If Initiatives Are About the Schools, Why Aren't Campaigns About the Schools?

California is supposedly having a debate about schools. At least, that's what the two most-discussed initiatives headed for the November ballot are said to be about. Gov. Jerry Brown says he is raising taxes temporarily to send 100 percent of the money to schools. Molly Munger and the PTA are advertising their own temporary income tax hike as sending money directly to schools.

The funding claims of both sides are less than honest. Most of the money in Brown's measure would go to the budget and things other than schools. And Munger dedicates a good chunk of the money to deficit reduction. But in both cases, these are questions of money, not schools.

So where is the education in these education initiatives?

We don't know. Because no one is really talking about education.

There are big questions in this area for California to answer. The most basic two: What sort of education do we need in the 21st century? And how much does that cost? That's where any question of school funding should start. But these questions aren't touched in the debate, or by these initiatives, which seek to provide funding but make no connection between that funding and specific educational goals.

Alas, Brown's and Munger's initiative -- in ignoring the basic questions about education -- aren't anything new. They reflect a California status quo.

Ever since the state's voters passed Prop 98, the educational funding guarantee, in 1988, California hasn't had a real annual debate about education and what schools need to give a proper education. We've had a debate about what percentage of the budget, and of tax revenues, should go to schools. In other words, we've argued about money -- not education.

Prop 98 has framed the debate in this way, because the school funding guarantee doesn't have any connection to education. It's based on formulas that relate to budget revenues and per capita income. So when you hear people talk about Prop 98, they aren't really talking about education.

It's time to start over, blow up the Prop 98 guarantee (which hasn't guaranteed much except a pretty constant decline in California education funding compared to other states), and build school funding around educational necessity. 

Unfortunately, the two ballot initiatives keep Prop 98 in place and continue our bad habit of merely pretending to talk about education. California can do better.

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