Can We Learn from Our Successes?

David Menefee-Libey is an associate professor of politics at Pomona College

Of all the proposals in Gov. Pete Wilson's State of the State address, his pitch for expanding the state's program to reduce class size is the most heartening--and puzzling.

It is heartening because it builds on one of the rare recent success stories of California government and politics. Two of the most common targets of voter cynicism--the second-term governor and the state's public school establishment--last year actually cooperated to design and implement a sweeping program of constructive change in record time.

Last May, Wilson proposed that nearly $1 billion be targeted to reducing early elementary classes from 30 to 20 students. A slightly different version of the program already had been proposed by Democratic legislators and endorsed by the California Teachers Assn. In contrast to the gridlock we all expected, this major program had strong bipartisan support and sailed through the Legislature.

Such support is not hard to explain. California's public schools have slipped markedly since the 1970s and in recent years have ranked among the lowest in the nation in both money spent per student and achievement. Districts struggling to make ends meet have been forced to assign ever-growing numbers of children to each teacher. Most elementary schools across the state last year averaged more than 30 children per classroom, making it difficult for teachers to teach and students to learn. The prospect of 20 students per class, with dramatically expanded opportunities for teaching and learning, had obvious appeal.

Once the legislation passed in July, districts and schools statewide--with help from teachers and parents--found classrooms, hired teachers and reassigned children. By September, more than 95% of school districts were participating and the program was in place in thousands of classrooms. State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin says the program will reach more than 1 million children by spring, making this "the most exciting time in 20 or 30 years" for California schools.

So the news is all good, right? Just when many of us were willing to write off Wilson as a washed up pol, rebuffed in his presidential aspirations and term-limited into impending retirement, reduced to pitching polarizing panaceas like Proposition 187 and slashing welfare checks, he exercised leadership like the moderate, consensus-oriented governor we all hoped he would be when we first elected him back in 1990. And long after many of us had written off the public school establishment as an inflexible bureaucratic behemoth incapable of serving children, schools turned themselves upside down to implement a sweeping program that everyone agrees is a good idea.

But if this is so easy, why don't things like this happen all the time? Can't we learn from class size reduction to make California government work better?

Well, if you scratch the happy surface you quickly find that the particulars of this story were unusual. For one thing, the state's economic recovery and Proposition 98 forced the governor's hand. Proposition 98, passed in 1990, mandates that a fixed minimum of the state's budget be spent on schools. As growing recovery-spurred tax revenues rolled in, Wilson proposed a 15% tax cut. He couldn't get that past the Democrats in the state Senate, so he jumped on the class size reduction bandwagon in May.

Perhaps more important, education remains an unusually high-profile issue for Californians. After decades of slippage and frustration, voters now demand that schools improve. Though most of the real reform is in individual districts, last year was an election year. Members of the Senate and Assembly wanted credit for improving schools. Class size reduction was a concrete, immediate and visible reform, which they pitched to voters in November.

Despite these unusual circumstances there are lessons to be learned. One is obvious: Recovery is better than recession. When the state's economy is growing, it's easier to find win-win solutions to problems. The best program for the state is economic growth.

Wilson's support for expanding class size reduction shows that he has learned a second lesson as well. The lame duck governor remains quite powerful and exerts the most power when he collaborates with--rather than antagonizes--the Legislature. This lesson is even more important now that voters have given Democrats control of both the Senate and the Assembly. If he remembers this, Wilson's final two years may surprise us all.

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