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Wilson Backs Off Education Vow : Regulations: Two weeks after the governor promised to raze the state code and erect a better one, aides say obstacles to the task now appear insurmountable.

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

Much of the massive code of laws that govern virtually every aspect of California schools is cumbersome, out of date or plainly contradictory. It includes minutiae such as how often football uniforms must be sterilized, but doesn’t set priorities or standards for what students ought to know.

Calling the code a grand obstacle to creativity and excellence, Gov. Pete Wilson pledged to abolish it in his State of the State address this month. The top item on his second-term education reform agenda, he said, would be to raze the code and rebuild the state’s school system on a new foundation of high standards and local control.

Now, less than two weeks after Wilson vowed to slay the regulatory beast, his Administration is backing away from the task.

His aides said the political difficulties of repealing the compendium of laws appear insurmountable. Most of its myriad sections have a champion, either inside or outside the Legislature. In addition, the idea posed practical difficulties, because the code includes such mundane but important elements as a mechanism to monitor the financial situations of local school districts.

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“While we still think it is a good idea to repeal the code, we don’t think it would fly,” one aide said.

Although school district administrators have long complained that they spend more time satisfying regulations than supervising instruction, the failure of past efforts to simplify the state’s education laws made Wilson’s quest an unlikely one.

But his willingness to quit the fight even before it started has caused some to question his commitment to the rest of his controversial education agenda. In his State of the State address, he said he would back laws making it easier to fire bad teachers, redesign the teacher credentialing system and allow school districts to tie teacher pay to student achievement.

“It could be that the notion of . . . repealing the code could have been more of a gimmick or sound bite than a real proposal,” said Rick Simpson, staff director of the Democrat-controlled state Senate Education Committee.

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Instead of repealing the code entirely, the Administration is considering introducing an alternative set of laws that would give districts greater control. School systems could choose to follow either the current code, the less restrictive code or--a third alternative--drop out of the code by becoming “charter districts.”

Those ideas are expected to be key elements of a soon-to-be-released report on the state’s educational system prepared at Wilson’s behest by the Education Commission of the States, a bipartisan education policy group.

The report will urge the state to move gradually toward a new code, rather than starting over. “To throw (the code) out cold turkey would probably create some problems as well as solve some,” said Chris Pipho, a spokesman for the commission, which has consulted with a cross-section of educators, business leaders and elected officials during the past 14 months.

But freshman Assemblyman Bruce Thompson (R-Fallbrook), who will carry Wilson’s education reform package, is not ready to compromise, even though Wilson’s staff has told him that repealing the entire code is unlikely.

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“We’re going to get it done,” said Fred Jones, Thompson’s legislative aide. “The chief cornerstone to the governor’s bill . . . is local control, so whatever we can do to stem the tide of state micro-management would be a victory.”

At the very least, Jones said, Thompson’s legislation will stir a long overdue debate on the code’s usefulness.

The full edition of the code, one of 28 that organize the state’s laws, occupies 7,523 pages in 11 volumes. A shorter version, which includes the full text of the laws but leaves out citations, interpretations and other material, fills only a single volume--the same size as the replacement that Wilson had vowed to produce in two years.

A fifth of the laws cover hiring and firing policies. Nearly that many concern school facilities, including earthquake safety standards. Libraries are regulated in the code, as are 63 so-called categorical programs, such as special education and environmental education.

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The code was last revamped in 1976, and schools were given permission to do anything not specifically prohibited in the education code.

The state Department of Education surveyed the state’s school districts the following year, to find out how they were using their new powers. “The first year, we couldn’t find anybody who was doing anything,” said Tom Griffin, a Sacramento attorney who at the time was the department’s chief counsel. “They wrote back and said, ‘Tell us what we can do and we’ll try it.’ ”

Since then, he said, the code has kept growing. School districts wanting to protect themselves from lawsuits have continually asked the Legislature to pass unneeded bills authorizing certain activities or services. And legislators and special interest groups have added their own perspectives on a variety of social and educational issues, such as the 1983 reform bill that made the school day and school year longer and established a list of courses required for graduation.

Other changes have added sections spelling out what should be taught about AIDS, date rape, genetics, hygiene and other topics. A health class, for example, is required to “teach honor and respect for monogamous, heterosexual marriage.”

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Wilson argues that the code is a morass of regulations that does not give school districts a clear message about what is important. The amount of time that students must spend learning to read or compute is left to the whim of local school districts, but, inexplicably, the schedule for physical education is spelled out.

Educators say shrinking or abolishing the code would give them greater flexibility in everything from building schools to hiring teachers to conducting classes--and the freedom from regulation would allow them to respond more quickly to meet the needs of their students.

The 35,000-student Elk Grove Unified School District on Sacramento’s south side, for example, had to get a code waiver from the state Board of Education so it could provide students with special education services earlier than prescribed in the code, before they fell so far behind that they needed more intensive and costly remedial help.

The district also found itself unable to replace librarians last year, because of an education code dictum that it could only hire people with the state-approved credential.

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Such issues take time and energy to resolve, Elk Grove Assistant Supt. David Gordon said. “You can work them out . . . but it might be better to think through the whole system again, given the realities of current life.”

Many other states are taking a look at the laws governing schools. A few days after Wilson vowed to wipe out California’s code, Michigan Gov. John Engler, also a Republican, made a similar proposal. Tennessee removed 3,700 education-related laws from the books a few years ago in an attempt to free the hands of teachers and administrators.

But Kentucky is the only state that produced a new code from scratch. That effort came only after a judge declared that the entire school system was unconstitutional because the state’s financing system treated some school districts unfairly.

Stanford University education professor and former state Board of Education President Mike Kirst said that sorting out what needs to stay in the code and what can be delegated to districts or eliminated is a “very complex undertaking” that should be undertaken by experts.

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“The code is filled with a lot of outmoded and irrelevant accretions of the past,” Kirst said. “But there is a lot of the code that is basic policy . . . and not just marginal regulation.”

No matter what happens to state regulation, many say that several layers of rules and policies hamstring individual schools.

Helen Bernstein, president of the United Teachers-Los Angeles union, said local districts will have to change if schools are to reap any benefit from deregulation.

“Local boards of education will just make the same rules . . . and it will never get down to the local school level,” she said. “It won’t get down to the local school level until you mandate it, and then it’s a rule again.”

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Merely giving schools permission to improve will not guarantee it happening, said Griffin, the former state education department attorney who advises school districts on how to interpret the code.

“We don’t have a system of inventors here,” he said. “We’ve developed a system of followers so that when . . . you say, ‘All the wraps are off. Do whatever you want to do,’ they don’t know what to do.”


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