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Politics of Education in California

February 11, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


GOV. GRAY DAVIS: (reading to children) “Chug, chug, chug, puff, puff, puff, ding-dong, ding-dong. The little train rumbled over the tracks.”

SPENCER MICHELS: This is the newly elected Democratic governor of California, Gray Davis, reading to second graders in San Jose to plug his education program. Davis made improving California schools the top priority during his campaign.

GOV. GRAY DAVIS: We have really, as a society, almost given up on public schools. We need to take a high expectation approach to learning.

SPENCER MICHELS: It was a theme that resonated with voters, who had seen the quality of the state’s public schools plummet since the 60’s. Per-pupil spending in California dropped from fifth-highest in the nation to 41st today. Within two weeks of taking office, Governor Davis launched his plan.

GOV. GRAY DAVIS: The purpose behind these bills is to ask more of teachers, students, principals, and parents, so that the kids will have the very best chance possible to elevate their game.

SPENCER MICHELS: At a special session of the state legislature, Democrats introduced his program, proposing four bills. One is designed to improve children’s reading by establishing summer or after-school academies, by increasing teacher training, and by giving extra money to schools that do well. Another bill calls for a statewide exam that all students must pass before graduating from high school. A third bill requires master teachers to assist and evaluate their peers. Finally, the governor insists on school accountability by ranking all schools by test scores.

GOV. GRAY DAVIS: So every parent, every student, every citizen knows whether or not their school is doing better or worse, what the graduation rates and what the attendance rates are, and whether or not they’ve improved or not.

SPENCER MICHELS: The bills, which are making their way through a speeded-up legislative process, propose monetary rewards for schools that improve, and the threat of reorganization or closure for those that don’t. Republicans, like Minority Assembly Leader Rod Pacheco, say the Democratic-sponsored bills don’t contain strong enough sanctions on under-performing schools.

ROD PACHECO, Republican Assemblyman: If it’s the facade of major reform, which is what it appears to be right now, coming from the new Democratic governor, then we’re not going to achieve any real reform. Then it’s going to be nothing more than a false front.

SPENCER MICHELS: But the GOP doesn’t have the votes to block Davis’s plans. Democrats are more wary about trampling on teachers, their traditional allies. The California Teachers Association, the CTA, has remained neutral on the governor’s reforms, even though it contributed more than a million dollars to Gray Davis’s campaign. The CTA is skeptical of plans for the evaluation of one teacher by another, so-called “peer review.” CTA Spokesman Bob Cherry.

BOB CHERRY, California Teachers Association: We support peer review when it’s locally bargained, and when local teachers have a role in determining how it’s done. And I think that’s the key element in a lot of what we’re looking at in this. How much influence, how much actual involvement do teachers actually have in the things that are being done?

SPENCER MICHELS: When it comes to additional training for teachers and principals, the CTA and the governor agree it’s needed. But the most controversial proposal in the education package, especially on campuses of low-achieving schools, is the governor’s plan for a high school exit exam, a test that already exists in 23 states, with mixed results. On inter-city school campuses like Fremont High in Oakland, teachers and students fear mass failure, even though the test could be taken many times.

MALE STUDENT: If you just keep taking a test over and over and over again, pretty soon, we’re like, you know, to hell with it. And then most likely some people that think like that end up dropping out of high school.

FEMALE STUDENT: I have rent to pay, I have, you know, there’s just all different sorts of things that I have to deal with — and then, like, a test, another test?

SECOND MALE STUDENT: One thing I want to know is what are they going to do with the students who don’t pass the test?

SPENCER MICHELS: In a beginning Algebra class at Fremont High, Teacher Ross Franco says that at this school, which ranks in the lowest 13 percent nationally in math, tougher requirements and more tests may be irrelevant to his class.

ROSS FRANCO, Oakland Math Teacher: It’s a class of 30, with about 15 showing up. So the 15 that don’t show up, probably — they’re not going to pass the first semester.

STEVE O’DONOGHUE, Oakland Media Teacher: (talking to student) Did you get the whole story on here?

SPENCER MICHELS: Steve O’Donoghue teaches writing and news reporting in the media academy at Fremont High. He also is skeptical of an exit exam here.

STEVE O’DONOGHUE: In a school like this, over 50, 60 percent failure rate, I think there’s going to be a lot of kids that aren’t going to meet that standard in four years. And so I hope that they’re planning for some creative and positive ways to help those kids meet the standard.

SPENCER MICHELS: Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni, who heads the education committee, supports the test, but she wants legislation to provide a safety net for students. Even she is concerned that some fellow Democrats may balk at an exit exam.

KERRY MAZZONI, Democratic Assemblywoman: There is a potential for a lot of their students to fail, and that’s not politically a position that any politician wants to be in, to enact a law that creates failure in their district.

SPENCER MICHELS: Many Republicans, however, want the exit exam and other tests, as means of ensuring accountability.

ROD PACHECO: We propose, for example, a test in the beginning of the schoolchildren’s year, and one at the end, so you can judge how well they’ve progressed over the school year. Then you grade the teacher based on the progression. If the kids are all doing poorly in that class, it tells you the teacher isn’t doing well.

TEACHER: This is a lesson on pronouns.

SPENCER MICHELS: In elementary schools, the problems are different than in high schools, but just as tough. At Washington, the school Governor Davis visited in San Jose, third grade children test in the lowest 10 percent nationally in reading, despite several special programs to help them. The governor’s plan calls for additional intensive reading instruction and awards to schools that improve. The principal at this school says the governor’s initiatives will help.

ALBERT MORENO, Principal: I think the emphasis being put on education is important. I think that we all need to be held accountable. There’s no doubt about that. We need to be able to show growth and have results.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Moreno also shows that test results for Washington School are skewed by poverty and a high immigrant population.

ALBERT MORENO: Yes, we have very low test scores but one of the variables that we have — we’re being tested in English and 80 percent of our students are limited English-speaking students.

SPENCER MICHELS: In Barbara Rodriguez’s first grade class, and throughout the school, reading is already a priority. Teachers and administrators see improvement, though it’s hard to prove.

BARBARA RODRIGUEZ, First Grade Teacher: There’s so much focus on the scores and testing. I don’t think it shows the true picture of what these children really know, because they know a lot. They are articulate. They are eager to learn, and I think we have a very good school.

SPENCER MICHELS: Today’s demands for statewide reform in California public schools follows several years of changes under former Governor Pete Wilson, including mandates for lower class size and new tests. The pace of change worries the president of the California School Boards Association.

LESLIE DEMERSSEMAN, President, School Board Association: I don’t think school districts can absorb a lot of new reforms right now. Our staffs are working their very hardest to implement the reforms that we’ve put into place.

SPENCER MICHELS: School officials say none of the reforms address a major problem: Funding. The governor expects existing revenues to pay for his program, and that concerns Davis Campbell of the school board’s association.

DAVIS CAMPBELL, School Board Association: Our goal is to try to, on the one hand, say “money isn’t everything,” but on the other hand, say “but don’t expect us to reach world-class outcomes with third-world investments.”

SPENCER MICHELS: California spends almost $6,000 per pupil per year — $1,200 below the national average.

DAVIS CAMPBELL: New Jersey spends $10,000 per student; New York, $11,000 per student — same kids — type kids, same system — almost twice as much as we do in California. We don’t have less expectations.

SPENCER MICHELS: For now, the governor foresees no tax hikes and no major increases in revenue for the schools, so improvements may take a while, he said, in an interview before the election.

GOV. GRAY DAVIS: It took us 30 years to get in the mess we’re in and we’re not going to fix it in five years without a massive tax increase. I want to bring us up to the national average. I hope I can do it in two terms as governor, but I will make this promise: Every discretionary dollar I will put in education because without it, California has no future.

SPENCER MICHELS: The new governor has hitched his political future to his success in transforming California’s schools, a task he compared to that of the little engine that could.

GOV. GRAY DAVIS: “And the little blue engine smiled and seemed to say as she puffed steadily down the mountain, ‘I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought I could.'” What do you think? Do you like this story?