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Dan Walters: A rare diamond amid the junk
By Dan Walters, Capitol Alert (Published May 12, 1999)

Most of what purports to be discourse in the Capitol is just junk: buzzwords, one-sided polemics, rhetorical flourishes and made-for-TV sound bites unworthy of more than momentary notice.

Occasionally, however, a diamond emerges from the trash, something so sensible, comprehensive and pertinent that it demands serious attention. The Legislature's own budget adviser, Elizabeth Hill, issued such a document Tuesday, a proposed master plan to govern K-12 education in California.
If the Legislature did nothing else but translate Hill's proposal into legislation and enact it this year, it could consider the session a roaring success.

That's not likely to happen, because Hill's proposal represents a frontal challenge to an educational establishment that shuns responsibility for a system that scarcely aspires to mediocrity. The political buck-passing in the current system would be transformed into direct accountability for the quality of schooling 5.5 million youngsters.

Three overarching trends have accompanied the decline of California's once-vaunted school system:

  • An incredible cultural diversification that brought into the schools millions of youngsters from non-English-speaking, impoverished and/or poorly parented families;
  • A shift of financial responsibility from local taxpayers and school boards to the state in the aftermath of Proposition 13, enacted by voters in 1978; and
  • The evolution of a multipronged system of governance -- the governor, a separately elected state schools superintendent, a state school board, the Legislature and local school boards and superintendents -- that effectively left no one in charge.

The governor and the Legislature can do nothing about the first circumstance; it's a fact of life in late 20th-century California. But they bear direct responsibility for the last two conditions, which are the ones that Hill correctly says should be changed.

If there is one word that describes what she proposes, it would be "simplify."
Hill's proposal would cut away layers of overlapping authority at the state level -- shifting the Department of Education, for example, to the governor's Cabinet. She would have the state set standards and oversee testing but, in the main, provide funds to local school districts, allowing them to decide how to best meet those standards. And the expansion of charter schools and open enrollment would prevent local districts from becoming listless, arrogant monopolies.

Other states that have adopted such an approach -- Texas, most notably -- have seen sharp gains in educational performance. But one can't imagine that any major educational interest group in California would like what Hill proposes.

Legislators and others at the state level wouldn't like losing their powers to micromanage. Unions wouldn't like having to deal directly with local school boards rather than doing end runs through the Legislature. And many local school officials wouldn't like having to bear direct responsibility for outcomes.
But parents, taxpayers and voters should embrace Hill's proposal because it would empower them. It would allow them to see what's happening and know who's responsible.

Gov. Gray Davis has supported accountability in principle, but the bills he shepherded through the Legislature this year are little more than symbolic gestures that give him and lawmakers an excuse to pat themselves on the back.

If he's really interested in doing what needs to be done, rather than just talking about it, he would adopt Hill's proposal in total and spend whatever political capital it takes to see it become law.

DAN WALTERS' column appears daily except Saturday. Mail: P.O. Box 15779, Sacramento, 95852; phone: (916) 321-1195; fax: (916) 444-7838; e-mail:

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