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Deal on School Tests in Doubt; Some Funds Could Be Delayed

Education: Legislators, governor differ on plan for statewide exams. Spanish version, source of material among points of contention.

September 09, 1997|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer said Monday that he doubts legislators will reach agreement on Gov. Pete Wilson's plan to give a standardized test to public school students statewide, leaving more than $200 million in school funding in question.

Lockyer, the most influential Democrat in the state Senate, described himself as "pessimistic" that an accord could be reached before legislators leave Sacramento for the year Friday.

"There are too many philosophical and practical difficulties with the school testing proposal, and it is just getting problematic about whether we'll come to an agreement in time," Lockyer said.

Although some legislators and others involved in the testing issue insist that a deal still can be struck this week, Lockyer's comments raised the possibility that the legislative session would end without an agreement, and that California would go another year without a systemwide way of determining how its students are faring.

Wilson made his desire for a statewide assessment for California's schoolchildren one of the top issues in this summer's negotiations over the state's $68-billion budget, demanding that legislators provide $30.4 million to test all students in grades 2 through 11.

When he failed to win a final agreement with Democrats on the proposal in budget negotiations, Wilson used his line-item veto authority to hold $203 million for schools hostage until the Legislature approved bills providing for the tests.

The Wilson administration remains intent on getting a deal this week.

Sean Walsh, Wilson's press secretary, noted Monday that Lockyer and Assembly Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno) had assured the governor during the budget talks last month that the testing issue would be resolved.

"We expect them to fulfill their commitments," Walsh said. "We expect to see a test on the governor's desk by the end of the week."

Lockyer said at the end of the budget negotiations that he "made a commitment to solve" the remaining issues in Wilson's testing plan. Bustamante also said last month that he expected to reach a deal on testing.

But on Monday, Lockyer said, "We have discontinued discussions" on testing. He did, however, leave room for talks to resume, saying: "That doesn't mean it can't reemerge."

Bustamante said Monday that the testing plan is "a proposal I can support." But he noted that Assembly Democrats are split on the issue, and he does not intend to impose his position on them.

Under California's school financing system, most of the $203 million that Wilson vetoed ultimately will go to schools, but not until the end of the fiscal year next summer. And the money would be allocated based on attendance, rather than used for specific programs.

Much of the money was earmarked for urban districts represented by Democrats and for special programs, such as ones for students from poor areas, adult education and intellectually gifted students.

Those programs still will be funded, but won't receive cost-of-living increases of about $123 million--unless a deal is struck in the closing days of the session.

One immediate impact, Democratic legislators acknowledge, is that the governor could carry out his plan to withhold funds for about $30 million in various pet projects for the schools.

"I guess I do give up my little park," said Assemblywoman Martha M. Escutia (D-Bell).

Some Assembly Democrats want to ensure that if there is a statewide test, Spanish-speaking students would be tested in their native language until they become proficient in English.

Wilson does not want to require districts to give Spanish-language tests, but rather grant them the option to give tests in Spanish to new immigrants.

Other Democrats complain that Wilson wants to start the testing by buying one of a handful of standard tests administered to students in other parts of the country, even though this state's curriculum may not match questions on the tests.

Lockyer said Wilson also insisted on a provision to deny companies that produce and sell the tests the right to sue the state if they fail to win the lucrative contract.

Wilson, who wants the testing to begin this spring, contends that without the provision limiting the right to sue, a losing company could delay the test for years by litigation.

The Republican governor had promised in his first election campaign to start a statewide assessment of students during his tenure. He also says he wants a test so he can show that his education initiatives--such as reduced class sizes in lower grades--have improved learning.

He has been stymied by legislators and some education lobbyists who say a statewide test might reflect badly on individual schools and teachers.

State Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin also opposes Wilson's test idea, arguing that the state ought to wait until January, when the State Board of Education is scheduled to adopt "standards" for what all children should know--and then use them as the basis for creating a state test.

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