California has made a strong beginning in improving public education, with smaller classes, higher academic standards, more textbooks and a statewide standardized basic skills test. As these reforms take root, the next governor, Gray Davis, should build on the education reform legacy of Gov. Pete Wilson. There is plenty still to do, but measurable progress has been made.
State government has laid a foundation that is beginning to pay off with higher reading and math scores in the primary grades, though so far only for English-speaking children.
The naysayers said it couldn't be done when Wilson pushed through class-size reduction in the primary grades. Not enough teachers. Not enough room on campuses in crowded urban districts and fast-growing suburban districts. Not enough will to get the job done.
But most school superintendents, encouraged by a bonus for every pupil assigned to a class with no more than 20 students per teacher, managed to find room in portable structures, gyms and even storerooms, and enough teachers, many of them rookies holding emergency credentials. They responded to pressure from parents, teachers and politicians, and prodding from The Times, to make classrooms more conducive to teaching and learning.
Pupils assigned to the smaller classes outscored students still stuck in larger classes on the statewide tests administered earlier this year. Further analysis is needed to determine exactly why they performed better and to rule out economic factors, the experience of the teacher and other unknown influences. Even so, the preliminary results are encouraging.
Teachers relish the 20-to-1 ratio, which increases individual instruction time, allows greater attention to struggling students and reduces classroom management problems. These teachers don't need test results to validate the improvement, though scores are always more credible than anecdotes.
The space crunch created on many campuses when portable classrooms gobbled up playgrounds and auditoriums were carved into teaching space will ease now, thanks to the $9.1-billion Proposition 1A, the state school construction and improvement bond measure passed in November by voters who are no longer reluctant to invest in schools.
The textbook shortage is also being alleviated with increased funding from the Legislature. New reading and math textbooks, tailored to the state's exemplary new frameworks, are scheduled to be selected by July, and Sacramento will have to find additional money for that.
California's work on school reform has just begun, a challenge recognized by Gray Davis' expected call for a special legislative session on teaching children to read by the third grade, training teachers to focus on basic skills and holding schools accountable for results. We hope that his education legacy will be measured in steadily rising test scores and in greater numbers of students who graduate from school with useful lifelong skills.