10/27/10 • Few voters, other than fighting-mad members of the CTA, will likely cast their ballots for governor based on Meg Whitman’s or Jerry Brown’s views on K-12 education.
Education has been mostly a campaign sideshow – even though districts are struggling amid crippling budget cuts. California ranks abysmally low in national tests, and the state serves larger numbers of high-needs students with very low per student funding.
From the eagle’s nest, there are some similarities in Republican Whitman’s and Democrat Brown’s positions: Both support charter schools – she unequivocally, he, with caveats; both favor shifting more money to K-12 education – she from “welfare,” he from prisons. And both want to give districts more control over earmarked spending, the 62 specially designated programs known as categoricals.
But there are fundamental differences, in tone and in substance, between their plans.
Brown’s is nuanced and more comprehensive, reflecting who he is – a veteran politician who dealt with complex policy issues as governor, became scarred as a mayor who tried to insert himself into Oakland Unified, and gained some firsthand knowledge of how difficult school reform is as a founder and funder of two charter schools in Oakland. His conclusion: Reforming schools is hard work: “I approach this task with some humility, and a realization that there is no silver bullet that will fix everything.”
Whitman has boiled her platform down to a handful of ideas that would put her in conflict not only with the teachers union but probably with the rest of the education coalition of the school boards and administrators associations. She fashions herself as a school reformer from the outside, but her ideas aren’t presented in depth; they’re more like slogans: cut waste, adopt merit pay, give schools a letter grade from A-F.
EdSource, which juxtaposed the candidates’ positions on education, offers the best visual comparison. In four of the topics – school safety, instruction in the classroom, innovative schools, and assessments – the Whitman campaign had no position. In another area, how to better recruit, evaluate, and retain effective teachers, Whitman offers two proposals; Brown suggests nine.
Neither directly deals with the continuing K-12 funding crisis that’s expected to lead to another plunge in revenue for districts and charter schools next year. Implying there is massive bureaucratic waste and inefficiency – an assertion I have previously questioned – Whitman calls for directing more money to classroom teachers.
Brown doesn’t call for more spending; but there are seeds of reform – and echoes of a recommendation of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence. Brown calls for partially funding students based on need, with extra money for English learners and low-income children – an idea detailed two years ago by Stanford education professor emeritus Michael Kirst, former state education secretary Alan Bersin, and Goodwin Liu, a law professor whom President Obama has nominated as a federal appeals judge. The money initially would come from combining categorical grants into one pot.
- Giving every school a grade, A through F, and allowing parents in failing schools either to transfer out or, by majority vote, to convert to a charter school. This idea is taken from Florida, where it began under Gov. Jeb Bush. Until this year, the grades were based strictly on standardized test results. Soon they will include other factors, such as SAT scores and numbers of students who take college-level courses. This year, 74 percent of elementary schools and 78 percent of middle schools in Florida got A’s and B’s. Parents in California currently pay attention to a school’s API score, a ranking from 200 to 800, which has the advantage of showing growth or decline in points every year.
- Allowing students in “failing” schools to leave or create a charter would simplify and speed up two reforms that the California Legislature passed this year: a parent trigger provision allowing parents in 75 low-performing schools to demand their school boards to do a charter conversion, and open enrollment, allowing families in the lowest performing 1,000 schools to choose a school in another district, assuming that school opens its doors.
- Promoting charter schools: Whitman would remove the state’s cap on charter schools. So far the ceiling has not been an issue in discouraging the creation of charters.
- Expanding the teacher pool: Whitman would encourage alternative credentialing pathways for more second-career professionals to become math and science teachers. She would use merit pay – bonuses to high-achieving teachers and administrators – to attract “high-quality professionals” into teaching.
Several proposals would advance ideas that have long been discussed.
- Revising state tests: Brown recognizes flaws with the $100 million state testing system, like its reliance on limited multiple-choice questions. With the adoption by California of national Common Core standards, new assessments are coming anyway. How the two testing systems would mesh isn’t clear.
- Broadening the curriculum: Concerned about the narrowing of the curriculum under No Child Left Behind, Brown would encourage initiatives to expand the teaching of history, science, and the humanities, without, he says, reducing attention to English and math.
- Returning control to the locals: As with other candidates before him, Brown pledges to pare back the voluminous state Education Code and cede more authority over student achievement to local districts, making them responsible for outcomes but not micromanaging the process. This would be easier said than done.
- Attracting good teachers and principals: Brown pledges to raise public and private money for a leadership academy to train good principals. He would pay mentor teachers more to work with new teachers. He would encourage high school districts to become alternative certification providers by offering apprenticeships combining university courses and classroom experience. And he would work with public universities to lure the students ranked in the top third of their class to teaching. How this could be done without financial incentives isn’t clear.
- Expanding magnet schools and partnership academies: Brown would continue a priority of the Legislature and Gov. Schwarzenegger: career academies that prepare students for college and careers in high technology, health professions and other industries.
- Dealing with bad behavior: Parents and teachers continually complain that schools seem unable to control handfuls of disruptive students. Brown said he would consider changing state laws or practices to control behaviors that disrupt the learning of others.
Whitman has cast herself as a reformer and, in unremitting TV ads, characterized Brown as a toady of the teachers union. But the CTA is spending millions of dollars independently not out of love for Brown but out of dislike of her. Brown’s ideas reflect a detailed knowledge of the problems, needs and dynamics of California’s diverse public schools. There’s no indication that Whitman has that level of understanding.
Note: For two contrasting views of the candidates’ views on education, read