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  •   Fixing Schools Is Top Task

    By Rene Sanchez
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, August 18, 1999; Page A1

    CERRITOS, Calif.—How much and how fast is California trying to overhaul its woeful public schools? Let Sydney Pringle, the principal here at Pat Nixon Elementary, wearily count the ways.

    There is the tumultuous switch back to teaching phonics, she says. And the spending frenzy to create smaller class sizes. Plus the dismantling of bilingual education, the end of social promotion and tough new oversight of teachers.

    "It's almost hard to keep track of it all," said Pringle, whose school 20 miles southeast of Los Angeles is in the multicultural heart of Southern California. "There's a lot of hope, but a lot of pressure."

    And this is just the beginning. Across the Golden State, whose public education system was once the envy of the nation but is now plagued with high dropout rates, strained budgets and teacher shortages, voters from all sides of the political spectrum have joined voices in a deafening shout: Fix the schools.

    No other issue -- not crime, not jobs or health care -- resonates nearly as much with the electorate. And the mood here is in many ways a symbol of the nation's deepening anxiety about public education, as polls constantly show.

    Today, nearly 70 percent of Californians say they would be willing to pay more taxes if it meant better schools, an astounding shift in a state famous for its trend-setting tax revolts.

    Improving public education has become the singular theme of the new political era unfolding in California, which for the first time in nearly 40 years has a state government dominated by Democrats. The subject of schools, and what role Washington can play to help them, is also confronting presidential candidates at every turn here as they begin battling to win the allegiance of the state's pivotal 15 million voters.

    But the all-out campaign to revitalize California's classrooms is proving to be a case study in just how complex, elusive and politically risky school reform gets once rhetoric becomes reality.

    This is the largest and most diverse state school system in the country, with nearly 6 million students and counting, and closely watched by educators from coast to coast. Yet even with money pouring in from the state's economic boom, no one expects academic progress to come easily.

    "It feels like there's a tsunami of reform hitting the schools right now," said Mary Sieu, deputy superintendent of the school district that includes Cerritos. "Some people are confused by it, some people are angry about it and some people want even more, faster. So much is happening in such a short time."

    In his first six months in office, Gov. Gray Davis, the Democrat who won a landslide victory last fall by promising to make education his "first, second, and third" priorities, decided to raise spending on schools by $2 billion. He also summoned state lawmakers to a special legislative session devoted exclusively to his education agenda, which they approved with ease.

    It will give schools money to spend more time on reading and require every high school senior in the state to pass a written exam for the first time in order to graduate. All schools now will be judged and publicly ranked by an elaborate statewide "performance index," with the worst schools qualifying for more staff and money immediately. And instead of getting evaluated only by their principals, California teachers also will be assessed by groups of their peers -- an idea that educators say has created more professionalism in the ranks in the few places in the nation where it has been tried.

    Davis, a notoriously cautious politician, even took the startling step recently of pledging not to seek reelection if the state's test scores have not risen by the end of his first term. So far, by the looks of how well he is faring in the polls, California voters seem pleased.

    But the same education establishment that was never a fan of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, whom Davis replaced, does not sound quite so thrilled -- nor does the powerful California Teachers Association, which campaigned relentlessly for Davis last year, nor do the union's critics.

    There are cries emanating from those groups that the governor wants too much change too fast, or is trying to micromanage classrooms from the capital in Sacramento, or is caving to union demands to weaken accountability measures for teachers. Reform fatigue also seems to be setting in at some schools. It is all just the kind of carping that has derailed ambitious attempts to improve public education in other states in recent years.

    "Already, you're hearing schools around the state say, 'Stop, we're overloaded with new programs. We need another master plan first,' " said Michael Kirst, an education professor at Stanford University.

    Others are complaining that the style and substance of Davis's approach is not much different from aggressive steps that Wilson took on education during his last years in office. Critics are also attacking the new governor for not putting more of the state's huge $4 billion budget surplus into classrooms.

    The full plan that Davis has for California's schools is not clear yet, but at times he and his allies appear to be forsaking the traditional Democratic script on education and choosing a more centrist, less predictable course.

    When the teachers union tried earlier this year to win collective bargaining for faculty at all of California's promising new "charter" schools, which receive public money but set most of their own rules, neither Davis nor the Democrats who have firm control of the state legislature backed the measure. Yet they acceded to the wishes of union leaders and other local education officials who wanted to make the new school-by-school performance rankings more vague.

    "Davis is not giving the teacher unions carte blanche," said Rep. Scott Baugh, a Republican assembly member from Orange County. "But he is still dancing with the education bureaucracy, and he won't get true reform that way."

    The schools debate here could soon get even more volatile. Davis and the Democrats have yet to take up the sensitive question of whether teacher tenure should be curtailed, for example. And one of the most divisive national issues in education -- whether to allow students to attend private schools with tuition vouchers paid for with public money -- may land on the ballot just in time for California's high-stakes presidential primary early next year. A victory for vouchers in a state as large as this one could have an impact across the nation.

    "There is considerable drama to what is going on," said Wayne Johnson, new president of the 300,000-member California Teachers Association, which supports Davis on many issues. "Everyone involved has their own agenda for the schools, and the public's expectations for improvements are very high."

    Yet some parents are reacting warily to all the grand talk, for other recent initiatives to revive the schools have not lived up to advance billing.

    This summer, a study of California's $1.5 billion-a-year effort to reduce class size in elementary grades concluded that while test scores have risen slightly, the rush to hire so many teachers during the past two years has forced many schools to lower their standards and to rely on makeshift classrooms.

    In the district that includes schools in Cerritos, officials say that scores of new faculty members have been given "emergency" credentials to teach even though they lack full certification in some subjects. And many of the 700 students who attend Pat Nixon Elementary School spend part of their day crammed inside one of the classroom trailers that line the grounds.

    There is now one teacher for every 20 students in the early grades at Nixon, which educators say is a good ratio for learning. But the figure in other grades is an alarming 32 to 1. And the school still cannot afford to hire a counselor.

    "The schools are under so much pressure to improve, sometimes you feel like they say, 'Let's just do whatever and hope it works,' " said Eleanor Tomlin, a computer consultant who has two children at Nixon. "But that can't keep happening. They obviously still need more resources and a better plan."

    California's schools, like the state itself, are in the midst of profound demographic upheaval. Classes are overcrowded, enrollment is climbing -- the state could have 300,000 more students in a decade -- and many of the newcomers are poor immigrants. California is now responsible for educating nearly half of all the children in America who are not proficient in English.

    If patterns of population growth hold, demographers say, in a few decades almost one-fifth of all the school-aged children in the country will be in California's classrooms.

    In a suburban community such as Cerritos, which a generation ago was still a rural dairy town but is now home to more than 60,000 residents and the country's largest auto mall, the class portraits at Pat Nixon Elementary are a small but telling illustration of the state's future. Perhaps the nation's as well.

    The school, like so may others across California, no longer has a racial majority among its students. Thirty-six percent of them are of Asian descent, 19 percent are white, 17 percent are black, and 13 percent are Hispanic -- which is the fastest-growing group.

    "If you think education is a big deal now in California, watch how much of an issue it will be in a few years as the electorate keeps growing and changing," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the independent Field Poll in the state.

    There was a time when California, even with rising population, managed its public education system fairly well. Its per-pupil spending and its teacher salaries were among the highest in the nation, and its classroom results were among the best. The schools were so good that it is not unusual to hear stories of how families tolerated the headaches of Southern California, such as traffic and smog, just long enough for their children to graduate. Then they would move.

    But today, the state's high school graduation rate is one of the worst in the country -- almost one-third of ninth graders do not earn diplomas, the latest reports show. California's reading scores, meanwhile, have sunk as low as those in the poorest states of the South. Per-pupil spending is below the national average. About half of the teachers in the state quit in five years.

    The root of the problem is a subject of furious debate. Proposition 13, approved by California voters in 1978, capped local property taxes -- the prime source of funding for schools -- and shifted the burden of spending for public education to the state. A historic wave of immigrants also greatly increased the number of poor children in public schools. In San Diego, for example, the percentage of students in poverty has soared from 42 percent to 60 percent in a decade. And Democrats have long charged that Republicans often did not make public education a priority during their 16-year reign in the governor's mansion.

    But the blame game seems to be ending. Responsibility for improving the schools is now squarely on the shoulders of the Democrats presiding in Sacramento and, in no small measure, the principals and teachers in schools such as Nixon Elementary trying to juggle everything the politicians want.

    Under orders from the state to stop promoting underachieving students, the school is trying to hire more staff and create tutoring programs to help those failing in the classroom. Pringle, the principal, is also revamping the math curriculum to give students doses of algebra much earlier. And all of Nixon's faculty must participate in new workshops on teaching students how to read.

    Pringle sounds optimistic about the coming blitz of changes, but she is also realistic. Her school, like many others in California, has a long way to go.

    "The state is finally taking a hard look at the public schools again, so some good things should come from that," she said. "But if people expect a quick fix, and keep putting too much pressure on schools without giving them the resources they really need, the whole thing could backfire."


    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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