Dialing for Dollars
J. Bradford DeLong
"Hello. My name is Brad DeLong. I'm the parent of two
kids at Burton Valley. I'm volunteering tonight to call people
to ask for their support for Measure E, the parcel tax measure
for local Lafayette schools."
Note the words parent, volunteer, local. I'm not Washington
calling: I'm your neighbor. This isn't big government: this is
volunteerism. This isn't for some federal construction boondoggle:
this is for the school in your neighborhood.
This isn't the high politics I used to do: "Yes, Mr.
Congressman. Your Republican opponent next year will say that
you voted to raise taxes. But did you know that only 3,246 (estimated)
households in your district will pay those higher income tax
rates? And that 13,245 (estimated) households in your district
will benefit from the enhanced Earned Income Tax Credit?"
This isn't the long-range politics that I try to do: trying to
become one of the "academic scribblers" to whom "madmen
in authority" are listening when they hear their voices
in the air. This is low--but very real--politics.
"The parcel tax is already on the books, but by law it
must be renewed by the voters every eight years. It needs a 2/3
majority. It is worth $800,000 per year for the schools. Election
day is November 2. May I please count on your support?"
God damn Howard Jarvis to all eternity. What business does
the state have, anyway, telling us how we govern ourselves--that
we need a 2/3 majority vote to spend a little bit more money
on our schools? It turns what is a slam-dunk into a vote too
close to be taken for granted.
"Would you like us to send you more information to help
you make up your mind?"
Oh, we are going to win anyway. Parents of kids in school--and
of kids who used to be in school--vote and vote yes. People who
don't have kids in school can be persuaded to vote yes in large
numbers by pointing out that $150,000 of their house's value
is the reputation of the school district, and that reputation
would be easily lost by a couple of school funding rejections
at the polls.
"Thank you very much for your time. Be sure to vote on
November 2nd. It's your most important right."
And voter apathy is our friend. We're not at all interested
in arguing with "no" voters. We're not very interested
in convincing "undecided" voters. We're interested
in turning out "yes" voters. In an odd-numbered year
voter participation will be perhaps 55% (instead of the 80%+
of a presidential election year). There is much to be gained
by energizing the base--and much to be lost by energizing the
But it takes energy. Ten people on the phone bank. Two-hour
shifts each night for a month and a half. Almost all the voting
households in the school district will be contacted. Perhaps
a person-year of political energy and effort will be devoted
to ensure an extra $6,400,000 investment over the next eight
years in education for the children of the upper-middle-class
citizens fo Lafayette, California.
I look around at the other earnest parents--school board candidates--school
administrators--staffing the phones. And I think: here we have
ten people who have paid an extra $150,000 each to have a house
in this school district. How many people who could be potential
PTA leaders in other communities do we have crammed into this
room? They care about the quality of the schools where they live,
and about the quality of the schools their children attend. But
the most straightforward--and easiest--way to achieve these--limited--goals
is to vote-with-your-feet for an upper-middle-class community
where you can turn out 80% voting majorities for local school
taxes. And that is what we have done.
But there is no doubt that the structure sucks. Two decades
after Proposition 13, the dead hand of Howard Jarvis continues
to rule. It has cast us in the role of Sisyphus, trying over
and over again to roll the same small boulder up the hill while
all around us the landslide washes the mountain itself into the
For there is a much better alternative possible world that
we have lost. It is a world in which it only takes 1/2, not 2/3,
of votes to pass a local school tax. It is a world in which California
schools are much better funded and California teachers better
paid. It is a world in which the ten of us on this phone bank
are spread out over more communities making a difference in school
funding, rather than huddled in one town where a critical mass
has achieved political dominance.
It is a world in which the schools are better on average,
and in which there is a somewhat more convincing simulacrum of
equality of opportunity.