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California Governor Jerry Brown speaks at a news conference at Ronald Reagan State Building in Los Angeles, California in this file photo taken August 28, 2012.REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/Files

The dust from the election has settled and a new year is nearly upon us. Political pundits have shifted their focus from hackneyed campaign post-mortems to their usual stock-in-trade, barely substantiated predictions.

There's a lot of grist for the mill. Californians of all stripes are curious as to how a new Democratic supermajority will function alongside a Democratic governor empowered by the passage of his signature tax initiative, Proposition 30. Progressives and their allies in organized labor are licking their chops, many eyeing Proposition 13.

But if there's one event on the horizon that pretty much everyone can see coming, it's the looming battle over education in the Golden State.

With the high stakes and heavyweight players involved, it's going to be a battle royale. In one corner, we have the teachers' unions, who have spent more than $200 million supporting Democratic candidates and initiatives over the past 10 years. In another, you have the reformers, a diverse coalition of business groups, wealthy activists and education reform experts. Add to the mix a Democratic supermajority deeply grateful to their union sponsors, the burgeoning political strength of Asian and Latino parents, and a frustrated California GOP waiting for the first sign of Democratic overreach. Finish off the scene by factoring in the billions in additional revenues allotted to schools by Proposition 30.


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This fight is going to need a tough referee, and there's only one figure with the stature, credibility and experience to play that role: Gov. Jerry Brown.

Brown has spent a political lifetime building credibility as a penny-pinching Scrooge. As a young governor in the 1970s, he made headlines by eschewing the governor's mansion, selling the limousine and implementing Howard Jarvis' Proposition 13 with a vengeance after initially opposing it and losing badly. In his second tour of duty as governor, Brown took away the cellphones of state bureaucrats, insists on flying Southwest and living small. No cigar smoking tents for this governor.

Why does this matter? I doubt that Arnold Schwarzenegger or Gray Davis had the fiscal credibility to pass an initiative like Proposition 30. In fact, I wonder if any other Democratic politician could have successfully led the battle.

Brown's image of fiscal integrity was essential to the passage of Proposition 30. But it will be even more important as we move to restore the quality of education.

The teachers' unions emerged from the Prop. 30 fight with more power than ever. The American Federation of Teachers helped draft the initiative and the California Teachers Association gave big money, troops and campaign expertise. These groups will undoubtedly be expecting to work with a sympathetic Legislature.

This puts Brown in a unique position, having signed the original collective bargaining law that allowed teachers to organize in the 1970s. More recently, teachers helped bankroll his successful 2010 campaign against billionaire Meg Whitman. It's a strong alliance.

But Brown also has ties to the charter school movement. He founded two charter schools in Oakland while he was mayor and continues an intense involvement today, 12 years later. He meets regularly with education reform leaders such as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, founder of EdVoice, a prominent business-backed organization pushing for new teacher evaluation standards and other reforms. Business leadership groups such as the Bay Area Council and Silicon Valley Leadership Forum are loud advocates for a better-educated workforce, and they, too, have the governor's ear. And don't discount Brown's personal interest in rejuvenating the state's school system, of which his father was the primary architect.

Brown will have to face down an indebted Democratic supermajority in the Legislature and an education lobby with a voracious appetite for money. As the parade of parents, teachers and union officials -- led by the state superintendent of public instruction -- begins its annual pilgrimage to Sacramento in pursuit of dollars, the tightfisted governor may well be the only barrier against a flood of new taxes that would inevitably provoke a vicious public backlash.

Money -- as it always is -- will be the most heated debate, and it is one in which Brown wields serious authority. But the broader question will include a whole range of educational reforms that have the support of a powerful majority of Californians.

That is, how to pursue an aggressive agenda of reform inside the classroom without triggering the arsenal of the CTA and other public-employee unions that has destroyed so many other so-called "reformers"? With a foot in every camp and trust earned over time, only Brown has the broad relationships necessary to avert what would otherwise be a bloody battle.

With his genuine dedication to California schools and relentless personal drive, the governor may be the only public figure capable of achieving key reforms that have eluded so many others.

Clint Reilly is a San Francisco businessman and a retired political consultant. He currently serves as the president of the board of the Oakland Military Institute.