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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS / U.S.
SENATE

2 Candidates Grapple With Education Issues

Politics: Campbell and Feinstein stray from their party lines on how to fix schools. They agree on need to reward teachers.

August 21, 2000|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Democratic pol is stumping for votes among the black political establishment in the San Gabriel Valley. Over lunch at the Sheraton hotel in Pomona, she rails against racism, profiteering oil companies and the growing wealth gap, all reliable Democratic issues.

But when it comes to schools, Sen. Dianne Feinstein doesn't sound much like a proud defender of the education establishment and its powerful unions.

If they want to see "how a big, troubled school district is turning itself around," she tells the Black American Political Assn., they ought to visit Chicago. That's where Mayor Richard Daley took over the schools and brought in an ironfisted manager who closed schools, extended the school day and ended social promotion.

"We have to learn from that example," she says.

Now hear Feinstein's Republican opponent, Rep. Tom Campbell, chatting with advisors in Palo Alto. He trots out a few conservative hobbyhorses: School vouchers should be tried, and the cost of mainstreaming special ed children is draining dollars from programs serving other children. "The federal government has never paid for" the program, he complains.

But he doesn't sound like a fire-breathing Republican when he insists that he would support public vouchers for private schools only if they don't take money from the public schools. And he openly worries that if the Feds left it to the states to deal with their disabled students, they would just warehouse them the way they did in the bad old days.

The Senate candidates' willingness to stray outside the conventional wisdom of their parties partly reflects their personalities. Campbell has taken a number of controversial positions, including his support of a program to give heroin to users. Feinstein also has shown a streak of independence, most notably when she left the Democratic fold to criticize President Clinton's behavior. But both also recognize that in 2000, education is not just another issue.

As a national consensus seems to be forming behind the idea that if education doesn't rebound, all other issues will be irrelevant, both candidates have abandoned the old broadsides.

The magnitude of the problem facing the state is underscored by the size of the system. California educates 5.8 million students, more than the population of any one of 36 states. As many as 11% of the state's 285,000 teachers are teaching with emergency credentials.

Their students include 40% of the nation's immigrants; some schools cope with a student body that speaks multiple languages. And this overmatched system is facing a demographic bulge created by children of the baby boomers.

Both candidates are having trouble raising money in a campaign that has so far generated little excitement among voters. Feinstein has raised about $3 million, Campbell about $1.3 million. Donors are hanging back because Campbell has yet to prove he can make a strong run at the incumbent. Independent polls have shown him trailing by up to 26 points.

Because education is primarily a state and local matter, Feinstein said, she sees her role as using the "bully pulpit" of the state's highest-ranking federal office to push local decision makers toward effective reform.

The crisis in education hit home for her when a group of high-tech executives came to Washington a few years back pleading for immigration exemptions to hire foreign engineers, she said.

"Why don't you hire Americans?" Feinstein asked. "They can't read well enough," was the reply.

Today, 3,000 entry-level engineering jobs go begging. The tech world is so desperate, she said, that a friend's son got a Ferrari as a bonus when he hired on.

"I believe California's greatest challenge is to fundamentally reform our public schools so that these good-paying jobs go to California citizens and residents," she said in Pomona.

As a law professor at Stanford University, Campbell has seen close up the part of American education that is the envy of the world: a dynamic, competitive system of public and private universities. Finding ways to replicate that success in the lower grades is a key part of his campaign.

One of the hottest issues is the fight over Proposition 38, which would give $4,000 per year in state money to parents for every child they choose to send to private school. Feinstein opposes the measure because, she says, it carries the danger of mixing church and state by funding religious schools.

But she also said educators cannot afford to drag their heels on reform. "The harder it is to get real reform, the more impetus there is for vouchers," she said.

Campbell said he neither supports nor opposes the voucher initiative. He is sympathetic to the concept, but is concerned that it goes too far in making everyone eligible for vouchers. He favors an experimental program for students in the worst-performing schools.

"Provided that the receiving school doesn't invidiously discriminate, why shouldn't we see if this approach improves children's performance?" he asked.

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