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Teachers succeed by framing strikes as for common good

In this Friday, Jan. 18, 2019 file photo, elementary school teachers Iris Marin, center, and Mireya Gutierrez, right, and Lorena Redford, clench fists at a rally in downtown Los Angeles. Los Angeles teachers who declared a victory after a six-day strike have added momentum to a wave of activism by educators. 

Most of us learned the dangers of making political predictions about 31 months ago. But it’s still pretty hard to resist.

So with the prospect of a major battle over Proposition 13 looming on next year’s general election ballot, the likely combatants on both sides of the split roll fight are sifting through the results from this month’s special election in Los Angeles in which an effort to increase taxes on business properties was soundly defeated.

Like the statewide split roll tax that has now qualified for the November 2020 ballot, proponents of Los Angeles’ Measure EE presented their initiative as a way to provide badly needed funding for public schools.

Public support for increased education spending skyrocketed in the aftermath of a teachers strike earlier this year, and so local leaders called a special election to raise the area’s parcel tax on commercial properties to tap into that sentiment before it subsided.

A coalition of labor and community leaders raised more than $8 million and ultimately outspent the opposition by a 4-1 margin. More significantly, teachers’ unions and charter school advocates called a temporary ceasefire in their war to work together to pass the measure.

But when the dust settled, Measure EE had been annihilated, not only failing to achieve the two-thirds support necessary for passage but falling well short of a simple majority of voter support in one of the deepest blue communities in a deep blue state.

Those who are preparing to fight for the split roll will correctly point out that a special election in an odd-numbered year was almost guaranteed to produce a smaller, older and more conservative electorate.

To make matters even worse for the Measure EE effort, an election to fill a vacant City Council seat in the city’s only Republican district increased turnout in the corner of Los Angeles where opposition to the parcel tax was the highest.

But while a general election ballot in a presidential year will certainly drive larger, younger and more progressive voters to the polls, the results of Measure EE should give serious pause to people counting on Californians’ strong support for public education to translate into passage for a statewide tax increase.

It’s clear that state business leaders have no intention of being outspent in the split roll fight, likely eliminating the huge financial advantage that tax proponents had in the Los Angeles battle. A statewide electorate, while still leaning leftward, will not be nearly as progressive as L.A. voters and therefore even more skeptical of the taxes-for-schools message.

Jerry Brown did convince state voters to increase taxes twice during his eight years in office. But he won both ballot fights with an overwhelming financial advantage. Most Californians never heard the message against Brown’s initiatives.

Even though opponents of Measure EE were outspent by similarly lopsided margins, their warnings about the downside of increasing taxes on business penetrated the voters’ consciousness in a way that the arguments against Brown’s tax-the-rich measures never did.

Polling conducted by the No-on-EE campaign demonstrated that voters agreed that tax increases on businesses would be passed on to consumers, significantly chilling the “tax the other guy” ethos that often keys the success of these types of measures. More ominously, a survey question that invoked the local measure as a first step toward weakening Proposition 13 protections drove a sizable number of voters toward a no vote.

But far more important than Angelenos’ reluctance to raise taxes was their distrust for the people who run their public schools. While voters strongly support public education and indicate that they are willing to pay for necessary improvements, their confidence in the school district to spend the money effectively was much lower.

History shows that Californians have much greater confidence in local leaders than state government, so convincing them to send additional tax dollars to Sacramento rather than their local schools will be an even harder sell.

Of course, a split-roll tax could pass next year. But the lessons from Los Angeles demonstrate that the fight will be a much more difficult one than its supporters may realize. Even with a lower vote threshold needed for passage, the obstacles to success are formidable.

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Dan Schnur is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communications and at UC-Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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