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From Promises to Action

November 15, 1998

Gov.-elect Gray Davis, who promised throughout his campaign to focus on public education in California, began carrying through on that promise with the selection of Barry Munitz, former Cal State chancellor and current head of the J. Paul Getty Trust, to head his transition team. Munitz is expected to bring the same common-sense approach to statewide reforms that he used at Cal State, where he focused on managing growth and championed a pay-for-performance system akin to merit pay.

Munitz probably will guide task forces of academic, government and business leaders who are to recommend policy to Davis before he takes office Jan. 4. But the truth is that not much study is needed. The biggest problems of public schools are obvious, from aged facilities to spotty parental involvement and, most troubling of all, a sheer lack of accountability throughout school systems.

Davis is expected to immediately call the Legislature into a special session focused on three issues: teaching children to read by third grade, training teachers to focus on basic skills and holding schools accountable for results. These are the right priorities.

Reading deserves the highest priority because this gateway skill influences long-term academic, professional and personal success. The majority of California public school students do not read at grade level at the end of third grade, a critical school year, and this failure is the impetus behind The Times' Reading by 9 initiative. Many students graduate without ever learning to read competently, a deficit documented in statewide test scores of high school students.

Correcting this broad reading deficiency will require Sacramento to strengthen the abilities of teachers. Those who entered the profession during the past decade, the whole-language era, need remedial instruction in how to teach phonics. So do thousands of teachers who hold emergency credentials. They should be given incentives to attend summer school. The new governor and Legislature also need to triple the number of state-funded in-service teacher training days, make sure the training focuses on the subject being taught, and pay for substitute teachers.

Other basics needed to produce good readers include appropriate and plentiful phonics-based textbooks, frequent testing to identify those who fall behind and extra help for every child who cannot read at grade level.

But the issue that looms largest is accountability. On this issue, Davis must stand up to the California Teachers Assn., even though it provided strong support and big money to his gubernatorial campaign. The Democratic governor should be able to negotiate with his allies to establish a system of teacher assessment, an intervention program to help struggling teachers and some form of merit pay.

Davis inherits momentum from the Wilson administration, which pushed through new statewide testing, class-size reduction and an end to social promotion. Democrats control the state Assembly and Senate. Another Democrat, Delaine Eastin, is the state superintendent of public instruction. This window of opportunity is widened by a robust economic climate that is expected to provide more state funds to spend on new initiatives.

The narrow passage of Proposition 10, which levies an additional 50-cent tax on cigarettes to fund local preschool programs, will also provide a boost for education in California. Though Sacramento will not control the $750 million expected to be raised annually by the new tax, Davis can press counties to spend that new money on high-quality, language-rich preschools.

It is up to Davis--and Eastin--to take these advantages and turn them into results. Eastin, who had problems with the Wilson administration, ought to be able to work with fellow Democrat Davis. And Davis has a chance to prove that he won't be merely a mouthpiece for his campaign benefactors. His landslide victory should embolden him to take on entrenched education interests too often concerned with what adults want and not what children need. No more excuses. It's time to deliver.

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