Brown Calls for Equality, Justice and Trust
by UCLA IDEA
Week of Jan. 22-25, 2013
Thursday morning, Gov. Jerry Brown gave an upbeat State of the State address. He credited voters for passing Proposition 30 last November and setting the stage for the most optimistic budget proposal in years. Even so, he cautioned, “fiscal discipline is not the enemy of our good intentions but the basis for realizing them. It is cruel to lead people on by expanding good programs, only to cut them back when the funding disappears.”
In explaining the details and reasoning for his approach, Brown touched on areas that most concern Californians—health care, jobs and the economy, climate change, the environment, transportation and, of course, education (San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Education Week).
The governor anchored his education initiatives in the concept of “subsidiarity,” which refers to the principle of making important decisions at the lowest reasonable level of an organization. “Subsidiarity is offended,” Brown said, “when distant authorities prescribe in minute detail what is taught, how it is taught and how it is to be measured. I would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classrooms each day, doing real work—lighting fires in young minds.”
Alongside subsidiarity as a guide to where or at what level decisions should be made, Brown advocated a weighted-student formula to distribute funds in ways that consider students’ different needs for learning and achieving. “Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice.” The weighted formula and subsidiarity work together, according to Brown, because local schools and districts know what their students need—especially high- and special-needs students—and how to support those needs with available funding.
Legislators and education leaders praised Brown’s remarks (Sacramento Bee). Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson applauded the focus on students with greater needs. “The state is responsible for providing tools to each of our children for competing in the 21st century, and the playing field is inadequate and inequitable under our current system,” he said.
Sen. Curren Price, whose district includes Los Angeles Unified, complimented the emphasis on local control and weighted funding. “The educators and administrators in these schools know what their students need and we don’t need policies and education programs created from afar.”
The governor’s approach also carries certain risks. Greater flexibility for local spending may accompany suspension of “categorical funding”—or funding that has to be spent to meet particular needs such as violence prevention, staff development, class-size reduction, and so forth. These and other priorities must not fall through the cracks as local decision-makers struggle to make their best spending choices. There’s no question that California has gone overboard with its proliferation of categorical programs, but in some cases the categorical limitations do guarantee crucial programs that otherwise would be neglected.
Many categorical programs also protect the interests of students who otherwise might not receive sufficient attention and resources. The broad principle of “subsidiarity” only will work as the governor hopes if English learners, low-income students, students of color, students living in foster care, and other traditionally underserved groups continue to receive services that categorical mandates were intended to guarantee.
Another risk with the governor’s approach is that shifting greater discretion and resources to districts may not ensure that dollars flow to students with the greatest needs. Under Brown’s plan, districts will decide how to allocate funds amongst their schools. Many districts have placed their most senior (and hence costliest) teachers in schools serving more affluent communities. Countering this historical trend may require that greater control and additional funds are pushed down to the school level—a more fully realized vision of subsidiarity.
Gov. Brown made a bold case this week for combining local control with an equity agenda. This vision holds the promise of energizing democratic engagement and promoting equal opportunity. Achieving these goals will require a vigorous role for the state in protecting constitutional guarantees and advancing shared public interests, even as it shifts power to the local level. Intelligent state and regional oversight (including technical assistance and accounting), community and teacher engagement, and transparency are more important than ever.