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Neel Kashkari proposes major education overhaul

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Saying that better schools are critical for California's prosperity, GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari proposes changing the way education is funded, making traditional schools more like charters and increasing online learning.

"We must reject the status quo," the former U.S. Treasury official says in a 33-page policy paper set for release Tuesday.

He calls for money to be sent directly to the state's 10,000 public schools rather than to their districts. He would throw out much of the state's education code, which governs the operation of schools, and effectively allow most schools to operate under the same rules as charters.

He also calls for increased vocational education, longer school days and years, and merit pay for teachers.

"We can absolutely transform California's education system into a force that not only lifts student achievement but ultimately addresses income inequality and eradicates poverty from our communities," Kashkari's proposal says.

The plan is the second that the candidate has released; it follows a proposal for creating jobs. Kashkari's main GOP rival in the race, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks), has not released any policy proposals. Incumbent Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, periodically travels the state touting his accomplishments.

California is spending more than half of its $98-billion general fund budget this year on K-12 and higher education. After years of cutbacks, Brown proposes more funding for both in his spending blueprint for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

But the state's students rank among the bottom in reading and math of the 50 states, and the higher education system is so overburdened that many students cannot get into some required courses, delaying their graduation and increasing their student loan debt.

Kashkari would deal with the latter by linking a portion of state funding to campus performance, measured by such markers as graduation and course completion rates.

He would also require the University of California and California State University systems to place 20% of their courses online within four years, though he offers no details about how he would force them to do so. The governor and Legislature have limited control over the public universities, particularly the UC system.

Kashkari would also create a scholarship program that waived tuition for students majoring in science, technology, engineering or math, in exchange for a small — unspecified — percentage of their future earnings.

Oregon has a similar program, and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) introduced legislation for a federal version earlier this year that would be financed by private investors.

Education experts said that although they were intrigued by some of Kashkari's ideas — such as directing money to schools rather than districts, or increasing the school year — they say that a paradox is woven through the proposal.

As Kashkari is calling for more local control and less authority at the state level, he is also calling for bold changes that would require centralized intervention.

"There is a mix of suspicion of big government with big initiatives and big goals, and so you see kind of this contradictory mix," said John Rogers, director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at UCLA. He "wants to, at least rhetorically, suggest we need less government, not more.… It's very difficult to do both of those things … at the same time."

Kashkari also uses his education plan to accuse Brown of complacency and Democrats of an alliance with teachers' unions that have been impediments to change.

"Every child deserves a good education and states demand a better workforce, yet Democrats refuse to prioritize children over the interests that fund their political machines," Kashkari's proposal says.

Brown has been a beneficiary of the California Teachers Assn., which spent nearly $5 million to help elect him in 2010 and many millions more to advance the tax increase he put on the statewide ballot in 2012.

And even some who have been skeptical of Brown say that they have been impressed by his work on education.

One of the governor's first acts after taking office in 2011 was sacking seven members of the state Board of Education, including vocal proponents of charter schools. One of the replacements was a California Teachers Assn. lobbyist.

Among those Brown booted was Ben Austin, chief executive of Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles nonprofit group that lobbied for California's parent-trigger law.

"While the governor is not perfect…he's exceeded expectations when it comes to making tough calls on behalf of kids," Austin said.

He cited Brown's school funding shift that provides more money to schools with the most disadvantaged students and gives districts more control over some funds the state sends them. He also cited Brown's veto of a bill backed by the teachers union that purported to streamline the process for firing bad teachers but actually increased teacher protections.

Austin also found a lot to like in Kashkari's proposal, such as eliminating parts of the education code and further localizing school funding decisions. Austin is a self-described "partisan Democrat" but said he has not decided whom to support for governor.

"I think both … bring something real to the table in terms of a kids-first agenda," he said.

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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