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Will Jerry Brown Rescue Public Education?

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    NEWSLETTERS

    When Jerry Brown was first elected, he was considered liberal and unorthodox. Now, he's in the unusual position of having to bring fiscal sanity, more commonly associated with the other major political party, to Sacramento. (Published Thursday, Nov 4, 2010)

    The election is over, and yes, California has a new governor--well, actually a previous governor back for another turn.

    Jerry Brown will return to the state's highest office but in a radically different political setting. Term limits, federal mandates, and tough requirements for raising taxes have created a political environment that makes it almost impossible for any governor to govern, yet that is what Brown must do.

    Brown re-enters the office under conditions similar to those encountered by his predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger: fiscal crisis. To some, this almost sounds like the boy who cried wolf--surely we must have solved the revenue and spending problem
    by now.

    But we haven't. Current projections show California about $15 billion in the red for the new fiscal year, perhaps more. This after several years of draconian cutbacks.

    At the center of it all is the state's "commitment" to K-12 public education, which consumes approximately 40 percent of the general fund, the greatest percentage of any policy area. That might seem like a lot, but with so many students, California has an abysmally low funding rate. Education Week, a leading periodical in the field, finds that when controlled for cost of living, California ranks 47th in per capita public education expenditures. That's $1,900 below the national average and more than $3,000 less than states like New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

    Our test scores reflect that disparity, hardly surprising given that California has the highest student-to-teacher ratio in the nation. To catch up with the leading states would require upwards of an additional $10 billion annually.

    What can we do? This isn't rocket science, we have two choices. We can stay the course and continue to produce students who will be unable to compete with others in the nation and in the world, for that matter. Or we can generate new revenues either from existing tax sources (think tobacco and liquor for starters) or untaxed sources (think oil). We can also close massive loopholes.

    All of these changes mean rocking California's political boat. Then again, we can do nothing and guarantee disaster for future generations in the name of fiscal frugality.

    Congratulations on your election, Mr. Brown. You have a lot of work ahead with enormous stakes.