Learning His Way in San Jose
SAN DIEGO – Becoming governor next year will be a daunting challenge for California’s Republican insurance commissioner, but Steve Poizner has surmounted other obstacles, as when he volunteered to teach without pay in an East San Jose high school. After he sold, for $1 billion, one of the technology companies he founded after moving to California from Texas, and after serving as a White House fellow, he walked into East San Jose’s school district office, explained that he graduated No. 1 in his class at the University of Texas, earned a Stanford business degree, and now wanted to teach American government to high school seniors. A functionary declared: “Nothing you have said qualifies you to be in the classroom.”
Undeterred, he placed calls to the district’s 11 high school principals. Ten did not return his calls. The eleventh, whose students were mostly from working-class Hispanic families, gave Poizner the opportunity he describes as the hardest, and most rewarding, thing he has ever done.
On his first day it rained, the roof leaked and he probably violated union contracts by moving a trash can to catch the seepage. When some parents – they were plumbers – offered to fix a broken water fountain, they were spurned. The education code, by which state legislators micromanage California’s thousands of schools at the behest of teachers’ unions, is, Poizner says, 2,000 pages long “and growing rapidly.” He is disgusted that more than half of the 600,000 employees in primary and secondary education are not in classrooms. The most “telling statistic,” he says, is that in Los Angeles (where one in three school dollars goes to teachers’ pensions) 25 percent of public school teachers send their children to private schools. Other signs that tell of California’s dystopia are:
Having institutionalized envy in a steeply progressive income tax, California depends on 200,000 wealthy taxpayers for 25 percent of its revenue. The state ranks only behind liberal New York in the number of outward-bound moving vans. More people would flee if they could sell their houses. Between 1990 and 2007, the state lost 26 percent of its factory jobs and 35 percent of its high-tech manufacturing jobs. “Detroit, only with sunshine,” says Investor’s Business Daily. In Nevada (no personal or corporate income tax; sales taxes lower than California’s), a Las Vegas organization lures Californians with a talk titled “California Has Lost Its Mind and Las Vegas Is Providing Psychoanalysis.”
California has the lowest debt rating of any state, the fourth-highest unemployment rate (11.9 percent), and its job growth rate since 2000 is almost 20 percent below the national average. Some county and state public safety employees retire at 50 receiving at least 90 percent of their final year’s pay, forever. Taxpayers pour more than $3 billion a year into state employees’ pension funds, 10 times more than they did 10 years ago, and still there are large unfunded liabilities for which taxpayers are liable. More than 5,000 retired state employees’ annual pensions exceed $100,000. If public employees did not begin drawing pensions until age 65, California would save half a trillion dollars through 2030.
Between 1997 and 2007, the state work force, including public school employees, grew 24 percent, to almost 900,000. Government spending has grown 40 percent faster under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger than under his Democratic predecessor. Since 2005, state spending has increased twice as fast as inflation and population. Democrats blocked allowing online enrollment by parents of their children in state health programs because it might have endangered unionized clerical jobs. As the state prepares to release tens of thousands of felons from prison to comply with a court order and help balance the budget (in 2002 prison guards received a 37 percent raise), it has 19,000 illegal immigrants incarcerated.
Poizner, whose rivals for the Republican nomination include former Rep. Tom Campbell and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman, expects to benefit from the electorate’s mood swings. In 2003, it soured on Gray Davis, the archetypical political lifer (he was Gov. Jerry Brown’s chief of staff), replacing him with Schwarzenegger, who then was the muscular amateur, and who now is the incredible shrinking action hero. Poizner thinks California’s dialectic of disgust will elevate him – a slight, bespectacled entrepreneur who is the only Republican other than Schwarzenegger elected statewide since 1994. Getting a state sickened by multiple toxic policies to elect someone whose name sounds like poison may be difficult, but perhaps not more so than getting to teach, unpaid, in East San Jose.
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CLARIFICATION: In a recent column on Afghanistan, I quoted Adm. Mike Mullen’s reference to the “culture of poverty” in that country. He was referring to the inadequate resourcing of the U.S. effort there, not to the poverty of the Afghan people.
© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group