Bring in new faces and voices to Sacramento for real change

October 31, 2010

(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)

Our electorate occasionally acts schizophrenic. Take the call for change. In the midst of one of our country’s longest running economic downturns, there’s a palpable anger against politicians and the political system. According to the rhetoric, they got us into this mess, and the answer is to boot them out. On Tuesday, this anger is likely to force a change of power in Congress – with Republicans taking over from the Democrats.

Outside of California, the role of the Tea Party in this process has been the focus of massive attention from the press and the political system. Longtime elected officials in other states lost their jobs to challenges from political novices channeling the anger of their constituents. Yet, the “change” promoted by Tea Party and other insurgent candidates has been more of a reaction to the “change” of the last two years. The same electorate that put Barack Obama in the White House to change Washington apparently has now turned its attention to rolling back that “change.”

In California, the call for “change” has had a nearly opposite impact. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was the original Tea Party-like candidate. The recall campaign against Gray Davis was the original Tea Party-like insurrection. It was mounted by two talk show hosts who energized voters by playing on their desire to eliminate the infamous “car tax” and arrived on the heels of a major California recession. Schwarzenegger played up his image as a non-traditional Sacramento outsider who would blow up the Sacramento boxes and bring fundamental change to the state.

Yet, once installed in Sacramento, Schwarzenegger and his staff did little to distinguish themselves from long-time Sacramento insiders. This was particularly true when it came to the over 40 percent of the budget devoted to education. In good times, the Administration spent the extra dollars like drunken sailors, creating new grant programs to satisfy the parochial priorities of education special interests, including the governor’s own preferences for physical education equipment and band instruments. Does anyone remember the infamous P.E. and Music block grants? In bad times, they constructed, in collaboration with the Legislature, a series of budgets that did little in the way of systemic reform and simply passed debts and obligations to future generations.

As a result, when it comes to the 2010 governor’s race, Californians seem to be far less interested in “outsiders” than we used to be. Based on recent polling, the gubernatorial candidate who has held more statewide and local elected offices than anyone else in California apparently has pulled away with a double-digit lead over his non-traditional opponent. Californians appear to be pining for insiders instead of outsiders. Once Americans get a real sense of what the Tea Party means, the same thing might happen nationally – especially when they realize how quickly the outsiders turn into insiders.

In the end, that’s the problem in California. Insider or outsider, elected officials quickly get trapped in the Sacramento quicksand. Last week, I was at a meeting of statewide education reform advocates from 20 other states. The progress many of those states have made in the areas of teacher evaluation,  evaluation, tenure and pension reform, and school turnarounds was amazing. The contrast with California couldn’t have been starker.

Sacramento insiders like to paint the California electorate as the problem. And, certainly, we have clotted up our state budget process with too much initiative-driven spending. But I would argue that our state’s real problem isn’t its citizenry but the longtime Sacramento insiders and their institutional culture. Part of the issue is a candidate selection and primary process that gives us politicians who reflect the extremes of their parties rather than the great mass of voters in the middle. Recent initiatives creating the open primary and non-partisan redistricting may result in a more moderate set of politicians from both parties.

It’s possible that these politicians will be less beholden to the public employee unions on the left and the taxpayer associations on the right, and that this independence will give them the room to make decisions based on the long-term needs of all Californians rather than personal, short-term political objectives or the desires of special interests. But without an end to, or minimally an extension of term limits, it is still likely that even our most forward-thinking elected officials will become overly dependent on the institutional knowledge of the longtime Sacramento insiders — the unelected lobbyists and staffers who really run things and want to maintain the system they’ve built.

In order for change to stick, our newly elected officials must commit to bringing some new voices and faces into Sacramento. We need to tap the wellspring of talent from different parts of California and other states, including different sectors from business to philanthropy, and bring some of that new thinking into our Capitol.

In looking for educational leadership, we should be looking outside of the traditional education blob and their old boys and girls networks. Looking to great district and local leaders who not only acknowledge the existence of our broken college and career pipeline, but are doing something to fix it, is a good place to start. We also need to bring in the reform voices and leadership of California’s new “majority minority” demographic and collaboratively commit ourselves to real change on behalf of all of our state’s children.

Otherwise, the change we experience will be in name only.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust-West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional and VISTA volunteer in California, New England and  Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

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