Calif. Initiative Riles Teachers, the Right
By David S. Broder
SACRAMENTO -- Gov. Pete Wilson is nothing if not persistent. As he winds up his eight years as chief executive of California and plots a second try for the Republican presidential nomination, he has launched one last battle against his longtime adversaries in the California Teachers Association (CTA). And once again, as often before, they may get the best of him.
The power struggle this time is centered on Proposition 8, a multi-pronged schools initiative that Wilson has placed on the Nov. 3 ballot.
Education is the top issue in the state, with many parents expressing concern about reports that student performance is lagging behind national averages. Many districts are struggling with shortages of teachers and of classroom space. Despite a large infusion of money from Wilson and the legislature in the last two years, spending per student trails most of the major states.
Wilson argued in an interview last week that no matter how much more is spent on the schools, real improvement will not come "until there is accountability for results and an atmosphere in the classroom conducive to teaching and learning." Standing in the way, he says, are "the educrats" of the politically potent teachers union.
So as a parting gesture of defiance, he has wrapped into Proposition 8 several proposals that have been blocked in the legislature, whose Democratic majorities depend on CTA money for their campaigns. It would:
Earmark future revenue and permanently guarantee the maximum 20 to 1 student-teacher ratio in kindergarten through third grade that Wilson pushed through the legislature two years ago.
Require expulsion of every student found with illegal drugs, not just those caught selling drugs.
Require current and prospective teachers to pass a competency test in their subject matter and give principals unlimited authority to fire any teacher who fails to perform well.
Create site councils at each school, two-thirds parents and one-third teachers, to share in decisions on the school budget and curriculum, now largely in the hands of local elected school boards.
Create a new office of chief state school inspector, whose staff would publish ratings of the quality of each of California's 8,000 schools.
Wilson said the package would guarantee parents accurate information on the kind of schooling their children receive and provide a vehicle for involving those parents in critical education decisions.
The critics see it differently -- a power play by Wilson against professional educators and their political allies.
While encouraging editorial boards and other commentators to question the wisdom of mandating the first three policies, as several already have done, the union and its allies are focusing their fire on the "unneeded bureaucracies" they say the last two proposals would create.
A special target is the chief inspector's office, an institution Wilson says he copied from Britain, where he saw it in operation. If Prop. 8 is approved, the next governor would appoint a chief inspector to a 10-year term, with no state Senate confirmation. Every other year, each California school would be inspected for two days by a two-person team. They would examine the facilities, audit student achievement and dropout records, observe the staff at work and interview parents, students and teachers. Each spring, every high school, middle school and elementary school in the state would be rated against its peers.
Wilson says the chief inspector would simply take over some functions from the state Department of Education, which produces reports that he says are "fatally flawed" by the need to make its own policies look successful. But the CTA has hired a Republican-oriented consulting firm and drummed up substantial opposition to the measure from conservative groups such as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the Christian Coalition, the state Young Republican Federation and other organizations not normally aligned with the teachers union.
The independent Field Poll published Monday showed the measure leading 48 percent to 29 percent, down 7 points in the past month, with the opposition just about to launch its advertising campaign. Earlier polls had pegged support for the proposition in the area of 70 percent.
"In our polling, the bedrock opposition comes from people who are anti-spending and anti-government regulation," CTA executive John Hein said happily. Union ads will trumpet the official estimate that the measure would cost the state "up to $60 million," most of it diverted from other education programs, and force local school districts to spend "in the high tens of millions annually."
The initiative's proposal to establish school councils is also under fire from the association representing the 1,000 elected school boards and from the state's parent-teachers association, which claim there would be confusion over lines of authority and a loss of accountability. Critics also say that apathy among parents would make it easy for a few community activists to take over and dictate what gets taught in the schools.
Unstated is the real power struggle: The CTA, through its political funds and grass-roots organization, plays a major part in electing school board members and the state superintendent of public instruction. Through them, it can influence policies on issues from teacher tenure to testing. To the extent that the new inspector general and school councils gain influence, that leverage would be diminished.
The CTA clearly recognizes the stakes. Through September, the opposition to Prop. 8 had raised $3.6 million, almost all of it from assessments on teachers. Wilson raised and spent $1 million to qualify the initiative, but Jeff Randle, the longtime gubernatorial aide who is now running the campaign, says his side has only $200,000 on hand -- and little prospect of raising enough more to launch an ad campaign. Major business organizations are staying neutral, as they did last spring, when teachers and other unions spent $20 million to defeat another Wilson initiative, Prop. 226, that would have required unions to get members' authorization for political use of dues money.
"We will probably be outspent 8 or 9 to 1," Randle said, an even larger ratio than he faced when he ran the Prop. 226 campaign for the governor.
"If there were no money being spent," Wilson said, "this would win going away." But that doesn't happen in California initiative fights, as the governor knows better than anyone else.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company