SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Hundreds of teachers from around California descended on the state Capitol Monday to make the case for extending tax hikes as a way to stave off deep budget cuts to public education.
Amid tightened security, the teachers marched to the Capitol in hopes of meeting with lawmakers and even staging sit-ins in the building.
The day was a kick-off to a week of action the California Teachers Association has dubbed a "State of Emergency." It includes demonstrations and teach-ins throughout the state as schools face the prospect of mass layoffs and program cuts.
Chanting "Tax, tax, tax the rich, we can solve the deficit," hundreds of teachers clad in pale blue shirts carried banners and signs into the Capitol building, where California Highway Patrol officers blocked the main rotunda areas to prevent demonstrators from staging sit-ins there. A large group of teachers moved to an open area on the second floor. Others lined the hallway outside the office of Gov. Jerry Brown.
Doug Nielson, a government and economics teacher at Coalinga High School, said he was frustrated after visiting the offices of Republican lawmakers whom he said seemed more concerned with adhering to their ideology than addressing what he called a crisis in public education.
"If we stick to our ideologies, our children are going to suffer," Nielson said. "When somebody says well, extending these taxes is a tax increase, you've got a mindset there that says the dollars are more important than the kids. And they can't be. We can't afford to do that. You can't have first-class teaching on a Third World budget."
Republican legislative leaders were pointing to an unexpected $2.5 billion in extra tax revenue that came to the state last month as a way to fully fund education without having to extend the recent tax increases.
"It's an opportunity for us to live within our means and do the right thing, and still protect schools and law enforcement and the things that I believe are important to taxpayers and what taxpayers believe they're paying taxes for in the first place," said Assemblywoman Connie Conway, R-Tulare.
About 300 volunteers wearing shirts saying, "I will be a lay-off!" were expected to rally outside Conway's district office in Visalia later Monday.
At issue are temporary increases in the sales, personal income and vehicle taxes the Legislature enacted two years ago. The increases are scheduled to end by June 30, but Brown wants a special election to renew them for another five years to help close the remainder of what had been a $26.6 billion budget deficit.
The deficit now stands at $15.4 billion after Brown and Democratic lawmakers cut spending and transferred some money between government accounts. So far, Brown has been unable to win the two GOP votes he needs in each house of the state Legislature to put the tax question before voters.
The California Teachers Association and other interest groups are calling on lawmakers to vote on the taxes outright before they expire, rather than waiting for a special election the teachers say would take too long and imperil about 20,000 public school jobs. That's about the number of layoff notices that were issued to teachers and other staff for the next school year.
David Sanchez, president of the 325,000-member teachers association, the politically powerful union that is organizing most of the week's activities, kicked off the protest in Sacramento by saying schools already are suffering from previous cuts that have devastated art, music and physical education programs. The union represents about three-quarters of the state's 300,000 teachers, as well as other school personnel.
"These cuts run deep and they not only impact the present, they impact our future," Sanchez said. "We are here today and we will be here the entire week to tell our legislators they must extend the temporary taxes."
Without a renewal of the tax increases, Brown and Democratic lawmakers warn the state will be forced to make deep cuts that affect the lives of nearly every Californian and further erode the quality of the public school system.
"I think it's time to get mad as hell and say enough. This is a disgrace, a national disgrace," San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Carlos Garcia said while addressing an early morning rally in San Francisco.
About 100 school personnel gathered at 5:30 a.m. in San Francisco and marched to school district headquarters, with 60 boarding a chartered bus to Sacramento to join other protesters.
Garcia also said California should consider revising Proposition 13, the 1978 voter initiative that rolled back and capped property tax increases, so more tax revenue can be generated from commercial properties.
In addition, the California Federation of Teachers began running a radio ad in selected areas, singling out Republican state senators who oppose extending the tax increases. The ad will run in the districts of senators Tony Strickland of Thousand Oaks, Anthony Cannella of Ceres and Tom Berryhill of Modesto.
Strickland welcomed the ads, saying the effort prompts people to call his office so he can explain that one of his goals is maximizing classroom dollars by cutting education bureaucracy and other government waste.
He said Republicans intend to release their own budget plan that would avoid more cuts to education and law enforcement by using $2.5 billion to $5 billion in projected revenue growth as the state economy improves.
"California is not in this position because we're taxed too little," Strickland said. "We're in this position because we're taxed too much. I understand teachers' concern, because 50 cents of each dollar we spend in Sacramento is going to education, but not much of it is getting to the classroom."
School funding accounts for more than 40 percent of the state's general fund spending, but it has fallen from $71.1 billion in the 2007-08 fiscal year to $64.4 billion this fiscal year.
The California Federation of Teachers also supports a bill by Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, which would increase the income tax rate from 9.3 percent to 10.3 percent on taxable income of $500,000 and up, union spokesman Steve Hopcraft said. A recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California found that six in 10 likely voters favored raising income taxes on top earners to fund education.
The protests will culminate Friday with a rally and sit-in at the state Capitol.