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Another Setback for Education in California : Schools: Whoever Honig's successor is, he or she will face a new power dynamic, with the office being used to further political ambition, not kids.

March 07, 1993|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Policy at Claremont Graduate School

It is ironic, though not surprising, that California's only non-partisan statewide office may fall prey to the partisan wars of Sacramento.

Everybody expects a fight over Gov. Pete Wilson's nomination of state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) to replace Bill Honig as superintendent of public instruction. But when the political dust settles, it is likely that the new schools chief--whether Bergeson, a Democrat or a less-partisan caretaker--will not wield the clout Honig did before he was convicted of conflict of interest. The dynamic of power in the office of superintendent of public instruction--and the number of significant players in education policy--are about to change. California's schoolchildren are the likely losers.

The statewide school post was pretty much a political backwater until 1962, when ultraconservative Max Rafferty won the job. Reelected in 1966, and with fellow Republican Ronald Reagan in the governor's office, Rafferty turned the office into an ideological soapbox from which to attack "progressive education" and promote "the fundamentals" of education and patriotism.

In 1970, Rafferty was defeated by Wilson Riles, the first African-American to hold statewide office. Riles transformed the superintendent's job into chief lobbyist for public schools and increased education funding. Honig, who defeated Riles in 1982, seized this role of advocate, battling George Deukmejian for education reform and dollars, aggressively working the legislative chambers and the media to make the schools' case.

Whoever takes over from Honig will inherit an office that, in matters of education, has evolved into a pulpit almost as bully as the governor's. He or she will be riding an issue of increasing prominence on the political playing field. Education is the one area of government spending that the public is still willing to protect.

All this has helped elevate the job of California's educator-in-chief into a political prize. But the new superintendent may not even be able to lay claim to it, because Wilson and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown may have other ideas.

The governor wants to take the lead on education funding and policy. To do that, he needs a schools chief who will fight to bring education into line with his tight-fisted spending plans. This is central to Wilson's first-term agenda: to gain control of the budget that continually eats Sacramento and to turn California's sputtering economy around before the 1994 election, when Wilson and the new superintendent will be on the ballot.

Wilson also needs someone who can wage a strong campaign and raise money for it. With conservative credentials, ties to business and local government, a school-board background and a statewide race under her belt, Bergeson appears to fit Wilson's bill both politically and in policy terms. But in an election year, politics come first. And faced with the need to campaign, Bergeson won't have the time or energy to put education first.

As for Brown, he is searching for a way to build a legacy before term limits end his legislative career. His highly publicized intervention in the L.A. school district's dispute with its teachers indicates he wants education policy to be part of that legacy. Becoming the de facto chief lobbyist for Honig's constituencies could make him the uncontested keeper of the teachers' political flame.

State Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti has suddenly decided to insert himself into education policy as well. He is leading the legislative charge to break up the L.A. Unified School District. How could any new state superintendent avoid getting caught in yet another round of cross-fire between the governor and the Legislature? Things are further complicated by the presence of two prominent Democrats, Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin and state Sen. Gary K. Hart, actively running for superintendent.

There is little hope, then, that any unifying force will emerge to protect the schools in the inevitable Capitol warfare. At a time when the schools need strong leadership to get through another brutal budget cycle, the fight over education funding will likely reflect more and more the Balkanization of the entire budget process, with individual interests mauling each other for their piece of the pie.

Who will speak for California's school kids, or the common good, if education spending is decided by teachers squaring off against administrators and schools battling local governments and everybody leveraging everybody else's political allies and enemies?

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