Jerry Brown Faces Challenges In Keeping Education Promises

This story comes courtesy of California Watch.

By Louis Freedberg

Gov.-elect Jerry Brown will face substantial challenges in implementing many parts of his education platform, arguably the most detailed of any California governor in recent memory.

The platform [PDF] received little attention during the election campaign. Instead, most discussion of education centered on charges made by Meg Whitman that Brown drove Oakland schools into bankruptcy, an assertion vigorously rejected by Brown and most independent observers. Brown in turn charged that Whitman would cut billions from the K-12 education system if elected, a charge Whitman also rejected.

Michael Kirst, a Stanford professor emeritus of education who has been close to Brown for decades and helped him develop his education strategy, said that the plan was drawn up with full awareness of the state's shrinking financial fortunes and that some aspects will likely have to be tackled later in Brown's term. He said that even before the Legislative Analyst's Office came out with its report this week, projecting a $25.4 billion deficit next year, it was anticipated that 2011-12 would be the worst one for schools, when $8 billion in new state taxes are due to expire and $4.5 billion in federal stimulus funds will run out.

"There are no rose-colored glasses about what is going to happen on the fiscal side," Kirst, widely regarded as one of the preeminent experts on education in the state, told me yesterday. "You factor that in as a constraint, and then you try to be creative about what you can do."

Kirst was chairman of the state Board of Education during Brown's first term as governor and has worked with him closely since then, including while he was mayor of Oakland. In addition to the vested interests and constituencies that have created what many view as the most Byzantine school finance and governance system in the nation, escalating budget deficits will likely force Brown to defer some of his most ambitious reforms.

The constraints are likely to be enormous.

In the K-12 section of his platform, for example, Brown wants to recruit more teachers from the top third of California's high school graduates. That would be hard to accomplish without significantly increasing teacher salaries as well as improving working conditions in schools themselves.

Under current conditions, it is hard to imagine how either could be accomplished. In fact, teacher salaries and benefits are being scaled back across the state by freezing cost-of-living increases, imposing furlough days, and trimming health care and other benefits - none of which will make teaching more attractive to the state's brightest graduates.

Brown also wants to change the way the state allocates money to K-12 schools. He would do that by giving a "base amount" to each district based not on antiquated funding formulas, but on "what the state expects students to know." On top of the base amount, districts would receive a "separate targeted amount ... based on identifiable needs."

This would presumably mean coming up with extra funds to give to school districts with student populations that require more resources to succeed, not cutting funds to districts receiving funds that that can't be justified based on student needs. Reducing funds to some school districts while increasing funds to others is hard to imagine under any scenario, regardless of the health of the state's economy.

Kirst acknowledged that major reform of the state's school finance system would probably have to wait until closer to the end of Brown's term. But he said some of the reforms could be underwritten by "reprogramming" federal funds and in other cases, could be supported by private foundation support.

Revamping the state's testing and assessment program could piggyback off the national effort to come up with common assessments, currently being financed with $350 million in federal Race to the Top funds.

Most critically, he said, what would be needed is developing a comprehensive strategy, rather than tackling reform in a piecemeal fashion. "Some of the early work is thinking about new strategies and how to phase them them, how to make more integrated policies from the bits and pieces that are lying around that are currently disconnected," he said.

Brown wants to "simplify the Education Code," which has grown to a 4,000 page monstrosity. Simplification would require repealing or amending large numbers of laws or state regulations, each of which could take substantial political capital to execute. But if Brown could show how reforming the state Education Code could save the state money, he could make substantial progress in this area.

None of these are abstract issues. Gov.-elect Brown must come up with a 2011-12 budget within the first few days of his administration. Transition papers are currently being prepared on key areas of the budget, of which education is the largest one.

"There are going to be challenges, but that doesn't mean that there are things you cannot do," said Kirst.