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PERSPECTIVE ON EDUCATION : A Passing Grade for Wilson : The governor’s budget has some welcome ideas for returning schools to high standards, but a tax cut now may be unwise.

<i> Delaine Eastin was a Democratic assemblywoman from Fremont before her election last November as state superintendent of public instruction. </i>

The budget unveiled by Gov. Pete Wilson on Tuesday contains good news for the schools of California. Not only does it provide for the first cost-of-living increase in five years, but even more important, the budget message suggests hardy support for the notion that it’s time to get California education moving again.

Just squeaking by year to year is not the right goal for an education system that has yet to fully adjust to the radical new demands placed on young people by global competition and social change. The right goal is to get California back into a national education-reform leadership position.

Wilson’s budget is a good first step because it seems to emphasize the need to set higher standards for student achievement, teacher performance and parent involvement.

It supports an urgent expansion of vocational education, practical preparation for life for about half of our young people whose futures to date have been wrongly de-emphasized. This opens great new possibilities.

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The governor’s interest in a new education code amounts to what corporations call re-engineering--starting over with a blank piece of paper. It’s a bold idea, similar to efforts I sponsored in the Assembly. Working with school stake-holders and the legislative counsel, I sought to dramatically trim the 11-volume body of school law we have today. We found that task to be much harder and more complicated than I had first thought. But that, of course, is no reason not to keep trying. With fresh support from the governor, its time has come.

In his State of the State address Monday, Wilson suggested that we dismantle teacher tenure and give schools the flexibility to bring in teachers from outside the education profession. These are two different things. In line with the local control and deregulatory approach that I advocate, I see no reason why we can’t come up with a set of standards for bringing accomplished people into the classroom to help students prepare for their lives. That’s what school is supposed to be.

We sometimes overcomplicate such questions. Every principal knows the difference between hiring a retired physician to teach health subjects and hiring somebody’s unemployed brother-in-law who lacks any kind of preparation. After all, we pay principals to discern such distinctions and make decisions. The point is that high standards and a principal’s discretion both have a part in the improvements we need.

As for teacher tenure, we should aim for a system that makes it easy to fire a bad teacher and very difficult to fire a good one.

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California teachers on the whole are doing a good job against all odds, and it is egregiously unfair to ask them to carry incompetent or lazy colleagues. We owe them a thoroughly productive team. I will support aggressive action to improve or eliminate poor performers; the first step is reaching agreement on an unambiguous set of performance standards, the practice used in corporations all over the country.

Provided that we begin a purposeful process to lift and maintain high performance standards in teaching, tenure is beside the point. Tenure was created as a check against the political abuse of conscientious teachers, and there is regrettably no sign that our culture has overcome the human weakness for abusing power. Teachers who meet standards should not have to worry that an honest disagreement or some perceived affront could lead to firing. One does not motivate people by making them vulnerable to other people’s whim.

I am eager to cooperate with the governor to implement Goals 2000, the education-reform blueprint worked out under the leadership of the nation’s governors a few years ago. But I must express the concern I have about a sizable tax cut at this delicate stage of economic recovery.

Naturally, taxpayers would appreciate a break in these hard times. I accept that, but I will also make the case that support for education is a good deal for the taxpayer, short and long term. If we are to build on the state’s budding economic recovery, we shall have to ensure that California remains not only the land of opportunity for our graduates, but also the land of graduates for our opportunities. That’s a good future, but without both halves, it falls apart. It’s that serious.

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If we build on Goals 2000 with the same energy and resolve that I encountered in Californians last fall, we can return our state to the position it once occupied--a state whose high school graduates were the best-prepared for college, the best-prepared for advanced vocational training, the best-ready to be good mothers and fathers, good neighbors, good citizens of the world. That’s where Goals 2000 will take us.


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