could even have banked some of the money and used it years later to fund their child’s tuition at any public or private university, in California or outside.

But Republican supporters of the idea could not agree on the wording of the initiative. Thus, they propose two almost identical initiatives (see here and here) who differed on only a few points, undermining each of their campaigns from the start.

Only one of the so-called initiatives of choice obtained a large number of signatures – some 200,000 – but that was well short of the 1.5 million signatures needed to ensure he was qualified for the ballot.

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

Another initiative, breathtaking in its scope and simplicity, aimed to abolish collective bargaining for state officials. Although not aimed directly at schools, one of its main targets was reportedly the California Teachers Association, representing over 300,000 teachers. This would have guaranteed a huge fight not only with the CTA, but with several other unions.

This effort was the brainchild of the billionaire Tim Drapera venture capitalist who more than two decades ago secured a school voucher initiative on the ballot. This was firmly rejected by 70% of voters.

This time, Draper did not even begin to collect signatures, accusing the unions of having to abandon his initiative. “The unions intimidated the signature collectors so much that I couldn’t find a team to collect signatures at a reasonable price,” he told me in an email – without giving any details on the how it could have happened.

Another one planned initiative reportedly amended the California constitution to require the state to provide “high quality public education.”

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

But the seemingly innocuous move, which has even attracted some bipartisan support, is said to have reignited a battle sparked by the ultimately unsuccessful trial of Vergara, who nearly a decade ago challenged teacher tenure and labor laws. work in the state.

In fact, the main organizer of this year’s “quality education” initiative was David Welsh, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur behind the Vergara lawsuit. He believed the initiative would have achieved some of the same goals, including “launching numerous lawsuits to challenge the status quo of tenure, the inability to fire bad teachers,” as he explained to the the wall street journal,

But Welch’s initiative also never started collecting 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 conservatives, are wary of spending large sums of money on electoral battles against Democrats in the wake of Newsom’s failed recall campaign. And, if collecting signatures is any guide, it’s also an indication that Californians are looking for practical, positive solutions for their local schools, rather than reigniting old political and ideological battles.

Fortunately, a refreshing initiative without ideology appears to be on the ballot. Its objective: to allocate 1 billion dollars of public funds to the expansion artistic and musical programs as part of the school curriculum.

Instead of draining money from public schools, as the school choice initiative surely would have done, “it will help all local schools in California,” the former Unified Superintendent of Los Angeles says. , Austin Beutner, who leads the initiative.

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

The campaign has attracted support from a plethora of artists, musicians, educators and arts-related labor organizations. And it is well funded, having raised over $6 million until the end of March – many more, by multiples, than the other stalled initiatives.

More than $2 million came from Beutner himself. Steve Ballmer, the billionaire former CEO of Microsoft, invested $1.5 million. Other contributions of more than $1 million came from the Fender Corporation and Phil Rosenthal, creator of the hit sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and his wife, actress Monica Horan.

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

Thus, voters will be fortunately spared from 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 – were unlikely to succeed.

At least they’ll be able to vote on an initiative that could transform the lives of California’s youth for generations to come.


Louis Freeberg, former executive director of EdSource, is a veteran journalist and education analyst in California. He can be reached at [email protected].

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