Monday, September 6, 2010

The trouble with Jerry Brown

I heard that Jerry Brown, the Democrats' candidate to be Governor of California, was running his first tv ad, and so looked it up online. I assumed that here, at last, after being able to coast on months of uninspired vagueness because of the money-oriented, un-democratic Democratic primary, Brown might offer some substance, or at least a coherent, progressive vision. What we got was an injunction to 'live within our means, we have to return power and decision-making to the local level, closer to the people, and no new taxes without voter approval'. Well, there is a vision of sorts there. Its first point echoes the mantra of Brown's earlier governorship, and when applied to excessive materialism on the part of the well-off, it is commendable. There are ways in which localism, promising more democracy, is also appealing (though that can very quickly be used as cover for geographic inequality).

But the combination of the three points is a little bit worrying to me. It suggests an abdication of the state's responsibilities, essentially meaning that Brown is running on a platform that could make a liberal Republican proud: personal responsibility, disinvestment by central government, and no tax increases (because if Brown doesn't have the guts to fight for a fairer and more effective tax system during the election, you can bet that he's not going to draft a ballot measure to do the same once he's been elected).

I decided to take a look at Brown's education policies, just to get a feel for how the broad strokes and the specifics (such as they are) fit together.

Brown has been right to point out that it is not strictly necessary to have a plan set in stone upon arrival in office. In fact, so wrongheaded and contradictory are many of Meg Whitman's policy documents that they seem to have been crafted on the premise that no one would actually go beyond the glossy covers and read what was written inside.

Brown comes to the table with much experience where state education policy is concerned, and is not short on ideas. He recognises the need to address the recruitment and training of teachers; the balance between what can be done in the classroom and what is mandated by the state and federal governments; the need to rationalise and simplify the testing cycle so that students can do some non-rote learning; and the need to shift funding away from prisons and towards higher education.

However, his education plans seem to be arranged around the image he's been cultivating of himself as the hard-nosed hatchet-man, ready and willing to cut waste and bureaucracy in the system. But if he's right that the discussion needs to start from a philosophically- rather than a data-based position, Brown has played into the hands of Republicans, for whom cuts are the answer to everything....the same people who think that it's okay to have teachers in classrooms with 30 and 40 students. Some of the 'bureaucracy' is there in the service of oversight, and if Brown wants to have it both ways (streamlining and universalising the training processes and involving the districts in this) a degree of oversight will be required.

I'm not sure, either, how appropriate the emphasis on 'themed schools' (i.e. those focussing on 'the arts, public service, technology') or 'career focussed schools' are. I think that historically the strength of the public school system in the United States has been that it seeks to keep a wide range of students together for a much longer time than schools in many European countries. There is no exam at 11 to decide who goes to college and who gets sent to the factory. I think that the longer the more possibilities are held out to all students, the more likely it is that students will be able to transcend the strictures placed on them by the inequalities of class, race and geography.

Brown is dead right about the need to do better teacher recruiting, and to improve the training process. Part of the way you do this is to transform the profession from one that has been increasingly stigmatised (the Republican politicians who talk about lazy teachers who get the week-ends and summers off could learn a lot from watching teachers like my mother fall asleep on the couch at night grading papers, getting up four hours before the start of school for more grading and planning, and agonising all summer long over the coming year) into one that carries the level of esteem that it should...people need to be reminded that a good teacher does more social (and possibly economic) good that any business mogul.

However, as so often, Brown doesn't follow this path to its logical conclusion: you can't sell people on a profession (and what becomes, for many, a calling) if its members are constantly being laid off, if there is no job security, if they're working in classrooms with twice the number of students as is ideal, if they have to be constantly harassed by parents for assigning too much homework, and then crucified in the press for setting low standards. The money question remains the elephant in the overcrowded, underfunded classroom, and if he wants to get back to basics, Brown is going to have to address the fact that it matters that spending-per-pupil in California is almost the lowest in the nation.

It is something of a paradox that the quintessential anti-details man is throwing a million little ideas about the minutiae of the education system at though the demons threatening California's education system can be killed by a thousand cuts. But if he wants to win voters round to the ideal of the visionary education system that's hovering in the background of his plans, he needs to articulate the accompanying philosophy. I suspect that most voters are ahead of the curve where this is concerned, and are simply waiting to see someone tie the tax system, education, collective responsibility and equality together convincingly. So far Brown has shown a marked reluctance to do so.

I was hopeful, however, to see Brown write that understanding is more important than the memorisation of 'factoids' that the standardised tests seem to encourage, as well as his defence of science, history and the humanities. It reminds me that unlike his opponent, he is a thoughtful man, who is not afraid to think out loud and to experiment. However, should he be elected governor, he'll need to work harder to marry his philosophy to policy specifics, and to be honest about the underlying, substantial solutions to problems like that facing education in California. And ideally, we should get this honesty now, during the campaign. The insinuation from Jerry Brown's backers is that once he's elected, he'll reveal himself in all his progressive glory. But I've heard Brown eschew the 'progressive' label often enough that I'm not sure that this will be the case.

And anyway, we've seen on the national stage how this strategy can ultimately fail: Barack Obama gave us only vague utterances on the campaign trail about general healthcare reform, and got ambushed by Republicans when he came out with a more specific plan after the election; he pledged to make Afghanistan the focus of U.S. military and diplomatic efforts after a sustained review process, but was sufficiently vague about the character of the proposed engagement that hardliners in the military and war-happy Republicans easily manoeuvred him into rushing the review and dashing into a harebrained ramping up of fighting in both Afghanistan and Pakistan that is clearly emboldening the Taliban and making us less safe, and which provides the sorry spectacle of Obama cabinet members offering statements that wouldn't have been out of place when Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsefeld were running the war room. Brown should learn from this, and if there is a progressive hiding away somewhere in him, he should seek to win a mandate on those grounds.

Frankly, I'd rather see Brown lose fighting on a progressive agenda, and at least begin to lay the much-needed groundwork for a progressive comeback in the state than win having waged a campaign sufficiently low on courage and ambition for state government that many a Republican politician could be proud of it. Because if he gets locked into a tax-cutting, bureaucracy-baiting gubernatorial term, we'll not only have wasted four years, but will actually have validated many of the wrong-headed arguments being made by socially-irresponsible Republican politicians.

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