For education, the post-election questions

Update: Michael Kirst is saying Brown has no plans to appoint a Secretary of Education, but that he would be interested in serving in some capacity in Brown’s administration.

Now that the election is over, the question now becomes: what do the new majorities in Congress and the new administration in California mean for education reform? At the Federal level, it seems unlikely that the Obama Administration is going to reverse course on its Race to the Top agenda (though the newly-Republican House will probably cut the budget); it also seems unlikely that there will be a major shift in the direction we’ve been heading on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, formerly known as NCLB).

The more interesting question is what happens here in California. Voters passed an initiative that would presumably help education funding – Prop. 25, which allows the Legislature to pass a budget with a simple majority rather than a two-thirds vote – but also gave the nod to Prop. 26, which requires a two-thirds majority to raise fees (a popular budget-closing gimmick in past years). The morning after the election, Governor-elect Jerry Brown gave a press conference:

“The taxpayers gave and they also took away,” he said. “On one hand, the people said by a majority give us a budget. On the other hand, they said don’t pick my pocket. So this will take all the know-how that I said I had and all the luck of the Irish as I go forward.”

 “What does California need, what does California want and what is California prepared to pay?” Brown added.

The luck of the Irish is right! California faces a projected $21 billion budget shortfall for 2011-12, and schools are reeling from $18 billion in cuts in the last two fiscal years. Brown must implement national standards (whether or not they’re the best idea), completely overhaul our student data-tracking system, and oh, yeah, decide what to do about Robles-Wong vs. California, a landmark school finance lawsuit filed last spring. The gloomy budget picture and new fiscal restraint in Washington means there isn’t going to be any new money to work with.

TOP-ED editor John Fensterwald compiled some expert advice for the new Governor and his team (it’s here and here), and there are some really good and thoughtful suggestions. I’d like to offer a few more, focusing on the people Brown chooses to help him set his education policy. 

First, Governor-elect Brown will need to appoint a new Secretary of Education. This office has little actual authority, but the Secretary is the Governor’s point person on education policy. Choosing someone who can build bridges between Republicans and Democrats and who has the trust of the education establishment is crucial if the new administration has any hope of reaching consensus on how to fix California’s broken system of school finance.  Personally, I’d like someone who is clear-eyed about charter schools (some are good, some are bad, and all schools deserve flexibility in return for accountability), and about reform in general – in other words, someone who understands that there are no magic bullets, who doesn’t blame teachers for the system’s failings, and doesn’t succumb to the “all schools are failing,” narrative that has allowed lawmakers to continue to underfund schools. I want a Secretary who is willing to use the Governor’s office as a pulpit to convince Californians of the importance of an adequately-funded K-12 and higher education system. I’ve heard Michael Kirst’s name dropped as a possible Secretary — he’s a widely-respected Professor Emeritus at Stanford who served as an advisor to the Brown campaign (hear Kirst on KQED Forum a week before the election talking about the gubernatorial candidates’ education platforms;  Brown’s policy paper on education is here).

In addition, Brown has two appointments on the State Board of Education coming up in January, and another two next January — I’d like to see him alter the composition of the SBE from hacks and charter advocates to teachers, parents and people who actually work in public schools. I’m told by labor advocates who helped Brown get elected that he will not be ideological about charter schools as Governor — he can prove that by appointing SBE members who understand that even under the rosiest charter school scenarios, most children in California will continue to attend traditional public schools.


2 responses to “For education, the post-election questions

  1. “The luck of the Irish is right!”

    The Irish aren’t looking too lucky these days, judging by their economic figures.

  2. Great post, great suggestions. It will be interesting to find out how seriously Brown will take education.