Prop. 30 isn't perfect, but if it fails, the results will be tragic

If funding for public education is devastated, we will all pay the price.

It's the kind of education news that never makes headlines: Dozens of teachers and principals from both charter and district-run schools across the Southland gathered last weekend at Loyola Marymount University to talk about what's working in their classrooms.

The ideas were eye-opening — a mix of innovation and common sense, data analysis and gut-level grit. And so was the energy.

But the celebration couldn't mask the sense of desperation in the room: California's public schools are on life support, and the breathing tube may be yanked out soon.

Five weeks from now, California voters will decide whether to dig deeper into their pockets to help schools and universities stumble through this make-or-break academic year.

Two tax increases are on the ballot. Voters can say 'yes' to more than one. The one with the most votes will prevail — but only if it garners more than 50% of ballots cast.

The underdog is Proposition 38, which would raise about $10 billion a year by increasing income taxes for 12 years on all but the lowest-income workers. About three-quarters of that money would go directly to schools. Some could be spent only on preschool programs or technology.

It's the brainchild of wealthy civil rights lawyer Molly Munger, who has spent $28 million of her own money to fund its slowly tanking campaign.

I like that the money it raises wouldn't be subject to legislative shenanigans. That, according to pollsters, is what accounts for its civic traction.

But its prescriptive spending bothers me. Its bookkeeping requirements would saddle short-staffed campuses with a burdensome bureaucracy. And because higher education is left out, what will happen 12 years from now, when all those early-educated students are lining up for college spots that aren't there?

The front-runner is Proposition 30, a temporary combination of sales and income tax hikes crafted by Gov. Jerry Brown to backfill budget gaps.

But prospects don't look good right now. It's favored by barely half of those polled.

The package would raise $6 billion a year, the bulk earmarked for public schools by state education spending rules. Its income tax increase would last for seven years and apply only to those making over $250,000 a year. Its 0.25% sales tax increase would expire after four years.

But the measure's biggest selling point is what happens if it doesn't pass: Massive, crippling mid-year cuts in public schools — from pre-kindergarten programs to Cal State and University of California campuses.

Sacramento is playing an ugly game, holding almost 7 million students hostage with a budget deal that calls for $6 billion in immediate cuts to schools and colleges if the tax increase fails to pass.

In Los Angeles Unified, that would lop 15 more days from this school year, which has already been cut by five. Cal State and UC would face a $500-million budget gap this spring, to be covered with … you guessed it. More tuition hikes.

You can rail, as I have, about fat pay raises for college presidents, money-grubbing legislators, school district indifference and union intransigence.

But on election day, I hope you'll do as I will: Hold your nose if you have to, but vote yes on Proposition 30.

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This is not a commercial for public education. Consider it a reality check. I've seen plenty in schools to criticize, as a journalist and a parent.

But I've also seen glimmers of hope that go beyond test scores (rising), access to college (expanding) and attitudes (improving) on Los Angeles campuses and beyond. Without an infusion of cash right now, we risk losing ground on all of that.

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