Malibu, Santa Monica parents rally in Sacramento

Malibu parents Karen Farrer (left) and Colleen O'Beirne Brydon distribute PTA signs to parents from across California at the rally Thursday on the state Capitol steps. Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District parent activists organized the Sacramento event in an effort to publicize a 25-year funding decrease for the state's school system and its children. Photo by Hans Laetz / TMT

The parents were main organizers of the effort in Sacramento to protest school funding cuts and draw attention to the dire straits of public schools.

By Hans Laetz / Special to The Malibu Times

Although the “Caravan for Kids” rally at the state Capitol last week was billed as a statewide effort, it was a group of Santa Monica and Malibu parents who organized it and pulled it off. And despite getting partly upstaged by a televised presidential news conference, the parents succeeded in getting statewide news coverage focused on California’s last place ranking for public school funding.

A traveling contingent of about 60 SMMUSD people not only rallied in Sacramento Thursday, but also set up the agenda, rented the public address system and had signs printed to get the traditionally silent California Parent Teachers Association out front on the school funding issue.

One Santa Monica boy, fourth-grader Nick Kennerly, stood at the microphone on the north steps of the Capitol building and made the news on television stations from San Francisco, Los Angeles and smaller markets. “I love talking to crowds,” the Franklin Elementary School student said after his speech. “Sometimes, it’s a little nerve-wracking, but once you get out there you just want to do your best.”

The Santa Monica-Malibu parents happened to pick the same day for their rally that the news broke that statewide approval rankings for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger are plummeting, due in large part to Californians’ disenchantment with his handling of public schools. And they were also greeted by headlines announcing the resignation of part-time Malibu resident Richard Riordan as Schwarzenegger’s education secretary.

The Public Policy Institute of California’s poll shows 47 percent of the state’s electorate disapproving of the governor’s job performance, versus 45 percent approval, the first time the nonpartisan statewide poll has shown him with negative marks. The governor’s approval rating on education matters remains at 51 percent, but Democrats are defecting from the majority of approval that put Schwarzenegger over the top in the recall election, the polls shows.

Organizers and strategists from Santa Monica and Malibu are modeling their statewide push on their successful drives to pass a parcel tax to preserve arts education and other essential services in the local school district. The Sacramento rally was opened by the Elk Grove High School marching band, which faces disbanding next year as that northern district cut arts programs due to state funding cuts.

Los Angeles television coverage used the schools’ rally to demonstrate the sinking poll numbers, and concentrated on that angle.

Local organizer Dennis Zane said the Committee for Excellence in Public Schools is giving its organizing efforts to the California PTA to spread the SMMUSD parents’ playbook to the rest of the state.

The rally was designed to shore up support for pro-school legislators as they enter into May budget revisions that could restore some funding cuts, given larger income tax revenues than expected due to a mild economic recovery, organizers said.

“Never before has the state PTA done anything like this rally,” organizer Lynn Leavitt said on the long bus ride home. “The PTA traditionally has been very, very nonpartisan, and they’ve never done a Capitol steps rally like this.”

A recent Rand Corporation study showed that education has categorically fallen behind police, fire, corrections and hospitals in state funding commitments in the last 25 years.

The midday rally garnered about 2,000 participants and an equal number of observers.