CITY HALL — Assemblywoman Betsy Butler and Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom are used to candidate forums.
As the last two remaining in the fight for the 50th State Assembly District, they’ve been attending such events first to compete for local endorsements in a brutal primary and later to cement their place in voters’ hearts before what may be a close election.
Still, they’ve probably never been to one quite like that which faced them Thursday night, largely because their interrogators will not be able to cast a vote for them on Nov. 6.
Butler and Bloom found themselves on the receiving end of pointed questions delivered by high school students who wanted to know one thing: What will you do to protect my right to education?
The forum was presented by the Human Rights Watch Student Task Force, a collaboration of multiple area high schools including Santa Monica High School, New Roads School and Palisades Charter High School.
It was the second of two events that week that showcased students busting out of their shells and taking an active role to educate the voting community on the issues that will come up on the ballot.
The first, which took place Wednesday night in the Santa Monica High School, featured junior-year English students presenting information on most of the candidates and ballot measures to an audience of peers and parents.
Those in attendance got a run-down on the possible consequences of a repeal of California’s strict “Three Strikes Law” which gives a life sentence to repeat offenders who have committed violent crimes, and the intricacies of another measure designed to inform Californians of the presence of genetically-modified foods in their grocery stores.
“I definitely learned a few things,” said Helen Weary, the parent of a Samohi junior who watched the presentations. “It urged me to consult my voter guide.”
The assignment was meant to give students a window into the issues facing their state, and introduce them to the need to get informed, said Meredith Louria, an English teacher at Samohi.
“As a member of society, I want an educated electorate,” she said. “When we look at what politics has become, it’s all show and no substance. The best place to address that is in the classroom.”
Louria is also the teacher advisor for the Human Rights Watch Student Task Force at Samohi, and several of her students were pulling double-duty at the Thursday night forum.
The concept for the night emerged out of the group’s international work to support education in international conflict zones, said Max Gumbel, the vice president of the task force.
The students helped address needs in Darfur, Africa, putting educational materials into the hands of children who needed it most. It seemed natural for the group to bring the message home to California, where students in public school have seen classes get bigger, materials get older and funding cuts that put their prospects of higher education in question.
“It’s scary to think about,” said Linda Gordon, president of the Samohi task force. “Some people might not be able to get the classes to graduate if these cuts go through.”
It gets down to the state’s Constitution. Unlike the federal version, California’s guarantees the right to education.
That’s being violated left and right, Gumbel said.
Gumbel and his fellow students took their role in the events seriously. He looked like a deceptively young news anchor in a well-fit gray suit, and his male colleagues also sported jackets and the girls professional attire.
Half an hour before the kick-off, they were running through speaking order and topics, delving into the organization of the night.
First would be two individuals speaking for Proposition 30 and Proposition 38, both ballot measures that purport to fund education to different degrees and in different ways.
Then would come the candidates.
All would be questioned first by students and then by those young people in the audience, time allowing.
Although the League of Women Voters of Santa Monica helped the students craft neutrally-worded questions and kept watch on the time, the organization and the content of the forum was dictated by the students, said Pam Bruns, of the student task force.
Time to debate
Just after 7 p.m., the event kicked off with Eloy Oakley, president of Long Beach City College, speaking for Proposition 30 and Sandy Escobedo, a senior policy analyst with the Advancement Project representing Proposition 38.
Students quickly ripped into both propositions.
The first, put forward by Gov. Jerry Brown, increases taxes on people making above $250,000 for seven years and also adds half a cent to the sales tax.
It promises to prevent $6 billion of threatened cuts to K-12 and higher education, but gives no guarantee that funding will go to schools after the first year.
Proposition 38, on the other hand, raises $10 billion by taxing everyone in California that makes above $7,300 a year. Students discovered it would not keep funding stable in 2013, and that as seniors they could see as many as 20 days gone from their school year.
Butler and Bloom took the stage at 8 p.m.
Butler quickly established her progressive credentials, pushing the mantra of science, technology, engineering, arts and math — or STEAM education — and the need to include more girls in those critical fields.
Bloom touted his local victories for education, including the nearly $14 million of support that City Hall provides local schools each year.
Though they agreed on the problems, the two candidates differed on solutions.
Butler said she’d be “delighted and thrilled” to carry legislation like an oil severance tax or carbon market tax to fund education.
“We have to tax and build revenues,” Butler told the audience.
Bloom took an opposing stance.
“We can’t tax our way out of the problems we have,” he said, pushing an agenda of economic development.
Students continued to pepper the candidates with questions right up to the 8:45 p.m. cut off. The candidates stayed after, speaking with groups of students and joining them in pictures.
The forum had a different tenor than those past, possibly because unlike many issues, the young people are facing the consequences of poorly-funded schools directly, Bloom said.
“It’s extremely important that we have this kind of dialogue,” he said.
The night was as much about the experience as the information.
Youth are the future, Butler said, and it’s critical for them to be engaged in political issues and for candidates to listen.
“We need to get them hooked,” she said.
The students cleaned up, facing the reality that tomorrow they’d be back at school looking many of the challenges described over the previous two hours squarely in the face.
It makes it even more important for students to push forward their needs and educate those around them, especially if they can’t cast a ballot, Gumbel said.
“Students often underestimate the power they have,” Gumbel said. “Even if we can’t vote, we have the power of as many votes as we choose to exercise.”
The vision of the event goes past the opportunity to drill candidates with tough questions, Bruns said.
“I think they’re looking forward to establishing a working relationship with whoever gets elected in the 50th,” Bruns said. “They’ll go to Sacramento, if need be. They’re the best witnesses to what’s going on.”