Jerry Brown's Tough-Love California Miracle

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Having waged and won his 2012 ballot initiative by focusing on education funding, Brown is now transforming how that money gets spent. The governor's new budget begins by restoring school districts to their pre-recession funding. But it targets additional spending for districts with high concentrations of at-risk learners. "A child in a family making $20,000 a year or speaking a language different from English requires more help," Brown said, pitching the plan to the legislature. "Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice." Of the state's 6 million public schoolchildren, 3 million come from homes that don't speak English. Two million live in poverty. Under the new formula, per-pupil funding in Fresno – a city in the agricultural Central Valley, where 92 percent of students are disadvantaged – will nearly double by 2020 to more than $12,000.

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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Brown have clashed on policy in the past, with Brown decrying federal testing regimes that force students to regurgitate "quiz bits of information." But in June, Duncan praised Brown's "real courage" for implementing a reform that may sound like "common sense" but – given how America's schools have historically been funded – "is actually revolutionary."

Even in lean economic times, Brown is pressing forward with two historic – and controversial – infrastructure investments: a high-speed rail line connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles, and a massive tunnel system to safeguard the state's water supply. The governor's attraction to these megaprojects underscores a paradox: Brown can sometimes sound like an old-school Republican when he touts fiscal discipline and "subsidiarity" – entrusting local governments with maximum control over delivering public services. But Brown is no standard-bearer of small government. He believes in letting localities sweat the small stuff so the state can handle the biggest of big projects.

High-speed rail has tantalized Brown since his first stint in Sacramento. Impressed by Japanese bullet trains, he created the state's high-speed-rail authority way back in 1982. A generation later, in 2008, voters finally caught up with his vision, approving a $9.95 billion bond measure to begin construction of a 200-mile-per-hour train to link San Francisco and Los Angeles in just over two and a half hours.

In the throes of the Great Recession, many called on Brown to ditch the project with its all-in price tag of nearly $70 billion. "It would have been very easy for him to say we don't have the money for this," says former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. But Brown stayed the course, enabling California to seize the lion's share of high-speed-rail funding from the 2009 stimulus bill – around $3 billion – including cash that Republican governors in Florida, Wisconsin and Ohio forfeited. Ongoing legal battles could still derail the project, but the state received the green light in June to break ground on the first 65-mile stretch in the Central Valley.

Returning to a megaproject first proposed by his father back in the 1960s, Brown also wants to invest $14 billion to build a pair of 30-mile-long tunnels to connect the Sacramento River directly to the state's southbound aqueducts, bypassing the fragile levees of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. California's water infrastructure has been crumbling for decades because the politics are treacherous – pitting San Francisco against Los Angeles, and the state's agricultural interests against environmentalists determined to protect creatures like the Delta smelt.

But Brown says he's willing to risk his political capital on a new water war to ensure that the state won't be crippled in the event of a big earthquake or climate-driven sea-level rise. "If the Delta fails, the disaster would be comparable to Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy," Brown told lawmakers. "I am going to do whatever I can to make sure that does not happen."

During the state's budget crisis, the nation's oldest sitting governor was routinely referred to as "the adult in the room" – a label Brown strenuously rejects, insisting that his "intellectual arteries" haven't hardened. "The problem is that the older you get, the more habituated you become to your own thought patterns," Brown says. "But I'm not habituated – I disrupt my own thought patterns every day. I have learned to disbelieve almost everything I think!"

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In fundamental ways, Brown is unchanged from the free-thinking iconoclast who first took office in 1975. Back then, Brown was out of sync with the times. "Jerry Brown was the first one that I know of," says Kantor, the former commerce secretary, "to stake out a Democratic brand that was liberal on social policy, conservative on fiscal matters and looking to drive big issues like the environment." Today, Brown's unique mix of fiscal restraint and big-government ambition has not only righted California, it could provide a model for Democrats nationally. Most thought-provoking: Brown is proving that a government that lives within its means can simultaneously pursue bold, liberal policies and programs. "Without fiscal responsibility, no other progress is possible," says Gov. O'Malley of Maryland. "I'm hugely impressed with Jerry Brown."

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