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Published in Print: June 7, 2000, as Davis Eases Hard Feelings in California

Davis Eases Hard Feelings in California

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There's no medicine quite like $1.8 billion to heal old wounds.

That seems to be the reaction of some California teachers' union leaders who, after a year of private and public griping about Gov. Gray Davis and some of the education policies he pursued during his first year in office, say that the large allocation of new money for schools in his second budget proposal has smoothed the political waters.

"We still have some differences with some of the ideas he's putting forth," said Wayne Johnson, the president of the California Teachers Association, the state's largest teachers' union. "But across the board, we have significantly fewer differences with him and his proposals than we did last year."

Some political analysts said that by ponying up the new discretionary money for schools, much of which is expected to be used to raise teacher salaries, Mr. Davis is only now getting around to doing what many educators had expected he would do in his first year as a Democratic governor with a Democratic-majority legislature.

After eight years in which schools felt starved for cash under Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, union and other school officials had high hopes that the new governor would pump billions of new dollars into schools and not expect too much in return, observed Bruce Fuller, a co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a think tank based at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley.

The politically active teachers' unions, as well as some other education groups, "have historically hoped that Democratic governors would simply put more money into the system without raising expectations and centralizing power to Sacramento," Mr. Fuller said.

Tougher Than Expected

Instead, Gov. Davis last year championed a new peer-review program for teachers, a high school exit exam, and a program that assigns schools numerical rankings based on their results on state tests.

He increased spending on schools by just $100 million beyond that which was required by Proposition 98, a 1990 voter initiative that requires that a minimum of 40 percent of the state general fund be devoted to public schools. In a year when California had a $4.3 billion budget surplus, some education leaders said they had hoped he would make a greater financial commitment to schools, considering that the state ranks well below the national average in per-pupil spending.

"What we were expecting obviously was considerably more than what the governor was willing to do in his first year," Mr. Johnson said. "The word 'disappointment' is probably better than any other to describe our relationship with the governor in the first year."

Surplus Helps

But Ann Bancroft, a spokeswoman for Susan K. Burr, the governor's interim secretary of education, said that Mr. Davis' spending proposals for schools, both this year and last, simply reflect his desire to work within budgetary constraints. With a surplus that tops $12 billion this year, she said, he is now better equipped to invest more in schools.

"He's done what he said he would do," Ms. Bancroft said. "His top priority was education last year, and it obviously is this year."

By many accounts, a number of the governor's clashes with education leaders are also attributable to breakdowns in communication.

Like former Gov. Wilson, Mr. Davis came in with strong ideas about what he wanted to accomplish that didn't always jibe with what school groups believed was best for schools, said state Sen. Deirdre "DeDe" Alpert, the chairwoman of the Senate education committee.

"But once you sat down and talked with him, he was willing to do some things differently," Ms. Alpert said. "If he had talked with the education people first, before announcing some of the proposals, it would have solved a lot of that."

The CTA, an affiliate of the National Education Association, went public with one communication gaffe following the failure this past March of Proposition 26, a ballot initiative that would have lowered the share of votes required to pass local school bonds from a two-thirds to a simple majority.

When its hard-fought, $23 million campaign was followed by a narrow defeat, the union criticized the governor as not having followed through on a pledge to help promote the measure.

Top union officials reported that they had been flabbergasted to receive only a belated form letter in reply to their written request that Mr. Davis make fund-raising calls in support of the initiative and highlight it in his State of the State Address.

Problems in Past?

Still, Mr. Johnson of the CTA said that he now talks regularly with the governor and hopes that they have put their problems behind them. The union has once again solicited Mr. Davis' help in defeating an initiative, expected to be on the ballot in November, that would give students vouchers worth $4,000 a year to attend private schools.

"We had hoped that the governor would do more [for Proposition 26], but obviously there was a breakdown in communication," Mr. Johnson said. "We talked with him about the voucher initiative, and he said he would do anything, so we hope that problem is gone."

But Mr. Fuller of PACE said that Mr. Davis' recent, high-profile proposal to exempt teachers from the state's personal-income tax suggests that teachers' unions have not yet achieved the close relationship they might have expected to have with a Democratic governor.

The CTA has not yet taken a formal stance on the proposal, while officials of the California Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, have come out against it. ("Calif. Leaders Balk at Tax Break for Teachers," May 24, 2000.)

Plan Called 'Half-Baked'

"I think he was really trying to reach out and signal to teachers that he really cares about them," Mr. Fuller said. "But the mechanism seemed so half-baked. It singled out teachers in a way that is unfair."

Mary Bergan, the president of the CFT, said she could have told the governor that teachers want higher bottom-line salaries, not a tax exemption, if only he had sat down and talked with the union ahead of time.

"Pay us a professional salary, and we'll pay our taxes," Ms. Bergan said. "It probably would have been much more helpful if this conversation had taken place before he released his proposal, instead of afterwards."

Vol. 19, Issue 39, Page 8

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