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Serious Reform or Policy Schizophrenia?

Schools:Prop. 8 would blur, not sharpen, the lines of accountability in effortsto fix failing schools.

October 28, 1998|BRUCE FULLER | Bruce Fuller, former aide to the state Assembly Education Committee, is a professor of public policy and education at UC Berkeley

In the world of the human mind, schizophrenia is one of the most debilitating afflictions to beset the mentally ill. In the world of politics, it can be precisely what the doctor ordered.

Take Proposition 8, appearing on Tuesday's ballot. It's Gov. Pete Wilson's last shot at reforming the public schools, fired at the end of his eight-year reign.

If a psychologist were to analyze this complicated 34-page initiative, she might conclude that Wilson suffers from multiple personalities. One key provision creates a French-style school inspector who would ride from Sacramento, rooting out lousy schools. Another piece would grant new powers to state officials in deciding which rookie teachers win full credentials, even requiring that they mail their classroom lesson plans to the capital.

But if you think Wilson has become a Dr. Jekyll who pushes only centralized remedies for the schools' ills, take a look at his Mr. Hyde: Proposition 8 would simultaneously decentralize power down to local school councils controlled by parents, undercutting California's century-old faith in elected school boards. Each local council would gain control over its school's spending plan. The governor also aims to give principals sole authority over the hiring and firing of teachers, with no guarantee of public transparency.

Other contradictions abound within Proposition 8. Despite giving schools more control in selected areas, Wilson wants to dictate from Sacramento how teachers would be promoted, based on whether their pupils display higher test scores. This would inadvertently reward teachers in affluent suburbs, where kids' learning curves are typically higher, lifted by home factors. Effective inner-city teachers who boost achievement over one year would be punished, since their students will still display low scores in yearly snapshots, relative to better-off children.

Wilson has made his positive mark on education. He has dramatically expanded access to preschools. He has reduced class sizes in the early grades. Indeed the governor, over the past two years, has resembled a born-again centralist, tugging on the levers available to him in Sacramento: setting higher standards, attacking social promotion, enriching textbooks and the mix of classroom materials.

But Wilson's other personality often rears up as he lobbies to decentralize lines of school accountability. This includes his recurring push for private school vouchers and a successful battle to expand the number of charter schools--innovative campuses that are liberated from the cobweb of regulations set in Sacramento, like the new centralized strings that Proposition 8 would impose.

Proposition 8 would lock into statute the $2-billion class-size reduction program. This is the irresistible hook that may snag millions of yes votes. Yet evidence has yet to show that the positive effects of smaller classes outweigh the negative effects of the resulting influx of thousands of unqualified teachers into the public schools. And from 1978's Proposition 13, which put a cap on property taxes, to Proposition 98 in 1988, which set a minimum state spending level for schools, huge chunks of the state budget have been permanently nailed to the table, precluding any reassessment. Yesterday's voters have set future public priorities.

To his credit, Wilson has already succeeded in advancing what Sacramento can do well: raising achievement standards and intensifying student assessment. But Proposition 8 would blur, not sharpen, lines of accountability whenever parents or local leaders tried to fix failing schools. Local school councils would be controlling school budgets; principals would be hiring and firing teachers. But Sacramento's chief inspector would be the ultimate judge of school quality. And the local power of elected school boards to hold schools accountable would be fatally harmed. Where would the buck really stop?

A blend of strong central standards and human-scale accountability between parents and their schools can work. But these tandem reforms must be carefully put in place if they are to comprise a coherent and long-term reform strategy. Just as reformers are beginning to fit these jigsaw pieces together, Proposition 8 would toss the entire puzzle into the air.

This policy schizophrenia is shrewd politically. It signals to worried parents that Wilson is "getting tough" on the public schools through decisive measures. The governor then turns and bows to his conservative supporters, who back market remedies like vouchers.

But voters should not be asked to decide on such a contradictory array of reforms within one single package. They should be argued and weighed one piece at a time.

Better yet, why don't we allow parents and local educators sufficient time to digest the frenzy of reforms that have rained down from Sacramento in recent months? A new governor--perhaps displaying a more coherent school reform strategy--could then take stock of what has been accomplished and what work remains to be done.

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