At the state level, there is little debate over education policy beyond efforts to find additional tax revenue. Even reforms that should be noncontroversial have no hope of passing if the California Teachers Association opposes them.
A bill introduced in the state Legislature after the arrest of a Los Angeles elementary-school teacher on horrific molestation charges would have streamlined "the labyrinthine 'dismissal statutes' that require districts to navigate a seemingly endless maze of hearings and appeals," wrote Larry Sand in City Journal. But the union got the proposal quashed.
In 2009, the Los Angeles Times exposed how the school district places teachers accused of serious wrongdoing in "rubber rooms," where they collect millions of dollars in pay and benefits as the cases against them wend their way through the system.
That is why the Los Angeles school district gave the teacher indicted for multiple sex crimes a $40,000 severance package just to get rid of him.
It is impossible to run an efficient, productive and compassionate school system when miscreants and incompetents can't easily be fired; where seniority trumps teaching skill; and where city leaders, however reform-minded, have little authority over the classroom.
Yet all that Californians hear about from their state leaders are laments about a lack of money.
"Spending on K-12 programs has decreased to $7,530 per pupil in the current budget from a 2008-09 peak of $8,414," reported the Sacramento Bee's Dan Walters. Yet a Pepperdine University study in 2010 found that K-12 per-pupil spending soared almost 26 percent in the five years before the peak.
These per-pupil spending numbers can be vastly understated, according to some researchers. Adam Schaeffer of the Cato Institute, for example, calculated that, when local and state bond measures and capital expenses are included in the spending calculation, Los Angeles spent almost $30,000 a student in the 2007-08 school year.
"More money - they repeat that like it's some kind of mantra," said Lance Izumi, a California education scholar and member of the board of governors of the California community colleges.
"There's no correlation between higher spending and performance. If that were the case, the Washington, D.C., public schools would be the best ones in the nation."
Meanwhile, the schools superintendent in Los Angeles, John Deasy, told a community group this month that the district is so financially pressed that it can't cut its lawns because "we fired all the gardeners."
It is hard to feel too sorry for the district, given that the Pepperdine study found that while classroom funding fell, spending soared on the number and pay of administrators. This spike, while not necessarily the fault of the union, is another failure of a noncompetitive school system.
Will California voters buy into the poor-mouthing and hand over more cash?
Or will they look closely at Los Angeles, where the only hope for change comes from competitive school alternatives, and at Chicago, where a Democratic mayor could finally draw a line with the teachers union?
Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He is based in Sacramento, Calif. This column was distributed by Bloomberg News.