Wilson Reshapes K-12 Legacy in Second Term

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Californians will have many versions of Gov. Pete Wilson to remember when he steps down this winter after eight years in office.

For example, two years after he backed an attempt to bar the children of illegal immigrants from attending public schools--a measure widely denounced as harsh and misguided--he championed a class-size-reduction program, an almost universally applauded initiative that now benefits 1.6 million pupils in grades K-3.

Gov. Pete Wilson

Governor of California
Party: Republican
Age: 65
Took office: 1991

"His legacy will be kind of schizophrenic," said Bruce Fuller, who co-directs Political Analysis for California Education, a university-based think tank. "He's the Rip Van Winkle of American governors who has returned to this broad approach to education in the last 18 months."

The shift reflected, at least in part, changing times. Mr. Wilson spent the early years of his tenure trying to revive a lifeless economy, said Sean Walsh, the governor's spokesman.

"In the last three years, he's kind of been the Roger Maris of education as governors go," Mr. Walsh said of the governor, who is barred by law from seeking a third term. "He's been swinging for the fence and he's getting there."

Right, Then Center

After his first election in 1990, Mr. Wilson, a former U.S. senator and mayor of San Diego, backed up his credentials as a moderate Republican by naming a Democrat as the education secretary in his Cabinet and then proposing new funding to offer health services in schools.

"It was great," recalled Kevin Gordon, the assistant executive director of the California School Boards Association. "We believed that he was going to be the education governor."

But the honeymoon with school advocates soon ended. Faced with a recession that hit California hard, Mr. Wilson targeted school spending for cuts. School lobbying groups responded with stinging public attacks.

By 1994, and with his sights set on a 1996 presidential bid, Mr. Wilson took on illegal immigration by backing Proposition 187. The ballot initiative, which state voters passed that November, sought to end most public services for illegal immigrants, including education. Foes of the measure have since sued and blocked its implementation.

But that chapter cemented his legacy as a governor who was unfriendly to immigrant families, some say.

"Before you can get a Republican presidential nomination, you have to go right," Mr. Gordon said. "He definitely went right."

By the middle of his second term, California's economic fortunes had turned. Suddenly, California was living up to its nickname, the Golden State. Record-high revenues, coupled with constitutionally guaranteed school aid levels, meant a lot of new money was available for education.

Mr. Wilson responded by pushing major new spending initiatives for smaller class sizes, more textbook aid, and remedial programs. He used the popular class-size-reduction initiative to leverage legislative support for a statewide basic-skills test in grades 2-11 and a policy to end so-called social promotions in grades 2-9.

And he's not finished. Mr. Wilson has sponsored a November ballot measure to make the current voluntary class-size-reduction policies mandatory by putting them into law, give school-based councils more power, and create an office of inspector general for education.

Mr. Walsh, meanwhile, paints the emphasis on smaller classes in sweeping terms. "When we talk about class-size reduction, in California, we are not just talking about 18 to 20 kids," he said, "but a fundamental reform of how education is delivered throughout the school."

Many observers say the burst of attention to schools reflects a return by Mr. Wilson to his moderate roots. Others see a thinly veiled effort to wrest power from the teachers' unions by earmarking money and taking it off the bargaining table. Nonetheless, the observers generally add that history will look favorably on Mr. Wilson.

"I think his long-term legacy might be really good," Mr. Gordon of the school boards' association said. "Even if some of the most impressive changes came after bringing the governor along kicking and screaming."

Vol. 18, Issue 2, Page 21

Published in Print: September 16, 1998, as Wilson Reshapes K-12 Legacy in Second Term
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