Newsletter: California’s sleeper political issue of the year, so far, is school funding

Essential Politics

When divvying up state taxpayer dollars in Sacramento, lawmakers put the needs of some 9 million schoolchildren at the front of the line and give K-12 schools the biggest share. That’s exactly as Californians have said they want the system to work.

Voters rewrote the state Constitution in 1988 to focus the annual budget process on education and ensure funding grows over time. A collection of politically powerful groups, from teachers’ unions to school boards and parents, walks the hallways of the state Capitol every year to ensure those rules are followed.

But as 2020 begins, education funding is at a crossroads. And the political potency of “schools first” seems unclear in the coming elections.



The budget proposal Gov. Gavin Newsom sent to lawmakers earlier this month calls for $84 billion in required K-12 funding for the coming year. (While other dollars are spent on schools, this is the key portion allotted under the rules of 1988’s Proposition 98.) A report out last week by the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office found that recent increases in school spending have outpaced the historical average.

Newsom’s budget boosts funding by $3.9 billion from last year. Slightly more than half that amount would be spent on one-time needs, with $900 million earmarked for training, recruiting and retaining school employees.

In most instances, education advocates praised the governor’s budget plan.

But as I first wrote last spring, a lot of schools don’t seem flush with cash — in fact, just the opposite. Many campuses have seen enrollment go down (and dollars follow students) and employee costs go up. Retirement obligations, from healthcare to pension promises, are squeezing operating budgets in some of California’s biggest school districts. The recent LAO report cited 30 districts, including large ones in Los Angeles, Oakland and Sacramento, as having “chronically distressed” finances.

“Despite California’s economy consistently expanding — now being ranked fifth-largest in the entire world — we have some of the most underfunded schools in the country,” E. Toby Boyd, president of the California Teachers Assn., said in a written statement about education funding after Newsom released his budget.

Here’s where the politics come in.

Schools are not top of mind for Californians right now. Education wasn’t one of the top five issues voters cited in a recent poll by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California — a notable absence for an issue that’s historically been at or near the top of their worry list. (The current top concerns: homelessness, housing, jobs and the economy, the environment and immigration.)

And yet two big education funding proposals are on their way to the ballot. Voters in March will consider Proposition 13, a plan to borrow $15 billion for building and renovating education facilities, $9 billion of which would go to K-12 schools and $6 billion to college and university campuses. Since 2002, four statewide school bonds totaling $45 billion in borrowing have won — but then, voters cited education funding as a bigger problem prior to those elections.

Far more sweeping in its impact would be the likely November ballot measure to remove long-standing property tax restrictions on commercial properties. (Yes, this would revise the famous Prop. 13, thus providing some election-year confusion with the same-numbered school bond on the March 3 ballot.) That proposal could add more than $4 billion a year to current school funding levels, and powerful education groups are prepared to spend tens of millions of campaign dollars to pass it, undoubtedly to be matched by business interests.

The school bond, which has polled in positive territory so far, could offer a preview of the November property tax battle — and give an early look at how a campaign built around students’ unmet needs will fare when funding is already at historical highs and voters’ priorities are elsewhere.

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Sharp divisions in how to address part of California’s housing crisis will play out this week in the state Senate, where the most celebrated and criticized bill in years faces its do-or-die moment.

Senate Bill 50, the ambitious effort to increase housing density near public transportation and in many neighborhoods generally reserved for single-family homes, must clear the Senate by the close of business on Thursday — the deadline for all remaining bills introduced in 2019 to be approved in their house of origin.

It’s anyone’s guess what will happen. The bill was stymied last year by powerful lawmakers who represent California’s suburbs, but its author, state Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), has pushed on, winning a key procedural battle last week when state Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) let the bill sidestep opposition in a key fiscal committee.

One key lawmaker suggested even the reputation the bill has earned is a problem.

“I think fundamentally the bill number itself is too hot [of] a potato,” said state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), who said at a recent community event that she was unable to support it.


— Attorneys for President Trump are expected to roll out their full defense on Monday in his impeachment trial, after a short Saturday session in which they insisted the president “did actually nothing wrong.”

— Trump told his national security advisor he wanted to maintain a freeze on military assistance to Ukraine until it launched political investigations into his Democratic rivals, according to John Bolton’s description of their exchange in drafts of his forthcoming book, the New York Times reported Sunday.

— Trump asked how long Ukraine would be able to resist Russian aggression without U.S. assistance during a 2018 meeting with donors that included the indicted associates of his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo has neither apologized for nor denied a heated exchange with a reporter in which he lost his temper and said Americans don’t “care about Ukraine.”

— The advantage in the New Hampshire presidential primary for New England candidates is being challenged in this turbulent election cycle, as Democrats seem to care less about local sensibilities than whether the contenders can beat Trump.

— Trump and his allies have issued a series of curiously favorable comments about Sen. Bernie Sanders.

— Sanders and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar all rushed to Iowa for a few hours this weekend for some quick campaigning before returning to Washington for the impeachment trial.

— Times staff writer Joe Mozingo traveled to the city Sanders calls home and found Burlington shaped Sanders as Sanders shaped Burlington — so much so that it’s hard to consider one without the other.

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— As election day approaches, social media posts warn of a nefarious plot to limit who can vote in California‘s Republican presidential primary. But the message is false: The only limit on participation is one imposed by the GOP‘s state and national leaders.

— Just ahead of California’s March 3 primary and Los Angeles County’s general election, Beverly Hills has filed a lawsuit calling for changes to the county’s new touch-screen electronic voting system.

— Two years after the U.S. Supreme Court removed legal barriers to sports betting, California voters could be asked in November to join 14 other states in legalizing it, creating a lucrative industry worth billions of dollars and intense competition among rival gambling interests.

— California officials have promised to fight any effort by the Trump administration to stop the state from requiring health insurance plans to provide abortion coverage or risk losing federal money.

— Elsewhere in Trump-versus-California news, the administration is suing over a state law banning for-profit prison contracts, saying it unconstitutionally interferes with the federal prison and immigration detention systems.

— PG&E Corp.’s plan to emerge from bankruptcy technically doesn’t need Newsom’s approval. But pragmatically, it probably does.

— As most Californians reach deeper into their pockets to pay higher gas taxes for road repairs, electric vehicle owners have been getting a free pass.

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