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Published in Print: April 23, 2003, as Budget Issues Upstage Work On Master Plan for Calif. Schools

Budget Issues Upstage Work On Master Plan for Calif. Schools

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In the shadow of a debate on how to close California's yawning budget gap, a group of lawmakers has introduced 10 bills that would restructure just about every aspect of the state education system.

Four years in the making, the "master plan" would dramatically change the face of education from prekindergarten through the first four years of college by tackling everything from restructuring the state's disjointed education hierarchy to bolstering parent involvement.

But now, the chief sponsors, most of whom are Democrats, worry that they are running out of time to debate the details of the overall plan and shepherd it through the legislature.

For starters, they face the state's ongoing fiscal crisis: California must close a deficit that is estimated at $35 billion over the remainder of this fiscal year and through next. The state's annual budget is about $80 billion.

Then there are term limits, which will oust most of the sponsors from office at the end of 2004. The legislators argue that without a master plan, the term limits of eight years for state senators and six years for members of the Assembly, the lower house, threaten to undermine long-term education strategies.

Currently, state education leadership comes from four sources: the governor; the state board of education, whose 11 members are appointed by the governor; the superintendent of public instruction, an independent elected official who oversees the California Department of Education; and the secretary of education, who is appointed by the governor and serves as his chief education adviser.

Sen. Deirdre Alpert, a Democrat and one of the lead sponsors of the plan, says the current system is "very unaccountable" and confusing. Financial and policy powers, she notes, are split between the state superintendent and the governor's office—and historically there has been tension between those two offices because of competing priorities.

"We heard from schools that they get directives from different agencies that don't say the same thing," Sen. Alpert said.

Changing Roles

The 20-year plan would build a cohesive system that focuses on student-achievement goals and the host of problems that the state faces, proponents say. It would be reviewed every 10 years.

"Instead of a new reform coming out every two years, we need a comprehensive system," said Kevin Gordon, the executive director of the California Association of School Business Officials. "When we can't be investing more, we ought to be making long-term, strategic plans."

The plan would also give the governor more power in moving most policymaking and finance issues to the Secretary of Education's office. That would help avoid the conflicts and tension, said Stephen Blake, the chief legislative aide on the joint committee to create the master plan.

The state superintendent, meanwhile, would get oversight power over all the education programs and would hold the governor's office accountable for the state-mandated academic progress of local schools. The superintendent would also oversee all the state's student- testing programs.

Some lawmakers say that authority would make a governor less likely to seek cuts in the education budget, as incumbent Gov. Gray Davis has during California's current budget crisis.

Some of the other notable parts of the master plan would aim to:

  • Ensure that all teachers are fully credentialed before being assigned their own classrooms, and give them more flexibility and opportunities to advance their careers while teaching;
  • Simplify the finance system and send more aid to low-performing and hard- to- staff schools;
  • Allow communities to raise more money locally;
  • Require students to begin learning a second language in kindergarten, which they would be required to master by high school graduation;
  • Establish more communication lines with parents;
  • Provide short- and long-term facilities planning;
  • Further incorporate technology into daily learning; and
  • Revamp vocational education to bolster academic classes and a career- oriented curriculum.

Long-Term Project

California has had a master plan for higher education on the books since 1960, and has reviewed that plan at regular intervals since then. In the mid-1990s, a group of legislators and educators began discussing the idea of including precollegiate education in such a plan.

One of the first steps that master-plan proponents took was to spend a year hosting forums and meetings across the state. Sen. Alpert said two top concerns quickly emerged: the lack of a statewide prekindergarten program, and the large numbers of students at state universities who needed remedial classes.

The group spent more than a year writing reports and recommendations, then last fall began drafting legislation. The ensuing 10 bills were introduced between January and March. Now, some of the bills have passed committees, and others are waiting for action. The existing Master Plan for Higher Education would be absorbed in the new master plan.

While just about everyone agrees on the need for a comprehensive pre-K-16 plan, the proposal does have critics.

Secretary of Education Kerry Mazzoni, a former state legislator, doubts major governance changes would overcome all political resistance. "There are many good recommendations in the master plan, but something in there for everyone to hate as well," she said. "Anything with costs is going to be difficult to move forward."

So far, Gov. Davis, a Democrat, has not taken a position on the plan, she said.

Ms. Mazzoni particularly supports early-childhood-education provisions that would provide all families access to preschool, developmental screenings, and full-day kindergarten. She doubts, though, that those goals could become a reality in the next few years, given the budget situation.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, another former state lawmaker, is also supportive of the overall plan, but does not agree with the proposed changes to his office, said his spokesman, Rick Miller.

Mr. Miller said that his boss believes that, "given the importance the people of California have placed on education, the large percentage of our state budget that education comprises and how critical it is to the future of our state, it is vitally important that education has a single champion within the government who is directly accountable to the people of California."

Vol. 22, Issue 32, Page 20

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