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Staff Blog

Education & Democracy

Michael Bornstein

I am increasingly alarmed by Trump’s behavior as president. The abrupt firing of FBI Director Comey is the latest in a series of disturbing actions by a President who lashes out without regard for the sanctity of the office he holds. Trump is the first president since Richard Nixon’s 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” to fire a law enforcement official overseeing a White House investigation. It is easy to draw comparisons to Watergate.

I was 7 years old during Watergate and I remember my parents intensely watching the hearings on TV. I don’t recall what I was told, but I understood that our President had lied and that was a big deal. I felt uneasy and confused, but it was also an exciting time of optimism that this was the end of something bad and the beginning of something new and better.

Now, I am the parent of two public school kids: Sarah (11 years old) and David (10 years old). My own children are anxious about Trump. They don’t understand how anyone could vote for a shameless racist and a bigot. When Trump was elected, my daughter Sarah told me she was scared. I told her that I was also shocked by his election, but that is why we all need to do more.

This is why I started Evolve California six years ago. I was increasingly frustrated with a broken political process that is failing our democracy. After working in politics for 25 years, I saw firsthand how our elected officials are more concerned with partisan politics and raising money, than serving the needs of the people they represent. At Evolve we work to counter the corrupting influence of money in politics by organizing from the ground up on real solutions that make a difference and bring people together.  And no issue is more important than the power of education to change people’s lives and safeguard our future.

Today public education is under attack. Trump’s appointment of Education Secretary of Betsy DeVos and his plan to cut billions from public education is a threat to our children and to our democracy. Franklin D. Roosevelt called education, “the real safeguard of democracy.” Without great public schools we are failing our children and our future.  

California can lead the way, but we must do more. Our public schools are drastically underfunded so that a few large property owners (like Trump) can save billions in taxes. People voted for Prop. 13 to help homeowners, not corporations. By allowing commercial property to be assessed at fair market value, we will generate over $9 billion a year in revenue for local schools and services without raising taxes on homeowners or renters.

The current political and democratic crisis is disturbing, but is also an opportunity to get more people involved. As a father and as a political organizer, I see every day how concern for our children is a common bond that crosses cultural, economic and political boundaries. By organizing to fully fund education, we can protect California from the expected federal budget cuts and bring together a diverse group of people for political change.

To fix California's colleges, reform Prop. 13 by taxing corporations more

Robert J. Birgeneau

Year before last, Evolve reached out to the former chancellor of UC Berkeley, Robert Birgeneau, to discuss his thoughts on how Prop. 13 has decimated funding for higher education in California.  After learning more about our campaign, he offered to support our efforts by writing an op-ed piece, which is posted below. Now more than ever, his words ring true.

This year's very public showdown between Gov. Jerry Brown and University of California President Janet Napolitano over raising UC's tuition ended in a compromise that in no way addressed the real issue: Where will the money come from to keep the state's world-class public colleges and universities competitive in the long term?

As Napolitano and Brown squabbled over how much the state could afford to pay into UC's coffers, they expressly avoided the real solution to public education's money worries: Reform the commercial side of Proposition 13 so the state can raise more revenue. California could raise $9 billion a year for education and public services if commercial property taxes were reassessed regularly. And note: Such a reform would not affect Proposition 13's protections for homeowners.

The governor, and many other politicians of both parties, considers reforming Proposition 13 to be a third rail: Touch it and die. But Californians simply cannot afford to accept this any longer.

Many people do not realize that the famous 1970s "taxpayer revolt" proposition applies not just to residences and homeowners but also to commercial properties and corporations. In fact, it has given commercial property owners more significant benefits than homeowners.

Since the measure's passage, commercial properties in California have paid a progressively decreasing share of property taxes, a source of revenue that accounted for most of our state's budget before Proposition 13. Today, many of the wealthiest corporations in the state still pay taxes based on the values of their properties in 1975. Chevron alone saves more than $100 million a year in property taxes while, per square foot, Walt Disney Co. pays eight times less than the average California homeowner.

And while corporations take advantage of excessive tax breaks, students, their families and their communities bear more of the burden of paying the increasing cost to educate a growing and diverse state. Ironically, these same corporations often complain about the limited supply of high-quality college graduates.

Much has changed since the 1970s; at that time, the Master Plan for Higher Education's vision of tuition-free universities was a reality, the number of institutions of higher education in the state was growing rapidly and California ranked in the top five states for K-12 per-pupil education spending. Now, we are facing a projected shortage of college graduates, UC tuition has doubled in just one decade due to the drastic cuts in state funding and we rank 46th in the nation in per-pupil spending. Student tuition and private philanthropy surpassed the state's support for the UC system long ago.

But what has not changed are the property taxes paid by some of the largest and most profitable commercial enterprises in the state.

Affordable, high-quality education has immense social, political and economic benefits. California's colleges and universities prepare the state's workforce, do basic research and foster innovation — all crucial for economic growth and business success. Corporations must invest more in the education system that benefits us all; they must pay their fair share.

That means California must doing what virtually every other state in the country does: regularly reassess commercial properties at fair market value.

As more and more students vie to attend the UCs, the Cal States and our community colleges, and as we strive to recover fully from the economic downturn and to reestablish California's education system as the gold standard, we should stop allowing corporations to underinvest in our students and our future.

More than 700 elected state officials, and, according to polls conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, the majority of the state's voters agree. Sacramento and Gov. Brown: You must tackle Proposition 13 reform.

Robert J. Birgeneau, a physics professor at UC Berkeley, was chancellor of that campus for nine years.

This article was originally published in the Los Angeles Times on November 2, 2015.

The Best Way to Stand Up to Trump

Tom Ammiano

I was heartened to hear the defiant tone and strong language Gov. Jerry Brown used in his State of the State address last month. He made it perfectly clear that we will defend our immigrant populations and do everything we can to protect the health care that millions of us now rely on.

Democratic members of the legislature have also spoken out in staunch opposition to President Donald Trump’s policies. Unfortunately, what I have not heard are policy solutions regarding how we will make up for the loss of billions of dollars in federal revenue if funding to sanctuary cities is cut and the Affordable Care Act is abolished.

Brown and others should be declaring that, in order to defend California values and be a model for the rest of the country, it’s imperative we generate our own revenue, and the best way to do that is to reform Proposition 13.

For almost 40 years Prop. 13 has been considered the “third rail” of California politics, and few legislators have dared to touch it. Sadly, those of us who have tried to change aspects of the law have not found support from the Democratic leadership. When I was in the Legislature, I introduced legislation to close a corporate loophole in Prop. 13, but party leadership did not allow it to come up for a vote.

Two years ago, senators Loni Hancock and Holly Mitchell authored their own reform and, again, Senate leadership quietly killed the bill. In the era of Trump, blocking commonsense revenue-generating legislation has to stop.

The Hancock-Mitchell bill would have established regular reassessment of nonresidential commercial property while keeping Prop. 13 protections for homeowners and apartments. This would generate $9 billion a year for our schools and public services. You read that right: $9 billion every year! Under this reform, San Francisco alone would receive nearly $700 million more in annual revenue. If a similar bill is introduced again this year, the Democratic leadership owes it to California to embrace it rather than stand in its way.

In dark blue California, it’s easy for elected officials to send tweets condemning Trump’s executive orders or show up at a protest. We should expect more. We should demand that our elected officials and candidates for governor champion real financial solutions to insulate ourselves from a spiteful, demagogic president. It’s time for our Democratic politicians to demonstrate real political courage and take on our state’s sacred cow.

Trump’s antics seemingly get worse by the day, and I’m proud that California is at the forefront of the resistance. However, to be successful in our resistance, we must be able to showcase an alternate vision for America’s future. We can only do that by setting ourselves up to be able to adequately fund our schools and public services. The best way to do that is to reform Prop. 13.

Tom Ammiano served San Francisco in the State Assembly, representing District 17 from 2008 to 2014. This opinion piece originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner:

Let's Fund our Schools

Arman Kalyani

“But the Dark cannot claim what Light does not surrender.”-  C.L. Wilson

            I grew up a pretty normal life. I went to a public school up until fourth grade. Upon testing 9th in the state in mathematics, my mother who immigrated to the United States from her native land of Turkey, was jubilant to send me to a private school so that I could grow into my full academic potential in a setting which she didn’t have the chance to have in her homeland. I attended fifth and sixth grade at this private school. The latter portion of my middle and high school life was spent in public schooling.

Going from private to public school revealed to me a major difference between the two. There wasn’t nearly the same attention and resources given to each student. This wasn’t due to a lack of effort from my teachers or the campus workers. This was because of ongoing budget cuts to the education system and a constant dwindling of resources at their disposal.

Having this experience really showed me the monumental importance of getting California back on track.  This is a quote from the California Budget and Policy Center report on the state of California education spending, “In 2014-15, California ranked 42nd among all states in spending per K-12 student, after adjusting for differences in the cost of living in each state.” When considering the fact that California is the richest state in America, this is unacceptable to me.

This is why I decided to get involved with Evolve California. I want to fight to make sure that every student, regardless of their social conditions, gets the quality education that they deserve. The way to do that is to reform Prop 13! With the appointment of Betsy DeVos to the Secretary of Education, this is more important than ever. She is in favor of privatizing education and has shown a clear record of disdain for public education throughout her career.

When you couple this with the threats from the Trump administration, including cutting California’s federal funding, it is now more important than ever to make sure California can provide for itself. That means reforming prop 13 and making corporations pay their fair share in property taxes!

Why I Believe in Public Education

Sarah Barsky

            I have a passion for public education because it has done a lot for me, my family, and my community. I have been in the public-school system since second grade and am about to graduate from a public university. My grandmother was a grade school teacher for nearly thirty years and my mother and uncle both graduated with their master’s degrees from public universities. My family owes a lot to public education and I’m grateful every day that I was fortunate to receive a decent education.

Before transferring to a university I attended a community college, as it was more financially viable for my family. There I worked in the student government and got to know students from all walks of life. It was there that I met people, many being the first in their family to attend college, who were working so hard to earn their degrees while also having to support a family. I met many people who were trying to better their lives but sometimes unable to continue due to cost.

            While I respect the public-school system, it is not without its faults. Due to budget cuts and tuition hikes from lack of funding, our public schools are suffering. My high school classes were overcrowded and my books were falling apart at the seams. In community college, all of my classes were impacted and required expensive books. The educational system has suffered cut after cut in funding and over time these problems have compounded. While students are paying more in tuition to cover these cuts the quality of that education has still gone down because there just isn’t a reasonable amount of state funding.

            A large part of the funding problem comes from restrictions on property tax reassessment. Now, due to Prop. 13, most of the funding for local programs such as schools are frozen in an outdated tax code. The burden to provide for the community through taxes relies mostly on homeowners rather than fairly distributed amongst all types of property ownership. It is unfair to place a burden on only part of the community when it affects all of the community.

            The reason I chose to intern at Evolve was to help reform Prop. 13 so that the people I met, and the countless others like them, can have the same opportunities to get an education without having to worry about the cost. In such uncertain times when Trump is threatening to further cut our federal budget and DeVos threatens the integrity of the education system, we need an ace up our sleeve. Now is the time for large corporations to start paying their fair share in property taxes. I intern at Evolve because I think that education shouldn’t be old books and crowded classrooms. I chose to get involved because I think that public education is a worthy cause to champion. I chose to take action because investing in education is an investment that will pay the community back threefold.

Sarah Barsky is a senior at the University of California-Berkeley and a campaign intern at Evolve.

Pouring Rights and the Cash-strapped University

Hiba Khurshid

As a student of public schools all of my life, I have seen how the lack of funding has affected schools, with teachers taking pay cuts, the elimination of career centers, and art and music funding being virtually non-existent. At San Francisco State University where I’m currently a student, the lack of funding has pushed the administration to enact pouring rights -- giving Pepsi Inc. or Coca Cola the exclusive right to sell, advertise, and promote their products for eight to ten years in exchange for a significant amount of money. The University will get a one-time minimum donation of $2 million and an annual fee of $125,000. Where the money would go is still under wraps, inaccessible to students as it is a part of contract negotiations.

Students have multiple problems with this: first and foremost the process started without the authorization of the Associated Students, and sparked a protest by the students earlier this month during a presentation by Coca-Cola. President Leslie E. Wong has been very secretive, and non-transparent about the whole agreement. The process violates the shared governance that has been established on campus. Second, the chosen company will have 80% of all shelf space on campus. This is in direct contradiction with the resolution agreed on by all CSU campuses to have 20% Real Food by 2020. The pouring rights agreement on campus will limit students’ healthy drink choices on campus. It would also give control of beverage choices to the company that it would go to.

The last issue with the potential pouring rights agreement, is that a private corporation is being invited into a public institution with advertisements and promotions. This is part of a trend of the privatization of public universities and corporate partnerships that provide universities with much-needed cash. Would we be in this situation if the state provided enough funding for the university? Why should students have to sacrifice their shared governance and their health to attract corporate money to a public school?

Students have called for a Town Hall with President Wong, scheduled for early November. President Wong has not agreed to attend yet, but his office is trying to put something together so students can have their voices heard.

P/C: Open Truth Now and Real Food Challenge at SFSU Facebook Page

P/C: Open Truth Now and Real Food Challenge at SFSU Facebook Page

The Legacy of Jerry Brown and Prop. 13 – A Simple Choice

Michael Bornstein

This week, while speaking at a national real estate group conference, Governor Brown said that he was not willing to fix the commercial property tax loopholes in Prop. 13 because “There is a lot of complexity.”  He also said he was not willing to reform Prop. 13 because he wanted to only fight battles he thinks can win. We could not disagree more.

Taxing commercial property at current market value is not complex. It is the system used by every place in the country – except California. The simple truth is that because some large commercial property owners are paying deeply discounted taxes based on 1975 assessments, everyone else has to pay more – 9 billion more.

Prop. 13 has long been regarded as the “third rail” of California politics, but this simply is no longer the case. A majority of Californians is consistently in favor of making large commercial property owners pay their fair share for our schools and public services. According to an October PPIC poll, 55% of likely voters support reforming the commercial side of Prop. 13. This does not mean reform will be easy, but taking on the task of changing our property tax system has never been more necessary.

Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press

Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press

In 1978, then-Governor Jerry Brown opposed Prop. 13 calling it “a fraud and a rip-off.” Voters supported limiting taxes on residential homes, not realizing that Prop. 13 also included a loophole for commercial real estate. Back then, California schools were considered the best in the nation. Today, our public schools have been decimated by decades of budget cuts.

Voters overwhelmingly support increasing funding for K-12 and higher education. It is unfair to ask Californians to pay higher taxes when some commercial property owners are getting a 9 billion dollar public subsidy. It’s time that we make a structural change to our property tax system so we can start adequately funding our schools.

Second chances in politics are rare. It will be a tough fight, but Jerry Brown has three years to correct his greatest public policy failure. Regardless of all his other accomplishments, Jerry Brown’s legacy will be judged by his success (or failure) to fix Prop. 13 and restore California as a leader in public education.

The Importance of Funding Education: An Interview with Veronica Ramirez

Daniel Hagen

After hearing her powerful public testimony at Assemblymember Phil Ting’s Prop. 13 hearing on July 10th, we reached out to University of San Francisco student and campaigner Veronica Ramirez to share with us what education means to her, and why we need to close the corporate loopholes which have devastated public spending for decades.

Q: Would you like to tell me a little about yourself; your family, what you are studying, and what you want to do with your degree?

Veronica: I grew up with my parents, older sister, and younger brother. Since I can remember, my parents have always told us that getting an education is essential and that we should use that knowledge to strive for our goals and dreams. I was studying psychology, but after I was involved in a campaign in San Francisco, I realized that I wanted to study politics. I want to change something about the world we live in and find a way to make it a better place.

Q: What was it like growing up with public education in California, could you describe your classroom experiences?

Veronica: At first, it was amazing. We had class discussions, group projects, field trips, recess, art time, music. Everything. I loved all of my teachers. We had about 20 students or less in each class, so they not only remembered my name, who my parents were and how I was doing in class, they knew my likes and dislikes, my passions, my strengths and weaknesses. They knew who I was and they cared. I knew that they really cared not only for my education, but for me, as a person.

Q: What is it like to study in an overcrowded classroom in school?

Veronica: In middle school I still had great teachers, and they knew me by name and how I functioned in class, some of what I liked and didn’t, but the care didn’t rub off the same. Then came high school. I had one class with over 50 students in it. My freshman and sophomore years I was miserable, I had my friends, but the teachers just knew me by school performance - what my grades were - they didn’t know me. I had to fight my last years to stand out from the crowd of dozens of students, and I was able to teach my teachers who I was, but it was an uphill battle. There were so many students that went through the system not feeling like any of their teachers gave a damn about them.

Q: How did you first hear about reforming Prop. 13?

Veronica: I heard about it when I started working  with Working Partnerships USA. We were on the Make it Fair campaign, and after researching it, being trained and understanding how negatively commercial property tax loopholes were affecting the state, I realized, like thousands of other people, that we have to reform Prop. 13.

Q: Governor Brown recently announced that California has a budget surplus this year, and that the economy is recovering. Why do you think we need to reform Prop. 13 now if we have enough funding?  

Veronica: The economy is recovering, yes, but how much? Can we really settle with having barely enough money to put into education? The budget is not enough, it has not been enough for years, and going slightly over the budget is definitely not enough. Those children in crowded classrooms, with limited school supplies, old textbooks, lack of sports, art, and theater; they do not have a surplus of funds. I did not have a surplus of funds at my schools. Parents constantly had to give money to a system that should be free, the children had to fundraise to help the schools programs. As I got older, the programs were cut down more and more, until some of them went away. And it’s a shame because that’s the school system my 10 year old brother is living in right now. There is a problem, the schools need money, and by reforming Prop. 13, money that is being kept within corporations will finally flow into the state.

Q: I know you’re involved with Working Partnerships; from your experiences there, what kind of impact have budget cuts had outside of the classroom?

Veronica: Going door-to-door in various neighborhoods, you hear stories. People telling me about parks being demolished and used for commercial buildings, not being able to put their kids into any sports because they don’t have the money, parents struggling to work and find childcare for their children because afterschool programs are almost nonexistent. Personally the one that hit me the hardest was when this woman mentioned the libraries being closed half the week, with very limited hours. My brother has to deal with this, and it hurts. It hurts that one of the tools that helped me develop a passion that has now brought me all the way to a 4 year University, is almost gone.

Q: What would you, or your friends who rely on financial aid, do if it was cut any further?

Veronica: Honestly, if financial aid was cut, none of my close friends would be able to go to school. They simply do not have the money. I mean, I’m barely making it; I had to borrow money from my uncle and sister and get a private loan just to pay off last year, apart from the fact that I was also working a full time job for a few months, had 2 federal loans, two scholarships and two grants. If financial aid was cut down any more than it already is, I would have to drop out of school too.

Q: As you know, decades of post-Prop. 13 budget cuts from Sacramento have decimated education funding in the state. Our campaign to reform Prop. 13 to make big corporations pay their fair share of property taxes will restore around $9 billion in education and public services funding. What do you think California should do with that revenue? What would a fully funded public education system mean to you?

Veronica: Libraries, schools, parks, fire-fighters, community programs, all of that needs funding now! We can’t keep waiting for more schools and libraries to shut down, for more tools to be taken away from the little citizens that matter most. It would mean that the same amount of money is spent on each child in the state, and that what is spent on them is enough to give them lectures, sports, art, theater, computers, books, everything that they need to become well-rounded. Children will become us, can we really place on a limit on how much should be spent on our future? We simply can’t. Thank you.

Veronica Ramirez is an activist with Working Partnerships and is currently studying Political Science at the University of San Francisco.