Calif. Voters Pump Up After-School Spending

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Proponents of after-school programming will be watching California to see if a voter-mandated spending increase will help kids as its supporters envision, or wreak havoc with the state’s strained budget.

They might also learn from the strategies that led to victory last month for Proposition 49, but it’s unclear whether anyone can replicate the measure without its lead advocate – actor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The measure, approved by 56.7 percent to 43.3 percent, will increase state after-school funding by about $433 million a year, from the 2002-03 level of $117.5 million. About 3.9 million voters favored the initiative.

Proposition advocates said the $550 million total should be enough to award grants of $50,000 to $75,000 to every California public elementary, middle and junior high school, including charters. The grants will have a 50 percent local matching requirement.

“Proposition 49 is pretty exciting stuff,” said Judy Y. Samuelson, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Afterschool Alliance. “I think we’re going to see more of it.”

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Schwarzenegger’s charisma, political acumen and history of promoting youth programs – as well as a $1 million check he wrote to launch the campaign – helped push the proposition to victory.

The campaign could be difficult to duplicate elsewhere. The actor secured endorsements from a diverse coalition, counting more than 3,000 state and national organizations, municipalities and elected officials as allies.

“The coalition was larger and broader than anything this state has ever seen before for any measure of any kind,” George Gorton, Schwarzenegger’s political consultant and the campaign manager for former California Gov. Pete Wilson, said via e-mail. “Those groups that remained in opposition were few and feeble, mainly because Arnold sought out everyone who had a stake in the outcome, listened to their concerns, adjusted the initiative where possible, and jawboned where it wasn’t.”

One of the first groups Schwarzenegger contacted was the California Teachers’ Association, the 330,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association. The union’s support and its $500,000 campaign contribution were unexpected, because the proposition will fund programs outside of schools and those programs that may not have certified teachers.

Schwarzenegger’s goal was to get the union to remain neutral. “I had no clue he could talk them into supporting us,” Gorton said in an interview.

Schwarzenegger had already founded two after-school programs – Arnold’s All Stars and Inner-City Games – and was involved in other chil- dren’s programs before he jumped into politics in February. A potential Republican gubernatorial candidate in 2006, Schwarzenegger said he initiated the campaign for Proposition 49 because he felt too many children were being left out of
youth programs.

In the 2000-01 school year, California had 4.3 million students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Its after-school programs served 112,839 youths from 1998 to 2002, according to the California Department of Education’s Healthy State and After School Partnerships Office.

One of Schwarzenegger’s campaign strategies was to focus on the financial benefits of after-school programs, not just the social and educational benefits. His organization relied on data from the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College in California, which estimated each $1 spent on after-school programs saves taxpayers about $3 in other costs, such as those for criminal justice.

‘Poor Way to Budget’

Opponents did not argue that after-school care is a bad idea. The League of Women Voters of California opposed the proposition because it requires the state to spend money in one area, even if it’s at the financial detriment of other programs.

“Our message to the voters was to look at the big picture,” said Trudy Schafer, program director for the state League of Women Voters. “There are other things children need as much as after-school programs.”

The proposition cannot take effect until the state’s non-education revenues grow by at least $1.5 billion over the previous year, which proposition supporters said is enough to accommodate growth and inflation in other state programs.

The league and other opponents, including the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), said the trigger is meaningless. The 70,000-member federation estimated that inflation and population growth will require an additional $3.5 billion to maintain social services.

The CFT is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, which has fought to keep education funding in the hands of schools and not nonprofit youth-serving agencies.

And with California reeling from a $23.6 billion total budget deficit, now is not the time to add mandatory spending, opponents said. They said spending decisions should be left to the state government, not voters.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 45 states lost revenue during fiscal 2002. The loss of revenues means a drop in services in many states.

“The role of the legislature and the governor is to set priorities,” said Schafer of the voters’ league.

Other organizations that support after-school programs are also not sure if the ballot box is the best way to determine budget priorities. “It’s a poor way to budget, but it may be for a good program,” said Robert C. Price, senior vice president for the Council for Basic Education, based in Washington.

In addition to the $117.5 million in state funds California budgeted for after-school programs in the 2002-03 school year, the state received $41.5 million from the federal government in fiscal 2002.

Some proposition critics also noted the California provision changes priorities for awarding after-school grants. Grants are now awarded first to schools that serve mostly low-income students.

The initiative will place priority on schools that already receive after-school grants, then create a universal grant open to all public elementary and middle schools. If all schools are funded for after-school programs, remaining funds would be available for additional programs at low-income schools.

But opponents couldn’t stop the juggernaut.

“They had star power and a lot of money. We had a principle to stand on and very little money,” Schafer said.

Samuelson at the Afterschool Alliance said star power helped, but passage depended on the strength of the message. “Is celebrity enough? No. But it can certainly raise awareness,” she said.