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California Governor Jerry Brown Decries Testing: "Distant Authorities Crack the Whip"

In today's State of the State speech, (available here) California Governor Jerry Brown continued to blaze a path in a new direction on education reform. He explicitly rejected the dominant reform paradigm which closely manages schools through test scores, and embraced local control, which he argued for using a concept called "subsidiarity." He also called for funding that recognizes the burdens poverty imposes on schools. Here is what he said:

In the right order of things, education--the early fashioning of character and the formation of conscience--comes before legislation. Nothing is more determinative of our future than how we teach our children. If we fail at this, we will sow growing social chaos and inequality that no law can rectify.
In California's public schools, there are six million students, 300,000 teachers--all subject to tens of thousands of laws and regulations. In addition to the teacher in the classroom, we have a principal in every school, a superintendent and governing board for each school district. Then we have the State Superintendent and the State Board of Education, which makes rules and approves endless waivers--often of laws which you just passed. 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."
This year, as you consider new education laws, I ask you to consider the principle of Subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is the idea that a central authority should only perform those tasks which cannot be performed at a more immediate or local level. In other words, higher or more remote levels of government, like the state, should render assistance to local school districts, but always respect their primary jurisdiction and the dignity and freedom of teachers and students.
Subsidiarity is offended when distant authorities prescribe in minute detail what is taught, how it is taught and how it is to be measured. I would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day, doing the real work - lighting fires in young minds.
My 2013 Budget Summary lays out the case for cutting categorical programs and putting maximum authority and discretion back at the local level--with school boards. I am asking you to approve a brand new Local Control Funding Formula which would distribute supplemental funds -- over an extended period of time -- to school districts based on the real world problems they face. This formula recognizes the fact that a child in a family making $20,000 a year or speaking a language different from English or living in a foster home requires more help. Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice.

This last paragraph is of great significance. The Governer is attempting to establish a funding formula that compensates high poverty, high ELL districts for some of the additional burdens their schools bear. This is a huge step towards equity.

There was a time when California schools were among the best in the nation. Anti-tax laws like Prop 13 have resulted in our schools being underfunded for years, and testing has consumed far too many precious dollars and months of instruction. California's governor has been one of the nation's most progressive voices regarding education for several years. This speech was the clearest indication yet that he is willing to be a true leader in education. Educators need to support this, and help spread these ideas to other states.

Update: New from Texas indicates the state legislature has zeroed out funding for standardized tests in their draft budget for the coming year. Though this action is not likely to stand, it reflects significant resistance to the emphasis on testing. Texas and California have traditionally been the biggest marketplace for textbook publishers. If these two states abandon the mania for test data, can the rest of the nation be far behind?


What do you think? Is Governor Brown providing a new direction for education reform?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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