The database debacle

One of the smaller line item vetoes made this year by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger strikes less than $7 million from the state budget that was earmarked for overseeing a student-tracking database. And it wasn't even state money; it was entirely federal funding, and can't be used for anything else.

What was the governor thinking? As he said in his veto message, enough is enough. He was frustrated by the state's failure to quickly and efficiently create a system for gathering useful information about student progress and holding educators accountable. Approved by the Legislature in 2002, the system wasn't contracted out until 2008. Even then, oversight by the state Department of Education was so remiss that in January, an outside evaluator gave it a terrible review.

Schwarzenegger deleted the department's oversight money, not the IBM contract to produce the system, expressing hope that in the future, another agency would take over. The symbolism was potent and his irritation understandable, but that's not an appropriate way to govern. Later assessments of the Education Department's work, by the same outside evaluator, found significant improvements. The most recent report said the veto would severely impair and quite possibly bring down the entire database project.

For all the Education Department's failings, big delays were also caused by the governor's Finance Department, which, according to one study, found "100 ways of saying no" to block the project during interagency squabbles over who would control it. The state's reporting requirements also held up progress.

The database debacle gives California one more good reason to consider a constitutional change that would eliminate the state superintendent of public instruction as an elected position, and instead place the Education Department under an appointed secretary reporting to the governor, the way most state departments are organized. That would give the governor the power to stop internecine battles and demand better performance from the Education Department. He also would take responsibility for any failures. The system would be streamlined and accountable.

Meanwhile, California needs an operational student database, which other states have had for years. The information it would yield would allow the state to calculate real dropout rates and determine which school programs work best. The data would also form the basis for so-called value-added systems, in which school districts could track whether student test scores rise or fall under individual teachers.

When Gov.-elect Jerry Brown takes office in January, he should work with the Legislature to restore the money quickly. Then he can turn to the more daunting task of fashioning a smoother-running administration that doesn't waste money and work at cross-purposes with itself.

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