At one point during the back-and-forth of Jerry Brown's education finance summit in Los Angeles today, the governor-elect reflected that education issues he wrestled with in his last term, which ended in 1982, continue to trouble the state.
"I feel like Rip Van Winkle, coming back after 28 years," he said.
It's not as if he's been asleep, of course. He's been in government for many of the intervening years. But he's right that tough issues remain.
His answer, for now, seems to be that he'll convene conversations about the problems and listen to a wide range of voices. But he's taking a cautious approach, clearly not wanting to promise too much.
A woman in the audience warned that without greater investments in education, "we're going to be a banana republic in the state of California." She pointedly asked, "Governor, what is your long-term plan?" Brown's reply: "Where I see openings, I will lead the charge... but I'll do it very carefully and thoughtfully."
If Mark Baldassare, of the Public Policy Institute of California, is to be believed, though, Californians are eager for more than a careful, thoughtful listening tour. They want leadership... elected officials who will use the bully pulpit and persuade voters to take a new route, rather than throw the tough choices in our laps and tell us to figure it out.
We might have gotten a hint of a tougher style of leadership at the end of the two-hour summit.
Wrapping up, State Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who shared the stage with Brown and other state leaders, told a moral tale (with overtones of The Three Little Pigs). A generation or two ago, three developing countries had a similar per capita income (about $2200, said Lockyer): Jamaica, Nigeria and Singapore. Jamaica decided to stake its future on tourism, Nigeria on resource extraction, and Singapore on education. Today, Jamaica and Nigeria struggle and their per capita income hasn't kept pace with inflation, but Singapore's has burgeoned to more than $24,000, said Lockyer. The moral of the story? Education is the best investment a country or a state can make.
At that, Brown jumped in, a glint in his eye: "Give me just a bit of the authority of (Singapore's long-time prime minister) Lee Kuan Yew" and he vowed he'd fix education and the budget too. "And I'm not talking about caning... I don't need to go that far!"
Check out The California Report radio story on the education budget summit by our own Krissy Clark.