California’s public system of education from the elementary through the post-secondary level used to be its pride and joy. Then, referenda in the 1970s placed heavy restrictions on financial support for the schools. Large demographic changes brought into the schools thousands of students needing additional help. Political gridlock developed in the state legislature so that the Republicans who were a decided minority could block state budgets funding the schools. Of course, the recent awful recession also took its toll.
Because of all this, both post-secondary education and elementary and secondary education were cutback in funding–repeatedly. Yet, the waves of immigrants needing extra help kept coming. A result today is that California ranks 43rd among the states in funding the public schools.
Governor Jerry Brown found a way out of this mess, and the voters supported his initiatives in the last election. Now, the governor’s new budget undoes some of the harm done by the cutbacks and begins to provide some funding to meet new challenges.
Brown has also proposed reforms in both lower and higher education. With public schools, he wants to change the way funds are distributed so that districts with concentrations of poor and English learning students receive greater funding, although there is some controversy that not all such districts will benefit as described. He also wants to eliminate state rules and programs, and let local districts have more discretion. In post-secondary education, part of the new funding is dependent on limitations on the amounts of student fees and on tuition.
A major governance change that will help with this turn-around requires a simple majority vote in the legislature on the state budget, and not a super-majority of votes. It also helped that the election gave the Democrats super-majorities in both houses of the legislature, and the Republicans have little leverage left.
The tax changes approved by the fall 2012 popular referenda temporarily raise the sales tax, increase taxes on the super-rich, and change the business tax so that revenues will be increased. So much harm was done to education over the years that this new revenue is badly needed to repair some of the damage and to lay a foundation for the future.
Governor Brown has urged restraint in the legislature in spending these new revenues. In particular, he wants to pay down debt and slowly repair the harm. He especially does not want his fellow Democrats to rush in with costly new proposals. He has said that he will work with the legislature so that prudence is the watchword.
The turn-around in California is a relief. Not only does the state have about 15 percent of the Nation’s population, it is also set to experience much greater growth in the future. Of course, California traditionally has also been a harbinger of what will happen in the rest of the Nation.
California shows that deep political and governance deadlocks can be broken, and progress made. This holds a lesson both for the national government but also for other states. Maybe, the rest of us outside the state ought to pay attention.