Calif. Special Session Puts Education Front and Center
In California, educators are optimistic that lawmakers will write the final chapter of the state's game plan for school reform during the special session on education that opened last week.
California already has state exams and highly regarded academic standards. But by calling for the special session shortly after his election last fall, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis signaled his desire that legislators focus on education and, in particular, school accountability. And, because special-session legislation moves faster than bills handled in the regular session, the governor could have some of his plans in place by next fall.
So far, things seem to be falling into place. Four powerful Democrats have agreed to champion Mr. Davis' four-bill package. Meanwhile, Republicans led by Assembly Minority Leader Rod Pacheco are championing nearly two dozen education bills. Most of the GOP bills reflect the governor's accountability agenda. But some, such as a voucher proposal for students in low-performing schools, have little chance in the Democrat-controlled Assembly and Senate.
"We wanted to make it clear to the public that Republicans are thinking about schools, too," said Assemblyman Bill Campbell, the vice chairman of his chamber's education committee. "There's a lot of overlap."
Such talk is music to the ears of James A. Fleming, the superintendent of the 43,000-student Capistrano schools in Southern California, who was in the state capital, Sacramento, last week for the special session
"Democrats have moved from left to center, and Republicans have moved from right to center. Everything's in line for a big year," Mr. Fleming said. "They're all talking about the same thing."
Mr. Davis' $444 million plan for improving K-12 schools, which was unveiled at the special session's opening Jan. 19, seeks teacher peer reviews, a high school graduation test, school rankings, and new funding for teacher training and programs to improve students' reading skills.
"Every child deserves a world-class education," he said at a press briefing. "Unfortunately, that is not always the case in California."
Mr. Davis' most controversial proposal is to have teachers with three or more years' experience review other teachers. The peer evaluators would follow written performance goals aligned with state-set learning standards.
Assembly Speaker Antonio R. Villaraigosa, a former organizer for United Teachers Los Angeles, whose members belong to the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, is sponsoring that legislation.
Mr. Villaraigosa, the top Democrat in the legislature's lower house, is married to a teacher. "I'm more than just a little bit knowledgeable about some of these issues. I think this is an important effort to try to turn around the performance of teachers," he told reporters at the same Jan. 19 briefing where Mr. Davis spoke.
While the bill would let school districts develop local versions of the reviews, those who did not participate would lose state-funded cost-of-living adjustments. That concerns the California Teachers Association, the state affiliate of the NEA.
"The concept is not appreciated by the CTA, given that salaries for teachers are not where they should be," said Mike Myslinski, a spokesman for the union, which was a strong supporter of Gov. Davis' campaign. Overall, however, he said the union is "very happy about what's being proposed."
Democratic Sen. Deirdre "Dede" Alpert is sponsoring the bill that would implement a new school-performance index to rank the state's 8,000 schools based on state test scores and staff and student attendance.
The index would include breakdowns by ethnic group and socio-economic status. The ratings would be made public beginning June 2000.
Also under the bill, 200 schools that scored below 50 percent on state tests would participate in a three-year program of state funding and technical assistance. Low-performing schools could apply for the help, or simply be randomly picked by the state. Mr. Campbell said that he and fellow Republicans may lobby to make the state aid more targeted, perhaps to the 200 lowest-performing schools.
In addition, all schools that improved their scores on the index by 5 percentage points a year would qualify for a share of $150 million in state awards.
Some school officials say they are ready for the index, as long as it brings an end to the flood of different initiatives that have swamped them in recent years, such as state tests and a new bilingual education law.
"If we know what's expected of us and have the resources to do the job, and are left alone, we believe school districts will produce," said Leslie DeMersseman, the president of the California School Boards Association.
Sen. Jack O'Connell, a Democrat, is sponsoring the bill to create a new high school exit exam, which would be required for graduation by June 2003. Currently, most districts require students to pass proficiency tests that are often aligned with 8th or 9th grade skills.
The governor's get-tough strategies also would come with a helping hand.
The chairwoman of the Assembly education committee, Democrat Kerry Mazzoni, is sponsoring a bill that would allot $75 million in the 1999-2000 school year for reading remediation after school, on weekends, or during the summer.
Other spending proposals include $12 million for a summer professional-development institute to train reading teachers and $2 million to reward exemplary reading programs in 400 elementary and middle schools.
"We're excited about what's planned; we just hope that the money is there," said Mr. Fleming, the Capistrano schools chief, reflecting concerns from a state legislative analyst's report projecting a slowdown in state revenue.
Still, he made an enthusiastic prediction: "You're going to see California move from the bottom of the [academic] heap toward the middle, and then, hopefully, to the top."
Vol. 18, Issue 20, Pages 9,14