Kindergarten flop

Liam Julian

There was Ahnold, on the cover of the April 16th Newsweek, expertly balancing a photo-shopped globe on his right index finger, a knowing smile on his face. And why wouldn't he smile? In climate change, Schwarzenegger has found an issue that he can attack with impunity, and one that will garner him significant praise from all corners.

And Schwarzenegger is ubiquitous these days, always plugging his new muscular environmentalism. There he is on Letterman, there he is with Tony Blair, there he is on MTV's show Pimp My Ride (a special Earth Day episode), lovingly inspecting a '65 Chevy Impala that runs on bio-diesel. Why Pimp My Ride? "To show people that biofuel is not like some wimpy feminine car, like a hybrid," said the governor.

It's too bad, though, that Schwarzenegger seems unwilling to put his macho fervor to work in policy areas that might actually need it. Anyone paying attention to California's schools knows that public education would be a great place to start. Sure, he's promised to make 2008 the "year of education." But California's governor hasn't been setting the stage for it. Schwarzenegger was once forceful and open about his quest to remake the state's schools; he's been conspicuously quiet as of late.

Some of that silence no doubt stems from Schwarzenegger's losses in November 2005, when he invested time, effort, and several millions of his own dollars on ballot proposals that were ultimately defeated. Among the losing proposals was one that would have lengthened the time required before public school teachers could achieve tenure and one that would have allowed union members to stop their dues from flowing to union-backed political campaigns.

Then came the governor's 2006 reelection bid. In order to salve angry teacher unions, Schwarzenegger promised to repay billions of dollars he had formerly cut from the state's education budget (see here). Months later, at the debate between California's gubernatorial candidates, Schwarzenegger offered an uncharacteristically bland prescription for fixing schools. The first thing he said about education was, "It is very important that we pay attention to fund education fully." It was Democratic candidate Phil Angelides, not the governor, who during the debate called for expanding charter schools.

But Schwarzenegger won big. And now he needs to tackle the issues hindering California's K-12 system.

Where to start? Charter schools would be a good place, especially because they're coming under attack in the Golden State (as in much of the rest of the country). One of the best things to happen to Los Angeles' poor and minority students is Green Dot, a (unionized) network of charter schools that operates in some of L.A.'s roughest areas and endeavors to provide a solid education for neighborhood kids. But when Green Dot recently tried to expand and open eight new high schools in and around Watts, the L.A. school board wouldn't allow it (see here).

What was the governor's response to this attack on L.A.'s neediest kids? Nichts. At least the Los Angeles Times wasn't so shy--it called the school board's decision "unconscionable" and wrote that the board "places politics, union priorities and personal payback over students time and again." Under such pressure, one school board member up for election reversed his vote, giving a victory to Green Dot.

It's easy to say that the governor shouldn't involve himself in municipal issues (although he did when L.A.'s mayor tried to take over the city's schools). Or that Schwarzenegger tacitly supports charters and choice. Or that he's appointed good people to the state's board of education.

And for most state governors, perhaps that would be enough. But Schwarzenegger should be held to a higher standard. Not only does he run the world's sixth-largest economy, but he's one of the most-recognizable elected officials in the world. California's schools are in disarray, and Schwarzenegger should make fixing them his priority--now. Devoting five words to charter schools in his 2007 State of the State address doesn't cut it.

Lots of Ahnold's more "progressive" friends won't like to see him push loudly and forcibly (which doesn't mean imprudently) for more charter schools and educational choice, and for tougher accountability for students and schools. But if the governor wants to leave a real legacy for California, he has to start with educating the state's future.