During the past four years, improving the quality of California's public schools has been a bipartisan concern.
Each year since Gov. George Deukmejian, state Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature and business leaders joined in 1983 to pass a far-reaching reform bill, an extra $1 billion was appropriated for public education. Several recent studies showed that the reforms are working; student test scores today are at the highest levels in recent years, although more improvement is needed.
Unfortunately, this bipartisan coalition to improve the schools fell apart this year.
Facing a projected 1987 budget deficit of more than $1 billion and a constitutional limit on future state spending growth, Deukmejian submitted an austere budget for 1988. For secondary public education he proposed a total increase from 1986-87 of $497 million (excluding lottery revenues), which included a state increase of just $216 million. His budget included no new reforms.
The California education system is large and growing. Funding totaled more than $19 billion for 1986-87. An additional 100,000 students enroll each year. Just covering enrollment growth and inflation (without new reforms) would require close to an extra $750 million for 1988, above what the governor proposed.
Honig decided to fight. Californians witnessed an intense and bitter political feud over school funding between the superintendent and the governor. The feud became so heated that even when the state's fiscal health experienced a dramatic turnaround and the $1-billion deficit turned into a $1.1-billion surplus, they could not agree on how that new money could be used to assist public schools.
The result was a stalemate and only a modest increase in education revenues.
Was the governor or the superintendent the winner in this political brouhaha over education? That is a political question. The fact is that public education was the loser.
For the future health of the state as well as the public school system, education must be extricated from this bitterly partisan political battlefield.
The governor's recently appointed 15-member Commission on Education Quality may just be the vehicle.
Deukmejian's appointment of the commission and the superintendent's pledge of support for it are visible first steps to restore education policy-making as a bipartisan activity. The commission needs to work cooperatively, create a future vision for public education and outline the state's policy agenda.
The charge to the commission covers several key education policy issues. The state's school finance system needs a thorough reassessment; it has not been restructured for a decade, and its heavy dependence on state revenues increasingly is being questioned. The state has more than 70 special, categorical programs. It may be time to streamline, consolidate, coordinate and retarget some of those funds. Searching for programs that "work" also is a needed activity; adding system incentives to implement proven effective programs would be a healthy new policy thrust.
The state's curriculum also needs restructuring to emphasize the critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, mathematics, science and communication skills needed for the work force in California's evolving high-technology economy.
A Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE) study, to be released next month, will suggest the need for major new state staff development programs to get this type of restructured curriculum implemented effectively in the schools. And at some point California must join other states and implement policies designed to restructure teaching into a full profession, which might include substantial school restructuring as well.
Importantly, all of the commission's policy proposals need to address the challenges of how to serve successfully a student population with increasing numbers of children from poverty households, minority backgrounds and families that speak languages other than English.
Recently the governor and the superintendent got together for lunch and pledged to work to promote education issues. Now Democrats and Republicans, the business and education communities and the public generally need to join in this renewed bipartisan spirit. All need to consider seriously the work of the commission, as well as the work of the California Economic Development Council and the Business Roundtable. And when these commissions propose new education policy agendas that likely will call for more money and restructured schools, support should not wane.
Neither political bickering nor thoughtless protection of the current structures of public education will bring California's economy and education system into the 21st Century. Only hard work by the commission, a new vision of education for the next century and bipartisan support for state policies--both fiscal and programmatic--will accomplish what is needed for the future strength of California.