Mom in Munger-PTA Ad Is Wrong

The first ad for the temporary-tax-initiative backed by civil rights lawyer Molly Munger and the state PTA was built around a promise that no one should make.

The ad, and a related web tool, promised a specific number of dollars to each public school in the state. And there is no way to know how much money would end up in schools as a result of the initiative.

The second ad is slightly better.

There's only one minor factual problem with it--the ad claims that all the money bypasses Sacramento for schools, when in fact $3 billion goes to help with state debt in the early years of the tax.

In what has been a fairly dishonest debate about taxes, this counts as progress.

But the larger message of the ad is -- to put it mildly -- bunk. It's the familiar bunk that fuels almost every initiative. And it's bunk that's helped poison California's governing and budget systems.

The bunk appears right at the beginning of the ad, when a girl's voice says, "my mom always tell me when you want something done right, then do it yourself." And then adds that this is the idea behind the Munger-PTA initiative. And it takes a swipe at "politicians" for failing to fund schools, saying, "We waited years for politicians to do it."

Kid, your mom is dead wrong.

Californians have been "doing it themselves" for a long time. And it's all that DIY that's helped get us into this mess.

The budget is a mess of contradictory formulas and precedents that are the product of "do it yourself" initiatives. Politicians can't give more to schools not because they fail to act or because there's something wrong with them but because the formulas govern the budget, not the politicians.

This kind of nonsense and playing to the ignorance of the crowd isn't just dishonest. It makes the situation worse. It tells voters that they're not to blame for what's gone wrong in California, that it's the fault of somebody else. For a campaign that ostensibly cares about education, this is a rotten lesson to be teaching.

This initiative doesn't have to be sold this way. Munger and the PTA could try something like the truth. California's budget is a big mess for a whole bunch of reasons. And it needs to be fixed. In the meantime, the schools are hurting as a result of that big mess. And we've come up with a way temporarily to get some money to school sites. It isn't that much money (not enough to get us to the national average in per-pupil funding). And it isn't a permanent solution to the problem. But it's an improvement on what we have.

If they wanted to go further, they could argue that it's the first step in what needs to be a much larger process of remaking the budget process, to restore local control and accountability for funds. Saying that, of course, would be a promise to pursue that kind of larger reform.

And this ad suggests there's very little long-term thinking behind this initiative. This is a campaign that's willing to say what it takes to win now -- even if that means broadcasting messages that make it  harder to fix the state.

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