Jerry Brown’s timid education agenda

By David Crane | In his final State of the State address, this is all Jerry Brown had to say about K-12 education:

“In education, after seeing 30,000 teachers laid off [as a result of the collapse in state revenues after the Great Financial Crisis], spending has dramatically recovered, increasing by $4,600 per student — $31 billion overall. We will also be able to completely fund the Local Control Funding Formula, which directs more money to those schools with the greatest challenges. For decades, school districts had widely disparate funding until the [1976] Serrano v. Priest decision mandated equal funding for all children. Now with our current formula, the most disadvantaged districts will get substantially more — not just equal funding. Importantly, this year’s budget proposes to link spending with the local accountability plans so that parents can see how the additional spending supports English learners and students from low-income families. Look, it is no secret that kids from more privileged backgrounds generally do better on standardized tests. But the answer is not more micro-management with intrusive state laws. Learning takes place in the classroom and that’s why our first job is to support teachers and give them the training and the freedom to teach as they know best.”

Here’s what Brown did not say:

  • Much of the revenue boost to which he refers has been offset by increases in school district spending on pensions and other retirement costs, as illustrated here.
  • Students aren’t performing better, as reported here.
  • The “local accountability plans” to which he refers don’t confer the powers needed to modify the terms under which teachers are tenured or dismissed or to improve the ability of school principals to actively manage staffs and schools for the benefit of students.
  • School funding is still at risk to a collapse in state revenues, as explained here.

David CraneBrown even set up a straw man when addressing poor student performance by saying “the answer is not more micro-management with intrusive state laws” when the remedy most often proposed by reformers is to liberate school districts from intrusive state laws! Also he neglected to mention that according to the most recent state results, 73% of low-income students, 72% of Hispanic/Latino students, 78% of African American students and 85% of English learners are not meeting standards in 4th grade math, and only 3 out of every 20 English learners are at grade level in math in 4th grade. So much for California presenting itself to the nation as a model of progressive success.

Brown also didn’t tell the audience that several California school districts are in financial distress, something that normally doesn’t happen during economic recoveries. In December the Oakland Unified School District announced a cut to services caused in large part by a 107 percent increase in district spending on pensions and other retirement costs over the past five years. Only 29 percent of the San Francisco Unified School District’s budget is available for teacher salaries this year because retirement spending more than doubled in the last five years. The finances of the largest district in the state — LA Unified — don’t even qualify for certification by the State Board of Education. And more. To his credit Brown has filed a brief with the State Supreme Court that could help school districts to cut retirement costs but he needn’t wait for the Court to act or risk leaving legislation to the next governor.

If Brown is serious about local control he should seek legislation letting school districts set their own tenure, dismissal, principal-authority and remuneration rules and granting them the powers they need to improve their finances. It would take only 62 members of the State Legislature — just 41 members of the State Assembly and 21 members of the State Senate make for a majority — to put such a bill on Brown’s desk.

To his discredit, Brown presided over the centralization of power in Sacramento when serving as governor in the 1970s. To his credit, he has devoted much of his third and fourth terms to returning power closer to the people.

But public schools are still in a Sacramento-controlled straitjacket. Brown should work to release school districts from intrusive state laws, liberate them to act in the best interests of students, and endow them with the powers to adjust their finances as they see fit.

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