The Agenda

Jerry Brown’s Awful Austerity-for-Thee, Not-for-Me Budget

While reading about the newly-inaugurated California governor’s budget proposal for his cash-strapped state in the Wall Street Journal, I kept shaking my head. Look at this nonsense:

Mr. Brown, a Democrat sworn in as governor last week, proposed an $84.6 billion general-fund budget that would rely on $12.5 billion of cuts—with higher education and health programs hit especially hard—and $12 billion of revenue from extending the higher taxes.

Consider what is being spared:

Mr. Brown said more cuts would be needed if voters were to reject the tax measures. “If we don’t have the taxes, it’s going to be extremely difficult, even draconian,” he said. Funding to kindergarten-to-12th grade education was maintained in the governor’s budget proposal, but he suggested that state leaders would have to cut that funding if the tax-increase measure failed.

Then consider what is being cut:

The governor’s budget plan also called for cuts to services that Mr. Schwarzenegger often targeted: $1.5 billion from the state’s welfare-to-work program and $1.7 billion from Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program.

That’s right: to protect salaries in K-12, Governor Brown, elected with heavy assistance from K-12 teachers’ unions, is actually cutting welfare-to-work programs. 

Please keep in mind the wise words of Arne Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of education, at AEI in November:

 

I am here to talk today about what has been called the New Normal. For the next several years, preschool, K-12, and postsecondary educators are likely to face the challenge of doing more with less.

My message is that this challenge can, and should be, embraced as an opportunity to make dramatic improvements. I believe enormous opportunities for improving the productivity of our education system lie ahead if we are smart, innovative, and courageous in rethinking the status quo.

It’s time to stop treating the problem of educational productivity as a grinding, eat-your-broccoli exercise. It’s time to start treating it as an opportunity for innovation and accelerating progress.

Duncan then went on to describe the broad outlines of this approach:

 

So, what do I mean when I talk about transformational productivity reforms that can also boost student outcomes? Our K-12 system largely still adheres to the century-old, industrial-age factory model of education. A century ago, maybe it made sense to adopt seat-time requirements for graduation and pay teachers based on their educational credentials and seniority. Educators were right to fear the large class sizes that prevailed in many schools.

But the factory model of education is the wrong model for the 21st century. Today, our schools must prepare all students for college and careers — and do far more to personalize instruction and employ the smart use of technology. Teachers cannot be interchangeable widgets. Yet the legacy of the factory model of schooling is that tens of billions of dollars are tied up in unproductive use of time and technology, in underused school buildings, in antiquated compensation systems, and in inefficient school finance systems.

Rethinking policies around seat-time requirements, class size, compensating teachers based on their educational credentials, the use of technology in the classroom, inequitable school financing, the over placement of students in special education—almost all of these potentially transformative productivity gains are primarily state and local issues that have to be grappled with.

Suffice it to say, reforming lockstep compensation is a direct threat to the interests of weak performers. But is that a reason to cut funding for people who are trying to transition from welfare to work rather than let go of the least productive teachers and use technology to extent the reach of the most effective teachers? 

There’s still time for the governor to make up for this. Right now, however, I am seriously disappointed in Brown, who, for all his faults, is a man I’ve long considered a serious thinker and devoted public servant. 

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