New Report: On the Cusp in California

As a recent TIME cover story notes, California is a state teeming with problems: Facing a 35 percent budget gap earlier this year, the state teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. It has a notoriously dysfunctional legislature and the nation's fourth-highest unemployment rate.

On top of that, California's schools, once among the nation's best, now rank among the bottom of all states-- 46th nationally in 4th grade math, and 47th in reading. Equally troubling large achievement gaps between white and black or Hispanic fourth-graders. These problems begin even before children enter kindergarten. Only 31 percent of the state's 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded preschool or Head Start-and many early care and education settings fall short of high quality standards. These figures are particularly troubling considering that the state is host to one in every eight children under the age of eight in the country.

California's Policymaking Reaction to the Race to the Top Priorities

Since the release of the Race to the Top grant priorities in late July, states across the country have been scrambling to ensure their eligibility for their share of the $4.35 billion in federal funds to encourage innovation in education reform. Several states, including California, Nevada, Wisconsin, New York, Alaska, Missouri, and Texas, were immediately identified as ineligible for the program due to student data "fire walls" or unwillingness to participate in the common standards process. But California's Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is unwilling to let as much as $500 million slip through his fingers. On August 20th he called a special session of the legislature to consider a bill that would immediately enact sweeping changes to the state's education system and remove any barriers to the Race to the Top funds. Below, we discuss details of the proposed California bill.

The bill includes six major changes to existing California education law:

Cash for Clunker Buildings

As the US, Germany, and other nations pay people to scrap their polluting cars, what other clunkers are in the marketplace that might respond to an incentive? How about buildings?

Can 'Average' Californians Manage a Constitutional Convention?

As you ride the bus or freeway to work tomorrow, ask yourself: Can the person seated next to you, or driving past you, be trusted with the job of redesigning California's basic political and budgetary rules? Are "average Californians" ready to don the white powdered wigs to become the Founding Mothers and Fathers of a new California?

With efforts to call a constitutional convention picking up steam, a proposal for "citizen delegates" has generated considerable interest. Rather than holding elections or having state officials appoint the delegates, about 400 delegates would be randomly selected to produce a scientifically representative sample of all Californians. No political insiders or partisan apparatchiks need apply, just Golden Staters motivated by a sincere desire to help their state.

That's the theory, but could it actually work? Even if the citizen delegates were high-minded and lacking in partisan and personal agendas, are average people capable of the kind of in-depth understanding of complex issues necessary for redesigning California's basic institutions?

 In short, I believe the answer is yes. Read my oped in the Sacramento Bee to find out more by clicking here.

California Senate Majority Leader Endorses Constitutional Convention

"If Madison was right about the need for well-functioning legislative bodies, and if society is losing them, then we would expect to see signs of the twin threats of which Madison warned - chaos­ and tyranny. Disturbingly, we do see those signs today."

These words were written by the Majority Leader of the California State Senate in a paper entitled, "The Dangers of Government Gridlock and the Need for a Constitutional Convention."

The Senate Majority Leader in question was Barry Keene and the year was 1992.

But this warning could easily grace the editorial pages of today as the state's leaders quaver on the edge of an even wider budget chasm and as the tide of discontent with the political status quo rises ever higher.

The familiarity of Keene's concerns - and he wasn't alone - belies the notion that our current problem are due to a recent rise in political polarization or a uniquely venal set of public officials. In fact, a constitutional revision commission was convened in the mid 1990s, though its sensible bipartisan recommendations were ignored by a state that was able to coast through a few more years of denial fueled by the tech and housing booms.

But after these gold rushes, we find ourselves in even more dire straits because the root causes of our problems will not go away for all of our wishing. In Keene's words:

"Some people argue that the problems of government are personal rather than structural. They say that our leaders do not lead, do not care or are crooks. But those charges beg the question - why do even the best people in government accomplish to little? The reasons are partly societal, as mentioned, partly attitudinal, as I will note, but mainly structural."

Is Welfare Program Oversubscribed in California?

Chris Reed, writing at America's Finest Blog (for non-Californians, this is a reference to Reed's town, San Diego, which long ago was dubbed America's Finest City), has ferreted out an interesting statistic that needs more explanation.

That stat: California, with one-eighth of the nation's population, has nearly one-third of all folks enrolled with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program created by the 1996 federal welfare reform. All told, that's 1.2 million people in California. New York, with a population roughly half of California's, has just more than 252,000 people enrolled in the program.


Little Hoover: Stem Cell Agency Board Should Shrink, Restructuring Needed

California's Little Hoover Commission, which investigates government agencies and focuses on efficiency, is out with a thoughtful new report on the state's stem cell agency and its governing board.

The report concludes that the board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is too large and that the initiative that created the agency, Prop 71 in 2004, is "overly prescriptive" and locks in place too many inefficiencies. I reported as much last month in the Scientific American.

Among the major recommendations, from a summary released by Little Hoover:

Should Voters Have to Approve All Pension Increases?

California is slowly moving in this direction. Orange County adopted a measure requiring voter approval of pension increases for government workers last fall. San Diego has a similar requirement in place. Now Ventura County is looking at putting such a measure on the ballot next year.

It's true that state legislators and local elected officials have a record of irresponsible pension giveaways. (For evidence, look no further than SB 400, the notorious 1999 law that permitted the spiking of pensions across California). But, as this story notes, voters can be big spenders too, even when it comes to pensions.

There's also a question of how intimately voters should be involved in government decisions. The move by economic conservatives to require votes on pensions mirrors the effort by environmentalists and NIMBY types to require votes on every change in land use policy. I can think of any number of controversial government decisions that might be routinely kicked to voters. Should every local community vote on any new government contract?  Every new traffic rerouting? Every school opening or closing? Where does it stop?


Keeping Track of Kids Entering Kindergarten

A new report from California’s Children Now calls on the state to implement a comprehensive system that provides policymakers, educators and parents with better information about the skills of California’s youngsters when they enter kindergarten.

How to Make Self-Funding Initiative Legislation Work

Mark Paul, New America senior scholar, has studied the question of how the state might implement rules requiring initiatives that create new spending to include a source of revenues. (This is in reference to California legislation, SCA-14, prohibiting "something for nothing" initiatives that mandate spending without new revenues). Here is the relevant excerpt from a memo he prepared on the subject.