Brown Has a Schools Plan. Really.

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Los Angeles Times

Here's one thing that's different about the Jerry Brown of today than the one who governed California from 1975 to 1983.

He knows much more about education now than he did then.

He started two charter schools in Oakland -- the Oakland Military Institute and the Oakland School for Arts. And that experience is reflected in his education plan, which seems to be the most measured and thoughtful of the three policy documents (the other two are on jobs and energy) that he has released, albeit more slowly and grudgingly than his rival Meg Whitman

There are a wide variety of proposals in the education plan that don't exactly fit a theme. There's also a bit of the practitioner's skepticism about big solutions to education problems.

Among the highlights:

  • Brown wants a new master plan for higher education, to replace the 50-year-old document that guided the development of the California public university system.

    That's bold, but there's little here about what it would say. Brown does express interest in the introduction of on-line learning and new technologies as part of higher education. (This is something of a departure from the Brown of the '70s, who was infamously skeptical about adult education in a variety of forms).
  • Do more for average teachers. Brown rightly notes that public policy focuses "on either the very worst teachers (and how to get rid of them) or the very best teachers (and how to provide them bonuses and special compensation)." He's interested in the average teachers, but isn't clear on what he'd do to help those average teachers improve in the classroom.

    He proposes more aggressive recruitment of top high school and college students into the profession, and also suggests that school districts offer apprenticeships for people who want to make teaching a second career. He also proposes a new leadership academy (funded by public sources and with private funds he himself would raise) to turn teachers into principals.
  • Science, technology, engineering and math. These subjects need more resources, with the goal of producing more students who know these topics well -- and graduate from California universities with degrees in same.
  • Deregulation. Brown argues that, with the shift to a focus on educational outcomes, California can afford to get rid of much of its education code. As long as school districts meet state standards, the state has no business telling them how to meet those standards. He also wants to consolidate the state's dozens of specific funding programs so that schools and districts have more financial flexibility.

Near the end of the document, Brown offers a skeptical note about the power of charter schools, a curious point for a charter school founder to make.

"Some reformers talk about massive increases in charter schools as our best hope," he says in the plan. "As someone who has started and sustained two charter schools in Oakland, I know first-hand the real world difficulties of this approach.  True reform must include innovations that touch all students and school systems."

Charter schools, in this view, aren't "scalable" -- that is, their successes can't be reproduced en masse. Whether that's true is a subject of national debate in education circles. Brown's view won't win him many votes from his fellow charter school founders. But it reflects the skepticism of charters on the part of teachers' unions that provide much of the money and muscle for Democratic political candidates. 

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