Dan Walters: Jerry Brown takes on school decrees

02/04/2013 12:00 AM

02/26/2013 8:19 PM

An amusing – or appalling – incident occurred in the Legislature in 1995 involving the state's Education Code, the body of law that purports to manage how 6 million school kids are educated.

Delaine Eastin, the state's superintendent of public instruction, and the Legislature's most prominent education authority, Assemblywoman Deirdre Alpert, staged a news conference to decry the length and complexity of the "Ed Code," as it's called, and called for streamlining its provisions.

But just 21 hours later, Alpert arose on the Assembly floor to support a bill that would add even more verbiage to the Ed Code provisions she had said should be simplified.

That's why the Ed Code fills an entire shelf of law books with decrees that even the most diligent educator cannot fathom, much less obey. They range from the arcane rules governing teacher discipline to finely detailed mandates on particular subjects, many of them inserted at the behest of ethnic or cultural advocates.

Gov. Jerry Brown took note of the morass in his State of the State speech, comparing the Ed Code unfavorably to the 10 Commandments.

He was pitching "subsidiarity" – freeing local authorities, including educators, to use their own judgment.

"Subsidiarity is offended when distant authorities prescribe in minute detail what is taught, how it is taught and how it is to be measured," Brown told legislators. "I would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day doing the real work – lighting fires in young minds."

While Brown is frontally assaulting how schools are financed – seeking to shift more state support to schools with many poor and/or non-English-speaking students – his attack on centralized curriculum control is more oblique.

The guts of the control system – scoring schools and school districts on their "academic progress" as measured by student testing – was the biggest accomplishment of former Gov. Gray Davis, who was Brown's chief of staff during his first governorship.

Davis was recalled by voters for his mishandling of budget and energy crises, but has clung to school accountability, as it has been dubbed, as his major positive step.

Brown has already signed one bill changing the accountability system for high schools and has signaled that he'd like to go further.

That puts him in league with teacher unions, which have been battling the notion that test scores should be used to judge teacher competence and/or be used by parents to take over failing schools and convert them into charters.

Meanwhile, however, there are more new bills to add more complexity to the Ed Code, including one that would mandate teaching the contributions of Filipinos to California society and another that adds teaching personal finance as a mandate.

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