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A Change in Weather for Education

Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) puts it this way: “You can’t shift the direction of a glacier quickly. It takes time. You have to be patient.”

Lockyer is referring to the biggest glacier of all in California government--public education, grades kindergarten through high school. It presently consumes 39% of the state general fund, or $17.5 billion. Counting all funds--state, federal, local--Sacramento this year is parceling out $32 billion for K-12 schools.

Yet, we’re all familiar with the dreary facts: California has the nation’s most crowded classrooms. It has the fewest nurses, counselors, librarians and library books per pupil. It ranks 43rd in students per computer, 42nd in spending per student.

Not surprisingly, California’s Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) scores are below average. In reading, our students rank near the bottom.

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There are legitimate excuses. English is not the native language for one-fourth of the students, according to the state Department of Education. Also, as Gov. Pete Wilson points out, the state is forced to spend $1.8 billion educating children who are citizens of some other country and are here illegally.

But one wonders just how long Californians will remain patient while waiting for meaningful education reform, cooling their heels until the glacier shifts.

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That brings us to vouchers--state grants so parents can send their children to private schools. California educators and politicians were supposed to have gotten a wake-up call three years ago when voucher advocates pushed hard for an ambitious ballot initiative that would have drained $1 billion-plus from public schools. But they hit the snooze button after voters rejected the proposal by more than 2 to 1.

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There was a semi-legitimate excuse for that too. Sacramento was broke. And although the Republican mantra is that you can’t fix schools merely by throwing money at them, you also can’t do much without spending more. Now the recession is over, and money is rolling into the treasury.

Suddenly, there is an extra $1.7 billion for schools and a converging of interests from all ideologies, creating a potential for compromise. Republicans control the Assembly for the first time in 25 years. Democrats still dominate the Senate, but will have to negotiate with the Assembly GOP over how to spend the new money. The Republican governor gets the last word.

“It’s the first year we’ve had something to argue about besides how to cut,” notes Democrat Delaine Eastin, state superintendent of public instruction.

On this new playing field, Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) and Wilson are maneuvering a scaled-down voucher plan. Unlike the 1993 version, this measure would provide tax dollars--"opportunity scholarships"--to students only in the worst 5% of public schools.

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“We’ve talked about education reform for 25 years,” Pringle noted in an emotional Assembly floor debate last week. “Tax dollars that presently are being wasted [in public schools] should be put to good use educating kids.”

The voucher bill narrowly passed and was sent to the Senate, something that never would have happened if Willie Brown and Democrats still controlled the Assembly.

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Does the Pringle bill have a prayer in the Senate? “Not in any language I know,” says Sen. Leroy Greene (D-Sacramento), veteran chairman of the Senate Education Committee.

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But Democrats and their political patron--the California Teachers Assn. (CTA)--also are weary of another possible voucher initiative in 1998. They sense growing voter frustration.

A statewide poll conducted for the CTA found voters ranking education as the “most important issue.” They opposed the Pringle bill only by a narrow plurality (48%-45%), although they strongly objected to using tax dollars in private schools.

Senate leader Lockyer wants to kill the voucher bill without defending the status quo. He soon will unveil reform legislation to focus state attention on poorly performing pupils in the worst schools. If these students didn’t improve their marks after a year, they could transfer to another public school. But that bill will need to clear the Assembly, so the private voucher plan isn’t exactly dead. Pringle and Wilson could insist on a deal.

Beyond that, it seems very probable that this Legislature finally will begin reducing class sizes and pumping more money into reading classes, as advocated by the governor. There’s also a possibility of more innovative charter schools.

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The glacier finally may be shifting because of a change in political climate.


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