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Ballot Decisions Pivotal to School Reform

Race for state chief is highly partisan. And the initiative could shift power from local districts to parent-run councils, shaking up management systems at all levels.


Californians may think their vote next month for state superintendent of public instruction will settle who runs their schools.

The truth is that the superintendent is just one player in a splintered leadership that governs the nation's largest school system. And the rifts could deepen if voters approve a ballot measure to shake up education management both in Sacramento and in the local schoolhouse.

Although the race for state superintendent and the education initiative known as Proposition 8 have drawn little attention, these two highly partisan contests on the Nov. 3 ballot could prove vital to school reform.

The superintendent campaign pits incumbent Delaine Eastin, a Democrat who supports raising the state's spending per pupil, against schoolteacher Gloria Matta Tuchman, a Republican who favors giving parents vouchers to help move their children from troubled public schools into private ones.

Proposition 8, backed by Republicans and opposed by Democrats, would create a statewide inspector to assess and rank all 8,000 public schools. It would also shift significant authority over spending and curriculum from local school districts to new, parent-controlled councils based at each school.

What links the two campaigns are fundamental questions of power: Who has it in our schools and who doesn't.

Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican barred by term limits from seeking reelection, is the most influential figure by virtue of his line-item veto power over the state budget. Then there are the State Board of Education, appointed by the governor to make school policy, and the secretary of child development and education, a high-profile advisor to the governor.

But the buck doesn't stop at the governor's desk--to the great frustration of Wilson and his predecessors.

The state superintendent heads the Department of Education, an independent agency with programs serving 5.7 million schoolchildren and millions more adults and preschoolers. A thousand local school boards and superintendents zealously guard their own turf. So does the Legislature; many state senators and Assembly members style themselves education experts. Proposition 8 would inject yet more players into the mix.

"We have everybody and nobody in charge of education," said Michael Kirst, a Stanford University education professor and former president of the state board. "It is very important, big stuff. Who's running the show here?"

Analysts describe the current system as "dysfunctional" and "a mess." Discontent has grown so widespread that in 1996 a commission charged with drafting revisions to the state Constitution recommended abolishing the elective office of the state superintendent and vesting its powers in an appointed position under the governor.

The proposal died in the Legislature but remains popular with many education insiders. Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, the Republican nominee for governor, endorsed it anew in a September debate with his Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Gray Davis.

Some say that an elected superintendent is necessary to keep the public in public education.

"This is democracy," said Wayne Johnson, vice president of the 280,000-member California Teachers Assn. "We have tremendous problems, but there's nothing wrong with the system."

It is almost impossible to assess Eastin's performance without considering the limits on her authority.

The 51-year-old former state assemblywoman from Fremont says she has worked the "bully pulpit" to promote higher academic standards, student testing and school accountability.

During her four-year term, the state launched a phonics-friendly overhaul of reading instruction in 1995, cut class size from kindergarten through third grade in 1996, adopted rigorous standards for what students should know in reading, writing and mathematics in 1997 and, this year, extended the school year the equivalent of one academic week.

Eastin claims a good share of credit, saying that she was an early advocate of those reforms while others were Johnny-come-latelies.

"Let's be very clear here. I have been the loudest voice for standards for all kids, in all schools, in all parts of the state," Eastin said.

But it is one thing to advocate and quite another to wield influence. Eastin has frequently been upstaged by the Wilson-appointed State Board of Education, which has amassed power and staff in recent years. Meanwhile, Wilson crossed $8 million out of Eastin's $35-million budget last August amid a feud over the size and duties of the superintendent's legal team. Eastin, whose office is technically nonpartisan, had to take the lumps from the Republican governor. Such conflicts could fade, of course, if one party held both offices.

Even Eastin's supporters concede that the superintendent is often overshadowed by top legislators and the governor. So class size reduction, to name just one of several examples, happened not when Eastin wanted it but when Wilson did--and on his terms.

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