During his first stint as governor four decades ago, Jerry Brown exhibited a willingness to change his mind – or at least his position – on issues large and small at the drop of a hat.

He implied that the trait was a virtue and evidence of a superior intellect, quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson’s aphorism, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen, philosophers and divines.”

Nevertheless, it was off-putting to Californians of presumably lesser minds, and contributed to Brown’s declining popularity and his losing bid for a U.S. Senate seat in 1982.

Brown 2.0 has been a wilier politician, but still doesn’t embrace consistency.

Take, for example, something he calls “subsidiarity,” a notion – adapted from a 19th century theological theory – that justifies his hands-off attitude toward local school districts regarding K-12 academic achievement.

Brown’s Local Control Funding Formula hands billions of extra dollars to those districts and trusts them to spend the money effectively to close a yawning “achievement gap” separating poor and “English-learner” students – about 60 percent of K-12 enrollees – from their more privileged classmates.

By all accounts, those billions have had almost no effect on closing the gap, as demonstrated by the latest round of federal English and mathematics testing.

Education reform and civil rights groups are clamoring for more accountability on how the money is being spent and what effect, if any, it is having.

Brown, however, continues to preach subsidiarity, saying that local educators are best positioned to do what needs to be done. That pleases the education establishment, especially school unions, because it implicitly leaves more money on the table for them to seek in contract negotiations.

While he takes that attitude vis-à-vis K-12 education, Brown is moving in precisely the opposite direction on higher education, demanding more accountability for outcomes.

That’s especially true of community colleges which, like K-12 schools, are under the control of locally elected boards. Brown, in fact, launched his political career in the 1960s as a community college trustee in Los Angeles.

His final state budget seeks to overhaul community college financing, shifting away from an enrollment-based model into one that provides financial carrots and sticks to push colleges into creating more positive outcomes for their students.

It gives teeth to a policy of the state community college board. But it irritates local community college officials, who believe they are already doing a great job and don’t need more direction from Sacramento.

“By funding colleges based primarily on enrollment, the current funding formula encourages districts to strictly prioritize student access without regard for student success—such as timely completion and better serving underrepresented students,” Brown’s budget contends.

“The budget proposes a new funding formula for general purpose apportionments that encourages access for underrepresented students, provides additional funding in recognition of the need to provide additional support for low-income students, and rewards colleges’ progress on improving student success metrics.”

Say what?

What Brown proposes for community colleges is pretty close to what critics of Brown’s approach to K-12 schools have been seeking – tying increased state aid to improvement of outcomes, and not just shoveling money into the system. And it’s what he’s refused to do.

The inescapable conclusion is that Brown’s “subsidiarity” is not truly a principle, but rather an inconsistent rationalization for a purely political position.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...