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Words Matter

Taking a break from the state's ever-present budget crisis, the California legislature earlier this month turned to a semantic issue for schools.

A measure in the Assembly, the lower house, would change portions of state education law to rename "low-performing" schools "high priority" schools.

The bill passed, 53-22, on March 13 after short-but-intense debate over a few hours. Several lawmakers, mainly Republicans, said the change was irrelevant and would do nothing to spur academic improvement or bring more money to schools. Since the state's testing system began in 1999, about 430 schools each year have been labeled "low performing" and targeted for remedial action.

But the bill's sponsor, freshman Assemblyman Rudy Bermudez, a Democrat from the Los Angeles area, told his colleagues that negative words can damage the self-esteem of those involved in the schools.

"Using the phrase 'low-performing' school is a derogatory term used to categorize a school and its students," said Mr. Bermudez.

Rudy Bermudez

"Words can have a dramatic impact on the children that attend that school, teachers who teach in that school, and the community that surrounds that school."

He argues that the label "high priority" would focus more energy and attention on the needs of those schools, and also make it easier to attract well-qualified teachers.

But an analysis of the bill by Republican aides for the Assembly education committee said that calling a school low-performing or using a similar term should indeed be a stigma.

In addition, adds the analysis, such a stigma might motivate students and teachers to work harder to shed the label.

The bill "makes confusing use of language to obscure reality with the intent of avoiding a stigma and preventing hurt feelings," according to the analysis.

The measure still has to pass the Senate and be signed by the governor before becoming law.

Brian Malone, a spokesman for Mr. Bermudez, said he was "fairly confident" that the Senate would pass the bill quickly, and that it would be signed into law by Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.

—Joetta L. Sack

Vol. 22, Issue 28, Page 16

Published in Print: March 26, 2003, as State Journal

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