By Seema Mehta, Los Angeles Times
December 14, 2010

As Gov.-elect Jerry Brown prepares to take office, major headwinds are buffeting the biggest component of his upcoming budget: California’s schools. They are being confronted by a lack of funding that threatens to further harm pupils and a controversial reform movement that could dramatically reshape how classrooms are run.

Most immediate and pressing is the state’s fiscal crisis — a $28-billion gap is forecast for the next 18 months. How that will affect school districts already reeling from years of multibillion-dollar cuts will be the subject of Brown’s second budget forum, which is scheduled for Tuesday in Los Angeles.

“Jerry Brown is entering office at a moment when the capacity of the system is weaker than any time in recent memory,” said John Rogers, director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at UCLA. “I worry we may be reaching a breaking point.”

Schools’ financial health is intricately tied to the state budget because roughly 40% of it is earmarked for K-12 education. In recent years, as legislators struggled to close large deficits, schools have seen round after round of funding cuts — $21 billion in the last two years alone. California’s per-pupil spending is now lower than that in nearly every other state, resulting in widespread teacher layoffs, the cancellation of summer school, the shortening of the school year and the overcrowding of classrooms.

Educators say the state is seeing the result of these actions — the dropout rate rose three points, to 22%, in the 2008-09 school year — and fear that more cuts could push some districts into insolvency.

“I attribute the increase in the dropout rate to some extent on the budget cuts — fewer counselors, fewer classes in music and the arts, less career-technical education,” said Jack O’Connell, the outgoing state superintendent of public instruction.

Brown, who has called finding more funding for schools a “very top priority,” acknowledges the difficulty of doing so in tough economic times.

“I’d like to get as much money for the schools as I can, but there’s only as much money as the economy and the taxpayers make available,” he said in October.

His focus on education has evolved during his four decades in public life. Even among his supporters, Brown is viewed as having had little interest in the topic during his previous stint as governor (1975-1983).

“I don’t think he had a huge mark on education in his first two terms,” said Michael Kirst, a Stanford University professor and Brown advisor who served on the state Board of Education when Brown was last governor. “What changed is that he got to be mayor of Oakland, and he took over at a time the school district was imploding.”

Brown sought mayoral control of Oakland’s failing schools but never achieved it. He did gain the power to appoint three members to the school board, but failed to have a real effect on the district.

Brown’s advisors say his experiences tangling with the district’s bureaucracy, as well as his founding of two charter schools in the city, gave him both an interest in improving education in California and concrete ideas on how to do it.

“That really transformed him,” Kirst said. “When I began discussing education with him again for this race, it was like talking with a school administrator.… He could talk about teachers and how to evaluate them. He hired and fired several principals. He has an on-the-ground operational grasp of education.”

The charter experience also led to his skepticism of the national education reform movement.

Among other things, reform advocates have focused on dramatically altering the way teachers are hired, evaluated and fired, which has caused major clashes with teachers unions. Some proposals include instituting merit pay, tying teachers’ evaluations to their students’ performance and altering a tenure system that makes it difficult to fire ineffective teachers and a seniority system that leads to layoffs of effective but young instructors.

These issues gained prominence when the Obama administration began pushing them last year, using the federal Race to the Top competition as leverage. That competition for billions of federal dollars, at a time when many states were facing budget deficits, prodded California and other states to implement legislative changes aligned with the reforms. California failed to qualify for the federal money in two Race to the Top rounds because it did not win significant backing from unions and districts and because other states enacted more reforms.

Parents in Compton this week became the first in the state to tap a school-turnaround law prompted by the Race to the Top competition when they petitioned to turn an elementary school into a charter. And Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former organizer for the United Teachers Los Angeles, savaged the group’s leadership, describing it as the “one unwavering roadblock to reform.”

Brown has expressed serious reservations about some of those proposals.

“Look, we’re facing big changes, and people who haven’t been around always want to reinvent the wheel with yesterday’s tried-and-failed programs,” Brown told representatives of the California Teachers Assn. in June.

He was even more blunt last year, when as the state’s attorney general he weighed in on Race to the Top. He castigated the draft regulations as simplistic, unproven and overly “top-down, Washington-driven” and called for a “little humility.”

“What we have at stake are the impressionable minds of the children of America. You are not collecting data or devising standards for operating machines or establishing a credit score,” he wrote in the August 2009 letter. “In the draft you have circulated, I sense a pervasive technocratic bias and an uncritical faith in the power [of] social science.”

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