School Reform Plan Faces Tough Political Battles : Education: Proposal focuses on improving student achievement. But a recommended overhaul of state financing could challenge property tax limitations.


A long-awaited plan to reform the state's public schools--commissioned 18 months ago by Gov. Pete Wilson to fend off school voucher proponents--has been released to a polite but reserved response, amid warnings that difficult political battles lie ahead.

The report recommends redesigning the state's schools by 2001 by focusing everything from funding to personnel decisions on improving student achievement. But it mentions only in passing that California spends nearly $1,000 less per pupil on its schools than the national average.

It says that the state's public schools have been improving slowly--reducing dropout rates and enrolling more students in advanced classes--but that they need to be redesigned to keep up the momentum.

The report, called "Rising to the Challenge," was prepared by the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States, which consulted with business leaders, parents and virtually every education interest group in California to achieve consensus on what it will take for the state's public school system to educate the nation's most diverse student body to much more sophisticated levels than in the past.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the vision in the 45-page report is one that few would challenge. It calls for setting standards for what students should learn, giving schools the freedom and flexibility to meet those standards, creating a way to measure students' accomplishments, and holding schools accountable if they fall short.

The document also recommends overhauling the state's school financing system to give local districts greater control over raising and spending revenue.

What is not in the report, which was released last week, are details of what the new system would look like or proposals to deal with the problems that have divided education and political leaders and stalled past reform efforts.

For example, a way of measuring student achievement would have to be designed to replace the now-abolished California Learning Assessment System (CLAS) tests. The state would have to establish some way to reward schools for meeting student achievement standards and to sanction them for failing. And any effort to achieve the report's goal of creating an "adequately and equitably" funded system could require the politically tricky task of overturning the tax limitations of Proposition 13.

"There are going to be very real and severe political battles," said Frank Newman, the affable, highly regarded president of the commission. "But they ought to be intense battles of goodwill."

Wilson and other political leaders in the state will have to press for change if it is to happen, he warned. "It's very hard to get to this point, with this much agreement," he said, "but this is the point at which often things falter."

The report urges Wilson, state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin and the Legislature to appoint a bipartisan "master plan panel" to oversee the redesign. Wilson's top education adviser, Secretary of Child Development and Education Maureen DiMarco, said the governor has not decided whether to follow that course.

She promised he will be involved, even though he is pursuing the possibility of running for President and has yet to talk about the report publicly.

DiMarco said Wilson is moving ahead on several ideas in the report, including a drastic rewriting and simplification of the Education Code. His agenda also includes policies that are not part of the report, such as making it easier to fire bad teachers and allowing school districts to tie teacher pay to student achievement.

A series of town hall meetings with education and business leaders will be held throughout the state in April to begin discussions on what should be done next, DiMarco said. That process, she added, is an effort to preserve the consensus that the document now represents.

She acknowledged that hashing out the details will be difficult. But, she said, the report makes improving student learning the framework for those discussions.

"That was what was missing in the past," she said. "We all offered our positions, but weren't operating with the framework that students need to achieve."

State Sen. Leroy Greene (D-Carmichael), who chairs the Senate Education Committee, dismissed the report as platitudes designed to support the governor's legislative agenda.

"These are just generalizations that are mom-and-pop and apple pie, but I am afraid that that is not good enough," he said.

He said he is preparing his own plan to revamp California education that will address problems at every level, from kindergarten to university graduate programs. "I do intend to be considerably more specific," he said.

On the other hand, Ralph Flynn, the executive director of the California Teachers Assn., said it does not bother him that many of the report's recommendations are familiar. "There's some clean logic to it," he said.

He worries, however, that the plan failed to make a stronger plea for increased school funding. "I'm not saying that money is the solution . . . but there is no solution without it," he said. "It's more than a question of redistributing what is there now for education."

Eastin agreed that it will take money to enact the recommended changes. She agrees with much of the report, she said, particularly the goal of developing networks and partnerships of schools and educators to support one another in making changes.

But, she said, "new initiatives, such as professional development and technology, carry significant price tags. Local control is a hollow promise without the means of generating local funding."

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