2 Words Plus Fervor Equal Heated Debate

Times Staff Writer

The state Assembly debated for 45 minutes Thursday about how much words matter -- more specifically, whether children suffer when their schools are branded as bad.

Lawmakers tore into the semantic issue with surprising vigor, then passed a bill 51-22 to officially call California's bottom-ranking schools "high-priority" rather than "low-performing."

Some lawmakers ridiculed the notion, comparing it to calling the "cellar-dwelling" Chicago Cubs "world champions." Others insisted that any label makes a difference in self-esteem.

"Words hurt," said Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez (D-Norwalk), the author of the bill, AB 96. "This body, this Assembly, should be a body that encourages children, not a body that cripples children -- excuse me, disables children."

In speeches heartfelt and heated, 18 lawmakers rose to debate changing two words in California's education laws -- a change that will do nothing to reform the schools or give them more money. The debate was among the most impassioned of a 3-month-old legislative session in which lawmakers have been overwhelmed by the task of bridging a budget shortfall estimated at up to $35 billion.

The dilemma Thursday -- whether to reword assorted sections of the education code -- seemed to strike lawmakers as refreshingly simple.

"That was a long debate for something almost irrelevant," said Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R-Murrieta) afterward.

The bill must move through the Senate and be signed by the governor before being enacted.

State law defines a school as low-performing if it scores a 5 or lower on an index that uses test scores to rank schools from 1 to 10. Such schools get special attention from the state. For example, teachers who agree to work in low-performing schools for at least four years are eligible for $20,000 bonuses.

The bill was the first ever introduced on the Assembly floor by freshman Bermudez. He took some guff from colleagues in keeping with the tradition, rapidly fading in an era of term limits, in which lawmakers pepper first-timers with silly questions.

"Do you think you're going to achieve moving this bill forward?" asked Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno).

"Yes, I do," said Bermudez.

"Would that make you a high-priority legislator then?"

"Sure," said Bermudez, after some hesitation.

But the discussion quickly turned serious.

Several Republicans criticized the bill as nonsense that distracts from parental involvement, which they called the key to better schools.

"What we're doing here is changing the names to obscure the obvious," said Assemblyman Dennis Mountjoy (R-Monrovia). "We call tax increases 'revenue enhancements' today.... We call abortion 'choice.' We call illegal aliens 'undocumented workers,' " he said, eliciting boos from Democrats.

But others, including two Republicans, argued that the term "low-performing" is derogatory and leads to a defeatist attitude.

"My daughter struggled initially, learning to read," said Assemblywoman Lynn Daucher (R-Brea). "I would never call her a low-performing kid, because I knew she could do it and I think it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believed she could read, and she did read."

Assemblyman Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) said he grew up poor in San Diego and attended a bottom-ranked school. "Language is a very, very powerful thing, and you can use it to inflict pain upon people," he said. "You can also use it and try to allow students to excel academically."

Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange), a former English teacher at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, agreed with Nunez that the debate was not about semantics.

"When you respect people," he said, "they will soar. And what you call them determines what they will end up in life.

"You want to change public education in this state?" Spitzer asked. "Let's start respecting our kids.... Let's start respecting our teachers."

Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) heads the Select Committee on Low-Performing Schools, which was renamed by Assembly leaders this week as the Select Committee on High-Priority Schools. That change required no legislation.

Steinberg said the real test of the Assembly's determination to improve schools will come this summer, when legislators must pass a budget. Then lawmakers will decide whether to continue funding grants for low-achieving schools under a law Steinberg wrote two years ago.

"In 2001, this Legislature passed AB 961, which provides $200 million to low-performing schools," he said.

"Excuse me. High-priority schools. You got me," he added to laughter from colleagues. "The true test is whether we are going to keep that investment here in California and give our high-priority schools a chance to succeed."

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