Davis in Position To Revamp Power Structure
Gov.-elect Gray Davis of California appears poised to reshape what many see as the state's piecemeal and inefficient system of developing policies to govern its 8,000 K-12 public schools.
His new education secretary, a prominent former state senator, is expected to be a forceful school reform architect. And by mid-January, Mr. Davis will be poised to name six new appointees to the 11-member state board of education.
Observers hope his choices for the posts, coupled with a clearly articulated message about what he expects from key education players, will clean up a process that is seen as unpredictable and devoid of strategy.
"The problem is that people get a good idea and say, 'Let's pass a bill,'" said Gerald C. Hayward, a co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a higher education-based research coalition. "They don't make sure it's linked with other things."
California's school governance structure is a tangled one. In addition to the governor and legislature, school policy is directed from three sources--the gubernatorially appointed state board of education and education secretary, and an elected state schools chief.
Bill Lucia, the outgoing director of the state board, said that the last several years have revealed weaknesses in the system. "Anybody with a good policy hat on would say that there are too many cooks in the kitchen," he added.
Immediately after his Jan. 4 inauguration, the state's first Democratic governor in 16 years will be able to replace four state school board appointees selected this year by outgoing Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. They are Marian Bergeson, Tim Draper, Gerti B. Thomas, and Richard "Ricky" Weston. In addition, the terms of board members Marion McDowell and Marina Tse expire Jan. 15.
Mr. Davis could not be reached for comment. But former state Sen. Gary K. Hart, whom Mr. Davis has picked as his education secretary, left no doubts about what the future holds. "There are going to be significant changes in the state board in the nominations to come," Mr. Hart said in an interview.
First off, after three years as the board's president, Yvonne W. Larsen is not seeking re-election to the post next year although she plans to stay on the board until her term expires in 2000. Her likely successor is board Vice President Robert L. Trigg, a former school superintendent and 1996 Wilson-appointee.
Mr. Trigg, a Democrat, predicted that regardless of the board's pick for president, the panel is unlikely to revisit controversial issues such as academic standards and curriculum frameworks.
"I worry a little bit, but I hope we won't go back to ground-zero. You would lose too many years," he said. "We still have the whole issue of developing an accountability system that makes sense to the public."
Interestingly, a split between appointees of the outgoing and incoming governors could give the swing vote to the lone student board member--currently Mr. Weston, a senior at Temescal Canyon High School in Lake Elsinore.
"That really would be true democracy," said Deirdre "Dede" Alpert, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate education committee. "But I think you could see some remaining board members who are moderate change their positions with five new members." That, she said, would make the swing vote less important.
Ms. Alpert, however, would prefer simply to reduce the state board's power, a move she said would erase confusion over lines of authority and enhance accountability.
Under the California Constitution, the state board's powers are primarily limited to adopting textbooks. But the legislature, thanks in part to demands by Mr. Wilson, has given the panel such high-profile and politically charged jobs as approving standards and curriculum frameworks.
"I'd like to get rid of one part of this three-headed monster," Ms. Alpert said, referring to the board and its place in the larger governance system.
That would just be a start for Ms. Alpert, who added that it's also time to study whether California really needs a state superintendent of public instruction. Delaine Eastin, a Democrat who was just re-elected to the post last month, manages the state department of education's 1,438 employees and $26 billion budget. Ms. Alpert said, however, that she will wait for a signal from Mr. Davis before proposing any changes to the school governance structure.
Mr. Davis's choice of Mr. Hart as education secretary already signals to some observers that he wants a more direct role in writing school policy, which could diminish the clout of the state board and superintendent.
During his 20 years in the legislature, Mr. Hart was considered a consensus-builder and education expert.
In the past five years, he has served as a leading school reform advocate as the co-director of the California State University Institute for Education Reform, a nonprofit policy-research group in Sacramento.
"That appointment leads you to believe [Mr. Hart] plans to take the education policy role seriously and isn't going to be in a back-seat role to the state superintendent's bully pulpit," said Mr. Lucia of the state board.
But even if the current system has its flaws, Mr. Hayward of PACE contends that it could work better under new leadership and may not need to be rebuilt.
"With the appointment [of Mr. Hart] and new board members, a lot of problems that currently exist will seem less important as time goes on," he predicted. "Fixing dysfunctional relationships will become less and less important."
Vol. 18, Issue 16, Pages 17, 22Published in Print: December 16, 1998, as Davis in Position To Revamp Power Structure