SACRAMENTO — Amid little fanfare, the state Legislature launched a special session on education Tuesday, introducing four bills initiated by Gov. Gray Davis to combat problems ranging from illiteracy to poor teaching.
Details of the legislation flesh out Davis' $444-million plan to reform public education through a system of reward and punishment. The most urgent bill--which would take effect immediately if passed and signed by Davis, provides $93 million to improve reading.
"The purpose of these bills is to ask more of teachers, students, principals and parents," Davis said during a briefing on his plan before it was submitted to the Legislature. Then, reciting a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. about seizing the moment, the governor said, "I hope it is not said of us that we flinched, that we missed the moment."
All four bills are to be shepherded by Democratic lawmakers, but Davis said he hopes for bipartisan support. Within an hour of the plan's unveiling, however, Republican dissent developed on some issues.
Assembly Minority Leader Rod Pacheco (R-Riverside) said the reading plan and some of the teacher training proposals sound palatable, but Davis' accountability measures are not comprehensive enough.
"This entire process has to be overhauled," Pacheco said of the state school system. "It fails students on a daily basis."
At his direction, 15 Republicans in the Assembly introduced 22 bills under the heading Checklist for Real Education Reform.
However, the political reality in a Legislature dominated by Democrats is that although some of the GOP ideas may become part of the final agreement on education, Republicans are pushing bills that have failed in the past and are likely to meet the same fate this year.
Two of the Democrats' proposed measures directly relate to students: the one to improve reading, which would provide more training for reading teachers, and a new high school exit exam. Two measures relate to teachers and school performance, including a teacher evaluation system and school accountability plan.
Details emerged Tuesday about the three areas that are likely to be the most controversial:
* Peer review: Beginning with $17 million to train exemplary teachers to assist and review other teachers, this program would replace the state's $83-million mentor teacher program in July 2000.
Decisions on how to set up the system would be negotiated locally between school districts and teachers unions, which pleases the unions. But the state would withhold the annual cost-of-living increase from districts that refuse to participate.
"My wife's a teacher. I want to do something that works for teachers . . . but I also want something that works for kids," said Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), a former Los Angeles teachers union activist who introduced the peer review bill.
* Exit exams: Students would be allowed to take the test as many times as they wish, beginning in 10th grade in 2001. Beginning in 2003, only students who pass the exam, which would test knowledge of reading, writing and mathematics, would graduate from high school.
Davis said his goal is not to make the test so hard that large numbers of students fail, but rather to "gauge them in a way that stretches them" to try harder.
* Academic Performance Index: The index, which would be used to rank all California schools and determine whether they meet statewide improvement goals, would be a combination of student test scores and graduation and attendance rates.
The data also would be broken down by socioeconomic status to ensure that all groups of students improve, not just the traditional higher-income, high achievers. All schools would be expected to show at least a 5% annual improvement rate, and lower-performing schools would have higher targets.
The competing GOP legislation ranges from some familiar targets--automatic expulsion for having drugs on campus--to a teaching methods test for new teachers, which also would be used to rank the teaching programs that trained them.
The sheaf of Republican bills also includes another run at vouchers for private schools. The "Expanded Parental Choice" bill by Assemblyman Steve Baldwin (R-El Cajon) would provide private school scholarships to students at the consistently lowest performing schools.
Pacheco criticized Davis' proposal for letting teachers review each other. Peer review is just one tool, Pacheco said, and should be bolstered by reviews of administrators and others.
"I would love to have my fellow legislators decide if I get reelected [to the Assembly], but that's not going to happen," he said.
The special session that convened Tuesday is an outgrowth of Davis' campaign promise to reform public schools. He had vowed to call such a session, which speeds up the process of making bills into laws.
The session allows a waiver of the 30-day waiting period before bills can be considered in legislative committees.