Honig Organizes Citizens in Fight Over Calif. School Funding
OAKLAND, CALIF--In an unusual political move, Bill Honig, California's state school superintendent, is seeking to enlist as many as two million parents and concerned citizens as foot soldiers in his battle to increase state funding for education.
To that end, he has organized a sophisticated political campaign to capitalize on parents' dissatisfaction with large class sizes, inadequate instructional materials, and dilapidated school buildings.
Called the California Movement for Educational Reform, the lobbying group's first priority is to pressure the legislature and Gov. George Deukmejian to add $900 million to the state's fiscal 1987-88 budget for education.
But the group's long-term goals include doing battle on behalf of schools with the lobbies for, among other special interests, bankers, doctors, and farmers.
"The thing that frustrates a parent,'' said Cindy McGovern, a parent from Pleasanton, "is all the lobbying groups and all the politics. We just have our voice, our will, and our wish that education be strong. We don't have the money to pay for a lobbyist.''
A political neophyte, Ms. McGovern says she is dissatisfied that the average pupil-teacher ratio in Pleasanton, a relatively wealthy Bay Area suburb , is 33 to 1. Parents at her daughter's school raise more than $30,000 annually to provide "extras,'' such as supplemental reading books.
"We're really trying,'' Ms. McGovern said. "We're not just asking the Governor to give us money; we're putting money in locally.''
Mr. Honig, who has been waging a fierce public debate with Mr. Deukmejian since January over the adequacy of the Governor's budget proposal, maintains that the Governor's plan would force $600 million in school spending cuts. In response, Mr. Deukmejian and his supporters have begun to question whether the $4.5 billion added to the state's education budget since 1983 has produced worthwhile results.
Late last month, the state legislature's lower chamber, the Assembly, added $345 million to the Governor's budget request for education, amid speculation that the state's revenues this year will be as much as $900 million more than previously thought.
While applauding the vote, the new lobbying group maintains that the Assembly's version would still leave the fiscal 1987-88 budget for education more than $550 million short of where it needs to be.
In existence since January, the lobbying group is already a sophisticated political organization. It boasts three offices, nine professional organizers, a public-relations firm, and countywide organizations in the 26 counties where 80 percent of the state's students are enrolled.
Its leaders say the group expects to have spent between $500,000 and $600,000 by August to fight the battle with Mr. Deukmejian and his supporters in the legislature.
Angie Martin, whose San Francisco public-relations firm of Martin & Glantz is organizing the group, said volunteers are being asked to raise $1 for each student in their school district. So far, she said, about $200,000 has been raised.
The group's backers include the state's teachers' unions, the school-boards association, the P.T.A., and administrators' groups.
Nancy Gore, a school-board member in the 32,000-student Mt. Diablo School District in Contra Costa County east of the Bay Area, said the coalition will add some long-needed consistency to education lobbying.
"In the past, we've come together on an issue; then, normally what happens is it disintegrates again, and we find ourselves every three or four years having to start from ground zero,'' Ms. Gore said.
Del Weber, vice president of the California Teachers Association, which represents 80 percent of the state's teachers, said he expects the budget battle "to go on for an awfully long time,'' perhaps beyond the June 30 deadline for completion of the spending plan.
"It doesn't look to me as if people have reached the point where they're willing to compromise,'' he said. "But at this point, the kids are losing, because you can't make any plans.''
Mr. Honig vows that the group's strength and influence will only increase.
"We really haven't started,'' he said. "We should be able to get 5 to 10 times the interest we have already.''
As one of its first big projects, the organization worked feverishly last week to plan 1,000 "schoolhouse parties'' throughout the state; the goal was to attract at least 25 people to each of the gatherings last Thursday.
If they succeed, the organizers said, the feat would dramatize the strength of the grass-roots organization.
Ms. McGovern said she expected "a large turnout'' for the party she and the Walnut Grove School Parent-Faculty Club was sponsoring that night.
"For many years, it felt like there was nothing we could do,'' Ms. McGovern said. "Now I'm hoping C.M.E.R. can truly get long-term funding for education. The way we do it now, never knowing how much you're going to get from one year to the next, causes such problems.''
Those attending the parties will hear from educators about the anticipated effects of the Governor's budget proposal and will be asked to write letters to politicians. And, of course, they will be asked to contribute money.
"It's informational, but we do have a very specific political purpose,'' said James Shipley, one of the nine organizers working throughout the state to put the parties together, raise money, and attract volunteers.
Challenge to Governor
The campaign has not gone unnoticed in Governor Deukmejian's office.
"Everywhere I go, Honig has been there ahead of me with this 'smear,'' Anne McKinney, the Governor's assistant for K-12 education, said, referring to the agenda.
She also alleged that, in some districts, school employees are working on the campaign, a practice she implied might be illegal. "I'm not sure whether this is proper conduct or the proper way to use the public schools,'' she said.
Ms. McKinney described C.M.E.R. activists as being "much more vocal and much more media-related and sophisticated'' than typical parent lobbyists.
"We love to hear from the constituents,'' Ms. McKinney said. "We like to see people here. But that is a different story from a professional effort.''
Patricia Green, a Fremont parent and a C.M.E.R. activist who works part-time for the school district to organize other parents, is sold on the campaign.
"There was a mentality at one time that you didn't mix politics with schools,'' Ms. Green said. "Parents have been very parochial in their perspective. They've thought about their [own] children in their schools, and haven't reached the level of sophistication to say we're all borne up or brought down by every child in society's education.
"We have to translate our love and concern for our children into a political focus,'' she continued. "We have a huge stake in education, and what we have to communicate is that, whether we have one or 10 or no children, we all have the same stake in education.''