In California Politics, School Kids Trump Everything

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

There’s an old adage in Hollywood that the most important part of acting is sincerity, since once you learn to fake that, anything is possible.

Welcome to the wonderful world of California politics, where it doesn’t matter what you say as long as you can somehow make the argument that it’s for school kids.

That makes sense in an evil, Machiavellian sort of way. After all, in 37 years of writing about politics, I’m still looking for the first anti-education candidate.

Take Prop. 30, for example. Gov. Jerry Brown started the initiative drive to put his tax hike plan on the ballot as a temporary fix to California’s budget problems.

Yet the title of the measure, as approved by the Democratic Attorney General, isn’t “Temporary Taxes to Close the Budget Gap.” Nah, it’s “Temporary Taxes to Fund Education. Guaranteed Local Public Safety Funding.”

Kids and cops, a campaign twofer.

Then the pro-30 crew runs ads with Brown and a bunch of teachers talking about how Prop. 30 is “for our students and California’s future,’ to the cheers of little kids surrounding the governor. It also features state Controller John Chiang promising that the initiative has strict accountability, so that the “money must go to the classrooms and can’t be touched by Sacramento politicians.”

You know, Sacramento politicians like Brown, Chiang and the Democratic legislators who will use much of the new money raised by Prop. 30 to free up cash for other state needs, money that otherwise would have gone to the schools.

The other side isn’t any better.

A radio ad put out by “No New Taxes, No on 30” features a bunch of newspaper quotes suggesting that money from the initiative won’t all flow to the schools as advertised. It ends with Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, warning, “If you thought Prop. 30 was for schools, think again.”

Now voters who don’t fall into the political junkie category can be forgiven if they hear the ad and think that if only that money actually was going to the schools, Coupal would be delighted to vote for higher taxes.

Anyone familiar with Coupal and the taxpayer movement in California would know that they’ve never met a tax increase they like. But an ad slamming Prop. 30 “because it’s hurting the kids,” has a much better ring than one bashing school kids as uneducated moochers with their hands in our pockets.

Then there’s Molly Munger’s Prop. 38, which argues that new taxes are needed to provide more money directly to the schools since the politicians in Sacramento aren’t making education a priority.

Now, inquiring minds might like to know how a state that spends about 55 percent of its general fund budget on schools, including colleges and universities, isn’t making education a priority. Or how the elected school board members who will decide how this new windfall of cash will be spent don’t qualify as politicians (Brown, remember, began his career as a trustee of the Los Angeles Community College District and there are plenty of legislators whose political careers started on a school board).

But when the topic is children, it’s perception, not reality, that really matters, especially in a campaign based on the idea that since there’s nothing more important than education, schools should get every dollar they want, leaving the “politicians in Sacramento” to share out whatever pittance is left for every other need in California.

It’s for the kids, remember.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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