In the education bills that he vetoed last month, Gov. Jerry Brown made his “don’t” priorities clear to legislators: Don’t tamper with the Local Control Funding Formula; don’t mess with charter schools; don’t create new state mandates; don’t push new spending; and don’t create new state commissions and agencies to examine the limited state data that he does allow.
Brown has been sending those messages consistently, and longtime gubernatorial observers credit him for this, while acknowledging he’s open to exceptions when it comes to doing what he considers best for kids.
That can explain signing Assembly Bill 329, requiring all districts to provide sex education, and Senate Bill 359, requiring all districts to create a uniform policy for placing students into 9th-grade math.
In signing the first bill, he decided that the principle of subsidiarity, the idea that government decisions are best made by local officials, which he has promoted throughout his governorship, didn’t extend to children’s health. Brown could have left it up to local school boards to decide what the district should teach about sex.
In signing the math placement bill, Brown created a mandate, though not an expensive one (under $6 million, according to one legislative estimate), that the state must reimburse districts for the cost of creating a new policy. Brown’s concern for equity – seeing that all children develop to their potential – trumped his commitment to local control. Sponsors of the bill pointed to research that showed capable minority students were not accelerated to take algebra in 8th grade, putting an obstacle in their path for admission to UC schools.
Brown signed those bills, “even though they appear to be more top-down and non-local control,” because Brown is more thoughtful than most governors about the impact of legislation on kids, said Gerry Shelton, former chief consultant to the California State Assembly Committee on Education and a partner of the Capitol Advisors Group, which advises school districts on policy and financial issues.
His own man
Because of the huge volume of bills that legislators introduce, governors generally wait to see which bills pass before weighing in. With few exceptions, that too has been true of Brown, who eliminated the office of education secretary, and so has fewer staff devoted to education. His chief education advisers, who deal with legislators, are Deputy Legislative Secretary Cathy McBride and Karen Stapf Walters, the executive director of the State Board of Education. Both declined to speak about their roles.
“At the end of the day, the governor makes the decisions (on legislation). He is hands-on, not rubber-stamping. And he has historical knowledge that (previous Gov.) Arnold Schwarzenegger did not have,” said Sherry Skelly Griffith, the new executive director of the California State PTA, who has worked in education policy and government positions for three decades.
Eric Premack, executive director and founder of the Charter Schools Development Center, whom the governor has consulted on charter school-related bills, agreed.
“Brown has a vision of local control and a set of core beliefs, so you can size up where he is likely to land on a bill, but in the end he is his own man. Some governors are deferential to staff; he is not.”
Brown started two charter schools in Oakland when he was mayor of the city, and has fought, through vetoes, attempts to encroach on their independence or dilute protections in the state’s charter school enabling law. This year, he vetoed AB 787, which would have banned for-profit charters, which operate primarily online charter schools. Brown said proponents failed to make a case for the bill, and the bill’s ambiguous wording could have been interpreted to restrict the ability of nonprofit charter schools to continue using for-profit vendors.
Brown inherited a $25 billion deficit when he was elected governor in 2010 and has continued to stress frugality even as a rebounding economy has swelled state revenues. Efforts to pass separate bills for expenditures that Brown excluded from the state budget usually die before they get to his desk. Lawmakers understand the futility of trying.
No new mandates, except…
However, expanding early education remains Democratic legislators’ priority, and they passed Assembly Bill 47, which would have set a target of June 2018 for subsidized preschool to all low-income 4-year-olds not enrolled in transitional kindergarten. But in his veto message, Brown indicated he wouldn’t be pushed by an “arbitrary deadline.” Spending should be decided in the yearly budget process, not outside of it, Brown indicated.
Ted Lempert, president of the advocacy and policy nonprofit Children Now, credited the Legislature for trying. “Early childhood education has not been Brown’s priority, but fortunately it has been the priority of the Legislature,” he said.
Brown’s opposition to new state mandates and its first cousin, a return to dedicated pots of money called categorical funds, is both philosophical and pragmatic. He is the believer-in-chief of transferring decision-making authority and spending to local districts, through the Local Control Funding Formula that steers extra money to low-income kids, foster children and English learners.
He has reiterated opposition to tinkering with the funding framework until districts have seen how it works. This year, Democratic leaders pushed Brown in budget negotiations to require districts to track every extra dollar they spend for high-needs students, but the governor refused.
To Brown, additional mandates would wall off funding that districts could use as they choose and slow down his timetable of 2020-21 for completing the transition to full funding under the Local Control Funding Formula. The administration’s projection assumes that temporary tax revenue under Proposition 30 would expire at the end of 2018.
“He sees it as imperative to get to the full funding requirements in the law,” Griffith said. “If I had created the reform, I would make it a top priority as well.”
Brown vetoed Assembly Bill 141, which would have required those districts choosing to offer the teacher training and mentoring program known as Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA) to provide it without charge. The state requires teachers to take BTSA or a similar training program, and for years the state funded districts’ programs. But some districts started charging teachers after the state stopped reimbursements in 2009. In his veto message, Brown cited the new $100 million mandate.
Rick Pratt, the chief consultant to the Assembly Education Committee and former lobbyist for the California School Boards Association, disagreed with the logic. “I think there is a place for categorical programs like BTSA,” which, he said, produces better teachers who tend to stay longer in the profession. Some districts may not see value in the program, “but the state ought to invest in it.”
Lee’s last stand
In another exception to his commitment to promoting more local decision-making, Brown signed AB 30, making California the first state to ban “Redskins” as a team name or mascot. Four high schools will have to drop the name, which many people consider a racist slur, by 2017.
But Brown vetoed another bill that would have forced school districts to remove names of Confederate heroes from schools and other public buildings. Many African-Americans equate naming buildings after figures such as Robert E. Lee with honoring a cause that fought to preserve slavery.
This case, Brown, wrote in a veto message, is “an issue quintessentially for local decision makers,” a rationale he didn’t apply to the use of “Redskins.”
Legislators and children’s advocates didn’t attempt to pass bills this year significantly expanding the collection of student data. Brown has made it clear he’ll likely veto them if they do. Brown’s consistent opposition to compiling more education data, which he views as the precursor to more laws and mandates, has evoked some of his best bombast. In an address to the Legislature two years ago, he railed against “reams of accountability data. All the better if it requires quiz-bits of information, regurgitated at regular intervals and stored in vast computers. Performance metrics, of course, are invoked like talismans.”
Four years ago, he rejected federal funding for CALTIDES, a statewide data system that would have compiled information on teacher training, placement and effectiveness that many states have adopted. Since the passage of the Local Control Funding Formula, he has extended his commitment to local control to thwart expanding CALPADS, the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System, the primary source of student data.
Advocates of more data cite the inability to better track students, from pre-kindergarten through college, to understand factors contributing to underperformance and academic success. Last year, Brown vetoed bills sponsored by California Attorney General Kamala Harris that would have made it easier for districts to track students who are chronically absent by including additional attendance reports in the statewide data system. Harris didn’t try again this year, although, in her annual report on the subject, she again cited the needs.
“The governor confuses data with big government,” Lempert said. “You need to standardize data to know what is working in education.” Even under local control, he added, districts should standardize how they collect and record data, he added.
Brown is also skeptical about creating new statewide policy commissions. He vetoed a bill to create an interagency task force to examine challenges related to boys and men of color. While the issue is “profoundly important,” Brown wrote in vetoing AB 80, it is “best addressed through concrete actions, not another non-binding commission.”
On one important law that he helped shape, Brown was mysteriously silent. It was at Brown’s instigation that the bill suspending the California High School Exit Exam include an amendment that retroactively made all students eligible for a high school diploma if they failed the exam but met all other graduation requirements. Through McBride, Brown conveyed his desire for the change late in the session, but didn’t tell legislators why and hasn’t publicly commented, his press office said.
If the past is prologue, legislators won’t attempt to overturn Brown’s vetoes. The governor vetoed 133 bills in the current session, with about a dozen pertaining to education. The Sacramento Bee calculated that the Legislature passed more than 100 of the vetoed bills by more than a two-thirds majority. That’s the threshold for legislators to override a veto, but there hasn’t been a successful override since the 1970s, when Brown was governor the first time around, according to the Bee.
That’s because legislators generally don’t want to risk alienating or embarrassing a governor by passing a bill he wants killed, said Pratt, the Assembly Education Committee consultant.
Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, has said there won’t be any override efforts this year either.