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Jennifer Nelson

Illinois contemplates education reform in exchange for high taxes

Let’s hope that Governor Brown and his people are taking note of the education debate raging in Illinois. An article in today’s Wall Street Journal sums up the plan under debate: teachers would not earn tenure until they’ve been rated "proficient" or "excellent" by their principals for four years; tenured teachers rated "ineffective" for two years could lose tenure, districts would have an easier time dismissing ineffective teachers and layoff decisions would be made based on teacher performance—as opposed to seniority. The final piece of the proposal would restrict teacher unions’ ability to strike by requiring them to take part in mediation (and give school boards the power to accept the mediator’s solution) before striking. 
According to the WSJ, this deal is being rushed because state officials want to offer this up in exchange for a tax increase.
Obviously, I’m hopeful that California’s budget problems can be solved with long-term fixes that bring spending in line with revenues and does not require higher taxes. From what the governor has said thus far, it sounds like he’s contemplating a major state-local government realignment package, which would shift more power to cities and counties (along with tax revenue or greater power to levy taxes at the local level). As a former Oakland resident during Brown’s tenure as mayor, I know that he experienced the pain of trying to govern a locality amidst all of the state’s rules and regulations. Realigning state and local relationship in terms of financial and program responsibilities could be a logical approach to fixing our budget mess, as long as it isn’t just a way to mask a giant tax increase and if it is done with significant input from (urban and rural) local government officials.
But frankly, IF we are going to have to swallow a tax increase, then state officials should give taxpayers something significant for our money. Dealing with the stranglehold the teachers unions have on our public schools is a great starting point. 
Frankly, I think Jerry Brown could be the right person to really bring about the kind of education reform California needs. Jerry Brown has shown that he does not always knock on liberal doors for ideas. As a new mayor, Brown reached out to the Pacific Research Institute’s Lance Izumi, a known conservative education expert, for ideas on how to improve educational opportunities for Oakland’s youth. 
In fact, one of the good things Jerry Brown accomplished as mayor was the creation of the Oakland Military Institute, a college preparatory school serving middle and high school students. The local school board, at the time, fought his proposal, but he got support in Sacramento (Gray Davis, then governor, attended a military school) and was able to open OMI, graduating its first class in 2007. Brown has described the school as “a pre-Vatican II Jesuit school in the form of a military academy. I am applying the truth I was brought up on.”
Brown has been promising budget reform that relies on austerity and sacrifice. One of the best gifts he could give to current and future Californians is to dramatically change the way our public schools are managed. It’s time to reform teacher tenure policies, reduce the influence education labor unions have over education policy and give principals real budget and management control over their schools (and then hold them accountable for the success or failure of their school). Let’s not ask public school teaches to sacrifice by cutting their pay. Let’s ask them to sacrifice by making their jobs dependent on their performance. And let’s ask all public schools to embrace the kind of standards that the OMI holds for its students. 
Jerry Brown knows what a successful school looks like—he created one in Oakland. If he wants to ask the taxpayers of this state to increase our “investment,” then he should make (real) education reform part of his budget reform plan. If that were to happen, he might well have bipartisan support for his budget reform proposal.