Brown’s and Whitman’s platforms

Few voters, other than fighting-mad members of the CTA, will likely cast their ballots for governor based on Meg Whitman’s or Jerry Brown’s views on K-12 education.

Education has been mostly a campaign sideshow – even though districts are struggling amid crippling budget cuts. California ranks abysmally low in national tests, and the state serves larger numbers of high-needs students with very low per student funding.

From the eagle’s nest, there are some similarities in Republican Whitman’s and Democrat Brown’s positions: Both support charter schools – she unequivocally, he, with caveats; both favor shifting more money to K-12 education – she  from “welfare,” he from prisons. And both want to give districts more control over earmarked spending, the 62 specially designated programs known as categoricals.

But there are fundamental differences, in tone and in substance, between their plans.

Brown’s is nuanced and more comprehensive, reflecting who he is – a veteran politician who dealt with complex policy issues as governor, became scarred as a mayor who tried to insert himself into Oakland Unified, and gained some firsthand knowledge of how difficult school reform is as a founder and funder of two charter schools in Oakland. His conclusion: Reforming schools is hard work: “I approach this task with some humility, and a realization that there is no silver bullet that will fix everything.”

Whitman has boiled her platform down to a handful of ideas that would put her in conflict not only with the teachers union but probably with the rest of the education coalition of the school boards and administrators associations. She fashions herself as a school reformer from the outside, but her ideas aren’t presented in depth; they’re more like slogans: cut waste, adopt merit pay, give schools a letter grade from A-F.

EdSource, which juxtaposed the candidates’ positions on education, offers the best visual comparison. In four of the topics – school safety, instruction in the classroom, innovative schools, and assessments – the Whitman campaign had no position. In another area, how to better recruit, evaluate, and retain effective teachers, Whitman offers two proposals; Brown suggests nine.

Neither directly deals with the continuing K-12 funding crisis that’s expected to lead to another plunge in revenue for  districts and charter schools next year. Implying there is massive bureaucratic waste and inefficiency – an assertion I have previously questioned – Whitman calls for directing more money to classroom teachers.

Brown doesn’t call for more spending; but there are seeds of reform – and echoes of a recommendation of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence. Brown calls for partially funding students based on need, with extra money for English learners and low-income children – an idea detailed two years ago by Stanford  education professor emeritus Michael Kirst, former state education secretary Alan Bersin, and Goodwin Liu, a law professor whom President Obama has nominated as a federal appeals judge. The money initially would come from combining categorical grants into one pot.

Whitman’s ideas

  • Giving every school a grade, A through F, and allowing parents in failing schools either to transfer out or, by majority vote, to convert to a charter school. This idea is taken from Florida, where it began under Gov. Jeb Bush. Until this year, the grades were based strictly on standardized test results. Soon they will include other factors, such as SAT scores and numbers of students who take college-level courses. This year, 74 percent of elementary schools and 78 percent of middle schools in Florida got A’s and B’s. Parents in California currently pay attention to a school’s API score, a ranking from 200 to 800, which has the advantage of showing growth or decline in points every year.
  • Allowing students in “failing” schools to leave or create a charter would simplify and  speed up two reforms that the California Legislature passed this year: a parent trigger provision allowing parents in 75 low-performing schools to demand their school boards to do a charter conversion, and open enrollment, allowing families in the lowest performing 1,000 schools to choose a school in another district, assuming that school opens its doors.
  • Promoting charter schools: Whitman would remove the state’s cap on charter schools. So far the ceiling has not been an issue in discouraging the creation of charters.
  • Expanding the teacher pool: Whitman would encourage alternative credentialing pathways for more second-career professionals to become math and science teachers. She would use merit pay – bonuses to high-achieving teachers and administrators – to attract “high-quality professionals” into teaching.

Brown’s ideas

Several proposals would advance ideas that have long been discussed.

  • Revising state tests: Brown recognizes flaws with the $100 million state testing system, like its reliance on limited multiple-choice questions. With the adoption by California of national Common Core standards, new assessments are coming anyway. How the two testing systems would mesh isn’t clear.
  • Broadening the curriculum: Concerned about the narrowing of the curriculum under No Child Left Behind, Brown would encourage initiatives to expand the teaching of history, science, and the humanities, without, he says, reducing attention to English and math.
  • Returning control to the locals: As with other candidates before him, Brown pledges to pare back the voluminous state Education Code and cede more authority over student achievement to local districts, making them responsible for outcomes but not micromanaging the process. This would be easier said than done.
  • Attracting good teachers and principals: Brown pledges to raise public and private money for a leadership academy to train good principals. He would pay mentor teachers more to work with new teachers. He would encourage high school districts to become alternative certification providers by offering apprenticeships combining university courses and classroom experience. And he would work with public universities to lure the students ranked in the top third of their class to teaching. How this could be done without financial incentives isn’t clear.

  • Expanding magnet schools and partnership academies: Brown would continue a priority of the Legislature and Gov. Schwarzenegger: career academies that prepare students for college and careers in high technology, health professions and other industries.
  • Dealing with bad behavior: Parents and teachers continually complain that schools seem unable to control handfuls of disruptive students. Brown said he would consider changing state laws or practices to control behaviors that disrupt the learning of others.

Whitman has cast herself as a reformer and, in unremitting TV ads,  characterized Brown as a toady of the teachers union. But the CTA is spending millions of dollars independently not out of  love for Brown but out of dislike of her. Brown’s ideas reflect a detailed knowledge of the problems, needs and dynamics of  California’s diverse public schools. There’s no indication that Whitman has that level of understanding.

Note: For two contrasting views of the candidates’ views on education,  read retired San Jose high school principal Jim Russell on why he supports Whitman and UC-Davis education professor Thomas Timar on why he favors Brown.

This entry was posted in 2010 elections, Education Excellence Committee, Teacher Development, Tests on by .

About John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

5 thoughts on “Brown’s and Whitman’s platforms

  1. Fred Jones

    John:  Thank you very much for compiling these contrasting lists of campaign commitments vis-a-vis education reform proposals of the two, Gubernatorial candidates.  I have been disappointed that the media and the candidates have focused sparse attention on education during this campaign (especially since so much time was devoted to “maid-gate” and a sexist term), so the economy obviously did not eclipse every other issue.  This article helps fill a glaring void in the reportage of this campaign cycle.

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  2. chris kelly

    If Whitman (and others) are serious about alternative pathways to teacher credentialing (bringing in people who are experienced in other fields), she needs to look at the Windfall Elimination Provision with social security. If you come from the private sector and have paid into social security for many years you will take a huge hit on your retirement by working as a teacher under CalSTRS. This is a serious deterrent for highly qualified people considering a second career in teaching.

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  3. Russ Antracoli

    Good information and yes, educational reform is a complex issue and with many obstacles (not just teacher unions).  The problem of attracting the so called best and brightest; better pay and performance bonuses is a good idea, but where will the funds come from, the candidates ideas sound so good from prisons and welfare savings, but are only used for elections purposes.  With educational funding continually decreasing the idea of attracting and retaining highly qualified people will be difficult.  Although now is the time as with the recession math an science people are more available.  Remember though even if highly qualified and educated does not mean they will be good or long range teachers; the key is they must like and understand kids.
    The person who commented on Social Security/CalSTRS is correct.  Entering into STRS and ending with a retirement would greatly affect funds for retirement from Social Security.  Today there are many math and science people, highly skilled (and if they liked kids) would fit nicely into this field.  To attract them changes in this area might have to be made.  The person entering into STRS would loose at least 1/2 of their SS retirement if qualifying for retirement under STRS.

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  4. David B. Cohen

    The comments that have already been posted include some important points about career paths, social security and STRS.  But the main thing that jumps out at me here is the stupidity of grading schools.  It’s one thing to grade restaurants on cleanliness: there’s a well-understood set of standards and a clear consensus about the necessity of those particular outcomes.  With schools there are many more complex factors to consider, many more ways to measure success, competing visions and values, a lack of consensus, and plenty of evidence that focusing on that report card grade will actually have detrimental effects on elements that are not part of the grade.  Anyone considering this approach has a misunderstanding of schools and motivation.  Recommended reading: this Ed Sector report by Chad Aldeman explains how a Florida high school with a “report card” grade of D outperforms a school with an A.  It’s all a matter of which criteria you select.  The “D” school produces more successful graduates, as measured by their graduates college GPA and rate of staying in college.

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