EdVoice a power player in Capitol’s political war over school funds

It’s advisory board reads like a who’s who of California’s hyper-wealthy
political players. There’s developer Eli Broad, Netflix founder and former
president of the state board of education Reed Hastings, Silicon Valley
venture capitalist John Doerr, and Gap founder Don Fisher. While different
in political philosophy and temperament, they are linked by their desire to
change California’s educational system–and they put their money where their
mouths are.

And in June, their money, if not their mouths, will be on both sides of the
debate over a new income tax to pay for universal preschool.

Proposition 82, sponsored by Hollywood producer Rob Reiner, would provide
free preschools for every four-year-old in the state. It would boost the
personal income-tax rate by 1.7 percent on California’s wealthiest
residents, those individuals with annual incomes of $400,000 or more, and
families with incomes above $800,000. Together, these people represent about
1 percent of California taxpayers, and they pay about one-third of the $45
billion collected each year in the state personal-income tax.
As an organization, EdVoice has not taken a position on Proposition 82. But
some of its wealthiest advisory-board members have contributed heavily to
the pro-Proposition 82 campaign, which has raised more than $4.4 million.
Some of that money, $300,000 worth, has come from the California Teachers
Association (CTA), EdVoice’s arch-rival. Hastings has contributed $250,000,
and Doerr and Broad have contributed $100,000 each.

Other big money against Proposition 82 is likely to flow from EdVoice
members into political-action committees that are fighting Proposition 82.

Those contributions are not required to be disclosed until next month. But
Capitol insiders in both major parties believe the money already is flowing
and that the organization’s members are likely to wind up as among the
heaviest contributors on both sides of the hot-button proposition. And they
point to past donations as a guide to this year’s contributions.

For example, Don Fisher’s wife, Doris, gave $350,000 to the state chamber of
commerce’s California Business Political Action Committee and $250,000 to
the California Business Properties Association Issues PAC. Both are likely
to weigh in financially against Proposition 82 or against EdVoice’s proposed
parcel tax in November. Fisher’s son, John J. Fisher, the co-owner of the
Oakland Athletics, gave $25,000 to the anti-Proposition 82 forces.

EdVoice president Christopher Cabaldon notes that EdVoice has a bipartisan
membership that gets involved in issues on an individual basis, and not as
representatives of the larger group, “whether you are a Republican business
person or a Democratic social justice advocate.” Those members may
contribute to a variety of political campaigns.

“It’s aggressively bipartisan. These are people who say they are not above
the political. There are folks on both sides of the partisan political aisle
who come together around an issue. That’s how we built the grand compromise
on Proposition 39. It’s not as if we’re some think tank in an ivory tower.”

EdVoice, while denounced by CTA, the most powerful education group in the
state, and pro-CTA Democrats, is not so easily typecast. At its inception,
when it gained traction after successfully spearheading the passage of
Proposition 39 in 2000, EdVoice was bitterly attacked by the solidly
Republican Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (HJTA). That proposition
lowered the local-voter threshold to approve school bonds to 55 percent of
the vote, down from the two-thirds vote that had been required previously.

The HJTA saw Proposition 39 as a violation of Proposition 13 and the
beginning of spiraling tax increases. By one estimate, more than nine out of
10 local school-bond proposals that were defeated because they failed to
achieve two-thirds votes would have been approved if Proposition 39 had been
in effect during the previous decade. Since its passage, the proposition has
provided $26 billion.

EdVoice also is pushing a proposed parcel-tax initiative for the November
ballot. The plan would levy a $50 tax on every property in California and
raise an estimated $500 million annually for schools. Critics of the plan
come from both the right and the left. Some Republicans oppose it as a tax
hike, and Democrats fear that its passage could block more comprehensive
education-finance reform. The results of a comprehensive study of education
finance, a $2.6 million study by two dozen experts sanctioned by the
legislative leadership and the state schools superintendent, is expected to
be released in December, after the November elections.

“It [the parcel tax] could take real reform off the table. It’s like the
‘lottery effect’–people approved the lottery thinking they were giving big
money for education. But $500 million is maybe 1 percent of the money
California spends on education. It won’t have any impact,” said one Capitol
critic. The proposal needs 600,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot;
signature-gathering began last month. The $500 million would be used for
class-size reduction, textbooks and school safety.

Rex Hime, a lobbyist for the California Business Properties Association,
also was critical, although his group has not yet taken a formal position on
the plan. “We think that continuing more taxation isn’t the way to go. You
do this one-time shot, and that’s about it. Once you do that vote, you can’t
go back.”

Whatever the fate of the parcel tax, or Proposition 82 for that matter,
EdVoice appears here to stay, continuing to target high-profile issues.

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