States

Educators Watchful as California Opens Schwarzenegger Era

By Joetta L. Sack — October 15, 2003 5 min read

During his campaign to become the governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged to protect education coffers and cut the strings of state bureaucracy. Now that he is the governor-elect, educators are anxious to see him deliver on those promises.

The actor and former professional bodybuilder, who won the state’s top job last week as Californians voted to recall Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, already has connections in state education circles, having successfully spearheaded a ballot initiative last year for after-school programs. Some education leaders also were impressed with the Republican’s campaign pledges, even though the candidate offered few details.

“The governor-elect made all the right comments with respect to public education,” said Jack O’Connell, California’s state superintendent of public instruction and a former Democratic state legislator.

But in the state’s contentious political climate, some wonder if Mr. Schwarzenegger can spur a much-needed economic recovery and help build a better school system.

“He’s a very smart man, but he has a very big mess to deal with,” said Maureen DiMarco, a senior vice president of the Boston- based Houghton Mifflin Co. and a former California education secretary under Republican Gov. Pete Wilson in the 1990s. “But he has something no politician’s had in a long time, and that’s goodwill.”

One of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s education advisers said the new governor’s strength would be forging bipartisan alliances.

“I’ve found him to be very bright, and a quick study,” said David W. Gordon, the superintendent of the 55,000-student Elk Grove Unified School District in Sacramento, who was one of about 30 education experts consulted by Mr. Schwarzenegger. “Going in, he’s quite knowledgeable about a number of programs for children, particularly special education and after-school programs.”

‘Legitimate’

The win by Mr. Schwarzenegger, who likely will take office next month after the results are certified, marks a moderate turn to the right for a state that has seen its fortunes rise and fall dramatically in Gov. Davis’ five-year tenure.

In the final days of the two-month campaign, polls showed voters leaning toward recalling Gov. Davis and a rise in support for the Austrian-born, 56-year-old Mr. Schwarzenegger. But until the Oct. 7 vote, few people predicted that Mr. Schwarzenegger would win so decisively—receiving 49 percent of the vote in a crowded field of 135 candidates. (“California Set to Decide Fate of Gov. Davis,” Oct. 1, 2003.)

His closest challenger, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, a Democrat, received 32 percent, and a more conservative Republican, state Sen. Tom McClintock, won 13 percent.

More than 4.4 million voters—55 percent of those who cast ballots—chose to recall Mr. Davis, whose tenure has been marred by controversy over an enormous budget deficit, a state energy crisis, and the governor’s relationships with special-interest groups.

Gov.-elect Schwarzenegger is a novice politician, best known among educators for his 2002 ballot initiative on after-school programs, which has not yet been funded, and volunteer work with the Special Olympics. He was the chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports from 1991 to 1993. (“Education Tops States’ Ballot Issues,” Oct. 16, 2002.)

In his bid to replace Gov. Davis, Mr. Schwarzenegger pledged to stabilize education funding, which took some cuts as the state tried to patch a deficit that rose to $38 billion this fiscal year, out of a $99 billion budget. The governor-elect has vowed to reduce the number of categorical programs in education and give districts more spending flexibility.

He wants to freeze state spending overall, audit the state budget, and call a special legislative session to make more cuts. He also wants to rescind car-tax increases approved this year by Gov. Davis and the legislative.

He’ll now face a deeply divided legislature ruled by Democrats. Further, it takes a two-thirds majority to pass the budget, which led to gridlock this past summer.

But Michael W. Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University, noted that Mr. Schwarzenegger’s power may be enhanced because he won by a wider margin than expected, and will also have line-item-veto power over the budget.

“There’s a feeling that he has a mandate, and he’s legitimate,” Mr. Kirst added.

Several state education groups opposed the recall, saying it would set a bad precedent. Some groups defended Gov. Davis as a supporter of increasing education aid and as a champion of programs such as class-size reduction.

The state’s main teachers’ unions, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, opposed the recall, but supported Lt. Gov. Bustamante as a fallback choice.

Both of the groups praised Mr. Schwarzenegger’s statements on education, but warned that he must make good on them.

“The reality is that California schools are laying off faculty and staff, increasing class sizes, and reducing access to higher education,” said Mary Bergan, the president of the CFT, an American Federation of Teachers affiliate, in a statement. “We look forward to seeing Mr. Schwarzenegger’s proposals for funding education and reducing student fees.”

“We will work with anyone who supports kids and public education, and he said he will,” said Barbara Kerr, the president of the CTA, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Moving On

Supporters of Mr. Davis, who was first elected governor in 1998 and was re-elected last year, said his legacy on education likely would be increased student scores on state assessments and advocacy for a $13 billion school construction bond.

As for the recall, some contend that the governor was the victim of a public dissatisfied with politics, and took the fall for problems that were beyond his control.

Others say it was his combative personality. Delaine Eastin, Mr. O’Connell’s predecessor as state schools superintendent, publicly clashed with Mr. Davis on several occasions. Last week, she said he was “one of the coldest people I’ve ever met in my life.”

“He just lacked certain basic skills on interacting with people,” said Ms. Eastin, a former Democratic state lawmaker who is the executive director of the Washington-based National Institute for School Leadership. “He pretty much thought about what was good for him; ... if he didn’t think you had cachet or money, he ignored you.”

Ms. Kerr of the CTA said, “The governor did some really good things for the state, and we’re moving on, and so is he. We all need to move on.”

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