Colleen O'Connor: Time for Brown to Go Big, Bold & Brave on Education

Columnist Colleen O'Connor says Gov. Jerry Brown needs to let educators experiment through more local control to help California develop the skilled employees ready for the changing workforce.

Updated 8:42 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 6. See editor's note and additional information at the bottom.

Gov. Jerry Brown is a fan of local control.

He has shown that in the relocation of state prisoners to the county jails (primarily due to a court mandate to eliminate overcrowding in the state prisons).

And next week, he will unveil his proposed budget—fixating on more local control of schools.

According to the San Jose Mercury News, Brown plans “extensive changes” to school funding in his 2013-14 budget. Specifically, he wants more money to benefit those schools with the highest percentage of low-income and non-English speaking students. More money for Compton. Less money for Beverly Hills.

Brown’s proposal represents a major shift of funds to those students and their districts. 

To make the changes more palatable, Brown will suggest a bit more local control, the elimination of dozens of unnecessary state mandates and the elimination of some bureaucratic fiefdoms.

All of this is long overdue, but little will change the fossilized state of education in California. Nor does it address the enormous cost that an undereducated, underskilled and unemployed workforce places on California’s taxpayers.

California, once a great engine for change, is behind the times.

The state currently spends more—and gets less—than most states for its education dollars.

Look at the needs for remedial work at California colleges and universities. University of California (UC) freshmen arrive with little, if any, need for remediation in math or writing.

However, about 50 percent of the California State University (CSU) freshmen require remedial work, and nearly 90 percent of community college freshmen need remediation in both math and writing.

How to fix that? More money is not the final answer. More local control is. 

The state cannot run the schools from afar. Each has distinctive needs, distinctive demographics and distinctive macro problems that need answering.

Beverly Hills probably has little interaction or understanding of the issues facing Compton—and vice versa.

Hence, Brown needs more “local, local, local” help. The state should set the minimum standards, but simultaneously encourage pilot projects, new ideas, internships and wider use of the Internet for online education.

During his first tenure as governor, Brown created the California Conservation Corps—to introduce inner-city students to hard work in the state forests. He called it "a combination Jesuit seminary, Israeli kibbutz and Marine Corps boot camp." It still thrives.

The governor’s Jesuit-trained brain can’t think of a solution to every problem. Let the teachers, their school boards and their administrators try for better solutions.

So what if they falter? Let’s try for real change.

Reward those chancellors and school principals who are willing to adapt. Willing to embrace technology. And willing to accept performance-based outcomes as part of their job. Give them more room to experiment.

What works in San Diego may not work in San Bernardino. The demands are different, but the motivations to succeed are the same.

Let them create a seamless process from education to a meaningful job.

Some prototypes already exist, such as UC San Diego’s UniversityLink—a package deal that works through a well-structured path— from high school, to community college to a four-year degree and a job.

Cut the cost of higher education with online courses. Or endorse the bills of Assemblyman Don Logue and State Senate President Darryl Steinberg. The former wants to create a bachelor’s degree for $10,000 and Steinberg has already won approval for free digital textbooks.

With the approval of California’s health care marketplace, new and greater needs will arise for health care and IT specialists. Doctors, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, licensed vocational nurses, radiology techs, physical therapists, etc. will all be in short supply. While some need UC training, why can’t the community colleges take up the challenge for the others?

California needs jobs for its citizens.

Jobs mean income, income means revenue for the state—both of which help reduce the cost for unemployment benefits. And currently, the California Unemployment Trust Fund is insolvent. And it has been since 2009 (PDF).

Time for more ideas like the California Conservation Corps.

Time now for more local ideas, internships, online learning and pilot projects.

Go big, bold and brave, Governor. And reward those educators who do the same.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with the removal of an incorrect statement that one in two California children is low-income. The author has provided the following correction, in response to a reader comment:

Apologies for the error and thank you for pointing it out. The source was material from the 2010 census culled by the California Budget Project. Relevant quotes added below.

The number of children in California living below the poverty line is about 36.6 percent of total population, but 23.4 percent lived in families below the federal income poverty level.

Another good source for California information is CalFacts available at Legislative Analysts’ Office: (Link.)

From the California Budget Project—taken from 2010 Census data (PDF).

• “In addition to these overall trends in household income and economic standing, the new Census data indicate a substantial increase in the number of California's children living in poverty. The data show that:

• In 2010, 2.2 million California children—nearly one out of four—lived in families with incomes below the federal poverty line. The share of California’s children living in families with incomes below the poverty line rose to 23.4 percent in 2010, up from 21.0 percent the prior year and up from 18.1 percent in 2006—both statistically significant increases.

• Children accounted for a disproportionately large share of Californians living in poverty. While children were one-quarter of the state’s population (25.5 percent) in 2010, they accounted for more than one-third of Californians with incomes below the federal poverty line (36.6 percent).

Joe St. Lucas January 06, 2013 at 03:21 AM
Where can I find the research that shows 50% of California students are from low-income families, it's not in the San Jose news story that's quoted?
Shauntel Lowe January 07, 2013 at 04:49 AM
Hi Joe, Thanks for your comment. Colleen O'Connor has provided a response and links to some data, which I have added to the story with a correction. -Shauntel


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