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Education: Heart of the Crisis

Efforts to reform California’s governing system often focus on one or two ideas that can be turned into ballot initiatives. Billionaire Nicolas Berggruen’s Think Long Committee was different. Members agreed on a broader approach – offering a series of integrated proposals in seven major areas with the goal of designing a new governing system. Here are highlights of those recommendations as they apply to public and higher education--once the state's acme, now its Achilles heel.
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THE PROBLEM: Paying for California’s education system is at the heart of the state crisis. It’s overseen from the state capital because of the centralized governing system, and schools are the largest part by far of the state budget. Education funding is governed by complicated formulas that make it hard to budget too far in advance—and have resulted in cuts in bad years. Over the past generation California, once among the leaders in school funding, has seen a sharp declined in its spending compared to other states.

THE BACK STORY: Think Long was designed to look at overall governance, but education became a centerpiece of discussion. Two members—billionaire Eli Broad, one of the country’s leading education philanthropists, and former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz—were described as particularly focused on school reform.

California Issue

What is Think Long thinking?
The Think Long Committee developed specific recommendations for improving California's governance. Joe Mathews offers an in-depth look at seven specific areas afflicting the state, and what the reform organization proposed as remedies. The other six areas are:
Voter Initiatives
State Budget Deficit
Citizens' Council
Local Government


Broad sought the committee’s support for education reforms—ending of layoffs based on seniority, better evaluations for teachers, pay for performance, mayoral control of school districts—championed by his foundation and opposed by teachers’ unions. Broad saw Think Long as a vehicle for a grand bargain—more taxes and money for the schools, in exchange for embracing some of these reforms. (One initiative debated but not recommended by Think Long would have allocated 75 percent of new funds raised by Think Long’s tax reforms based on students’ needs and constitutional criteria, while reserving 25 percent only for school districts that adopted certain reforms.)

The committee heard from a variety of people, including both sides in the state’s education reform wars. At one meeting, veteran education consultant John Mockler, who has close ties to teachers, and California Teachers Association strategist Joe Nunez faced off against Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Mockler argued that given limited resources and the explosive growth in the diversity of the student population, California’s schools had done a strong job. If the state had the same resources per student as Rhee’s students in Washington, its students would have improved commensurately. Rhee and Villaraigosa argued that schools were failing and broader reforms, opposed by teachers’ unions, were needed. One committee member remarked that conversation represented two completely different realities.

THE PROPOSAL: Ultimately, Think Long produced recommendations that were problematic in two ways. First, they were vague and didn’t go as far as Broad and others had wanted on reform. Recommendations called for new “accountability systems,” more autonomy for school districts, better data on schools and learning, stronger charter schools, and “meaningful teacher and principal evaluations.” But these recommendations still went too far for teachers’ unions, who have dismissed Think Long’s suggestions.

Think Long’s most profound contribution to education was tied to its tax proposal. According to the committee’s modeling, the new revenues from the tax changes would produce $5 billion annually for K-12 schools and community colleges, and $2.5 billion annually for the University of California and California State University systems.