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Others draw different lessons from the LEARN debacle, but the point here is what Young and Riordan have apparently concluded, because their interpretation is likely to shape state policy. Neither Riordan nor Ouchi were available for this article, though Riordan’s staff pledged they’d talk soon, perhaps once they have more specific proposals to lay out. Riordan’s actual authority remains a work in progress, because the state’s education bureaucracy is a many-headed Hydra that includes an elected state schools chief, a state board of education and a separate bureaucracy for building schools.
But Riordan generally likes what he hears from Steve Barr, who started a small group of well-regarded charter schools. “It’s not just the money” that’s key to improving schools, said Barr, who counts Riordan among his schools’ board members. “I didn’t have any experience, and I can build a better high school than L.A. Unified. If you want to change L.A. Unified, you can change it with competition. Feed competition and you will create change.”
Barr is speaking Riordan’s language — suggesting that change can happen fast, that straightforward, focused efforts will carry the day, that the system needs a pressure agent like Riordan, that getting more money isn’t the entire game.
But Barr also throws in caveats: “Creating a good school is really hard. If I’d had a relationship at the time, I would have killed it. If I’d had a mortgage, I would have gone bankrupt.”
And there is a money component, said Barr. Specifically, the state needs to back up its professed commitment to charter schools with substantially more seed money to get them started, he said.
And it isn’t just charters that need a dollar infusion, said Young. One successful school-reform technique, she noted, is to rebuild a failing school’s staff from scratch, but doing the job right could require substantial extra funding on the front end. “You have to spend money on things like getting a mix of more experienced teachers, getting more counselors or deans, improving the school’s physical plant — because a lot of these schools have been trashed. Getting books, putting in a system to handle discipline, hiring people to get on the phone to follow up on truancy.” Young’s hope is that money can saved elsewhere through improved efficiency.
Which brings matters around to Riordan’s new boss, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also has placed great faith in improved efficiency. So much so that he tossed another $4 billion or so into the state’s deficit bonfire by immediately repealing this year’s increase in the car tax. His inaugural address made it sound as though the founding fathers themselves would have repealed the car tax if they’d had the chance — and had the cars. Schwarzenegger’s order certainly helped confirm his premise that things might get worse before they get better.
But a promise is a promise.
Schwarzenegger also has promised to preserve vital services, including funding to schools and local governments.
“The budget is a big, big issue for most of us, in the big cities in particular,” said San Francisco schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. “The health benefits are escalating at rates that are unbelievable. But I always look at the glass as half full. The new governor has said education is a priority. And he appears to be serious about that.”
Those pledges could get harder to keep as Schwarzenegger attempts a Reaganesque triangulation. The original Gipper, in 1980, promised to slash taxes and ramp up military spending at the same time. Reagan kept those promises by rolling up a huge federal deficit.
That solution is not available in California, which places legal limits on deficit spending. Instead, Schwarzenegger’s magical realism is to sell voters on bonds to pay off the deficit. “There’s a massive weight we must lift off our state,” said Schwarzenegger. “Alone, I cannot lift it. But together, we can.”
The new governor also pointed out that, as a bodybuilder, when he had to lift something that seemed too heavy, “What I learned is that we are always stronger than we know.”
A beautiful metaphor but maybe the wrong one. The guv could have recounted how, when something seemed too heavy or his thigh too flabby, he found he could successfully turn to steroids. That’s more the solution at work here as Schwarzenegger pushes a seductive fix of deficit bonds — which would add muscle to the current budget but augur chronic financial ailments from this point forward.
If voters aren’t impressed, Schwarzenegger’s deficit bonds also could pull school bonds to defeat in March, which wouldn’t make Riordan’s job any easier. So if there’s anyone out there who can tell Riordan exactly how to accomplish his ambitious goals during a budget crisis, he’ll probably be especially motivated to listen.