Brown struggles to hit education stride

Brown struggles to hit education stride

brown educationWith education becoming a major state issue just in time for the election, Gov. Jerry Brown has found himself in an uncharacteristic position. The often unflappable governor, who has prided himself on following the beat of his own drum, has been ensnared in an ongoing debate among Democrats.

At issue: How to recover their footing in the wake of Judge Rolf Treu’s far-reaching ruling in the Vergara case, which found California’s current teacher tenure system to be a violation of students’ constitutional rights.

Although Brown has maintained a strong lead in his bid for reelection against Republican Neel Kashkari, education has become a new focal point in the race. Kashkari, recognizing the issue combines an unusual weakness for Brown with an unusually broad relevance for voters, has hit on the theme repeatedly, taking Brown to task for appealing Treu’s ruling to a higher court.

In a rare opportunity to confront Brown directly in front of television cameras, Kashkari hammered away on education during the recent gubernatorial debate. Brown stumbled, vowing he’d do more if current laws didn’t address problems in the classroom.

Although the tussle may not change the fundamental dynamic of the race, Brown’s frustration has underscored how much the education issue matters to him on the level of personal politics. As a result, actions he has taken will reverberate well beyond November.

A flood of bills

Among a wave of last-minute bills to pass the Legislature and hit his desk, Brown singled out several affecting schools. One bill, which Brown touted in his debate exchange with Kashkari, made it easier to fire teachers implicated in lewd conduct. After vetoing a version he called flawed, Brown signed Assembly Bill 215, put forward by Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo.

Recently, Brown made a point to push his education agenda further. AB1584 and SB1177 will work in tandem to crack down on the misuse of data collected from students, schools and school districts.

AB1584 also was authored by Buchanan. Its aim is to ensure school districts keep ownership of data collected from students by information-gathering companies. It complements SB1177, by state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. That bill bars data companies from profiting off of such information.

Perhaps the most notable reform came courtesy of AB420, by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento. It will change the way schools can mete out the severest punishment to students. Going forward, as Jurist reported, schools will be prohibited “from suspending students without proving the pupil willfully defied teachers and administrators. The bill specifically eliminates schools’ authority to suspend pupils from kindergarten through third grade and the authority to expel a student from kindergarten through twelfth grade.”

As yet, not much has been made of the political implications of AB420. Brown’s signature on the bill, however, has provided Democrats with an unusual way of appealing to the populist instincts on the rise among parents statewide.

Conservative and libertarian critics of teachers unions frequently have cast blame on school administrations, not just classroom educators. Administrative bureaucracies, they have claimed, are often as meddlesome and arbitrary in a school district as they are in state and federal government.

Parents, for their part, long have cast a skeptical eye at the changing standards by which students are punished. High-profile controversies have repeatedly arisen around student clothing and perceived threats of violence.

The bigger picture

Brown’s efforts to regain the momentum on education have figured into more than a personal mission for restored credibility. Whether he succeeds or fails will color the larger debate surrounding Democrats’ competence and dependability on the issue.

Democrats themselves have become sharply divided in the wake of the Vergara ruling. The race for Superintendent of Public Instruction, officially a nonpartisan contest, has pitted Democrat against Democrat, with incumbent Tom Torlakson facing a stiff challenge from Marshall Tuck.

Their disagreement on Vergara — Torlakson is a staunch union ally — has exacerbated longstanding divisions among prominent Democrats. Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, for instance, supported Tuck, while current Mayor Eric Garcetti sided with Torlakson.

Whatever the results of the election, afterward the intra-party Democratic feud over education will be one of the biggest topics confronting Brown and the new Legislature.

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