Reform Bills Pass in Calif. Legislature

By Robert C. Johnston — March 31, 1999 7 min read

As schoolchildren absorbed lectures on state history during tours of the Capitol here last week, California lawmakers were making history of their own by passing a school reform package that will raise the stakes for teachers, administrators, and students.

The legislation includes the nation’s first statewide peer-review program for teachers and California’s first-ever high school exit exam. And it will pump new money into efforts to improve sagging literacy skills throughout the state.

Passage of the bills came just two months into a special legislative session on education convened by Gov. Gray Davis soon after he took office in January.

The swift passage of the $470 million reform plan, some of which was aggressively opposed by education groups, was impressive. One veteran observer here noted that any one of the four bills that make up the plan would have taken a year of haggling in most sessions.

The Democratic governor was expected to sign the bills into law at ceremonies to be held in the home districts of their authors beginning this week. In a press briefing last week, Mr. Davis, who proposed each of the four measures, vowed that they will bring improved achievement for the state’s 5.7 million students and shore up an accountability system that lags behind those of other states.

“We believe the bills are both strong and significant and move us a long way down the road to school reform,” Gov. Davis told reporters. “Parents have demanded this. Children deserve it. And I’m very proud that people here in Sacramento have responded.”

But even bigger challenges may lie ahead. The policies are on a fast track for implementation as early as this summer. State Superintendent Delaine Eastin, whose office must devise the system for ranking California’s 8,000 schools and the exit exam that are called for in the bills, says she’ll need more staff and more money to meet that goal.

“We can and will do it if [the governor] gives us the resources,” she said in an interview. “The truth is, I don’t spin gold from straw.”

Financial Incentive

Some of the hottest debate in the special session came over the bill that calls for veteran teachers to review colleagues who receive unsatisfactory job evaluations from their principals. The reviews will be given to administrators for use in personnel decisions.

The bill originally called for withholding cost-of-living increases in state school funds from districts that did not pass peer- review programs by 2000. But teachers’ unions, which had supported Mr. Davis’ campaign last fall, found themselves lobbying hard to change the bill. (“Davis Reform Bills Make Headway in California Legislature,” March 10, 1999.)

Their efforts paid off, in part. The final version gives districts until Jan. 1, 2001, to negotiate peer-review programs with their teachers. Districts that do so by July 1, 2000, will share $41 million in incentive funds for peer-review and mentoring programs. Meanwhile, the state will withhold up to $400 million in aid for teacher training from districts that miss the deadline.

“We are losing half of our new teachers in their first five years because they have not had the kind of mentoring and help they need to be good teachers,” Sen. Deirdre Alpert, a Democrat, said during debate on the bill.

Senate gop leader Ross Johnson countered that the bill “does nothing to get rid of the admittedly small number of teachers [who are] not doing the job for kids in the classroom.”

Wayne Johnson, the president-elect of the California Teachers Association, the state affiliate of the National Education Association, said peer review will not solve the pressing problem of high turnover among new teachers. “Peer review will not be the panacea that some people think it is,” cautioned Mr. Johnson, who is not related to the senator.

New Accountability

Also controversial was the governor’s proposal to rank every school in the state based on test scores and other factors, including dropout rates and student and teacher attendance.

The final accountability plan calls for ranking schools in groups of 10 percentage points, based on test scores and other factors to be part of an index developed by the state education department.

Beginning Aug. 15, schools that fall in the bottom half on state tests in 1998 and 1999 could volunteer or be picked for a new $96 million state intervention program. If a school failed to meet its goals over two years, the state superintendent would take it over

An additional $96 million will be set aside for rewards to schools that meet their performance goals.

And beginning in 2004, seniors will have to pass an exit exam before getting a diploma. “No one has suggested there’s a better way to ensure our students have learned the fundamental gateway skills,” said Sen. Jack O’Connell, a Democratic sponsor of the bill and a former teacher.

Reading was also a focus of attention during the special session. Legislators ratified spending $94 million in new aid to improve the reading skills of Golden State students. The bulk of the money--$75 million--will go to reading academies for students, beginning this summer.

“Of all the four bills, this is the most important,” argued Sen. Betty Karnette, a Democrat and a former teacher. “If a child can read by the 3rd grade, it can change the world for them.”

Next Steps

As California residents wait to see the results of the measures, educators and lawmakers here say the latest changes are the logical next steps in the state’s reform efforts. In the past three years, California has passed new academic standards and a statewide test, moved back toward phonics in reading instruction, and pushed to cap class sizes in grades K-4 at 20 students.

“I’d have to say it’s the final piece that links several disparate parts,” said Sue Burr, the state undersecretary of education. She added that several districts have already said they would volunteer schools for the state intervention program.

Gerald C. Hayward, a co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a think tank based at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University, agreed. “If you combine what’s been done with an interest to keep moving in the same direction,” he said, “then conceivably, you stand a good chance to improve student achievement.”

Some critics, however, contend that the governor’s reform package falls short of the kinds of changes that can bring the scores of California students on standardized tests out of the basement.

“It would be tragic if we left the impression that somehow we’ve really done something to improve the quality of education for the children of California,” Sen. Johnson said during debate on the measures. One of the criticisms leveled by him and other Republicans is that the school rankings stop short of evaluating individual classrooms.

At his press briefing, Gov. Davis reacted angrily to such charges. “Some of what I call the whiners and moaners in Sacramento say these bills have been watered down, but nothing can be further from the truth,” he declared.

While critics may take shots at the governor’s bills, he won praise from Democrats for his stewardship of the reform drive. “Gray seized on the moment in a way that maybe you can do only when you’re a new governor and everybody wants things to go well,” Sen. Alpert said.

By week’s end, though, some Republicans complained they were frozen out of the process.

Tight Deadlines

As the dust settles in the legislature, the next chapter will play out in the education department. That process will be critical to the success of the measures.

Though a Democrat, like the governor, Ms. Eastin was not a visible supporter of the reform package during the special session, and her absence from Mr. Davis’ news briefing last week drew a question from a local reporter.

The governor, who many say remembers that Ms. Eastin appeared in a campaign advertisement of a Davis opponent last year, turned the question over to the state education secretary, Gary K. Hart, who in turn assured reporters that Ms. Eastin had been consulted on the legislation.

In an interview last week, Ms. Eastin--who was elected to a second term as superintendent in November--said she supports the governor’s agenda but lacks the personnel and funding to meet its tight deadlines.

“We supported [Mr. Davis’] bills,” she added, “but I’d be a liar to tell him I could do something I can’t.”

Mr. Hayward of PACE agreed that the education department faces a challenge. “They have more to do, less time to do it, and with fewer resources,” he said.

Ultimately, he added, the success or failure of the reform measures will be determined in the schools. “Getting the bills passed is the tiniest step to getting it to impact the student and teacher in the classroom,” he said. “That’s where it really matters.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 1999 edition of Education Week as Reform Bills Pass in Calif. Legislature


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