California is Still Broken, From Its Prisons to Its Schools

California’s headlines have been filled with stories about tens of thousands of inmates — at one point nearly 30,000 (approximately one in four of those incarcerated) — forgoing food in protest of their living conditions.

The problems of California’s prison system are myriad: It has been in federal receivership for years, it's consistently overcrowded and weighed down by various and conflicting sentencing regulations, and its employees regularly have made outrageous salaries followed by extravagant pensions.

The biggest problem, though, is that California spends as much on putting people in jail as it does on higher education — $11 billion apiece for the 2013-14 budget. This is an abomination no matter how anyone of either party ideology spins it. The state spends roughly $90,000 annually for each inmate.

Having 120,000 inmates under lock and key is a problem, but it is the larger result of poor governance and the lack of any sort of new thinking or reform in what many consider to be the most "progressive" state in the union.

What’s worse is that the vast majority of those whom end up in the prison system — Latinos and African Americans from inner cities and the Central Valley — are exactly those that Democrats in Sacramento routinely use as their reasoning for any number of new rules, regulations, and revenue streams.

They are without a doubt failing the most vulnerable constituencies in California and the actions state leaders take in defense of them often exacerbate problems. Steps that should be taken to provide a path to independence and social mobility are shut down by well-funded special interests.

Despite spending $50 billion on K-12 education every year, California’s public school system is stagnant (at best) in providing low-income students with the skills they need to finish high school, let alone go onto post-secondary education.

For too many of the kids that don’t walk away with a diploma, they are relegated to a life on the public dole or in prison — or both. That this is allowed to continue is a true civil rights crisis.

Even breathing an opinion about true education reform is enough for the average California legislator or state senator to face a labor-backed primary opponent, and therefore keep those whom are elected to look after everyone quiet on the subject, ensuring that only their donors’ interests are protected. The California Teachers Association won’t even negotiate with President Obama’s Education Department.

While Governor Brown has received, and happily accepted, plaudits for California’s ”turn-around”, much of that is due to either wealthy citizens beginning to pay capital gains taxes again, or more revenue from last year’s Proposition 30 tax measure.

Many Californians on the coastal plain and in Sacramento may be doing better, but little to no progress is being made in the places that most desperately need growth and opportunity.

Places like Fresno County (11.8% unemployment) and neighboring Merced County (13.6% unemployment) in the Central Valley have not kept pace with the rest of the state. Multiple regulatory and court rulings have curtailed California’s agricultural production, among the most prodigious and abundant on the planet.

Los Angeles County’s unemployment stands above 9.5%, and given the difficulty in starting a business or creating a job there, moving that needle is exceedingly difficult. Last month the LA Business Federation’s member poll that showed 76% of their members don’t plan to expand in the county and 9% are leaving altogether.

Where is the opportunity? Too much of it is outside the Golden State. The pockets that do occur here, like Silicon Valley, offer big pay-offs but to a relatively few number of people – just look at Instagram’s $1 billion payday with a grand total of 13 employees.

Someone once said, “As California goes, so goes the country.” I surely hope that is not the case. Now, while we have relatively “stable” revenues, is the time to attack the three-headed hydra of education, opportunity, and social mobility. Perpetuating a system that provides of less of each is not the answer.

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Reed Galen

Reed Galen is a political consultant in Southern California. Galen worked on both the 2000 and 2004 Bush-Cheney campaigns and spent 2002 in the White House. He also served at the departments of Treasury and Homeland Security. Galen was Deputy Campaign Manager for Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2006 reelection and worked for John McCain's campaign until July 2007. He now splits his time between politics, corporate public affairs and writing. He has been published in RealClearPolitics and Politico. He lives in Newport Beach, CA with his family.

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