Despite being able to largely protect funding for the state’s K-12 schools—one of the signature accomplishments of his governorship to date—Gov. Jerry Brown has yet to make headway on the reforms he outlined in his education platform during his gubernatorial campaign.
Still untouched are reforms in testing, school finance, teacher recruitment and training, and many other key areas of the state’s massive, and complex, K-12 and higher education systems.
It remains unclear how much movement on any of these fronts will be possible during a year when Brown’s major goal will be passage of an initiative which will also generate more funds for schools—just as much of his energies last year went into his unsuccessful bid to convince the Legislature to call a special election to close the daunting budget deficit he inherited.
Instead, the state has been mainly in a reactive mode on education—trying to fund to schools so they could stay solvent, responding to controversies regarding charter schools, and attempting to move forward with implementing the national “common core” state standards the state agreed to adopt before Brown became governor.
Yet in a remarkably detailed education platform issued before becoming governor he outlined a range of reforms he wished to make. Significantly, the platform steered clear of the more common proposals promoted by several governors in other states, such as Gov. Chris Christie, R-NJ and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, D-NY, including tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, calling for more charter schools, and generally imposing more stringent “accountability” systems on schools.
Brown’s education platform did call for an overhaul of the state’s testing program. But if anything it suggested placing less emphasis on testing in its current form. “It is time to make some basic changes to improve our testing system,” the platform read, and argued for reducing tests students take “in scope and testing time.” Test results, Brown said, should be provided to educators and parents far more quickly so they could be used to help students advance, not just label a school as failing or succeeding.
In a memorable veto message, Brown brusquely rejected a high profile bill intended to overhaul the state’s testing system authored by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, as “yet another siren song of school reform.” In his veto message, he did float the idea of “locally convened panels” that would evaluate schools without trying to rank it with a score on the state’s Academic Performance Index. But he has not explained how these panels could work in California, or what kind of testing regimen he would like to see in place of the current one.
Regarding the state’s notoriously complex and irrational school financing system, during his gubernatorial campaign he called for instituting a “simple weighted formula based on specific needs of the students in the school district.” He said the number of funding streams for dozens of specific programs—so called categorical funds—should be reduced from 62 to 20.
Under the plan pitched by Brown, every district would get what he called a “completely flexible base amount” grant from Sacramento, in addition to a “separate targeted amount to school districts based on identifiable needs” such as whether students were low-income, English learners and so on.
As for teachers, he said the state should focus on improving the performance of “average” teachers, rather than simply weeding out the most ineffective ones. To reverse the precipitous drop in the number of students enrolled in teacher preparation programs, he said he would work with teacher training institutions and state agencies to “recruit more teachers from the top third of our school graduates.”
Other reforms Brown called for included giving teachers “ample time and compensation” to mentor novice teachers, and seeking funding from public and private sources to enable teachers to become principals through a “new leadership academy” that would focus on “developing principals who can be true academic leaders.”
He also argued for simplifying the education code, which now consists of 12 volumes and thousands of pages, and a more balanced and creative school curriculum that doesn’t emphasize math and reading at the expense of science, history and the humanities.
He also said that developing “good character and the skills of citizenship“ must be an “integral part of what is taught in our schools,” a perspective rooted in the education he received at St. Ignatius High in San Francisco in the 1950s. Brown has come back to that theme several times during his first year as governor. But he has yet to say how character education could or should be inculcated—beyond suggesting that it is something that should be left up to gifted teachers to pass on to their students.
On the higher education front, he called for an overhaul of California’s famed Master Plan for Higher Education which has guided the state’s public university system for a half century.
During his first year Gov. Brown did sign several controversial bills that made headlines. The so-called Dream Act allows the state’s public universities to provide scholarships to unauthorized immigrant students for the first time. Another landmark law that went into effect on New Year’s Day requires teaching about gay and lesbian contributions in social studies classes. Yet another allows schools to suspend students for cyber-bullying.
But these bills did not, nor were they intended to, address the core challenges facing the state’s public schools, which lags behind other states on multiple measures.
One notable Brown achievement has been reducing the chronic tensions that have existed between the State Department of Education on the one hand, and the State Board of Education and the governor’s office on the other. One of his first acts was to eliminate the Secretary of Education position, a fixture in governor’s cabinets for several decades that added what many felt was unnecessary complexity to school governance in California.
He will also need to find common ground with the Legislature on major areas of reform such as the state’s testing system. His veto of Steinberg’s bill (SB547) represented a major breach between lawmakers who would need to be in sync for significant education reform to occur. As Steinberg told EdSource last fall, “My hope and expectation is that we sit down with the governor and other stakeholders over the next couple of months, and he comes forward with his own proposals about how to change an accountability system that is far too test-oriented.”
In his end-of-the-year press conference last week in Sacramento, Brown suggested he will be moving towards taking on a broader education reform agenda. He told reporters that he plans to convene “a panel of thoughtful people on education” to discuss ways to improve California schools despite the state’s budget difficulties.
At the same time, calling himself a “reformed reformer,” he downplayed expectations that there will be any quick fixes, a view shaped in part by his experience founding two charter schools in Oakland. “While I want to make things better, I don’t want to fall into the trap of reform for the sake of reform. Education is hard sledding.”