California Forum

Mariel Garza: PTA moms’ group becomes face of Prop. 2 challenge – somewhat by accident

Proposition 2 on the Nov. 4 statewide ballot establishes a rainy-day fund for California so government will have a financial cushion from the inevitable next financial downturn.

It’s a bipartisan measure by the governor, former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez and the California Chamber of Commerce, and virtually everyone supports it.

Only one group is actively, publicly opposing the measure: Educate Our State, a name that inspires an emphatic, one-word response: Who?

The loose collection of volunteers, mostly parents, from across the state – united by a belief that our public schools need more money – isn’t well known for a lot of reasons.

For one, it’s a new organization, just 4 years old. It has no staff, no office, no hired lobbyist and almost no money – just a five-figure budget that comes from small donations and grants. The group counts 50,000 members, a number that includes the group’s founders and people who receive the group’s emails. It relies mostly on busy working moms connecting with other busy working moms.

And now it has one more thing: the notoriety of standing up to the governor, the Legislature, the president of the state Board of Education, the California Chamber of Commerce, the League of California Cities, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and a long list of the power players in California politics who support a rainy-day fund for California.

How this happened was kind of an accident. The group opposes Proposition 2 because of the provision that will require local school districts to cap their reserve accounts under certain conditions, thus forcing them to spend their budget when they should be saving.

The group wanted to officially rebut the ballot argument in favor, said Katherine Welch, a parent from the Bay Area and one of the group’s directors. However, they thought the group would be just one name in a list of opponents, not the only name.

“It was an accident,” Welch said, “but now that we’re into a little bit, it’s a fortunate accident.”

That’s because as the only organized opposition, the group is getting attention. So far, representatives of the group have appeared on KQED’s Forum and written op-ed pieces for this and other California newspapers. It doesn’t have any money for a campaign, but it does have a website, 2badforkids.org.

The beginnings of Educate Our State started with bad news. It was late 2009 and the effects of the Great Recession were well underway. For San Francisco schools, it meant the prospect of $113 million in budget cuts over the following two years.

The reality of what that meant for their kids’ classrooms galvanized six PTA moms at Sherman Elementary on Union Street. They decided to hold a town hall meeting to kick-start a discussion about funding and schools. They had no idea what they were tapping into. Once word got out, everyone wanted to attend: the school district superintendent, school board members, Lt. Gov. and former Mayor Gavin Newsom, and legislators. When the doors opened for the event on Feb. 25, 2010, about 1,000 people crowded into Marina Middle School.

Flushed with success, the six moms started a Facebook page, but they knew that wasn’t enough. “We were looking at each other and saying, ‘What do we do now? We have a movement, but we don’t know where to go,’ ” recalled Cece Kaufman, now PTA president of Marina Middle School and one of the original “Sherman Six.”

They started to build relationships across the state – from established parents groups in one city to a handful of angry parents in another.

They held house parties and slowly put together events that tapped into their growing network. First, Let Us Vote, a letter-writing campaign, then Wake Up California! – a “day of action” that highlighted rallies across the state. In 2012 the group helped to get Proposition 30, the governor’s 2012 sales tax, passed. It even supported Proposition 38, the proposition that competed with Proposition 30.

The group is not about taking sides, Kaufman explained, particularly not in the contentious education debate that has pitted teachers unions against other parents groups and education reformers.

Last month, the group co-sponsored a forum for the two candidates for state superintendent of public instruction, but doesn’t plan to endorse either Tom Torlakson, a candidate backed by the California Teachers Association, or Marshall Tuck, backed by charter schools and reformers. The group doesn’t see an upside in backing individual candidates.

“We’re very inclusive. We’re about what is right for kids,” Kaufman said. “In some communities, that might mean charters; in some communities, not.”

The future of Educate Our State or its goal to get more money for schools isn’t clear, though it’s probably brighter now that it has become the accidental star of the the anti-Prop. 2 campaign.

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