It came as no surprise that Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown won re-election, and was just recently inaugurated for a historic fourth term. Even with the division in politics leaving Democrats in somewhat of an upheaval after the recent election — losing the Senate and their super-majority in the state legislature — Brown was a shoo-in. Sure, he had his dissenters, but when Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger left office, albeit in the height of the recession, California was at the brink of fiscal collapse, with an annual budget deficit of over $42 billion, plus estimates of hundreds of billions of dollars and even up to $4 trillion in unfunded liabilities. Imagine that — the third-largest state with the largest population and the eighth-largest economy in the world was about to implode. But then Brown won office and began steering this massive ship heading on a collision course to a better future with an estimated $3.2 billion budget surplus today and enough to start paying down state debt.
If there is anything that Californians respect more than a balanced budget with a healthy surplus, it is a vibrant successful education system. In four years, Brown has been able to restore funding for K-12 education, which shrank from $56.6 billion in 2007-08 to $47.2 billion in 2011-12 and now is up to $61.6 billion for 2014-15 fiscal year with a more promising outlook for the coming fiscal year. Mind you, managing California’s $156-plus billion budget is no easy task and neither is choosing the best path in achievement standards when it comes to education.
While Brown campaigned for Proposition 30 in 2012, which would increase taxes to prevent further cuts to education and which eventually passed by a 55 percent to 45 percent margin, he understood that throwing money at schools across the state wouldn’t necessarily fix problematic test scores and achievement levels. In July 2013, he signed legislation that dramatically revised allocation of those funds and focused more on local control, plus allocating more funding for schools that have more disadvantaged students than others do. According to the governor’s K-12 budget summary:
“Prior to the adoption of the Local Control Funding Formula, California’s school finance system had become overly complex, administratively costly and inequitable. There were many different funding streams, each with their own allocation formula and spending restrictions. The system was state-driven, interfering with the ability of local officials to decide how best to meet the needs of students. Further, scholarly research and practical experience both indicated that low‑income students and English language learners come to school with unique challenges and often require supplemental instruction and other support services to be successful in school. Yet, the finance system did not address these issues.”
With this new approach — simplifying the allocation of funding, cutting bureaucratic red tape and focusing on local control — and the threat of budget cuts a thing of the past for the moment, there is only hope on the horizon for the bolstering of our education system. While the success of this approach remains to be seen, Brown’s no-nonsense approach to getting the job done gives us an abundant amount of optimism that our students will not only get the education they deserve and need in order to be independent and successful, but that from the state’s student body, we will see great leaders rise out of the fold. Maybe we are a little overly optimistic, but we have no doubt the spread and consumption of information is the only path to a more civilized and productive society.