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California and the West

Gray Davis Urges $3-Billion Plan for Buying Textbooks

Education: Sounding a common theme, candidate for governor says state's beleaguered elementary school system threatens economic recovery.

January 09, 1998|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Adding to the flurry of education reforms proposed by state leaders recently, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis said Thursday that California should spend $3 billion over the next five years to ensure that every schoolchild has the most basic of educational tools--a handful of books.

Decrying the state of California's elementary education system, Davis said his proposal, in which the state would parcel out $600 million a year for five years to schools, would help forestall "all kinds of problems."

Davis, who has made education the bulwark of his campaign for governor, cited a Los Angeles Times investigation last year that found that the Los Angeles Unified School District spends less than half a cent of every education dollar on books. Some states spend as much as 2 cents on the dollar for books, and the state average is 0.75 of a cent.

A survey by the Assn. of American Publishers and the National Education Assn. found that 54% of California teachers did not have enough books to send home with their students. Nationally, the figure was 39%.

Davis said the problem threatens the state's hard-won economic recovery.

"We're enjoying a good measure of prosperity," Davis told state political reporters at a Hollywood breakfast. "The only threat to that prosperity is our K-12 system."

Almost every major state politician, and those who aspire to be one, has forwarded an education reform plan in recent weeks.

Gov. Pete Wilson, seeking to draft an education legacy in his last year in office, this week proposed lengthening the school year, expanding reading and mentoring programs, and raising a stunning $16 billion for school construction over the next several years.

Bucking many of his fellow Republicans, Wilson has also endorsed lowering the threshold for passing local school bonds from the current two-thirds majority to a simple majority. The high threshold has prevented many bonds from passing in recent years, contributing to a massive overcrowding in many districts.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who is studying a gubernatorial bid, weighed into the education debate on Christmas Eve when she proposed a November ballot measure that would require students to pass a test before graduating, further reduce class size, lengthen the school year and raise teacher standards. She also has endorsed lowering the bond threshold, as have Davis and most other Democrats.

In further testimony to the potency of education as the premier issue of the 1998 campaign, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Al Checchi on Thursday began running television ads calling for teacher testing and an end to social promotions, as well as increased school funding.

Checchi's commercials say that his proposals will be financed from a 10% cut in the state's bureaucracy--"not by raising your taxes."

That distinction from Feinstein's proposal, which would be financed with $1 billion in new tobacco taxes, was underscored by Checchi's campaign strategist, Darry Sragow. Sragow did not cite Feinstein by name, but referred to her ballot initiative when he said that it was "typical" of career politicians to fix problems by raising taxes.

Davis' books proposal was the latest for the veteran politician, who has handled education issues for years, but of late has found his experience eclipsed by Wilson's moves on the issue.

He praised Wilson for his education proposals, saying that his endorsement of lowering the bond threshold was "gutsy."

"He's sounding like a born-again Democrat and I'm pleased to welcome him into the fold," he joked.

Davis also praised Feinstein's ballot initiative as "good news" and said bipartisan agreement that the schools need to be fixed means there is an excellent chance that reforms will be approved.

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