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Calif. Report Hailed, But Many Worry It Has No Champion

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The Education Commission of the States last week delivered its long-awaited blueprint for school reform in California, urging lawmakers there to give local administrators the power and encouragement to tailor their own programs.

After nearly a year and a half of work, the report commissioned by Gov. Pete Wilson arrived with little fanfare. Mr. Wilson acknowledged the release of the report with a single quote in an E.C.S. news release.

State legislators, who are nearly three months into their session, said that while the report includes some good ideas, it would be almost impossible to begin pushing the slate of recommendations now.

Other California officials hailed the report's recommendations--including a stronger system of professional development, a vastly expanded network of charter schools, and greater community involvement--but said that without a political champion, they are unsure where the ideas will go.

Even the report's first suggestion for action--creation of a bipartisan task force to mull over the commission's strategy for the rest of the year--may not be as easy as it seems.

"It's a good document, but we don't have very much time," said Assemblywoman Dede Alpert, the chairwoman of the chamber's education committee. "How we'll even get a panel together in the length of time we need to actually make these changes is hard to say."

In his statement last week, the Governor promised to advocate "prompt action" to reform the nation's largest state school system but noted that he is already pushing for changes in line with the report's recommendations.

"Not only do we wish to move on this, we must move on this," implored Maureen DiMarco, the Governor's secretary for child development and education. "We're not unlike Chrysler a few years back--if we don't get a handle on cost and quality and consumer confidence, public education may go out of business in California."

Delaine Eastin, the state superintendent of public instruction, said that the goals of the E.C.S. report closely mirror her own agenda.

"This report helps focus on the key question in California education today, which is: How do we shift from a school system focused on rules and constraints to a system of schools where parents, professionals, and communities strategically address the quality of student learning?" Ms. Eastin said.

More Local Planning

The report calls for California to use its curriculum frameworks as a foundation for setting course-content and student-performance standards, a statewide testing program, and a system of rewards and sanctions for schools that succeed or fail at improving.

At the district level, the report says, state officials should require each superintendent to prepare an "enterprise plan" spelling out the district's curriculum, instructional, assessment, and teacher-training strategies. The report would require superintendents to engage in community outreach in setting school goals.

The report urges the state to create a competency-based teacher education system, to revamp and expand its professional-development program, to create networks for sharing information on reform practices, to pump more money into equipping schools and classrooms with computers, and to appoint a task force to look at ways to improve performance in inner-city schools.

It recommends expanding the maximum number of deregulated charter schools from 100 to 500. It also urges lawmakers to overhaul the school-finance system and give districts greater flexibility in raising local funds--a chief headache for local school officials since the passage of Proposition 13, the state's 1978 tax-limitation initiative.

Several supporters of the document charged that it too easily glossed over the funding issue, a situation that has handcuffed school officials as the state has dropped steadily in national rankings of average per-pupil spending.

"New initiatives such as professional development and technology carry significant price tags," Ms. Eastin said.

"Local control is a hollow promise without the means of generating local funding," she said.

A State of Change

Beyond the reform strategies, the report's most noteworthy suggestion may be the call by a national organization representing state-level policymakers to chip away at the domain of state officials in favor of local solutions.

Despite more than a decade of rhetoric decrying top-down mandates, only in the wake of November's Republican election victories have politicians begun widespread efforts to move more discretion over government spending and policy practices to local officials.

Frank Newman, the president of the E.C.S., said that the trend has accelerated in the recent political climate but noted that it has been a long time coming.

"There has been a movement all along to create a different approach that allows more capacity at the school level," said Mr. Newman, who made a quick tour of California last week to unveil the report. "We are saying that it is time to make a huge fundamental shift."

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