The conventional wisdom is that voters are tax-averse.
More than 30 years ago, Princeton political scientists wrote, “If voters are skeptical about the need for additional taxes, even a small increase may force [elected officials] to look elsewhere for work.”
For the most part, the belief that voters will punish those who raise their taxes continues to be an article of faith for political leaders. Beginning in 1978 with Proposition 13 in California, where more than half of voters typically tell pollsters that their taxes are too high, various voter-approved measures have made it particularly challenging to raise taxes at the local level.
But in 2014, voters in Oakland, California voted to raise their taxes to support a program designed to prepare all students for postsecondary education and careers.
And they did it not once, but twice.
This is the story of how the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) developed a plan to expand postsecondary opportunities for all students, and how they then convinced taxpayers that the program would be worth their support. It involved a demonstration of real need, an educational program designed to help all students, and more than a little political strategy.
In 2014, the OUSD Board of Education acknowledged that its schools were not meeting the needs of many students.
The district served approximately 37,000 students. Nearly half spoke a language other than English at home, and over 70 percent received free or reduced-price meals. In 2014, student enrollment was approximately 40 percent Hispanic or Latino, 30 percent African American, 13 percent Asian, 12 percent White, and 5 percent other races or ethnicities.
The district’s dropout rate was 24 percent. The graduation rate was 66 percent. Additionally, only 32 percent of students met the academic requirements for California’s state universities after graduation.
There were well-paying jobs in the Bay area – job growth rates were high, and the area’s unemployment rate remained t lower than that of both California and the nation. However, many of these jobs required skills that Oakland Unified graduates lacked.
The district did offer some specialized career training for students, says Gary Yee, who served on the Oakland school board for more than 20 years and also as acting superintendent . However, the students who were admitted to those schools “were already very successful academically.” He cites the Pre-Engineering Academy as an example, where students must achieve high grades in 9th grade algebra for admission. “Most of their students went on to four-year colleges, including MIT,” he says.
But in a district as diverse as OUSD, many students were not entering the selective programs. The school board began to explore the idea of offering all students a rich academic curriculum paired with career preparation. In collaboration with the Irvine Foundation, the district adopted the Linked Learning strategy.
“We were not going to create a two-track system,” Yee says. “Every kid would get both kinds of experiences.” To stress that philosophy, they called the initiative College and Career for All.
The challenge was that creating the kinds of Career Academies envisioned by the board was an expensive proposition. Yee notes that the Career Academies would offer more college-eligible classes (those that met the A-G certification recognized by the University of California and other four-year universities in the state).
According to Yee, the academies would also provide more “contextualized learning.” So instead of a trigonometry class, students would see that math in the context of a city planning course. Academies would also offer more work-based learning, paying students for internships. And finally, they would offer more personalized learning supports to help students be successful in the coursework.
Of course, all of that would cost money, funding that was not available through the regular apportionment for schools. That meant the district would have to turn to the voters to approve additional taxes to support the initiative.
Why Oakland Chose a Parcel Tax
In 1978, California voters were frustrated by a combination of double-digit inflation and rapidly rising housing prices that led to annual increases in property taxes.
Proposition 13, designed to hold down the increase in property taxes, offered a solution. It restricted property taxes in the state in two ways: first, it limited tax rates to 1 percent of assessed value; second, it changed how properties were assessed.
Proposition 13 reduced local property tax revenues in the state by approximately $6.1 billion (53 percent) virtually overnight. The measure also made it more difficult to raise taxes by imposing restrictions on the taxing authority of local governments. Now two-thirds of the voters, rather than the previous simple majority, would need to support any new special tax in a local election.
Education funding plummeted. California’s per-student funding fell from fifth in the country to 47th over the next two decades. So the challenge for the Oakland Unified School Board was real: how to convince two-thirds of the voters to support a new education program?
The board settled on a proposal to collect a parcel tax of $120 on each individual parcel of land within the boundaries of the school district, with exemptions for low-income people and senior citizens. The parcel tax, a flat rate tax, was a constitutionally allowed alternative to the property tax. But it would still require the support of a supermajority of voters. And that was no sure thing. “Even in California, this is probably one of, if not the only, local parcel tax measure that is aimed at investing in high schools and improving graduation and college-going rates,” said David Kakishiba, the president of the Oakland school board.
The language of the ballot measure stipulated that at least 90 percent of the funding must go directly to schools (as opposed to administrative costs) and that the district must allocate the revenue on a “per pupil basis,” meaning the amount of funding schools receive would be based on the number of students they serve. Schools would have to submit and get approval for specific education improvement plans, and the funding would be allocated to both traditional district public schools and charter schools (the latter of which are public entities that are privately operated). Finally, the ballot measure also promised that all the funding raised locally would be spent locally, with “no money for Sacramento” included in the language on the ballot.
“We knew we had to explain to voters exactly how the money would be used,” Yee said. “And we had to remind them that legally, the funding could be used only to supplement, not supplant, our local funding.”
Most important, the new revenue would expand opportunities for every student in every school in every part of Oakland. The school board promised that the funding – which amounted to roughly $12 to $13 million a year, or about $1,000 per student, would:
- Increase support for students in college preparatory courses in every high school to ensure students are qualified for admission to the University of California and other 4-year university systems, and are prepared to succeed in college;
- Provide work-based learning in every high school, including career exploration, career technical education courses, job shadowing, internships and job certifications;
- Reduce the drop-out rate by providing counseling, tutoring, mentoring and other intensive support services to students in danger of not graduating high school;
- Provide programs to students transitioning from 8th to 9th grade to prepare them to succeed in high school, and to students transitioning from 12th grade to college to prepare them for admission to and success in college.
Measure N, also known as the Oakland College and Career Readiness for All Act, appeared on the ballot on November 4, 2014.
To reduce the drop-out rate and provide Oakland high school students with real-world work and learning opportunities; prepare students for admission to the University of California and other four-year colleges; expand mentoring, tutoring, counseling, support services, and transition to job training programs; shall the Oakland Unified School District levy a $120 parcel tax for ten years, with low income and senior exemptions, no money for Sacramento, and all money benefitting Oakland students.
An independent commission was established to ensure that parcel tax funds would be spent as voters had directed. This strategic move helped reassure wavering voters that there would be clear oversight of their additional tax money.
The College and Career Readiness Commission, made up of five people appointed by the Board of Education, is responsible for both planning and oversight of how parcel tax funds are spent. The Commission reviews each school’s plans, School Quality Review findings, and Balanced Scorecard results, and submits funding recommendations to the Board of Education. They also review independent audit reports and suggest any proposed changes in funding to the Board of Education. David Kakishiba, former School Board Chair, currently serves as one of the Commissioners.
Building Public Support
Like most states, California sets strict limits on how local governments can influence the outcome of any election.
In Stanson v. Mott, a case governing whether a local government could spend public funds to lobby for a bond referendum that would pay for more parks, the California Supreme Court wrote: “A fundamental precept of this nation’s democratic electoral process is that the government may not ‘take sides’ in election contests or bestow an unfair advantage on one of several competing factions.”
This case clearly stated that public funds couldn’t be expended to persuade voters to support or oppose a particular ballot measure. However, it did make it clear that government agencies and officials (such as school boards and school board members) were free to meet directly with individual government officials. This meant that the advocates for Measure N needed to establish an independent organization to communicate with and persuade voters. The education advocacy organization GO (Greater Oakland) Public Schools assembled a broad-based coalition of supporters. The list eventually included Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), and the East Bay Asian Youth Center (EBAYC), among others.
There was no formal opposition to the measure, but some traditional school allies chose not to join the advocacy effort. One challenge arose from California state law, which mandated that charter schools would also be eligible (on a per-pupil basis) to receive a portion of the funding. Because of their opposition to this provision, many of the education unions in Oakland did not formally sign on in support of the measure.
Nevertheless, advocates for Measure N advocates reached out to building trade unions in Oakland, emphasizing that career training was a way to ensure that a diverse talent pool would be prepared for union-level jobs in the trades. In the end, the advocates for Measure N represented a wide spectrum of the city’s geographic, racial and ethnic, and political diversity.
Crafting a clear and concise political message is always crucial, especially for a measure requiring voters to raise their own taxes. It’s essential to define what the measure will and won’t do. Measure N proponents designed a voter communications strategy that distilled the language from the ballot measure and boiled it down into four simple promises. Measure N would:
- Reduce the drop-out rate
- Provide all high school students with real-world work and learning opportunities
- Prepare students for admission to the University of California and other four-year colleges
- Expand mentoring, tutoring, counseling, support services, and transition to job training programs.
One of the most appealing aspects of the message was its emphasis on providing opportunities for every student. As Gary Yee, said, “We never put limits around ‘Career Ready.’” Proponents emphasized that career training could also be for high-achieving students who had finished the regular curriculum by the end of their 11th grade year. They could graduate with both a diploma and career preparation. “We had to expand our definition from hammers and nails to include computers and technology.”
Local newspapers expressed support for the measure, albeit sometimes after grumbling about other concerns with the schools. Volunteers went door to door to talk about the measure and answer questions. “We have a liberal voter base that is deeply committed to education,” said Sam Davis, a current member of the Oakland School Board. Still, supporters took nothing for granted.
In the end, all the hard work paid off. Measure N was approved with roughly 77 percent of the voters supporting it.
The Program in Action
To bring the promises of the ballot initiative into practice, Oakland adopted a strategy called Linked Learning.
Based on the idea that students are more likely to be successful if their education is relevant to them, the Linked Learning approach integrates rigorous academics that meet college-ready standards with sequenced, high-quality career-technical education, work-based learning, and supports to help students stay on track.
Measure N provided nearly $1000 per student in additional funding to meet these goals. The funding allowed OUSD to set up high school pathways that prepared students in one of 33 career areas. In keeping with promises made to the voters, the pathways also offered advanced academics. The key, said Rebecca Lacocque, Director of Linked Learning for OUSD, was that students in the programs are “preparing for college and career.”
For example, in the Engineering pathway, students learn trigonometry and calculus, while also learning how these subjects are applied in designing seismically sound buildings and bridges. They may work with a professional engineer to create a model of a bridge, evaluating the tensile strength of different materials before writing up their analysis. “Pathways students never have to ask, ‘When are we going to use this?’” Lacocque says.
The board established specific metrics to track their progress. They reported annually to the public on their progress toward those goals.
Measure H – A Renewal
California law does not require parcel taxes to be renewed, but the initial supporters of Measure N felt that requiring a renewal in ten years would “reassure taxpayers that they would not be on the hook forever if the experiment didn’t work,” Davis said.
In 2022, OUSD decided to go back to the voters to extend the College and Career Readiness program. Although Measure N did not expire until 2025, the school board voted to put Measure H on the 2022 ballot so that if it didn’t pass on the first go, they could try again in 2024.
For those who are facing the challenge of putting a revenue measure before the voters, the Oakland experience offers several important lessons.
In 2022, the “Yes on H” Committee garnered even broader support than they had for the initial vote. “We focused on getting the endorsement from the teacher union right out of the gate,” said Sam Davis. Once teachers were on board, supporters began meeting with other potential supporters.
The Yes on H Committee endorsements included the Chamber of Commerce, the NAACP, and the teachers unions, all groups that might not otherwise appear together. “The broad coalition built voter confidence,” Davis said.
Students became the face of the new ballot measure, this time designated to be Measure H. Voter outreach events featured parents, students and teachers from both charter and district schools, which supporters noted was unusual. “Lifting up student voices was the most effective way we communicated what we were about,” Davis emphasized.
Davis noted that a significant part of the strategy for the Measure H campaign was to focus on success stories for all students. “We felt it was really important to note that we were serving students with disabilities, students in alternative education placements, and newcomers.”
Board members organized formal listening sessions with a broad range of community groups. “Listening is magic and it doesn’t happen that often,” Lacocque said. Board members met with teachers, parents, and staff to ask them how things were working for them. “It was a powerful way to build a coalition,” she said, and allowed people who had benefited from Measure N to connect the dots between their experience and the policy.
Davis said the listening sessions also helped head off potential problems that could have been deal-breakers. For a measure that has to pass with 2/3 of the vote, “If you have any formal opposition at all you’re sunk,” Davis said. “So you have to neutralize that opposition ahead of time.” By the time they had the wording of the ballot measure, the potentially contentious issues had been worked out.
The messaging about Measure N was all about promising to make changes for students. The Measure H messaging reported on how those promises had been kept.
Student leadership was especially important. “Student leadership in the campaign is fantastic. Lifting up student voices – that’s what makes people take notice,” Davis said.
Beyond that, the committee continued to emphasize that students in Oakland did not need to choose either college or a career. “When we talk about preparing students for the jobs of the future,” Davis says, “it’s not that they have to choose between academics and career preparation. It’s not either/or – it’s both/and.”
The campaign also emphasized how the pathways benefit the entire community. “Every kid in Oakland deserves the opportunity to follow their passion and to have a career so they can come back and contribute to their community,” teacher Ayo Akatugba, a science teacher and director of the green-energy pathway at Skyline High School, said.
Media outreach is critical. Meet with editorial boards. Set up visits by committee members to local talk radio shows or local midday television programs. Ask for endorsements not only from the large daily newspaper but also from smaller community weeklies.
Running any campaign takes at least some money. At the start of the campaign, figure out the things you really need. That will vary by locality and by issue, but at a minimum you will want money for:
- Filing fees and other necessary costs associated with getting a measure on the ballot – these may range from negligible to hefty. (In California, the cost per signature for gathering enough signatures to get an issue on the ballot is $16.18, for example.)
- Printed material that explains the measure voters will be considering. This doesn’t have to be fancy but it should be attractive and easy to read.
- Support for direct voter contact efforts. Depending on the size of your district, this could be anything from coffee and donuts for door-to-door volunteers to paid phone banks.
- Ads and signs. Again, depending on the size of the district, these costs could range from a few low-dollar radio or social media ads to a much more expensive television advertising campaign.
- A word here about yard signs. (And if there is one controversial part of any campaign, it may well be yard signs.) “Yard signs don’t vote,” say many professional campaign managers. And it’s true that there’s no evidence that yard signs by the side of the road do much to motivate voter behavior.
However, there is also a “Yard signs in yards do move votes” camp. A sign in a yard tells neighbors that someone they know is supporting your initiative. There are studies showing that in local races, yard signs can have a small but not inconsequential impact – affecting the final vote by one or two percent. In many elections, that may well be the margin of victory.
So if your committee decides to distribute yard signs and you are trying to limit costs, you could avoid roadside signs but focus on getting as many signs in yards as possible.
No one ever signed up to support a political measure because they wanted to raise money. But without funding, all the plans your committee has made to support your initiative may not happen. Developing a fundraising plan is important.
In a small race, you might ask supporters to make small contributions of $10 or $20 – they will feel invested in the campaign and you will have the financing you need. But some communities may require a much larger budget.
That was the case for the Yes on Measure H campaign in Oakland. Even though the program had operated successfully, it was on the ballot with several contested political races and a few other initiatives.
The committee asked the Mayor to help. She didn’t make many calls, but one call went to a very wealthy individual who contributed $200,000 to the effort. “Not everyone knows a billionaire,” Davis said. “Luckily, in most communities you don’t need one.”
Thankfully, most committees will never have to raise that kind of money. But whatever your budget, be sure you comply with all local and state laws about how you raise, report, and spend the money.
For advocates who have spent months working on a particular ballot initiative, it can be a humbling experience to spend time at the polls. Voters will arrive at their polling place with a clear idea of who they are supporting at the top of the ticket. But by the time they get to other items on the ballot, they may not have any idea of how to vote.
There are several ways to make sure voters get the information they need:
- Political parties can include the issue on the sample ballot they hand out to voters. Of course, the ideal situation is for both parties to support an initiative (a rare but not unheard-of situation). It’s worth it to have only one party’s support – it’s easy and basically free voter communication.
- Look for education-related groups that put out their own sample ballot. In Montgomery County, Maryland, the “Apple Ballot” is generally considered to rival the Washington Post endorsement for influence.
- If local newspapers have endorsed the measure, be sure to have copies of their endorsement to hand out.
- Remember now that there is no such thing as “Election Day.” In most communities, the election season will run for several weeks.
In 2022, Measure H passed with even a higher vote total than Measure N. “It was,” said Davis, “a huge amount of work. But it was so exciting to see everyone come together to support it.”
Measures of Success
High School Graduation Rate
- 2014-15 (before Measure N) – 64.2%
- 2021-22 – 78.8%
Students Meeting California’s A-G Requirements
- 2016-17 – 60.5%
- 2021-22 – 64.5%
- NOTE – In 2021-22, only 51.4% of California’s students earned this designation
Note: California made changes to how this designation was calculated in 2016.