SACRAMENTO — As expected and long-awaited by proponents, Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation Wednesday that could help clear the path for an effort to dismantle the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Making a ceremony of it, the governor opened the doors to his office suite to let the press and interested parties watch him sign the main breakup bill into law. He said he would sign a companion measure later.
The first bill (AB 107), authored by Assemblywoman Paula Boland (R-Granada Hills), who was present with the governor at the signing, lowers the number of signatures necessary to qualify the breakup proposal for the ballot--from 386,000 registered voters to 72,000.
The related bill (SB 699), by state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), provides an extra layer of protection against Balkanizing the huge district--if broken up and replaced with smaller districts--into enclaves separated by race or ethnicity.
In addition, the Hayden measure contains safeguards for such performance-enhancing programs as charter schools, magnet schools and LEARN, a reform effort that draws parents more actively into the education of their children.
The governor also signed two crime-related bills. One of them, (AB 99) by Assemblyman John Burton (D-San Francisco), bans the sale and possession of bullets capable of piercing the protective gear of police officers. The other, (SB 287) by state Sen. Charles Calderon (D-Whittier), prevents accused high-profile criminal defendants from profiting on books they write while their cases are pending.
Calderon has said his bill came too late to stop O.J. Simpson from cashing in on "I Want to Tell You," the best-selling book by the former football star for which he received a reported $1 million advance plus presumed royalties and earnings from tape cassette spinoffs.
Nevertheless, that is the kind of activity the new statute is designed to outlaw, and to add to the legal ban now in effect against similar profiting by convicted felons.
At the Los Angeles Unified breakup event, Boland said Wilson's signature on her bill represented "the culmination of a 20-year effort . . . a victory for children, parents and future generations."
For his part, Hayden acknowledged that there was no assurance that student achievement would rise because of a breakup.
"There are no guarantees in life. But certainly I believe that 'Smaller is better' is a supportable philosophy," he said, speaking from his district office in Los Angeles.
Wilson, noting that Los Angeles Unified covers an area "approximately the size of Rhode Island," said parents for years have wanted "the kind of participation that they don't think possible with such a huge district."
Without the new law, Wilson said, it would be "nearly impossible" to qualify the dismantling measure for the ballot. Now, he said, the chances "will be dramatically changed." The governor favors dismantling the district, said his spokesman, Paul Kranhold.
United Teachers-Los Angeles President Helen Bernstein predicted a disastrous effect once breakup proposals are developed, saying the schools, teachers and parents will be placed in chaotic situations.
"I do not believe that a breakup will help the students in this city one bit," Bernstein said. "There will just be little L.A. Unifieds all over the place."
Further, Bernstein said the union will fight for teachers' rights in the new districts, citing the possible contractual and retirement problems that could arise.
"It's like the Soviet Union," she said. "They broke it up and now, I think, it's worse. This is not the answer."
In Carson, resident Carolyn Harris, who has been working for two years to have her city secede from the Los Angeles system and run its own schools, said: "It's about time that parents are able to take charge, and this is a means for doing it."
But she warned that "just having the bill is not going to make a difference unless parents get out there and really work to take control. Parents and the community really have to support it.
"It's really the beginning of parent involvement, and I don't mean the Xeroxing-type parent or the cookie-baking parent. I mean the parent who has a genuine interest in public education."
Times staff writers Henry Chu and Beth Shuster in Los Angeles contributed to this story.