What Tuesday’s election could mean for California education

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Tuesday’s statewide elections could have a major impact on California’s education system.

That’s the case even though education remains a mostly local issue in the state. Locally elected school boards run the state’s nearly 1,000 school districts, and reforms championed by Gov. Jerry Brown have devolved even  more power to local school districts. On top of that, the amount of money the state spends on its K-12 schools and community colleges is strictly prescribed by Proposition 98, approved by voters two decades ago,.

But within those constraints, California’s governor has considerable power to shape state education policies, as  Brown has shown over the past eight years through reforms like targeting funds billions of funds for low-income children and backing a brand new accountability system.

Most significantly, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the likely winner in Tuesday’s contest, has promised to establish a “cradle-to-career” system of education in California.

The most immediate impact is likely to be an expansion of services for children before they enter kindergarten. He has pledged to introduce universal preschool — which for most advocates means state subsidized preschool for all low-income 4- year-olds. But he also feels that much more needs to be done before children even start preschool.

“Beginning learning at 3 years old is already too late,” he told EdSource during the campaign. “We need to double down on the readiness gap by emphasizing prenatal care and the first three years of a child’s life when nearly 85 percent of brain development occurs.” This could include expansion of state programs like prenatal and developmental screenings of young children, and family nurse visits.

On the contentious issue of charter schools, which enroll over 10 percent of the state’s 6 million public school students, Newsom has said he will sign legislationrequiring  charter schools to be more transparent in their operations  — legislation that Brown has repeatedly vetoed.

Depending on who wins the race for state superintendent of public instruction, what could change is the remarkable level of cooperation and collaboration that has characterized the relationships between Brown, the Legislature, and other key players and education agencies over the past eight years.

These include the State Board of Education, the elected superintendent of public instruction and the California Department of Education. The California Teachers Association and other teachers unions have also been an integral part of the decision-making process.

This level of cooperation has not been the norm. For the many years, when there was a Republican governor and a Democratic superintendent of public instruction, there were often conflicts.

If Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, endorsed by teacher’s unions, the California Democratic Party, and by Newsom, is elected, the high level of collaboration will likely continue.

Marshall Tuck, Thurmond’s opponent who is also a Democrat in this nonpartisan race, has said he will  work closely with all parties, but  greater friction is a real possibility.  Many of those supporting Tuck are vocal opponents of teachers unions, who backed Newsom during the campaign. Tuck himself was a vigorous supporter of the unsuccessful and highly controversial Vergara lawsuit, which would have eroded  labor protections for teachers.

Independent expenditure committees backing Tuck have been bankrolled by multiple billionaires who are passionate supporters of charter schools. Charter school leaders also  sharply criticized Newsom during the campaign as being a major threat to charter schools, even though he has strongly supported them in the past. Tuck is insisting that he is beholden to no one, and that he isn’t a charter school zealot.

But if Tuck wins, Newsom might be temped to appoint his own secretary of education in his cabinet, a position that Brown did away with when he took office. That could see a return to some of the fractiousness in education policy-making of earlier decades.

On the higher education front, it seems likely that Newsom will be more generous than Brown  when it comes to budget allocations for the state’s public universities, consistent with his declaration that there be no more tuition increases.

He has declared that additional funding for public universities should be the Legislature’s “top priority.”  “I would appropriate more money to begin with,” Newsom said last spring. “That’s not going to be an issue if we’re successful in November — you’ve got my word on that.”

He has also pledged to establish a statewide coordinating body for higher education, something the state has never really had, but was called for in California’s iconic Master Plan for Higher Education, adopted in 1960.

As to the biggest question of all — how to generate more funds for education — Newsom has made it clear that the wants to get California out of the basement in regards to how much it spends per student compared to other states. “We’re on the bottom 10,” he said at an  event last fall by Advancement Project California, a statewide advocacy organization.  “We all have the goal to get in the top 10 in per-pupil investment, but we have a long way to go.”

“It’s about finding new sources of funding, new dedicated sources of funding, and looking at our tax system,” he said.

A recently completed study that is part of the Getting Down to Facts research project showed that California would need to invest an additional $25 billion in its K-12 schools  if students are to achieve the academic proficiency goals set by the state.

Where Newsom would find even a portion of those funds is anyone’s guess. There are several possible routes to raise the billions of dollars that will be needed, but they are all politically perilous ones. And if there is a recession, all bets are off not only on increasing spending on California’s schools, but on many of the other reforms described above.

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