The radical roots of Jerry Brown’s school finance reform plan

March 22, 2013

By Wayne Lusvardi

JB.high.priestCalifornia Gov. Jerry Brown’s recently proposed radical public school financing reform –- the so-called “Local Control Funding Formula” –- reflects the Catholic Jesuit social doctrine of 1968 called “the preferential option for the poor.”

But there has been no public vetting of whether the former Jesuit seminarian’s new reform is a sound public policy or even good for disadvantaged students.  Nor has there been any discussion of whether such reforms may eventually lead to the erosion of support by rich suburban counties for Brown’s package of school financing changes.

When Brown successfully got voters to approve his state income tax increase on the Nov. 6, 2012, ballot –- Proposition 30 –- the wealthy Democratic suburban coastal counties that voted for it had no idea that Brown had pulled a taxation triple play on them.  Not only would income taxes be raised on the wealthy, but also budgets for public school districts in wealthier suburban areas would be intentionally underfunded, forcing them to raise local parcel taxes to fill the gap.  Brown pulled this off by burying his reform in a difficult to understand provision of his 2012-13 state budget. If this were known before the election, would Proposition 30 have passed?

What Brown actually did was divert some of Proposition 30 revenues to wage and benefit increases for public employees.  He then funded the remainder of his promised $6 billion in new tax revenues for public schools by cutting suburban school district budgets and diverting those monies to districts with a high proportion of disadvantaged students.

‘Preference for the poor’ and 1960s Catholicism

No one can be certain that Brown’s proposed school financing reforms were motivated by the influence of Catholic liberation theology’s “preference for the poor.”  Nonetheless, his package of reforms reflects radical Catholic social teachings dating back to the 1960s.

down_from_cross_smIn the late part of that decade, Brown went to study in Mexico and Latin America after graduating from Yale Law School and serving as a California Supreme Court law clerk.  Brown was exposed to the political movement of liberation theology that found fertile soil in Columbia and Mexico in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Liberation theology is essentially an anti-capitalism movement that promotes political activism for social justice and the eradication of poverty.

Pedro Arupe first propounded the term “the preferential option for the poor” in a 1968 letter to Latin American Jesuits.  Simplified, it asserts the central moral test for any society is how it treats its poor.  Liberation theology asserts poverty is caused by capitalism and its solution is class struggle resulting in socialism.  Liberation theology is the same gospel preached by President Barack Obama’s former minister Rev. Jeremiah Wright.  Gov. Brown has preached a “preference for the poor” in social policy while practicing ruinous policies against the poor when it comes to economic policy.

Brown’s preference for crony capitalism

wethepeopleIn his populist 1992 presidential bid and for years afterward, Brown sounded like the Occupy Movement of 2010 to 2012, especially on his “We the People” radio network. A sampling of his rhetoric:

“The conventional viewpoint says we need a jobs program and we need to cut welfare. Just the opposite! We need more welfare and fewer jobs.”

“We’re being ripped off and screwed by a bunch of liars, thieves, crooks, and criminals, and they’re not the folks below. Don’t look in the streets, look in the corporate suites.”

When in power, Brown has not promoted the work ethic but the ethic of “let’s get something that someone else gives us.” In his three terms as governor, the type of economy he has preferred has been the crony capitalism of redevelopment and green power subsidies — both of which harm the poor.

During his term as Oakland’s mayor he was reportedly “more interested in downtown redevelopment and growth than ideology.” But one of his first acts in his third term as governor was to eliminate redevelopment agencies.  However, this was only because redevelopment agencies were siphoning property taxes from public schools while there was a state budget deficit.  Brown’s phase-out of redevelopment was not motivated by its abuse of eminent domain or because of how it replaced mom-and-pop businesses with larger retail chain stores.

When Brown was attorney general, prior to being elected to governor for a third term in 2010, he appealed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for hidden subsidies for green power called “feed-in tariffs.”

FERCHowever, even the Obama-controlled FERC ruled against Brown because California would have been able to control both wholesale and retail electricity prices.  This would have ended up rigging the energy price system mostly to the detriment of the poor and low-wage earners.  Surely, Brown has had a “preferential option for the state” for funding government programs for the poor but paradoxically also rigging markets against the poor.

As attorney general in 2008, he filed actions against purported predatory home lending practices against the poor and working class — but only after the mortgage meltdown that began in 2007.

Is Brown’s policy shift actually good for the poor?

The question raised by Brown’s “preferential option for the poor” in school financing reforms is basic: Is it truly good for the poor?  Renowned sociologist Peter L. Berger has some sharp insights into this question:

“[E]conomic growth is the precondition of any promising policy of moving people out of poverty into a decent level of material life. Populist redistribution, let alone socialism, will not lift people out of poverty – indeed, in arresting economic growth populism and socialism are the preconditions for making poverty permanent.

“Put simply, the ‘preferential option for the poor’ results in a preference for a capitalist economy focused on growth, since only this type of economy has shown the capacity to lead to dramatic improvements in the condition of the poor. … But the ‘preferential option for capitalism’ must be the basic guide for policy.”

Brown’s recent school financing reforms are more motivated out of a “preferential option for the poor” than any necessary option for capitalism.  The work ethic and savings ethic that brought about the Industrial Revolution didn’t come about until it had religious legitimacy.  Don’t look for any rapid turnaround of California’s economy for those at the bottom of the economic ladder until the state’s public theology shifts away from Brown’s implied liberation theology and towards capitalism.

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