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California and the West

Only 1 in 5 Lawmakers Has Child in Public School

March 27, 2000|KRISTI GARRETT and JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — Fewer than one in five state lawmakers has a child enrolled in California public schools at a time when reform of the education system is a top priority in the Capitol and among voters, a Los Angeles Times survey has found.

About 1 in 10 of California's senators and Assembly members have children in private schools, while 15% have no children. About half have children who are out of school or not yet old enough to enroll, the survey found.

As for Gov. Gray Davis, who made education his "first, second and third priorities" during his debut year in office, he and his wife, Sharon, have no children.

Some scholars say the dearth of state policymakers with daily classroom contact may be distorting the education debate.

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at State Daily ContactState Daily ContactUC Berkeley, suspects that legislators without school-age children may have a more one-dimensional approach to decision-making, making them less critical of "remedies put forward by wonks."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 31, 2000 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Lawmakers and schools--A chart in Monday's editions listing state legislators with children in school should have shown that Assemblyman Robert Pacheco (R-Walnut) has one child in private school, in addition to grown children.

"It's harder to think outside the box" if you lack a day-to-day window on the education world, Fuller said. "You're forced to rely on secondary information and hearsay . . . and that may lead to a very different take on the system."

Lawmakers without school-age children reject that analysis, vigorously defending their ability to make informed decisions about issues ranging from class sizes to high school exit exams. They note that legislators often--even typically--cast votes on matters with which they have no personal experience.

"In my 34 years of making education policy, no one has ever questioned my insight or knowledge," said state Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), who has no children. A member of the Senate education committee, Vasconcellos said he relies on friends with children, chats with his godchildren and visits schools--among other means--to help guide his votes and inspire legislation.

"The most important thing is, I'm profoundly a learner and I want every kid to be a learner," he said.

New Set of Issues, Proposals

The Times survey comes as the Legislature is poised to debate a new batch of education topics, ranging from the adequacy of California's per-pupil spending to teacher training and the governor's proposal for merit-based scholarships.

All senators and all but two Assembly members responded to the survey. Assemblymen Tom McClintock (R-Northridge) and Roderick Wright (D-Los Angeles) said they feel no obligation to disclose whether their children attend private or public schools.

"It really isn't anybody's business," Wright said. He added that his children's school experiences have little bearing on his thinking about education policy.

"Anecdotal information about what happened to my children on Tuesday afternoon should not be the basis for the way I vote on something that affects millions of children in California," Wright said. "We have to be careful that we don't get into that narrow kind" of thinking.

But Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim), a father of three, said his connection with his children's public school is absolutely integral to his deliberations over what's plaguing the system at large. Parenting school-age children enhances his commitment too: "When I'm making policy for California, I'm making policy for my children as well."

The survey found that 35 of California's 119 legislators (one Senate seat is vacant) have school-age children, while 64 have children who have completed primary and secondary education or have yet to begin it. An additional 18 have no children.

Analysts said they were not surprised by the small number of legislators with children now in school. The costs--in money and time--of campaigning for and holding public office can weigh heavily on families.

"People who have kids in school often don't have the time and finances to devote to a self-absorbed activity like holding elective office," said Priscilla Wohlstetter, professor and director of the Center on Educational Governance at USC. "So you get people who are young and childless or older, with grown kids."

A similar profile exists on many big city school boards. On the seven-member Los Angeles Unified School District board, four members have grown children, two have preschool-age children and one is childless.

The 11-member State Board of Education, which sets statewide curriculum guidelines and distributes school funds, has four members with school-age children.

Among other findings, the Times survey revealed that about one-third of the legislators with school-age children send them to private institutions. In the California population overall, about 10% of children attend private schools.

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