Davis Reform Bills Make Headway in Calif. Legislature

By Robert C. Johnston — March 10, 1999 4 min read

Thanks to help from fellow Democrats who control the California legislature, Gov. Gray Davis is halfway to passing his four-point school reform agenda in time for the 1999-2000 school year.

Davis-backed bills to raise funding for reading programs and to set up the nation’s first statewide teacher-peer-review program are already out of the Assembly, the lower chamber. And his proposals for a school rating system and high school exit exam have been ratified by the Senate.

At this rate, legislators could finish with the bills by March 25, which is the target date that the new governor set when he called a special legislative session in January to deal with education.

The pace has some observers marveling at the clockwork-like mechanics of the legislature. Others worry, though, that the bills need more scrutiny and that they have been weakened by union and special-interest lobbying.

“Democrats grumble about details, but they want to speak quickly to suburban swing voters who are obsessed with school reform,” said Bruce Fuller, a co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, or pace, a think tank at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley. “But there’s a silver-bullet mentality here.”

Sue Burr, the state undersecretary of education, rejects arguments that reforms are being compromised. “Amending bills as they go through is part of the democratic process,” she said. “But their fundamental premises are still the same.”

Changes Ahead?

Gov. Davis angered teachers’ unions, which had supported his election, by seeking in one of the bills to require that veteran teachers review other teachers as part of their evaluations. In particular, the unions balked at a provision to withhold $409 million in cost-of-living-adjustment funds from nonparticipating districts. (“Calif. Bill Rekindles Debate Over Teacher Peer Review,” Feb. 17, 1999.)

But the Assembly struck the COLA provision before passing the bill by a 47-24 vote Feb. 25. Instead, Mr. Davis agreed that the state would keep up to $413 million in teacher-mentoring and training money from districts that fail to participate by 2000.

Teachers want more changes when the Senate takes up the bill this week.

“We still think it should be voluntary, without penalties,” said Tommye Hutto, the spokesman for the California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “We want to keep the good things that are there and give some flexibility to the districts.”

Ms. Burr said Gov. Davis has shown no interest in further changes.

Less controversial is his bill calling for $94 million for reading initiatives, $75 million of which would go toward K-4 reading academies. Republicans won an amendment specifying that the academies would include phonics instruction. The bill passed the Assembly 75-0 on Feb. 25.

‘Marshmallow’ Reform

Two bills backed by the governor and passed by the Senate would greatly raise the consequences for low-performing schools and students.

In its original form, Mr. Davis’ school accountability plan called for an index to rank the state’s 8,000 public schools based on test scores, student and staff attendance, and graduation rates. The ratings were to be used to identify 200 low-performing schools for state intervention.

But civil rights groups and some Democrats demanded changes that recognized socioeconomic differences between schools. So, in addition to rankings by baseline data, the index would rate schools by overall improvement and by improvement compared with other schools of like demographics.

In addition, the number of low-performing schools targeted for state intervention was raised from 200 to up to 500, with $192.3 million to be split evenly between rewards for the districts that make performance gains and intervention funding for those schools that continue to struggle.

In a nod to local control, the revised bill would also let local school boards, and not the state, impose sanctions on schools that did not improve after two years of intervention. Legislators also eliminated a requirement that principals in the failing schools be reassigned. The Senate passed the bill 34-3 on March 1.

Without offering details, Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni, the Democratic chairwoman of her chamber’s education committee, said the bill would be amended further when the Assembly takes it up this week.

Such talk worries Mr. Fuller of PACE. “If people see no real changes in school management, and test scores don’t go up, Democrats are dead in the water,” he said. “I have this image of an accountability marshmallow melting over a campfire.”

The other Davis-backed measure, which the Senate passed 34-3 on March 1, calls for an exit exam starting with the high school class of 2004. The original bill had required the exam for the class of 2003. Another amendment calls on the state board of education to study alternative graduation criteria for students who fail the exit exam. Based on the changes as of last week, Gov. Davis is unlikely to veto the bills.

“There have been no amendments made without the governor signing off first,” Ms. Mazzoni said. “Some say [the bills have] been watered down. I’d counter that they’ve been improved.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 1999 edition of Education Week as Davis Reform Bills Make Headway in Calif. Legislature