Nancy Krop had built a notable career as a civil rights lawyer when her child reached school age and she stumbled upon a disaster and a new mission.
Attending her son's first-grade orientation meeting in 2009, Krop was stunned to learn that the public school in a nearby district she declines to name had cut its music and art program. Its library was closing, and the school was laying off teachers.
Krop, the product of California public education all the way through law school at the University of California at Davis, wondered how she'd managed to miss the financial crisis.
"I thought, 'I'm an educated, well-read person how did I not know that our schools have dropped from the top five to the bottom five (in per-pupil funding and performance), and how can we fix it if it's not known?"
She felt galvanized to act, signing up to help raise funds for the school, researching education finance and, within a year, moving to Palo Alto so her son could attend Barron Park Elementary School.
"Eventually it got to the point where I realized I needed to move because I could but what about all the families who couldn't?"
When Krop graduated from Gunn High School in 1980, California schools were well-funded and high-performing.
"The idea was that if you invested in Californians through college, California would get a huge return on the investment. My law degree cost $3,600 $1,200 a year.
"California invested in me and my generation and in return receives our property taxes, our income taxes."
Her son's first-grade orientation, with news of canceled programs and teacher layoffs, had been an eye-opener.
Krop, who in her law practice had just won a record $78.5 million settlement in a federal False Claims Act case, decided to turn her advocacy skills to fixing public education funding in California.
She settled on working through the PTA, reasoning that its 800,000 members, if mobilized, could be a powerful force for change. Now, as the PTA's legislative advocate for Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, she's making the rounds with her message about the state of education funding.
While passage of Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown's 2012 temporary tax initiative, "stopped the bleeding" in California education funding which had been cut 20 percent since 2008 it did nothing to help the state's ranking in per-pupil spending, Krop said.
Average per-pupil spending in California was $8,341 in 2010-11 30 percent below the national average of $11,864, according to Education Week's "Quality Counts" index.
Even Palo Alto's $13,000 per student luxurious by California standards pales in comparison to top-funded states such as Maine, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Vermont, which spend as much as $16,000 to $22,000 per student, according to Krop's presentation, titled "The Dire State of School Funding."
"In some sense there's a complacency even in Palo Alto that we're a wealthy school district without realizing that, no, we're seriously underfunded compared to where we were a generation ago and compared to top-performing states," she said.
Krop interviewed education veterans ranging from former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin to Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond to a superintendent in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
"We don't have to guess what works because we have good models that have been used (to improve schools) in other states, like New Jersey," she said.
Her presentation is full of charts on California's soaring high school dropout rates and the long-term cost of not investing in early education.
"High school dropouts earn less, pay fewer taxes, are more likely to collect welfare and turn to crime," she said.
Krop insists a child's educational opportunity should not depend on his or her ZIP code.
"Californians need to understand that if you don't spend that money (on universal preschool), you're spending seven times more later on to catch those children up. And if you don't have to spend it later on, that frees up a lot of money for our school system."
On the "schools-to-prison pipeline," she notes, "For the first time in California history, corrections funding now exceeds higher education funding, with 19 prisons and one university built in the state since 1980."
Krop advocates investing in teachers to stabilize the workforce, which now suffers from a dropout rate of 25 to 30 percent within the first five years. Better mentoring and professional development could reduce that to 10 percent, saving on hiring and retraining costs.
On the revenue side, she advocates reducing California's heavy reliance (more than 60 percent) on the volatile personal income tax and greater reliance on property tax, which should include reform of the commercial property tax, she said.
In Santa Clara County, the property tax burden has shifted from 50-50 between residential and commercial taxpayers to two-thirds on homeowners and one-third on commercial property since 1978, she noted.
"No great economy ever grew by dis-investing in education," Krop is fond of saying, borrowing a quote from Eastin. "We need to turn this ship around."