For months, Governor Jerry Brown’s political strategy to get his cut-and-tax budget plan approved has been to make public schools the poster child for what would happen without additional tax dollars.

A new poll suggests that while the strategy has some merit, it also has some pitfalls.

The statewide public poll from the Public Policy Institute of California (read it here) finds support both for Brown’s budget plan — in concept — and for protecting K-12 schools from deep spending cuts.

68% of those surveyed say the quality of schools would suffer under new budget cuts and 86% are either “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” that California’s budget woes will trigger those cuts.

But those data points don’t necessarily mean the same thing as supporting additional taxes. A plurality of likely voters — 47% — told PPIC that schools “need to use existing state funds more wisely.” Fewer (42%) wanted to add additional revenues into the mix, and only 9% wanted to simply spend more money.

The poll also seemed to confirm the suspicion that education leaders are a victim of their own success at mitigating, as much as possible, previous budget cuts. Only 35% of parents surveyed said their child’s school has been “affected a lot” by recent cuts; a combined 60% said those cuts had impacted things either somewhat (41%) or not at all (19%). In other words: where’s the crisis?

Therein lies a key challenge for Governor Brown and legislative leaders: getting voters — should the issue of taxes ever make it to the ballot — to see the idea of additional cuts as devastating rather than inconvenient. After all, PPIC also found that 52% of those surveyed believe California K-12 spending is at or above the national average, thus suggesting there are probably a number folks who think there’s room to cut. In truth, though, California actually ranks near the bottom of states in per pupil spending.

But here again, the poll suggests a path for the governor and his supporters to follow — again, should an election come to pass: 65% of likely voters say they’d be “very concerned” about laying off teachers.

That’s exactly the case made so far by the California Teachers Association in ads broadcast on TV stations around the state. Of course, fewer people (52%) felt the same sense of concern about bigger classes, an idea unpopular with teachers. And in an unrelated question, 69% said that a teacher’s salary should be “very” or “somewhat” tied to student achievement.

The issue of class size points out a limitation — perhaps, even, a danger — in governing by polling. How does one square the fact that only 52% of respondents would be “very concerned” about larger class sizes… yet 77% said eliminating K-3 class size reduction programs is a “bad idea?” Does that mean they’d limit it to bigger classes for older kids? Or can an idea be “bad” but also necessary?

Similar dilemmas exist for those who will undoubtedly promote one of the other PPIC poll results: 61% of likely voters say they support Governor Brown’s budget plan.

Well, maybe. The question asked by PPIC only calls them “temporary tax increases” without any additional info. But elsewhere in the poll, two of the three Brown backed taxes are tested… and the results aren’t good if you’re the Guv and if a long legislative stalemate means the taxes must be called an increase rather than an extension.

Even when those dollars are tied specifically to K-12 education, 62% of likely voters would oppose a sales tax increase and 66% say they’d oppose an income tax increase. Helping schools by hiking income taxes on the wealthy, however, would come out way ahead (62%).

Finally, the one other nugget from this poll that’s worth noting — and a point also made in other recent surveys — is that the voters aren’t opposed to a special election on principle. 58% of all adults, and 56% of likely voters, say they think a special statewide election is a good idea.

Only 38% of Republicans agree with that sentiment. Then again, Governor Brown only needs 9% of Republicans in the Legislature (two in each house) to go along with that. As of now, it looks like he’s got 0%.

John Myers is KQED’s Sacramento Bureau Chief. Follow him on the blog Capital Notes and on Twitter.

Analyzing Yesterday’s PPIC Poll in Terms of Californians’ Support for Taxes and Schools 28 April,2011John Myers


John Myers

John Myers is Senior Editor of KQED’s new California Politics and Government Desk.  A veteran of almost two decades of political coverage, he was KQED’s longest serving  statehouse bureau chief and recently was political editor for Sacramento’s ABC affiliate, News10 (KXTV). John was moderator of the only 2014 gubernatorial debate, and  was named by The Washington Post to two “Best Of” lists: the 2015 list of top state politics reporters and 2014’s list of America’s most influential statehouse reporters.

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