Taking Initiative for California Schools

October 20, 2000
2000 Time Inc.
By Melanie Warner

Back when Silicon Valley lacked social consciousness, getting tech executives to support a cause didn't come easy. If something didn't boost revenues for the quarter it wasn't important. Then a guy named Bill Lerach came along. A lawyer from San Diego, Lerach put something together called Proposition 211, which aimed to make it a lot easier for shareholders to sue a company when its stock price plummeted. This meant that Silicon Valley companies could be liable for the frequent gyrations of their stocks and thus might have to end up having to pay lots of money. Incensed at the idea of this, Kleiner Perkins partner John Doerr rallied a battalion of tech executives to support a campaign to defeat Prop 211. They were ultimately successful.

Today Doerr is at it again. He's one of the movers and shakers behind Proposition 39, an initiative on the ballot in California for the November 7th elections. It's an education initiative that will make it easier for towns in California to pass school bonds to raise money for the improvement public schools. Also lending time, money and name to the cause are Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, Cisco's CEO John Chambers, Frank Quattrone of CS First Boston, Accel partner Jim Breyer, Broadcom's CTO Henry Samueli, E-Tek's Michael Fitzpatrick, NetFlix CEO Reed Hastings and Erik Lassila, a VC at idealab Capital Partners.

Doerr became interested in school bonds several years ago when he tried unsuccessfully to pass one in his hometown of Woodside. The public elementary school there was in slipshod shape and needed money. Classrooms were crowded, flooding (due to heavy rains at the time) and the electrical wiring was old and insufficient. Woodside home to some of the wealthiest in Silicon Valley doesn't have the rich coffers you'd suppose: California property taxes have been capped at 1% for 22 years. Had Prop 39 been in effect, the Woodside measure would have passed; Prop 39 lowers the vote needed for a school bond from 66% of the town's voters to 55%. It also provides for a citizen watchdog system to oversee how the money is spent.

Although Doerr's kids attended the Woodside School at the time (as did Larry Ellison's and Tom Siebel's), Prop 39 isn't a personal issue for most Valley executives. Most well-paid business leaders send their kids to private schools. The issue of public education hits home in other ways, though. The growth and global prominence of the technology industry depends on a highly educated workforce. Already the industry believes that America isn't producing enough qualified engineers to fill all the jobs being created by technology companies, which is why the industry is forever lobbying the State Department to increase the number of skilled immigrants allowed in the country on H1B visas. Doerr &Co.; don't harbor the illusion that Prop 39 is going to create a more educated or skilled workforce, but they believe it's one step along the way. The conditions at the Woodside School mirrors the conditions at many of California's public schools in both student performance and physical condition. California's students have among the lowest performance record in the country--and half of all California public schools don't have sufficient electrical wiring.

David Roberts, the founder of Zaplet and a former CIA official, thinks he wouldn't have gotten to where he is today if he'd grown up in such conditions. Roberts was one of some 200 people who attended a fund-raising dinner for Prop 39 at the Woodside home of Erik and Sherri Lassila several weeks ago. Roberts was moved by horror stories he heard from several schoolteachers who were invited to speak at the event. "They talked about crowded classrooms and teaching in trailers and how there's way too many teachers per student. One teacher even described the smell of urine in the halls," says Roberts. "It made me want to be more active."

Better education is a hard thing to be against. But some people are fighting hard to defeat Prop 39. Since school bonds are drawn from local property taxes, opponents of Prop 39 believe the initiative will represent huge tax increases. The Website of the main opposition to Prop 39--The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (hjta.org)--is entitled Saveourhomes.com and warns of "unlimited property tax increases" and the "doubling of property taxes." The radio ads note that Prop 39 is supported by Silicon Valley millionaires who, we are meant to infer, are grossly out of touch with the needs of most California homeowners. Reed Hastings, one of the Prop 39 co-chairs, says that the accusations of skyrocketing taxes are untrue. "There are some people who are opposed to any tax increase. It's a short, easy fear message."

Come the elections, we should know which message got across.

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