Improving California Means Doing Some Things and Not Doing Others

As KCET begins to celebrate its 50th Anniversary, we're engaging the public in a series of conversations, starting with "How do you envision a better state?" Contributor Erin Aubry Kaplan shares her ideas below. Share yours here.


Maybe this goes without saying, but at the top of the list of what I want to see is what I don't want to see, which is California split into six states. Or three or even two, even though many people argue it's been two states, North and South, for a long time, maybe since its inception. People say that California is two states that are related but different, like the Carolinas or the Dakotas. That may be true, but the fact is that we've been one state for a long time, one known for its topographical, natural, climate and cultural diversity. California has built its reputation as the anything-possible state based on this breathtaking diversity of elements, this embarrassment of riches, and though that reputation has certainly been tarnished in the last generation, it's still standing. People still look to us as a bellwether for certain kinds of innovation and progress, and we often deliver. Why mess with that kind of mythology?

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Education. We've got to increase our public school per-pupil spending, get it out of the basement and back to the level it was in Pat Brown's time, when people seriously invested in the idea that California was America's future. Second-act Governor Jerry Brown has made that a goal of his, but just about every politician claims to prioritize education these days, though few follow up. That's because the modern vision of improved education often has nothing to do with public schools and the social contract it represents; charter schools and business-based models that are actually antithetical to that social contract are becoming the norm. But this new norm is not progress, it's breaking apart, fragmenting a single landscape of opportunity that is still California. Of course, we are also a land of hyper-suburbia in which certain people seem perfectly happy to live apart in their bubbles, sealed off by geography or freeways or tiny school districts from the rest of the world. At the same time, we are known as a land of hyper-liberals, a state that's bluer than blue, down for the collective good. Let's trying living up to that particular mythology.

I'm realizing that what we need to improve in the future is simply to restore what we've had in the past -- not for nostalgia's sake, but because certain things worked. When I was a freshman at UCLA in 1979, registration fees (that's what they were called then) for state residents were a reasonable $250 per quarter; now they're so high, the regents dropped the euphemism years ago and now call it tuition. But it shouldn't be. My moderately middle class family could handle reg fees, but tuition would have frozen them out of an educational opportunity for me that was guaranteed by the UC charter. They could have sued for breach of public contract, as some people have. But that feels like losing. When the state fights itself, nobody comes out victorious. It's like a family fighting over who gets the biggest share of a big inheritance.

Along the lines of restoration, we need to bring back clean air. When I lived in the San Gabriel Valley in the late '70s, the air was absolutely brown; every summer day was a smog alert, it seems. Then came unleaded gasoline and things improved dramatically, and now, in this era of fierce corporate anti-regulation, the air is browning again. And I'm talking about L.A., not the San Gabriel Valley or places even further inland. With all the other enormous environmental challenges that have developed since the '70s, we don't have the political or psychological space to deal with what should have been permanently dealt with, like polio. Bottom line is, we simply can't have bad air happen. Again. They say you can't relive the past, that it isn't healthy; in California's case, I couldn't disagree more.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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