Pia Lopez

Pia Lopez: Our philosopher-governor channels Aristotle on schools

Published: Monday, Jan. 28, 2013 - 9:19 am | Page 11A

Gov. Jerry Brown likes to pepper speeches with parables, and his State of the State address on Thursday was no exception.

From the biblical story of Pharaoh's dream of seven fat cows followed by seven gaunt cows – and Joseph's interpretation that this was seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine – Brown urged lawmakers to break the boom and bust cycle through frugality and storing up reserves in good years.

From the 1930s children's story "The Little Engine That Could" – big engines refusing to pull a train over the mountain, a little blue engine agreeing to try, "I think I can, I think I can" – Brown made a pitch for renewed effort in building high-speed rail over the Tehachapi Mountains.

But Brown's most intriguing reference has been to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who wrote in the fifth century B.C., to explain a new funding formula for education.

Perhaps that shouldn't surprise us. Brown received a Jesuit education, and the Jesuits from their beginnings in the 1500s have promoted Aristotle.

In presenting his proposal for a sea change in how California funds schools, Brown on Jan. 10 dropped this line: "Aristotle said treating unequals equally is not justice."

He explained what he meant: "We have students – 40 percent – who are in poor, low-income families. Over 20 percent don't speak English as their first language, are challenged in speaking English fluently. So that means our future depends not on across-the-board funding, but in disproportionately funding those schools that have disproportionate challenges."

He continued: "Growing up in Compton or in Richmond is not like it is to grow up in Los Gatos or Beverly Hills or Piedmont. So we recognize that. … It is fair. It is right. It is just."

Brown concluded: "This really is a classic case of justice. To unequals, we have to give more to approach equality."

So Brown is proposing to start with a base of $6,816 per student (equal shares to equals), adding extra money for students who are English learners, low-income or in foster care (unequal shares to unequals).

And he repeated his Aristotelian maxim in Thursday's State of the State address: "Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice."

Is this really what Aristotle was about? In the "Politics," Aristotle says, "All men hold that justice is some kind of equality; and up to a certain point they agree … that justice is a certain distribution to certain persons, and must be equal for equals. What we have to discover is equality and inequality for what sort of persons."

And that, of course, is the enduring problem. Aristotle notes that the rich few tend to define equality and inequality in a way that discriminates in their own favor, while the many do the same on their own behalf. Brown creatively throws the disadvantaged into the mix.

With no perfect way to settle things, Aristotle suggests that to determine a just distribution, we have to figure out what is the purpose of the activity in question – in this case educating children.

Aristotle believed education should be the highest priority of political leaders: "No one will doubt that the legislator should direct his attention above all to the education of the young; for the neglect of education does harm to the constitution."

Brown recast this in his State of the State address: "In the right order of things, education – the early fashioning of character and the formation of conscience – comes before legislation. Nothing is more determinative of our future than how we teach our children. If we fail at this, we will sow growing social chaos and inequality that no law can rectify."

For Aristotle and Brown alike the purpose of public education is to ensure that citizens can lead a good life and make a full contribution to the community. To enable citizens to cross that threshold, Brown has harnessed Aristotle to American notions of equality of opportunity: How do we justly allocate resources to ensure that children have equal prospects for becoming educated?

That is the question that Brown's proposed "Local Control Funding Formula" attempts to answer. In trying to persuade legislators and Californians to make this big change, our governor is giving us all an education in ancient philosophy. Now that is novel, and delightful.

I hope Brown succeeds; California badly needs a fairer, less complex school funding formula.

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