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DECISION '98 / THE FINAL COUNT

Davis Promises Fast Start on Sweeping Education Agenda

Schools: Special legislative session is planned, with reading instruction, teacher training and accountability among priorities.

November 05, 1998|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the day Gray Davis takes office in January as the first Democratic governor of California in 16 years, he plans to call the state Legislature into special session to tackle three education issues: getting children to read by third grade, training teachers to focus on basic skills and holding schools accountable for better results.

That education agenda, promised by Davis during the campaign and repeated by his spokesman Wednesday, would be ambitious for any governor in any year.

With Democrats controlling the Legislature and holding the top state schools post, and with a productive economy filling up the treasury, analysts say Davis has a shot at making his mark on the issue this year's voters judged most important.

But Davis could also face pressure from inside the state's education establishment--including the powerful California Teachers Assn., a major campaign donor--to take actions that could prove controversial.

Teachers want raises. School administrators want to exempt certain students who speak limited English from taking all-English tests. The reelected state superintendent wants to tinker with some of the state's newly approved standards for what students should learn in math and science.

Then there will be appointments to make to the powerful State Board of Education. Bilingual teachers will want to relax enforcement of Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual education law. Schools will scramble for their fair share of the $9.2-billion construction bond voters approved.

For now, Davis is unencumbered by education controversies. He has cultivated an image as a moderate in an arena fraught with ideological debates. Those who have had differences with the new governor in the past, like Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, are moving to patch them up.

"I want Gray Davis to be the best education governor the state's ever had," Eastin told reporters the morning after Tuesday's vote. "We have a new quarterback on the team, and I'm excited."

One of the fondest hopes of Democrats is to raise per-pupil spending in California, which now ranks below the national average but 30 years ago was near the top. Davis, cautious on this issue, has declined to say how much spending should grow and how fast.

While the election yielded important changes in leadership for the nation's largest school system, serving 5.7-million students, it was also noteworthy for ideas that were rejected. Voters defeated Proposition 8, a measure sponsored by departing Republican Gov. Pete Wilson to overhaul local and state school management.

Voters also turned down three Republican candidates--Matt Fong for U.S. senator, Dan Lungren for governor and Gloria Matta Tuchman for state superintendent--who promoted government vouchers to help parents send their children to private schools.

"Every single one of them lost, and I don't think that's an accident," said Bob Wells, executive director of the Assn. of California School Administrators. Vouchers, he said, were "blown away."

As Davis toured California on Wednesday, his press secretary, Michael Bustamante, reiterated the governor-elect's promise to get the Legislature moving immediately on education.

Calling a special session would enable the new governor to focus legislative attention on education and speed the implementation of any new laws that result.

Tops among the issues Davis considers urgent is reading instruction. Most third-graders in the state now read below grade level, tests show, though many are not fluent in English. Davis has proposed, in vague outline, a "Manhattan Project" to address the problem. Bustamante said the governor-elect wants to convene "the best and the brightest to ensure that we are doing everything possible."

Davis also has said he wants to improve training for many teachers who failed to pick up key instructional skills in areas like phonics. And he wants schools to show improvement.

Controversies Likely to Arise

In its last session the Legislature passed a so-called school accountability bill, but Wilson vetoed it for failing to sanction lagging schools.

If a similar bill reaches Davis' desk, it would draw close scrutiny from educators, who say that standardized tests are not always a fair gauge of school performance, and from the public, which is often attracted to clear principles of reward and punishment.

Republicans doubt Davis can strike an effective compromise. "I don't think you're going to get any kind of real accountability," said Mitch Zak, spokesman for the defeated Yes on Proposition 8 campaign, "as long as the teachers association is pulling the strings."

Indeed, the 280,000-member California Teachers Assn. emerged as one of the biggest winners Tuesday. The CTA gave about $1 million to help elect Davis and was a major contributor to the anti-Proposition 8 campaign, Eastin, several other winning statewide candidates and many newly elected and reelected state and local legislators.

"I think we can expect more collaborative decision-making. Teachers will be more involved than we have been in the past," said CTA President Lois Tinson. She said the union would seek to promote teacher pay raises along with "more funding for books and materials and everything else."

California teachers' pay ranked eighth in the nation in 1995-96, with an average salary of $43,114, but many say the state's high cost of living gouges their paychecks.

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