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Former Gov. Jerry Brown held an oddly bifurcated attitude toward how California educates six million elementary, middle and high school students.

On one hand, he embraced the obvious fact that California’s K-12 schools are very uneven in how they educate youngsters, with poor students and those not fluent in English on the losing end of what educators call an “achievement gap.”

During his last six years as governor, Brown not only very substantially increased overall education spending by $22 billion a year (37 percent) but sponsored a Local Control Funding Formula that gives schools with high levels of low achievers extra money to close the gap.

On the other hand, he was stubbornly unwilling to have the state monitor how the school finance bounty was being spent, or determine whether it was, in fact, closing the gap, despite indications in state and federal testing that it was not narrowing.

Brown called it “subsidiarity” – trusting local school officials to do the right thing with only light oversight – and he opposed a statewide education data system that would reveal what was working and what was not.

Brown’s successor, Gavin Newsom, appears to bring a different attitude to accountability.

His proposed 2019-20 budget declares that he “intends to implement policies that hold all school districts, charter schools and county offices of education accountable for operational transparency and community engagement.”

The budget proposes money to merge several reporting tools, including the state’s very confusing “dashboard” of test results and other factors, into “a single, web-based application” that will make what’s happening, or not happening, in the schools more understandable to parents and “eliminate duplicative and outdated information.”

Most importantly, Newsom – fulfilling a campaign pledge – wants $10 million to begin building the statewide education data system that Brown repeatedly and wrongly shunned as being obtrusive.

As the budget points out, while various pieces of data are being collected now, “the systems that house this data are not aligned to provide a clear picture of how students advance from early education programs through K-12 schools to postsecondary education and into the workforce.”

The Public Policy Institute of California, which had laid out the case for such a system in an extensive report issued in November, hails Newsom’s attitude, saying more data “could allow for improved feedback for educational institutions, more efficient use of public funds, and better evaluation and coordination for the state.”

“Even though a high school senior may graduate from a K-12 school, attend a community college, and then transfer to a UC, data isn’t shared across those systems in any systematic way,” PPIC said in an analysis of Newsom’s proposal.

“So each system has no idea if students are successful in the next stage of their academic career. California is one of the few states that do not follow students across sector.”

There is, of course, a political factor in what would strike most of us as common sense. Information is power and giving parents, students and the larger public more data about educational successes and failures means that educators are more likely to be held accountable for outcomes.

In that vein, Newsom’s support of a data system is a tactical win for an “Equity Coalition” of educational reformers and civil rights groups that have pressed for more accountability.

It might even tell us whether Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula actually closes the achievement gap or is a cruel joke that merely pumps more money into a low-performing status quo.

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CALmatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California's state Capitol works and why it matters. For more stories by Dan Walters, go to Commentary.

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