California’s Berlin Wall

David Crane
Lecturer and Research Scholar at Stanford University and President of Govern for California

To understand California’s publicly-funded school system, it helps to understand federally-funded health insurance. Both Medicare and the Veterans Administration are government-funded insurers but the VA is also a government-operated health care provider. While Medicare enrollees may freely choose among health care providers, VA enrollees may choose a non-VA provider only in limited cases. 

California has a VA-style public school system. Currently only 10 percent of California’s six million public school students attend non-government-operated schools, all of which are required under California law to be operated by non-profit organizations and many of which have wait lists. The other 90 percent attend government-operated schools.

Because of poor VA service, recently the federal government made it easier for veterans to see a non-VA doctor. But despite poor service by California’s government-operated schools, this year the state enacted a law making it harder to form non-government-operated schools.

The choice permitted by Medicare is one reason some candidates for president and many elected California officials promote Medicare-for-All but not VA-for-All. One would hope they could see the inconsistency of embracing choice for Medicare enrollees but not public school families. But as the new law demonstrates, that is not yet the case.

30 years ago today Berliners razed a wall that had stopped eastern residents of their city from fleeing an oppressive government. This year our state raised a wall that stops our fellow residents from fleeing poorly-performing government-operated schools. Now the state has an even greater obligation to make government-operated schools work well for those residents. To start, the state legislature and governor should (i) repeal laws requiring government-operated schools to offer lifetime employment and to lay off employees in reverse seniority, (ii) make it easier for principals and school boards to terminate underperforming employees, to disproportionately reward employees who perform better or teach tougher subjects or in more demanding districts, and to suspend automatic pension benefit increases, and (iii) require government-operated schools to adopt standardized and cost-effective health insurance plans and to means-test post-employment insurance subsidies.

State legislators and the governor have no greater nor more solemn responsibility than making K-12 public education work well. K-12 is their largest expenditure. They write the Education Code. Only they have the power to make excellent a service that parents consider absolutely critical to their children’s futures. 

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