Our View: Governor right to push for flexibility for local schools

October 2, 2012 

In recent veto messages, Gov. Jerry Brown has been pushing for more flexibility for local school districts. That's a wise course in an era when it seems that everyone wants to determine exactly what teachers must teach in their classrooms.

Brown has given his governing philosophy a name, put forth in a veto message of Sept. 21. "The principle of subsidiarity," he wrote, "calls for greater, not less, deference to our elected school boards which are directly accountable to the citizenry."

Subsidiarity comes out of Catholic social teaching, as you might expect from our Jesuit-educated governor. Defined and redefined by popes in 1891 and 1931, it is part of Catholic catechism: "A community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good."

In short, aid but don't interfere with the locals.

So the centerpiece of Brown's education agenda was to replace mandated categorical programs with a "weighted student formula" that provides a basic level of funding, with additional money for disadvantaged students and those struggling to learn English. This, he said, "will give more authority to local school districts to fashion the kind of programs they see their students need."

His proposal went nowhere, largely because he put it in his budget but not in bill form. A change this big needs to go through policy hearings, not rammed through in the budget.

Fortunately, Brown appears not to be giving up -- signaled, as usual, in veto messages.

"California's complex school finance laws need comprehensive reform and I look forward to working with the Legislature to craft a fair Weighted Student Formula that could resolve this issue," he wrote in vetoing one minor bill, AB 1811.

Brown's principle of subsidiarity also shows in his signing and vetoing of bills that would make changes to zero-tolerance discipline policies. In vetoing a bill limiting the authority of school officials to suspend a student, he wrote: "It is important that teachers and school officials retain broad discretion to manage and set the tone in the classroom."

The big unknown in this session was what Brown would do with Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg's Senate Bill 1458. That bill attempted to broaden the state's Academic Performance Index so it would measure more than merely students' scores on the California Standards Tests. The main provision would limit testing to 60 percent of the index, requiring the state to design other elements to fill the remaining 40 percent. The API originally was supposed to include graduation rates, but never did.

Brown had said he wanted local panels to visit schools, observe teachers, interview students and examine student work. Steinberg's bill included that. Brown signed the bill.

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