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Published in Print: October 21, 1998, as Calif. Voters Face Expansive Schools Initiative

Calif. Voters Face Expansive Schools Initiative

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California voters are poised to consider what is arguably the most far-reaching school reform proposal ever to appear on the state ballot.

Outgoing Gov. Pete Wilson sponsored the petition drive this past summer that qualified the plan for the Nov. 3 ballot. If it passes, Proposition 8 would help cement Mr. Wilson's education legacy, which includes increased K-12 spending and smaller class sizes in the primary grades.

But the opposition the plan is drawing from teachers' unions and other school groups provides a reminder that the two-term Republican's record remains deeply controversial for many educators.

California is one of about a dozen states where voters will be asked to decide ballot questions with implications for schools in the midterm elections. In Colorado, for example, Amendment 17 would grant tax credits for some private education costs.

But no measure is as sweeping and detailed as Proposition 8.

For starters, it would order permanent funding for California's popular K-3 class-size-reduction program. It would also expand state oversight of schools on several fronts and create the office of a new education czar who would inspect and rate public schools. It would require a zero-tolerance policy for student drug offenses. And it would mandate that new teachers, as well as those changing subjects, pass tests in the subjects they planned to teach.

On the local level, the plan would give parents on newly configured site councils in some 8,000 schools more power over their schools' budgets and curricula. The measure would also strengthen principals' authority to fire teachers.

In short, it's the equivalent of an education earthquake.

"I've signed on to this because I think we need an education revolution," said state school board President Yvonne Larsen, whom Mr. Wilson named to the board in 1992. "Some of these ideas can do this."

A broad coalition of education and anti-tax groups is fighting the measure, arguing that Proposition 8 is ill-conceived. And, while there are some indications that support for the measure is slipping, its critics are not taking any chances.

"It would be a giant step backward," said John D'Amelio, the president of the California School Boards Association. "We don't need another poorly crafted initiative."

Observers outside the Golden State say the measure is striking in its scope.

"I've never seen any ballot initiative that is this comprehensive or touches so many hot education issues," said Mary Fulton, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States, a clearinghouse in Denver.

But that's the way Mr. Wilson wants it. "I'm taking education reform directly to the people. If the public wants better schools ... here's their chance," he said in a recent speech.

Parent Power

Proponents argue strongly that the measure would keep future legislatures from cutting money for smaller K-3 classes. Foes counter that Proposition 8 is not needed because that program, which cost California $1.5 billion in the 1997-98 school year, is so popular.

But if that were the only issue on the ballot, there would be little debate. "We all want smaller classes," Mr. D'Amelio said. "Permanent class-size reduction is really good."

It is beyond the push for smaller classes that the disagreement deepens. One of the most contentious issues is the proposal to empower school site councils. Such councils now serve in limited roles at most California schools. But Proposition 8 would give them the final say over school curricula and discretionary spending.

The timing is especially bad, some argue, because the state is beginning to phase in new academic standards. Shifting the authority for curriculum away from school boards, they say, would confuse and weaken that process.

"[The initiative] would make school boards obsolete," said Albert Lundeen, the spokesman for "No on Proposition 8," the coalition of union and tax groups fighting the measure. "The site council wouldn't even have to be elected."

In a slap at Mr. Wilson's longtime adversaries, the teachers' unions, Proposition 8 would give parents a two-thirds majority on the councils, which are now evenly split between parents and teachers.

Mitch Zak, the spokesman for the "Yes on Proposition 8" coalition that includes the California Republican Party and the Alliance for Quality Education, a San Diego parents group--said school officials are overreacting. School boards, he pointed out, would set the bylaws of the site councils.

"They talk about giving parents local control," he said. "It seems that they must mean bake sales."

Bureaucratic Overkill?

Mr. Wilson, who is barred by law from seeking a third term, also wants to create an Office of the Chief Inspector of Public Schools. The office would issue annual reports on achievement scores, dropout rates, and college-entrance rates. Each school in the state also would be inspected every two years by the chief inspector's staff.

Under the terms of the initiative, the governor would name the putative education czar to a 10-year term that would allow the appointee to work independently of the state education department. The estimated $15 million to $20 million annual budget for the office would come from the education department budget.

"Prop 8 would be devastating because it would take existing classroom dollars to create a new bureaucracy," Mr. Lundeen asserted. "What's so bad is that the appointment requires no legislative experience, and there's no limit on staff or salaries."

Ms. Larsen, the state board president, envisions the job going to a professional auditor from the private sector. "This would not be a charismatic guru who issues statements from a bully pulpit," she said.

Also under debate is a provision to base teacher certification on subject-matter tests rather than teacher candidates' college coursework.

Current teachers also would have to take subject exams before being reassigned to teach a new subject areas if the initiative passes.

With a teacher shortage already crimping districts' ability to hire teachers, opponents say it's not the time to make becoming a teacher even harder.

In a resolution against Proposition 8, the California PTA said that it backs high standards for all staff members.

But the proposed requirements, it said, "could make it more difficult and expensive to attract new candidates to the teaching profession in California."

The only provision generating little discussion is the proposed mandatory expulsion of students caught with illegal drugs on campus.

Waning Support?

In the last weeks before the vote, it appears enthusiasm for Proposition 8 may be waning. In August, support for the measure among likely voters was at 55 percent, compared with 24 percent against and 21 percent undecided, according to a survey by Field Poll, an independent polling firm in San Francisco.

In a Field Poll released last week, 48 percent of the respondents said they would vote for the initiative, while 29 percent said they were against it and 23 percent were undecided. The margin of error in both polls was 5.4 percent.

"It's now under 50 percent support. I wouldn't say it's fatal, but it should raise some cautionary flags," said Mark DiCamillo, the director of the Field Poll.

"It's easier for undecided voters to float into the 'no' side because it is more a maintaining of the status quo," he said.

While more than $1 million was spent to qualify Proposition 8 for the ballot, Mr. Zak conceded that there is not enough money now for a television advertising campaign in support of the measure.

Foes of the measure are not taking any chances. They have spent $3 million on television ads for the final push to turn voters against Proposition 8.

And their broad coalition promises to expand the base of opposition. Groups fighting the measure include the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the League of Women Voters.

Also in opposition are the California Teachers Association, which is the state affiliate of the National Education Association, and the California Federation of Teachers, the state affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

But the pro-Proposition 8 side picked up the California Business Roundtable's endorsement last week.

The Sacramento-based organization of California's top business officials said in a prepared statement: "The future of our state and the quality of our future workforce depends on our willingness to speak out against the status quo."

Vol. 18, Issue 8, Pages 15,18

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