Deviating sharply from education reform policies championed by President Obama, California Gov. Jerry Brown is calling for limits on standardized testing and reduced roles for federal and state government in local schools.
Brown's positions, outlined in Wednesday's State of the State address, align closely with the state's two major teachers unions, but also embody Brown's independent streak.
The governor's call for a reduction in standardized testing comes at a time when such tests are gaining influence across the nation, due in part to heavy federal support. Most notably, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called for results from these tests to become part of a teacher's evaluation.
"It is time to reduce the number of tests and get the results to teachers, principals and superintendents in weeks, not months," said Brown, who hasn't articulated where he stands on teacher evaluations.
Much of the attention to Brown's speech focused on painful budget cuts and a proposed tax increase as well as the expensive high-speed rail project that he supports. But Brown also delivered important cues on education, which consumes more of the state budget than any other program.
A recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll suggested that voters would raise their taxes to increase funding for schools, which have suffered steep cuts during the economic recession. Brown's signature tax initiative gambles on this sentiment. It would make education the chief beneficiary of new taxes — and, as Brown made clear Wednesday, the primary target for cuts should his proposed ballot measure fail in November.
But his attention to education goes beyond funding. Besides taking on testing, Brown called for getting the federal and state government out of the details of schooling.
"What most needs to be avoided is concentrating more and more decision-making at the federal or state level," Brown said. "We should set broad goals and have a good accountability system, leaving the real work to those closest to the students.... We should not impose excessive or detailed mandates."
Brown can't unilaterally limit testing, but his views are influential within a generally friendly Legislature, which has responsibility for approving changes to education law. Also, Brown appoints members to the state Board of Education, which oversees the writing and interpretation of education rules.
Observers from across the ideological spectrum have found things to like, worry and puzzle over in Brown's address.
One interpretation is that "the governor recognizes we need to move beyond the first generation of accountability to something more sophisticated," said Dominic Brewer, a USC professor of education, economics and policy. "A more cynical read seems to suggest the governor is against testing and even would prefer a return to an era where frankly there was little accountability for outcomes. It's hard to tell which view he holds."
Former L.A. school board member Yolie Flores expressed dismay at Brown's approach.
"He essentially is saying that neither the state nor the feds should be involved, and instead let's leave it to the schools at the local level," said Flores, who now heads a local education-advocacy group. "I've been at schools at the local level, and there is much lacking there in terms of leadership, capacity and ability to improve things."
Brown expressed his views on testing and local control more bluntly when speaking to The Times' editorial board late last year.
The tests take "too damn long," Brown told the board. "Second-graders take five days of tests. That's longer than I spent on the bar exam. I think that's absurd. You've gotta have some room for creativity."
He was similarly insistent about limiting the role of Washington.
"The federal government should butt out," Brown said at the time. "You have more and more people who aren't teaching, who are managing the flow of the money and all the various rules and mandates.
"They have this idea that schools are like businesses and if you set the right metrics, can you reward and punish and you get the outcome," Brown said. "I don't feel things quite work that way."
Brown's criticism of the growing emphasis on standardized tests has found a receptive audience among California teachers.
"The governor's speech demonstrated a respect for the practitioner," said Dean Vogel, president of the California Teachers Assn. "We've been waiting to hear that from a governor," he added, in a dig at Brown's predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Schwarzenegger's positions were a nearer match with Obama's Department of Education, which has awarded funding to states that adopt favored policies, such as linking student test scores to teacher evaluations or converting low-performing schools to independent, and typically nonunion, charter schools.
It remains unclear how Brown would assess schools if testing is relegated to a diminished role. Some options include classroom visits and a more rigorous accreditation process, said state Board of Education President Michael Kirst, a Brown appointee.
In his address, Brown also touted a new school funding method, called "weighted student formula," which is part of his budget proposal. Its goal is to allocate more funding based on individual student needs. Those challenged by poverty, disability or limited English-speaking skills would have additional dollars assigned to their education.
At the same time, more than 60 separate education programs would be sharply reduced in number, with their rules simplified.
"This will give more authority to local school districts to fashion the kind of programs they see their students need," Brown said. "It will also create transparency, reduce bureaucracy and simplify complex funding streams."
Overall, school districts such as L.A. Unified, where most families are low-income, should see a significant boost of dollars under the governor's plan, said Bruce Fuller, a UC Berkeley professor of education and public policy.
At the same time, proposed budget cuts, such as one that eliminates funding to transport students to school, would reduce funds that previously benefited L.A. Unified.
"I don't see an enlarging pie of funding," said L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy.