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Peter Schrag: The school fixers: Once again, the kids come last

January 24, 2005

Sacramento Bee

By Peter Schrag -- Bee Columnist

Published 2:15 am PST Wednesday, January 12, 2005

With the kind of friends California's schoolchildren have in the state Capitol, they hardly need enemies. Upstairs, senators on both sides of the aisle appear ready to dump state school board member Reed Hastings because, simply put, he fought too hard to create a rational California public education system.

Downstairs, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposes again to stiff schools already near the bottom among the states in per pupil spending. He also wants to kill the Quality Education Commission, the one body that might have figured out what it really costs to educate our kids and where best to spend - and not spend - the money.

And in starting an untimely fight about merit pay for teachers, he has embarked on a campaign to divert attention from his failure to take any steps to restore the state's schools to adequate funding. He calls it "a battle of the special interests versus the children's interests." Sure.

In an ideal world, merit pay and facilitating the disposal of classroom deadbeats sound like wonderful ideas. But until the state has a system to effectively evaluate teachers, merit pay is not a policy but an invitation to fight. So far California doesn't even have a reliable way to track the learning of the children in each classroom from year to year.

Hastings, a Silicon Valley executive, has been a major force pushing the state to develop a student identification system that might provide some data for better evaluations of teachers. He's also put more than $1 million of his own money into buying textbooks and other materials for the Oakland schools - including textbooks in Spanish.

But of course that's not why they're after him upstairs. The Democrats, pushed by Sen. Martha Escutia and other members of the Latino caucus, want to dump him because he was too insistent that the focus and federal training money for teaching immigrant kids go to the teaching of English. Every poll indicates that by overwhelming margins, that's the first thing their parents want from their schools.

For their part, the Republicans and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (which is not on Schwarzenegger's list of special interests) seem to be ticked at Hastings because he helped fund the successful initiative in 2000 to allow local voters to pass school bonds by a 55 percent margin rather than the two-thirds vote that was formerly required.

Maybe the ultimate irony in all this is that Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, who's shrugging his shoulders at the inevitability of the Hastings mugging, represents Oakland, whose schools got Hastings' textbook money. No good deed, as they say, goes unpunished.

Schwarzenegger is right that the California Teachers Association and its locals (like the cops, the prison guards and other public-sector unions) have too much power to obstruct, and often use it. But they owe a lot of that clout to Proposition 13, which in eviscerating the authority of school boards and local governments to bite taxpayers (and especially business) in the pocketbook, sapped their interest in running and supporting moderate and fiscally responsible candidates for local office.

That left the field to the public employee unions, who are now the dominant voices on the local governing boards and far and away the biggest source of campaign money. To some extent, the same has become true at the state level. But Schwarzenegger, in seeking to cap state spending, is not likely to do much but further diminish the already small interest and civic engagement in state government among progressive, innovative business groups and thus enhance the clout of the unions and other groups he (very selectively) calls special interests.

California was lauded last week by the center-conservative Thomas B. Fordham Foundation as one of the three states to have clear, high academic standards. Those standards were established and protected by the state school board, which Hastings headed for two years and on which he served since 2000.

At the same time, however, California got new reminders - one from a study by Rand Corp., another from the national journal Education Week - about how wide the gaps are between those standards (on the one hand) and the achievement of its students and the inadequate state resources devoted to their education (on the other).

There are plenty of bold reforms that deserve consideration: better classroom conditions and differential pay for teachers (also likely to involve resistance, but worth the fight) so that the best can be drawn to, and kept in, the schools that most need them; a restructuring of the state's dysfunctional education governance and funding system; a major effort to determine what adequate schools would entail.

In effect, California, as in so many other things, says it wants the best but doesn't support anything but the inadequate. Schwarzenegger's new proposals - for the budget, for killing the Quality Education Commission and in the merit pay red herring - aren't bold reforms. He's asking for more of the same, or maybe less.

About the writer:

* Peter Schrag can be reached at Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852-0779 or at Back columns:

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