At Session's Close, Calif. Lawmakers OK Test Plan

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The California legislature closed its 1997 session by approving a new basic-skills test for students in grades 2 through 11 to be given next spring, but it failed to change bilingual education laws or back a statewide school construction bond.

Before recessing in the early-morning hours Sept. 13, the lawmakers also revised special education funding in an attempt to more equitably divvy up that aid.

Republican Gov. Pete Wilson set the stage for a legislative finale centered around the test last month when he used his line-item veto to cut $200 million from the $22 billion K-12 budget, pending the test initiative's adoption. ("In Calif., Budget Passes, Testing Accord Nears," Sept. 3, 1997.)

Late Compromises

Although he reached an agreement with Senate Democratic leaders on a test plan after the budget vetoes, it was scuttled at the last minute when Assembly Democrats demanded concessions for students with limited English proficiency.

Finally, at the session's end, everyone walked away with something, and Mr. Wilson got his test.

"The agreement reflects the desires of the governor," said Lisa Kalustian, a spokeswoman for Mr. Wilson.

The vetoed funds were not automatically restored, however. The governor's staff last week was reviewing the vetoed line items--which legislators passed again with amendments.

California Legislative Highlights

The following are education highlights from the closing days of the California legislature, which recessed for the year on Sept. 13.

  • Lawmakers approved Republican Gov. Pete Wilson's proposal to administer a statewide standardized test of basic skills by May 15 to students in grades 2-11. The state board of education must choose an exam by Nov. 14.
  • Beginning with the class of 2003, students will have to take one year of art and one year of a foreign language to graduate from high school. Currently, students need just one year of either subject.
  • For the second year in a row, lawmakers failed to approve a statewide school construction bond. Negotiations over an $8 billion bond died in the session's final hours.
  • Legislators failed to pass a controversial bilingual education bill that would have held school districts more accountable for the performance of limited-English-proficient students.

Under the legislation passed last week, all 2nd through 8th grade students will take English-only tests in reading, spelling, math, and writing. Students in grades 9-11 will also receive an all-English test in reading, math, writing, history-social science, and science.

The first tests must be given by May 15 of next year. State schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin has until Oct. 31 to pick a test. The state board of education must approve her choice by Nov. 14.

Assembly Democrats won a concession that requires the state to pay for a second basic-skills test for limited English-speakers in their primary language. That test would be required for students who have been enrolled for less than a year in the state. It would be voluntary for students with limited English who have been enrolled in California for a year or more.

Ms. Eastin also got her wish that the tests will eventually be based on the statewide curriculum standards now being drafted. The state board will begin reviewing the standards next month, and they could be ready within the year.

"She's pleased," said Doug Stone, Ms. Eastin's spokesman. "If this is the price for a standards-based test, so be it."

No Bilingual Change

But his boss was less enthusiastic about the legislature's failure to revise the state's bilingual education law, Mr. Stone said.

Lawmakers had been debating a Senate-passed bill that would have let school districts "design the instruction programs best suited to the needs of the English-learners of their district."

It also called for model state pupil-performance standards and annual district assessments of the English skills of students learning the language.

"Our position was that the bill made sense policywise for a bilingual program that's been obsolete for 10 years," said Lisa Giroux, who is a consultant to Sen. Deirdre Alpert, the Democratic sponsor of the bill.

But the bill received a cold reception in the Assembly, the legislature's lower chamber, where it died in committee. "The appearance was that no one would be looking over their shoulder. With too much flexibility, districts will move away from [instruction in students'] primary languages,"said Jose Moreno, the spokesman for Democratic Sen. Hilda L. Solis, who opposed the change.

Lack of legislative action could energize an ongoing petition drive that calls for a state ballot measure to end bilingual education.

For the second year in a row, California lawmakers also failed to come up with big new money for school construction. But this year's legislation was a complex, all-or-nothing package of bills that included two ballot proposals.

Groundwork for January

The first ballot measure was a four-year, $8.2 billion school construction bond. But Democrats also wanted a statewide vote on whether school bond measures could pass with a simple majority, rather than the two-thirds margin that is now required.

And Republicans wanted to limit the fees that districts charge for new residential development.

"It was just too big, and there were too many interested parties," said Jerry Hayward, the co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a policy study group based at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley. "But it laid the groundwork for a resolution in January."

Mr. Stone said that the state needs $42 billion to meet the facility demands of an enrollment that's expected to grow by 150,000 this year, to about 5.6 million.

In another last-minute action, the legislature revised the state's special education funding formula. Beginning in the fall of 1998, state special education aid will be based on the total number of students in a district, not on the number of special education students.

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