Grading Jerry Brown’s Education Agenda

by on February 4, 2013 · 2 comments

in Columns, Education, Encore, Government, Politics, Under the Perfect Sun

jerry_brown1fIt’s the beginning of the new semester at San Diego City College where I work, so I thought this would be a good time to evaluate some of Jerry Brown’s bold moves on the educational front.  In terms of funding, the passage of Proposition 30 has stopped much of the bleeding in schools and colleges across the state, but it still does not do enough to restore all that has been cut in recent years. Therefore, despite some very good news, challenges remain ahead.

Funding

On the revenue front, the Governor and the newly elected Democratic majority have signaled a cautionary tone on making the temporary nature of the upper income tax increases in Proposition 30 permanent or taking up other progressive revenue measures that might aid in totally restoring the funding levels of our once great education system.

Nonetheless, if we don’t want to wind up back in the desperate straights we’ve just escaped from, things like an extension of the taxes on the top 1%, a split roll on Proposition 13 (that would leave individual home-owners as is while re-assessing large commercial properties), an oil severance tax, and other reasonable revenue measures should be kept on the table so we can truly rebuild a world class educational system at the K-12 level and not price working and middle class students out of a high-quality college degree. 

Thus on the funding question, if the Democrats play the austerity card by turning away from any additional revenue measures in the legislature they may be setting themselves up for a fall as the reality sinks in that Proposition 30, while crucial to stabilize the patient, was far from a permanent cure.

Grade: Incomplete

Education Reform at the K-12 Level

jerry_brown1eIn his State of the State address, Brown signaled that he was up to challenging the hegemony of the corporate education reform crowd.  Far from embracing the siren call of the opportunistic Michelle Rhee or jumping when Arne Duncan snaps his fingers, the Governor debunked the fundamental thesis of the high stakes testing, reform-in-a-box from on-high chorus.  Indeed, Brown delivered a full-throated refutation of this current brain-dead dogma in his speech:

Then there is the Congress which passes laws like “No Child Left Behind,” and finally the Federal Department of Education, whose rules, audits and fines reach into every classroom in America, where sixty million children study, not six million . . .  Add to this the fact that three million California school age children speak a language at home other than English and more than two million children live in poverty. And we have a funding system that is overly complex, bureaucratically driven and deeply inequitable. That is the state of affairs today . . .

The laws that are in fashion demand tightly constrained curricula and reams of accountability data. All the better if it requires quiz-bits of information, regurgitated at regular intervals and stored in vast computers. Performance metrics, of course, are invoked like talismans.

Distant authorities crack the whip, demanding quantitative measures and a stark, single number to encapsulate the precise achievement level of every child . . . We seem to think that education is a thing–like a vaccine–that can be designed from afar and simply injected into our children. But as the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire”  . . . I would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day, doing the real work – lighting fires in young minds.

Thus the Governor is stepping away from the Obama Administration’s ill-considered “Race to the Top” approach toward education reform and standing with classroom teachers and the students who are struggling as a result of decades of inadequate funding in the post-Prop 13 era.

By rejecting the barrage of teacher bashing and the mindless mantra of the standardized testing zealots, Brown is showing visionary leadership.  His solution to our educational inequities is to ask for a funding formula that compensates high poverty districts with large populations of English language learners and much bigger educational burdens to bear.

While it is hard to argue a moral case against Brown’s intent here, the risk is that this will politically alienate suburban voters who will see this as a plan to take money away from their kids’ schools to give to someone else, rather than a fair plan addressing a deep social injustice.  But, barring more revenue increases, this is the only way to accomplish that goal.  We shall see if Brown’s gamble bears fruit or stirs protest or both.

Education Reform Grade: A

Funding Formula Grade: Incomplete

Higher Education

jerry_brown1cOn the higher education front, Brown fares much worse.  While he is right to chastise the leaders of the UC and CSU systems for their addiction to tuition increases and to boost the funding of those systems in his proposed budget, his solution to the access and affordability issues that California’s college students face is to vastly over rely on the bogus panacea of online education.  Here Brown seems to have gone all-in with the privatization crowd and given up on the notion that a world-class higher education system will require a bigger and more sustained investment.

Instead, he has brought in Udacity, and opened the door to privatization, lower standards, and the two-tiering of our colleges—the very thing he decries at the K-12 level.  Recently, in Inside Higher Education , I co-authored a piece on the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that are part of the educational snake oil Brown is pitching.  As we note:

The rush toward the creation of massive open online courses (MOOCs) is catching on in higher education like wildfire. All it takes, it seems, is to wave a bit of money around, talk up the brave new world of technological innovation, bash the “failed” world of higher education as we know it, and the privatization troops have administrators in a fit of unexamined, swooning technophilia.

These “courses,” however, in addition to offering false promises, also undermine shared governance, run roughshod over established curriculum development procedures and move colleges toward the era of “teacherless classrooms,” which destroy the academic integrity of our institutions and demean the value of the education our students receive.

MOOCs are designed to impose, not improved learning, but a new business model on higher education, which opens the door for wide-scale profiteering. Public institutions of higher education then become shells for private interests who will offer small grants on the front end and reap larger profits on the back end.

Our concerns are echoed in a fantastic Atlantic Monthly piece ( by Ian Bogost on the move to MOOCs in California that also stresses the problems with selling our higher educational system to the highest bidder:

Udacity’s government-endorsed apprehension of a clear public need for private benefit highlights the most troubling aspect of MOOCs: Rhetorically, they assume “information is power,” purporting to tear down the walls to knowledge by making it broadly available, even if in a very particular format. But pragmatically, they admit, if only behind closed doors, that actually power is power, and controlling the networks for services offers a good deal of it at limited investment.

“Information” was never enough. Information is only intelligible given the proper knowledge, context, and opportunity. Likewise, knowledge is produced and shared within a complex infrastructure supported by a web of different agencies and organizations. Even if made cheap or free for consumers, that knowledge still requires other, more foundational knowledge, community affiliation, and economic freedom to convert into meaningful use.

And from the perspective of public investment, cheap or free education is only possible given the purchase afforded by aggregation. Handing over that benefit to private interests may offer convenience, but that convenience comes at the price of control. Need a more familiar example? Just think of your own relationship with Google or Facebook.

Udacity and other MOOC start-ups ignore all this because they have to do so in order to be the kind of businesses they are, high-risk “disruptors” meant to produce rapid, speculative financial value by converting “inefficient” social processes into “efficient” industrial ones. Even if its courses may seem cheaper or more accessible, offering a more viable entree into post-secondary education, they do so by (a) privatizing such an activity among an organization purpose-built to convert the needs of the many into the benefit of the very few and (b) by reframing the social challenges inherent in underserved educational populations as simple problems of content delivery.

Given the deep pockets of the MOOC profiteers, slowing the rush toward this kind of “innovation” will be difficult, but, as more and more questions emerge, it is urgently necessary.

Community Colleges

jerry_brown1dIn the community colleges, we are also happy to have new resources coming which will mean more course offerings for our students and, as with K-12, a stop to the year’s-long bleeding.  But, unfortunately, in addition to the MOOC push, Governor Brown’s proposals ignore the most recent Student Success Taskforce suggestions and instead call for a cap on the number of units students can take before being put at the back of the line and, most problematically, completion-based funding.

Both of these are terrible ideas that would go a long way toward gutting the traditional mission of our community colleges and do much harm to the most vulnerable parts of our student population—first generation, working class and immigrant students who would most likely be the primary ones pushed out of the system.

As the LA Times rightly noted, the colleges are moving to reform enrollment policies so new students are not disadvantaged because other students with excess credits are taking up too much space in classes. Brown’s proposed reforms, however, move beyond this to include unnecessarily punitive measures that would hurt students and the system as a whole:

[Brown] wants to charge students with excess credits the full price of their course work — about $700 per course — a punitive measure that would deter only students without financial resources. It’s unnecessary. If students with more credits than they need are given low priority for enrollment, as they would be under the colleges’ plan, they would only be able to attend courses that have extra space.

Brown wants the state to reimburse the colleges only for the students who successfully complete each course.

Many students in community college are the first in their family to attend college, and they make understandable mistakes along the way. They register for courses that end up being too hard or a bad fit, though it might take them a while to figure that out. And some students are simply lazy or disorganized.

This isn’t the fault of the colleges or the instructors. Brown’s plan would give the colleges a strong incentive to dumb down course work and lower standards so that more students pass, or professors might decide to discourage students from taking challenging classes, lest they drop them later.

Thus where Jerry Brown is bold and visionary on K-12, he is shortsighted and reactionary on higher education.  His proposed reforms would reshape our higher education system by increasing completion on the cheap, lowering standards, pushing out working class and struggling middle class students, and lining the pockets of private interests.

You can rest assured, the students who worked hard in large numbers to pass Proposition 30 did not do so because they wanted to take a MOOC or get shoved out of the system because they could not afford to keep going to school.

Overall Higher Education Grade: D

jerry_brown1gSo, in this early report card, the Governor gets high marks for taking risks in K-12 and low marks for taking the low road in higher education.  But this is the inevitable result of the politics of the austerity Democrats who think they can do big bold things while remaining timid on the revenue front.  Brown’s grades in this arena are incomplete but his inclination with regard to higher education is not a good sign.

Let’s hope that those who are pushing for a more progressive direction in the Democratic majority can help encourage what’s good about the Governor’s vision, while enabling him to improve on his near failing grades.

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Jim Miller

Jim Miller, a professor at San Diego City College, is the co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See and Better to Reign in Hell, and author of the novel Drift. His most recent novel on the San Diego free speech fights and the IWW, Flash, is on AK Press.
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avatar John Lawrence February 4, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Well, the MOOCs will ultimately reduce the need for teachers on the college and university level. If people have free access to the courses at Stanford, MIT and others, there is little need to enroll there other than to get a piece of paper. For those who don’t need to be spoon fed, they can learn the stuff online. For those who need additional help, they needn’t go to Stanford, MIT and other elite institutions because they won’t get it there. What they’ll get is a professor writing on the board, in some cases indecipherably, and students furiously taking unneeded notes if the material is online already. It’ll still be up to the students to figure it out for themselves.

Much of the first two years of college is high school repeat stuff. What should happen is that students be allowed to test out of the first two years of college which is basically a teacher employment program. Actually people should be allowed to test out of the whole four year college degree with a test similar to the BAR exam. If students can learn the stuff online, why should they have to pay to get a 4 year degree. From society’s point of view, if they can pass a sufficiently rigorous test that shows they know the material, that certification in and of itself should be enough to demonstrate to an employer that they are worthy of being hired. If a student needs help with some aspect of a 4 year degree, he or she should pay only for that help but not for the privilege of sitting in a classroom and hearing a professor drone on.

Sorry, but technology is bad news for teachers and professors in the same way it’s bad news for other workers.

avatar Cynthia August 2, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Thanks for a really good, informative article. I too hope that Gov. Brown will integrate the university system into his overall educational package, but perhaps K-12 really has been hurting for longer, so maybe it was first in line. He is a smart person, and perhaps will discover the ways in which the community college system is not just the first two years of a university system, but a fully functioning and valued educational service to the whole community. Like other parts of the educational system, we expect it to be paid for with taxes.

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