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Give Bergeson the Job--for Now : We can't let responsibility for 5 million schoolchildren drift through the morass of politics until 1994.

April 22, 1993|JOHN F. DEAN | John F. Dean is the superintendent of schools for Orange County.

Education in California needs strong, effective leadership in Sacramento. We need it desperately and we need it now. We cannot wait any longer.

With the professional demise of the former superintendent of public instruction, the hand on the helm is short-term and limited by the "lame duck" image. The budget battle is gearing up and the fate of the 5 million-plus children in California's public schools will be decided by midsummer. Who will defend them against yet another financial drubbing?

Gov. Pete Wilson has nominated state Sen. Marian Bergeson (R-Newport Beach) to head the California Department of Education, filling the unexpired term of Bill Honig for the next 18 months. That nomination must be confirmed by both the Assembly and the Senate. The Assembly is voting on confirmation today; the Senate is awaiting the outcome. Assembly approval would require 10 Democratic votes, plus all of the Republicans' "ayes." But the word is out: Her chances are two--none and slim, for entirely political of reasons, and this for a nonpartisan position!

Without question, the governor chose Bergeson as the most knowledgeable of all the candidates whose names surfaced in the wake of Honig's trial and conviction on conflict-of-interest charges. There were several interested legislators from both parties, with strong Sacramento ties, while others offered long-term educational experience in support of their candidacies, but none brought both education and legislation expertise to the table as preparation to speak most effectively for schools and learning. Marian Bergeson, a former teacher and veteran legislator, is the most obvious choice.

But has she fought hard enough for education's share of the budget? Always, knowing that when every societal responsibility is suffering from undernourishment, the schools must accept not less than their fair share. I do not always agree with the senator, but she does mirror my beliefs and feelings most of the time, and I cannot ask more than that of my elected representative.

Some have tried to question her "objectivity" in the emotional issues associated with religious beliefs. I can assure them, after 30 years of working with her on educational matters, she would never allow her personal credo to interfere with "what's best for the kids."

But what if the Legislature denies her confirmation and the governor decides to leave the acting superintendent in the role until the 1994 election? Not only will we lose an effective voice in Sacramento, but we will see millions of dollars wasted by a plethora of office-seekers in the 1994 primary election. Those who know the Sacramento scene tell me that it will take more than $4 million to win that election--for a job with an annual salary of about $100,000!

Dave Dawson, the acting superintendent, is an experienced professional who has indicated that he will not be among the candidates. But, as dedicated as he is, the circumstances demand more than an 18-month caretaker.

Some say, "Let the voters decide." I would remind them that we have too much to lose in the next 18 months. Financially, we are in the lowest 25% of states in spending per child, ranking alongside South Carolina and Louisiana, and parents in those states spend a much higher percentage of their personal income on schools and children.

The appointed State Board of Education constantly seeks more control over the elected superintendent's authority. The adversarial relationship between the board and the superintendent that prevailed over the past decade must be defused. The senator, with her reputation for conciliation and cooperation, will create a positive environment. But it may be that the greatest single contribution she can make is in changing the attitude and emphasis in the Department of Education, from one of "gotcha" to "what can we do together for the kids?"

To me, the only choice is Marian Bergeson. And if we are not satisfied with her performance, in June, 1994, we can vote for someone else. What we cannot do is let the office of the state superintendent of public instruction drift, letting our 5 million schoolchildren drift with it. We cannot allow partisan politics to impose their will on a nonpartisan position and further decimate what were once among the finest schools in the nation.

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