Jerry Brown’s fresh start: Local control tied to accountability

Gov. Jerry Brown made two important statements about K-12 education in his State of the State speech on Wednesday. First, it is very important to have a strong accountability system that makes student achievement the focal point of our schools. Second, within that accountability system, local districts should have discretion to decide how to provide a quality education. Both represent an encouraging move toward improving the embarrassing state of California schools.

California educates one-eighth of all students in the U.S., and its ranking at the bottom of the states in terms of math and reading helps to explain why U.S. students are not competitive internationally. In global terms, California ranks at the level of Greece and Russia – hardly a level of performance that can fuel the innovation of Silicon Valley in the future.

California has a long history of trying to improve schools from Sacramento – through a mountain of detailed regulations, through an enormous number of categorical spending programs, and through a twisted and centralized finance system that precludes local decision making. The governor would cut through much of the tangled history of funding and move to a method based on individual students, allowing for any special needs caused by poverty and language. The governor has also made an important proposal to scrap most of the restrictions on specific categorical program funding in favor of local decision making based on local capacity and needs.

Freeing up local decision making only makes sense if all districts are working in the direction of improving student achievement. That is where the accountability system comes in. Student achievement that is regularly measured, reported, and used in decision making by districts is a necessary addition. In other words, loosen up on “how” but keep the focus on “what.”

The details will of course be important. The best sounding plans can easily be thwarted, thus maintaining the developing-country level of performance.

In reality, these ideas should be thought of as just a starting point. There should be wholesale deletion of the myriad regulations about how schools are run. It is important for the state to reward success, instead of the more common habit of putting more funding into failure. Districts that demonstrate large growth in student learning should get additional resources. And, such an idea should filter down to the level of the individual educator.

One aspect of this would be freeing up local spending options so that local residents can enter into judgments about the quality of schools. (While there is a long history of funding litigation in the state, it does not preclude local choices where the state can easily work to equalize any inequities arising from tax base differences). In other words, let the districts have flexibility to do good things.

In sum: Bravo! Good start. There is much work to be done.

Eric Hanushek is the Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. He has been a leader in the development of economic analysis of educational issues. His newest book, Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses: Solving the Funding-Achievement Puzzle in America's Public Schools, describes how improved school finance policies can be used to meet our achievement goals.