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Davis Focuses on Education as Governor's Race Takes Shape

Campaign: Democratic hopeful says he would require parents to pledge to get more involved with schools.

September 17, 1997|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

As the 1998 race for governor begins to gel, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis sought Tuesday to wrap himself in the robes of education reform and announced that he would demand pledges of responsibility from parents to help educate their children.

Davis said he would require parents to sign annual vows to help their children with homework and to attend regular school meetings, part of a broad attempt to raise California's feeble test scores to the national average by 2002.

As Davis outlined the parameters of his education plan in Los Angeles--in what was billed as a major address--another candidate prepared to join him in the quest for the Democratic nomination.

Multimillionaire businessman Al Checchi will formally enter the race next week, according to a source close to the former co-chairman of Northwest Airlines. Since December, Checchi has engaged in an increasingly public exploratory campaign intended to acquaint him with the issues and personalities of California politics.

Today, Democratic state Sen. John Vasconcellos of Santa Clara also will open an exploratory campaign intended to gauge support for his gubernatorial candidacy. The best-known Democrat considering the race, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, has said she will wait until perhaps next year before deciding whether to join the race. Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren is the sole major Republican candidate for governor.

Davis' Tuesday address to the Los Angeles civic organization Town Hall was intended to be the intellectual kickoff to his campaign, eight months before the primary election.

The lieutenant governor sought to paint a broad portrait of his proposals regarding education and his views on the state's diversity. He said that speeches on other topics would follow.

Davis said his first priority as governor would be to fix a public school system that he said flatly was "broken." Parents, he said, needed to assert their role more aggressively.

"The hard truth is the battle to improve our public schools will be won as much in the living room as in the classroom," he said. Davis acknowledged later that there would be no penalty for parents who fail to abide by their pledge to help their children.

Noticeably absent from Davis' remarks was any criticism of teachers, who comprise a powerful political bloc in state Democratic politics.

"Some try to blame teachers, but teachers are really the unsung heroes of modern society," Davis said. "On a daily basis, they have to bear the brunt of all of our societal ills. The overwhelming majority are talented, dedicated professionals doing their best for our kids under difficult circumstances."

Davis said students should be measured against tougher standards and should be tested annually to determine their progress. Asked afterward whether teachers, too, should be evaluated, he gingerly suggested they should submit to "peer review"--and then he changed the subject back to students and parents.

Only later, under persistent questioning by reporters, did Davis tentatively offer support for rewarding principals and teachers for the improvements of their students. Such rewards, under the rubric of "merit pay," have been historically opposed by teachers unions. Some unions, however, have begun to support the idea.

"I favor a mechanism to reward people," Davis said. ". . . You can call it merit pay. I don't want to get into the minutia, because I'm trying to share big-picture ideas."

Davis also edged around the brewing debate over bilingual education--spawned by a voter initiative being shepherded toward a 1998 ballot that would curtail it. The lieutenant governor first turned a question about bilingual education into a discussion of the benefits to students of learning two languages.

Later, he said he had not read the initiative but, in general, supports the rights of parents to decide how best their children will learn English.

Davis did seed his remarks with a few proposals that he said would both improve the state's schools and their image among voters.

He said that local school bonds should be approved by a majority vote, rather than the two-thirds passage now required and which has doomed many school bond measures. He also said that a chief financial officer schooled in business practices should be appointed by every school district to heighten public confidence that schools are spending money wisely.

Davis added that he would conduct an annual audit of the California Lottery. He blamed the failure of some school bonds on "the widespread belief that a badly managed lottery is not doing all that was promised to fund education." He did not elaborate.

Davis' remarks about the state's diversity included a slap at the outgoing governor, Pete Wilson, who has championed measures that cut benefits for illegal immigrants.

"Certain political leaders of uncertain conscience have chosen to pit one group against another, using so-called wedge issues for partisan advantage," he said. "Instead of attacking our problems they've chosen to attack our people. Instead of seeking to inspire, they've attempted to incite."

He promised to treat Mexico "like an economic partner, not a pariah." Davis planned to meet with Mexican trade officials today in Tijuana.

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