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Education Summit Offers Huge Range of Ideas on Schools : Learning: Sheer volume and diversity of proposals at conference shows it will not be easy to reach consensus on overhauling state institutions.

February 16, 1994|JEAN MERL and MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SAN FRANCISCO — If the education summit here was meant to be a marketplace of ideas on public schools, Tuesday's opening session was the main bazaar where hawkers sought attention for their intellectual wares.

Groups from the California Business Roundtable to the California Teachers Assn. unveiled ambitious shopping lists for school reform. Others sought to use the gathering of 500 business, education and political leaders to get their own ideas out for public consumption.

Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, who convened the meeting and led the panel sessions Tuesday, called the exercise a "think-tank session." Its aim, he said, was to write an agenda for overhauling California's schools.

But the sheer volume of divergent ideas and priorities bandied about at the Westin St. Francis Hotel indicated that building consensus will be not be easy.

For example, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson said, "before we do anything else we must . . . make our classrooms safe again." Senate leader Bill Lockyer, a Democrat from Hayward, called for "re-examining the strictures of Proposition 13," which slashed local school funding almost a generation ago.

State Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), longtime chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said the gathering of so many opinions under one roof was a rare opportunity to hear a broad spectrum of thought on education.

"My initial feeling was this is all PR, " Hart said. "But as I look at it and think about it, I think it's very helpful." After these sessions, he said, legislators might try to look at the big picture when writing policies for local schools in the halls of Sacramento. He also had his own idea: Bring California back up to the national average in per-pupil spending within five years.

"Everybody has a wish list," said business leader Sanford Sigoloff, who was recently forced by opposition in the Legislature to withdraw as Wilson's nominee to head the state Department of Education. Wilson subsequently appointed him to the State Board of Education.

Some observers said the summit was most likely to produce consensus in areas in which there already is broad agreement that something needs to be done, such as reducing campus violence, eliminating vast portions of the cumbersome Education Code and increasing schools' access to technology.

On Monday, for example, technology got a pre-summit boost with Pacific Bell's announcement that it will provide $100 million to begin wiring the state's public schools and libraries with the equipment they need to be able to tap into outside resources via computers and phone lines.

Most participants Tuesday gave the schools credit for implementing some reforms while confronted with more and needier students and with a budget-depleting economy. All agreed that the schools need to do better but can improve only with the help of political and business leaders.

Wilson called the schools' performance record erratic, noting that some are among the nation's finest but "too many are forced to confront problems not of their own making."

The tightly orchestrated program frustrated some participants, who were given no more than seven minutes each to make their points, but it ensured that no one group or ideology dominated the conference.

Groups hoping for more attention distributed summaries of their proposals. Among them was the California Teachers Assn., which touted its plan as the only one put together by "those who know students and education best"--teachers and parents.

It called for more education money to be spent in the classrooms. It also called for involvement by teachers organizations in refining the state's fledgling efforts to broaden parents' choices among public schools, and to give charters to schools that allow them to operate with full autonomy.

The association, the state's largest teachers union, initially opposed these programs. Among its other proposals were full federal funding to send all needy youngsters to preschool, partnerships with businesses and more participation by parents in their children's schooling.

The California Business Roundtable, made up of leaders of the state's largest corporations, renewed its call for an "interlocking web of education and training" from preschool through college and beyond. Holding schools accountable for student achievement, improving the transition from school to workplace and integrating technology with classroom instruction were some of the executives' other proposals.

Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach) pushed a plan to set up military-style charter schools for young troublemakers. The union that represents 300,000 non-teaching school employees wanted college-level instruction provided to school aides at their jobs so they can earn teaching credentials. The Assn. of Calif School Administrators called for more attention to the stressful living conditions of today's students.

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