Schrag, Peter

Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale.

School Reform: Why It’s So Hard

By Peter Schrag

Listening to even the best people in California’s school reform discussions doesn’t leave much clarity about the direction our money-starved education system school go or much confidence that things will get perceptibly better any time soon.

Many of those good people know what’s needed. It’s just that they don’t all know the same thing, or don’t know it at the same time. That much at least was apparent once again at last Wednesday’s Sacramento forum on school finance sponsored by PPIC, the Public Policy Institute of California.

What they agreed on was that the fixes of the last thirty or forty years – what state School Board Michael Kirst called “the historical accretion” of programs – wasn’t working. It’s become, someone said, “the Winchester Mystery House” of school finance, rooms added willy-nilly to solve one or another problem. 

The GOP Orphans Its Referendum

By Peter Schrag

So the Republicans have formally thrown in the towel on their referendum to block use of the new state Senate maps drawn last year by the presumably non-partisan Citizens Redistricting Commission.

The main point of the referendum, the Republicans said, was to block use of the maps in this year’s election cycle. When the state Supreme Court ordered the maps to be used, their campaign people said, there was no point in pursuing it. The measure, Proposition 40, will however remain on the ballot. It’s just that there’ll be no GOP campaign.

But that may not end the confusion since, given the peculiarities of the California referendum process, a “no” vote is in fact a “yes” vote. Any voter wanting to reject the referendum in November, increase the Democrats’ chances of gaining real control in the Senate, or punish the GOP for attacking a process that it had once supported will have to be wily enough to vote ”yes.”

Sacramento’s Mixed Fiscal Message

By Peter Schrag
So was it a threat or just a statement of hard facts? The “it” here was the Field Poll’s finding last week that 72 percent of voters don’t approve of the school budget cuts that would automatically follow failure of Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax increase measure on the November ballot.

Did the voters disapprove because they saw the school cuts as a threat – what Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, called “the most expensive ransom note in California history”?

Did it mean that 19 percent of us who said we approve of the school cuts like cutting school funding (9 percent had no opinion)? And if voters were reacting to a perceived threat, why did a significantly greater percentage of Republicans react positively to the Brown proposal than did Democrats (22 percent to 14 percent)?

California Dreaming – Backwards

By Peter Schrag

The movie “California State of Mind: The Legacy of Pat Brown,” which has been making the rounds of public TV channels, is a tender blend between a family memoir and a nostalgic look at a more hopeful era in California history. At times it makes you want to weep for what we once had and will probably never have again.  

The producers, Hilary Armstrong and Sascha Rice, granddaughters of the man who was governor from 1958 to 1966, weren’t troubled by the mix of the personal and the political, much of it in the form of old film clips. And in some ways the past forty years have been a sort of family history: two governors Brown, a treasurer Brown who also ran for governor, plus the half dozen lesser public offices those Browns held.

Much of the movie’s history is familiar. Pat Brown, as much as any individual, was the builder of modern California:

Bad News: We’re No Longer the Nation’s Biggest Nuts

By Peter Schrag

It’s just a half-century since California was widely regarded as the nation’s cradle of kookiness. It was because of the sunshine, famously said Jesse Unruh, the “Big Daddy” speaker of the Assembly in the 1960s, that we grow so many fruits and nuts.

The evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, one of America’s first radio preachers, built her mega-church here; it was from Southern California that she reportedly vanished into the Pacific in 1926 and, claiming to have been kidnapped, mysteriously reappeared (in Mexico) a month later. The media, of course, ate it up.

Haunted By The Spirit of ’13

By Peter Schrag

The estimable Joel Fox, former head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and now president of the anti-tax Small Business Action Committee, used to complain vehemently about the tendency of some on the left to blame all of California’s ills on Proposition 13.

Fox, who’s as thoughtful as he is conservative, was – is – partly right. California had plenty of problems even before June 6, 1978. It’s had lots since that didn’t have the remotest connection with Howard Jarvis’ famous stink bomb.

But last week’s budget wrestle in Sacramento was another reminder of how much of our mess was set off by the initiative and the orgy of other ballot measures and related legislative fixes that came in its wake.

The June Primary: This is Democracy?

By Peter Schrag

Contrary to first impressions, there were a few signs of sanity in last week’s Top Two primary election results.

(1) Orly Taitz, the mother of all Birthers, got just over three percent of the vote in her campaign to unseat Sen. Dianne Feinstein – or at least to run against her in the November election.  Elizabeth Emken, one of the 14 Republicans in the race, got 12 percent and will have that honor and spare the GOP the embarrassment of having a Birther as its standard bearer. 

(2) The voters passed Proposition 28, the tweak in the state’s legislative term limits law, though we may never know whether it was because they thought they were liberalizing it by letting legislators serve twelve years in either house or tightening it by reducing the current total of 14 years – six in the Assembly, eight in the Senate.  But we still have the anti-democracy of term limits – in essence a declaration of no confidence in ourselves as voters.

The June Ballot: Lots of Reform, How Much Change?

By Peter Schrag

Those of us who can be bothered to go to the polls in next month’s primary, or fill out and send back our mail ballots, will probably notice that almost everything seems different: the districts, the ballots, the chance to fiddle with the state’s term limits law.

Whether you’re registered as a Democrat or a Republican or decline to state, your ballot will have all Assembly candidates on one list, all state Senate candidates on another, all congressional candidates on another, regardless of party.

You’ll find Democrat Dianne Feinstein in eighth place among U.S. Senate candidates,
just under Marsha Feinland, who defines her party preference as Peace and Freedom.

Among the 24 on the Senate ballot, there are five other Democrats, an American Independent, a Libertarian, another Peace and Freedom candidate and fourteen Republicans. One of them is lawyer-doctor Orly Taitz, the mother of all Birthers. You can vote for any one of them.

The Friends of Lung Cancer

By Peter Schrag

There are lots of good reasons to support Proposition 29, the tobacco tax initiative on the June 5 ballot, not least those named Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. Together, the two tobacco giants have so far kicked in about $40 million to the sleazy campaign to defeat it. If you count the nearly $700,000 that the Republican Party contributed to their cause you have yet another reason.

They call themselves Californians Against Out-Of-Control Taxes and Spending but it’s probably easier to remember them as the Friends of Lung Cancer.

But because Proposition 29, another instance of ballot box budgeting, takes a revenue source off the table, and because the feds are already funding cancer research to the tune of some $5 billion annually, the issue is not all that simple.

Waivers for Waivers? What California Wants

By Peter Schrag

You don’t have to look far to understand why California, like many other states, wants a waiver from key provisions of NCLB, the ten-year-old federal No Child Left Behind law. If we don’t get it, it may start to cost us.

But what California wants is unique. We want not only a waiver but also a waiver from the conditions U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has imposed for getting a waiver. Is that reasonable, or is it chutzpah?

From the start, the federal law’s impossible requirement that all American schoolchildren make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) toward academic perfection in 2014 – even children who began school speaking no English -- was an invitation to fraud, confusion and demoralization.