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CALIFORNIA

Gov. Wilson Outlines Bold Plans for Calif. School Reform

Gov. Pete Wilson unveiled an ambitious list of education proposals last week that would generate billions of dollars for school construction, expand preschool services, bolster accountability, and possibly secure his legacy as an education-friendly state leader.

Reactions across the state ranged from surprise over the boldness of Mr. Wilson's Jan. 7 State of the State Address to optimism and doubt over the political viability of his plans.

In any case, the second-term Republican governor thrust school issues to the center of the Golden State's 1998 legislative session, which will be his last as governor. Mr. Wilson is prohibited from serving a third consecutive term, but he has expressed interest in a 2000 presidential bid.

"The time has come for California to invest in infrastructure for the 21st century," he said. "It's time to invest as much time and effort as money to reform our schools to make them worthy to receive, nurture, and expand the minds and possibilities of California's children."

Big Bonds

Two years ago, Mr. Wilson led the charge to lower K-3 classroom sizes across the state. But the popular, $1.5 billion program has created a shortage of space for thousands of new classes.

Last week, Mr. Wilson called for a $2 billion school construction bond initiative in each of the next four years, beginning in June. Funds would be made available locally on a dollar-for-dollar matching basis.

Mr. Wilson also took on his own political party by proposing to let local districts pass school bonds a simple majority, rather than the two-thirds margin now required under state law.

"The fact that the governor is coming out for the majority vote is good," said Doug Stone, the spokesman for state schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin, a Democrat who often disagrees with Mr. Wilson. "But if he can't get Assembly Republicans to support this, it's dead on arrival."

Mr. Wilson, who was scheduled to release his budget proposal later in the week, wants the state's 5.8 million K-12 students and the schools they attend to be more accountable for academic performance. Before his address, he proposed creating a post of chief inspector for public schools to examine the performance of individual schools, either by legislation or a ballot initiative. His plan would also require teachers to pass general-subject tests to become licensed, and he wants to make it easier for principals to fire poor-performing teachers.

He didn't stop there. In last week's speech, he proposed lengthening the school year by seven instructional days, to 180 days. The plan would cost about $350 million. Ms. Eastin proposed such a plan last year. Legislators ultimately added one day to the school year.

Mr. Wilson also promised to introduce legislation this year that would end so-called social promotions in all grades. He said the bill would call for students in grades 1-4, 7, and 10 who are not functioning at grade level to take remedial courses.

Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni, the Democratic chairwoman of the lower chamber's education committee, found little to fault in the conciliatory speech. "He's created a foundation on which to build some legislation that will get bipartisan support," she said. But Ms. Mazzoni was less than impressed with Mr. Wilson's school inspector idea: "We have enough bureaucrats to do that within the current system."

Vouchers Back

For all the new items on his education wish-list, Gov. Wilson has not given up on publicly financed vouchers for private school tuition--a regular item on his agenda that has just as regularly been shot down by the legislature. This time, Mr. Wilson is proposing to make available 15,000 "opportunity scholarships" for students in the state's lowest-performing schools.

"I'm a little surprised he's going after the voucher proposal," said Bruce Fuller, a professor of public policy and education at the University of California, Berkeley. "It's not going to see the light of day in the Democrat-controlled legislature."

Mr. Wilson also echoed a growing national focus on early-childhood development. He said that he wants to offer preschool to all 4-year-olds whose family incomes fall beneath the federal poverty level, expand child care for the needy, and conduct hearing screenings for newborn babies.

"Our children must remain our greatest priority," he said.

Mr. Wilson's social agenda has some Californians scratching their heads. After all, a few years ago the governor backed the state's Proposition 187. The voter-passed initiative would have barred children of illegal immigrants from attending public schools had the courts not intervened and blocked the measure.

But before that, when Mr. Wilson first came into office in 1991, he proposed sweeping plans to integrate education and other services for children. ("Wilson's Focus on Preventive Services Called Policy Model for Austere Times," Feb. 6, 1991.)

"There might be something to the point that he wants to be remembered as a moderate who did good things for the state," Mr. Fuller said. "The question will be whether Republicans get behind him."

--ROBERT C. JOHNSTON

NEW HAMPSHIRE

'Best Schools' Plan On the Way, Shaheen Says

The biggest challenge before the New Hampshire legislature this year will be addressing the state supreme court's ruling that the school funding system is unconstitutional, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen said in her State of the State Address last week.

But in the coming weeks, she also plans to announce a new "Best Schools" initiative "to make New Hampshire an example for the nation of how to teach our children and prepare our people for the 21st century."

"As important as the Claremont [school finance] decision is, we must not lose sight of the many other challenges and opportunities ahead of us," she said.

The Democratic governor did not elaborate on what the plan might include, but she said that it will expand on the Granite State's accomplishments last year, which included additional funding for kindergarten and the acceptance of federal Goals 2000 money for reforms in local districts.

"We've set a course of steadily improving our schools, and we should be proud of what we've accomplished," she said. "But we can do better."

The legislature this year should also pledge to expand health coverage for children, the governor said.

"Today, 20,000 New Hampshire children have no health insurance--no protection if they get sick or injured," she said.

--LINDA JACOBSON

NEW YORK

Governor Forecasts Happy Times Ahead

Laying out the themes that are likely to carry him through what he hopes will be re-election in November, Gov. George E. Pataki used his fourth annual State of the State Address on Jan. 7 to tout a bevy of tax cuts and education, crime, and health-care programs he said will take New York to the "dawn of its greatest day."

His administration, he boasted, has cut crime, cut welfare rolls, and cut taxes.

"We've cut so many different taxes ... it would take me 10 minutes just to read you the list," he said, before championing a new plan to deepen a school property-tax cut so that "senior citizens will never pay another dime in school property taxes."

The Republican governor asked lawmakers to expand the state's health-care coverage for children so that everyone age 18 or under has access "to comprehensive health coverage."

Mr. Pataki also promised to increase state funding for pre-kindergarten programs. He proposed a six-week, intensive summer school program for 4th grade students who score poorly on statewide reading tests and unveiled an after-school plan that would "provide children a secure, structured environment" after school until 7 p.m.

He also urged lawmakers to expand charter schools and "eliminate the fiscal incentives that encourage districts to inappropriately place children with behavioral problems into special education."

The state board of regents is mulling over proposals to move thousands of students now in special education into regular classrooms. Any changes would have to be approved by the legislature.

--KERRY A. WHITE

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