Editorial: Gov. Brown keeps pushing local school flexibility

Published: Sunday, Sep. 30, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Sunday, Sep. 30, 2012 - 2:17 pm

In dribs and drabs, mostly in veto messages, Gov. Jerry Brown slowly reveals an agenda for education, the state's highest constitutional and budgetary priority.

Now he has given his governing philosophy a name, put forth in a veto message of Sept. 21. "The principle of subsidiarity," he wrote, "calls for greater, not less, deference to our elected school boards which are directly accountable to the citizenry."

Subsidiarity comes out of Catholic social teaching, as you might expect from our Jesuit-educated governor. Defined and redefined by popes in 1891 and 1931, it is part of Catholic catechism: "A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good."

In short, aid but don't interfere with the locals.

So the centerpiece of Brown's 2012 education agenda was to replace state-mandated categorical programs with a new "weighted student formula" that provides a basic level of funding, with additional money for disadvantaged students and those struggling to learn English. This, he said, "will give more authority to local school districts to fashion the kind of programs they see their students need."

His proposal went nowhere, but largely because he put it in his budget but not in bill form. A change this big needs to go through policy hearings, not get rammed through the budget process.

Fortunately, Brown appears not to be giving up – signaled, as usual, in veto messages. "California's complex school finance laws need comprehensive reform and I look forward to working with the Legislature to craft a fair Weighted Student Formula that could resolve this issue," he wrote in vetoing one minor bill (AB 1811).

Brown's principle of subsidiarity also shows in his signing and vetoing of bills that would make changes to "zero tolerance" discipline policies. In vetoing a bill by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, limiting the authority of school officials to suspend a student, he wrote: "It is important that teachers and school officials retain broad discretion to manage and set the tone in the classroom."

He signed two bills that would give principals and superintendents more discretion to use alternatives to suspension or expulsion; for example, when a student is caught with a toy gun (AB 1729 and AB 2537).

However, Brown's signing of three bills imposing new state requirements affecting English learners would seem at first glance to break the subsidiarity principle.

One would require school districts to post online how they spend the money they get to meet the needs of English learners and low-income students so the public knows how these funds are being used (SB 754). Two others note the current hodgepodge in how school districts identify English learners and allow too many to languish for years as "long-term English learners" without progressing toward English fluency. The result is that only 11 percent of English learners achieve fluency each year. The bills would move the state toward consistency and track kids who aren't achieving fluency (SB 1108 and AB 2193).

In fact, these bills dovetail nicely with Brown's proposal for a weighted student formula.

If extra money is going to go to districts for needy and English learner students, we should know how it is being spent. Brown was right to sign these bills.

The big unknown this session was what Brown would do with Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg's Senate Bill 1458. That bill attempted to broaden the state's Academic Performance Index so that it would measure more than merely students' scores on the California Standards Tests.

The main provision limits testing to 60 percent of the index, requiring the state to design other elements to fill the remaining 40 percent. The API originally was supposed to include graduation rates, but never did. The bill also seeks measures that indicate whether students are college- and career-ready, such as numbers of students who are eligible for a four-year state university (completing the so-called A-G course requirements), or have apprenticeship certificates.

Brown had said he wanted local panels to visit schools, observe teachers, interview students and examine student work. Steinberg's bill included that. Brown signed the bill.

In the past, Brown had been roundly criticized for focusing on local flexibility without committing to accountability for results. This session's signings and vetoes begin to balance that – while hewing to his principle of subsidiarity.

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