Exploring education reform in California.
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The initiative and referendum process that has captured the rest of California’s budget into the hands of interest groups is also bedeviling the school system. A three-decades-old referendum requires the state to spend at least one-third of tax dollars on schools, spurring spending booms and restricting the kind of fiscal flexibility needed for school reform. A long-term problem lies with the state’s teacher pension fund, which is mired in a $22 billion deficit; in August, Fitch Ratings cut the pension’s bond rating from AAA to AA-plus. Another $16 billion in unfunded retirement healthcare spending also looms on the horizon.
Meanwhile California’s politicians spend more time on sparring matches than on policymaking. Additional funding for CALPADS was one reason behind last year’s overwrought budget battle between Schwarzenegger and the legislature. Schwarzenegger and Superintendent Jack O’Connell have had their own run-ins, including a battle over revamping the state report card.
Money has a funny way of focusing the mind, and the interest in obtaining the Race to the Top funds has led to quick action by both Schwarzenegger — who called a special session of the legislature just for this purpose — and the legislature. Yet the state may still not get the money. Even with recent overtures, the state lags behind its peers in the seriousness of addressing its low graduation rates and abysmal teacher quality. Then there is the politics. “The thought of the teachers union, school districts, the business community and other key stakeholders getting on the same page… is hard to believe without some serious leadership,” according to Manwaring.
But for the first time since the birth of the charter school movement, California may actually stop lagging behind the curve. And possibly, get ahead of it.
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