Academic journal article Education Next

No Country for Strong Men: California Unions Tame the Terminator

Academic journal article Education Next

No Country for Strong Men: California Unions Tame the Terminator

Article excerpt

When in 2006 California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asked a panel of education experts to recommend an overhaul of the state's troubled public schools, observers hoped the celebrity chief executive was about to bring his unique brand of postpartisan politics to an issue that sorely needed it. Schwarzenegger had built consensus in a fractured legislature on such difficult issues as workers' compensation, prison reform, and the largest package of public-works bonds in the nation's history. He was working closely with Democrats on health care. And now he had declared that 2008 would be his "Year of Education Reform."

But that optimism faded when Schwarzenegger, confronting a growing deficit in the state budget, shelved most of the far-reaching recommendations that his own commission sent his way. It would be neither fair nor practical, the governor said in January 2008, to ask the education community to accept a major dose of reform at the same time that he was proposing to cut state spending on the schools.

"We can't do ... all the things that we wanted to do," Schwarzenegger said in an appearance before the California Newspaper Publishers Association. "It's just simply because we won't have the money available. And it is very hard to negotiate and to sit down with the education coalition and to say, 'Here is what we want you to do; here are the 20 things we want you to do, but we're going to take 3.5, 4 billion dollars away from you.' So that doesn't make any sense."

Total Recall

Schwarzenegger's caution undoubtedly grew out of his experience in 2005, when he did try to push education reform and budget cuts at the same time, and failed miserably. But his strategy also reflected the approach he has taken to education policy since he was elected: mostly hands-off. Despite a political persona and personal resume that suggested the issue would be a perfect one for him, and despite the public's seeming thirst for new ideas to improve the schools, Schwarzenegger has not made education policy a priority.

Bonnie Reiss, a longtime friend of the governor who served on his staff for two years, advised him on education issues, and was one of his appointees to the state Board of Education, said Schwarzenegger told her and others in his administration why he did not want to get involved in a long, politically difficult effort to overhaul the public schools.

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"The recall election was not about public education," Reiss said, referring to the historic 2003 election in which voters ousted a sitting governor, Gray Davis, and installed Schwarzenegger in his place. "The recall was about the budget, economic issues, energy, businesses fleeing the state. He used to say California was like a patient in triage. First we have to stop the bleeding. Then we have to heal the patient. Arnold felt very strongly that the anger of the voters that created the recall was not about public education. As critical as it was, it was not one of the first things he had to do in triage."

Like a good physician, Schwarzenegger, at least for his first four years, followed the Hippocratic oath: do no harm. He proposed nothing that would undo the bipartisan momentum California has built on solid academic standards and a testing regimen that tells students, parents, and schools where they stand, in relation not only to the entire state but also schools with similar demographics. And he has vetoed bill after bill sent to him by a legislature that often does the bidding of the state's powerful teachers unions, which have opposed much of California's accountability system. The result has been a record best described as a kind of benign support for the status quo. That might not be an entirely bad thing. California's schools, appear not to be worsening with respect to national trends (see Figure 1), and adding more reforms just for the sake of reform might not necessarily improve them. …

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