Grading Jerry Brown

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

(Editor’s Note: Frequent contributor and journalist Joe Mathews turns professor to grade Jerry Brown on his leadership dealing with different issues he faced as governor. Today, the issues of infrastructure, public safety, education and direct democracy are covered; tomorrow health care, water and housing.)

Grading the Brown Record: Infrastructure

Grade: C

Brown offered a number of good ideas and policies on infrastructure. He accomplished little.

High-speed rail is underway, but so far behind schedule that it remains politically vulnerable. The gas tax increase that Brown pushed forward funds many worthwhile projects, but it represents a tiny fraction of the state’s needs.

The state has huge deficits in its state infrastructure. The bright spots are in areas where localities have stepped up—in school facilities and (in some places, most prominently Los Angeles County) transit.

But Brown’s two great political passions—environmental protection and being cheap—worked against progress on infrastructure. His environmental allies have a terrible time saying yes to building anything. Brown talked about the value of taking on CEQA, but didn’t. That law is widely used to block public projects and efforts to fund a cleaner energy future.

So here’s a gentleman C. I’d write more but I have to get somewhere, and the traffic will be horrendous.

Grading the Brown Record: Public Safety

A-

This is by far the strongest piece of Gov. Brown’s record, outside of public relations.

The governor presided over historic changes when it came to criminal justice.

He didn’t do it alone. He was compelled by the U.S. Supreme Court to reduce the prison population. And many organizers and community associations pushed him to join a movement to reform a broken criminal justice system. Voters, too, were ready for change, and embraced it, with Propositions 47 and 57.

Brown followed along in many ways. But he led when it came to sentencing reform and to realignment of responsibilities between state and local levels of government.

It’s worth adding here that Brown also supported sanctuary policies and other protections for undocumented immigrants, not to mention the Americans who depend on them. This was a criminal justice choice, too – to not go down the national Republican road of treating unauthorized immigrants as criminals. And the California public is better off and safer for it.

The result of Brown’s policies has been not a full transformation, but the beginnings of one. If Brown had been less cheap—and devoted more dollars to assisting people in changing their records and re-entering society after prison terms—I’d have given him an A.
 His work in this area is not done, even as he leaves office. Some in law enforcement—especially elected sheriffs in more conservative parts of the state—will try to roll back Brown’s changes at the ballot. The governor has a $15 million political war chest that he will likely use to fight these rollbacks.

Grading the Brown Record on Education

Grade: F

This is where I depart most forcefully from the narrative that Brown’s two terms were a success.

In education, he flunked.

The conventional media wisdom is different. That narrative goes like this: First, Brown boosted funding to schools, to the point where our spending nearly approached the national average. Second, he is credited for a Local Control Funding Formula that is supposed more money to needy schools and school district. And, third, his allies on the state school board brought a new accountability system to the schools.

This narrative is wrong to the point of being deceitful.

Brown, even in the midst of a roaring economic comeback, protected the broken school funding formula, which decouples school funding from needs. And the funding boosts were swallowed up by rising retirement costs and special education costs.

His Local Control Funding Formula has been accompanied by no real system for making sure the money is used to close achievement gaps. To the contrary, Brown himself said he didn’t see closing the achievement gaps as viable. So it’s not clear if the money is going to the right programs and kids. The planning process that accompanied LCFF is a bureaucratic nightmare that swallows up the precious time of teachers, parents, communities, and school administrators.

Finally, the new accountability system is incomplete to the point of being incoherent. Editorial pages across the state have called it out as almost unusable. In effect, Brown ended the accountability structure for the state.

Brown invested heavily in a Common Core system that seems unlikely to last (and that makes learning math even more excruciating than it used to be). And Brown didn’t address academic performance (which lagged during his governorship) and stagnant college attendance and completion rates.

These failures are bad enough. The false perception that Brown can claim educational successes is even more damaging. Californians don’t understand the true depths of their education hole.

Grading the Brown Record on Direct Democracy

Grade: C

Gov. Jerry Brown used California’s system of direct democracy successfully to serve his own purposes.
He wasn’t as good as preserving and enhancing the system for the rest of us to use.

Brown won some of his biggest political victories by using ballot measures—Prop 30 taxes and their extension (with an important push from progressive groups), a water bond, a rainy day fund expansion, and reform in sentencing. He also was successful at blocking attempts by others to hurt his agenda at the ballot.

But California’s system of direct democracy—which was never well-designed—became ever more dysfunctional. And Brown bears some of the blame for that.

His worst mistake was signing legislation that moved all ballot initiatives to the November ballot. That’s bad for voters and the initiatives. With long slates of initiatives all on one ballot, it’s hard for media and voters to give attention to all of them, and make informed votes. Brown diminished democracy with this decision.

He also stood still as the system of petition circulators withered, and as counties struggled to hold up their end of the bargain, as the entities that handle much of the process.

The result of these policies: it’s costlier than ever before to qualify measures. Direct democracy is even more a game that can be played only by the very rich.

Brown did go along with a minor reform of the system that allowed for measures to be taken off the ballot later in the process, after negotiation. He vetoed some bills that would have limited petition circulation in a way that would have made the process even more expensive, and exclusive.

But Brown missed opportunities for deeper reform that would open up the process to the digital world and also provide avenues to put measures on the ballot based on citizens’ judgment of the quality of ideas. Instead, it’s money that gets idea on the ballot, period.

 

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