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Davis Pressured to Alter Education Plan


SACRAMENTO — Pressure increased Wednesday on Gov. Gray Davis to modify his second round of education proposals to close the learning gap between poor and rich students.

In the first hearings on the governor's $852-million plan before the Senate Education Committee, legislators took a much harder line with Davis than they did last year, suggesting that unless changes are made to the merit scholarship and teacher recruitment components they may not approve them.

Studies have increasingly identified family backgrounds--income and the parents' education level--as the key factors in how well students fare in school. Yet much of Davis' efforts to date have minimized those differences in favor of a boot straps approach toward education reform.

Last year, that meant rewarding top-ranking schools as well as those that improved the most, requiring a strenuous high school graduation exam and providing small grants to schools based on how many books their students read.

All ultimately gained strong legislative support.

But on Wednesday, legislators balked at the governor's $112-million merit scholarship proposal--rewards of up to $3,000 a student that many said should be based on a combination of financial need and academic prowess.

Some also said the governor's $188-million teacher recruitment and retention plans--ranging from bonuses to forgivable home loans for those who work in low-performing schools--should be focused only on the very worst schools. Davis' plan includes all schools that score in the bottom half on the state's standardized achievement test.

In a report released Wednesday, the state legislative analyst's office recommended limiting the incentives to schools in which one out of five teachers--or more--lack credentials.

But the governor's spokesman, Michael Bustamante, said he doubts that significant compromises will be forthcoming from the Davis camp.

"There's no reason for it," Bustamante said. "I think that these bills deserve the Legislature's support and I think in the end we'll get it."

Currently, merit scholarships would go to students in the top 10% statewide or the top 5% at their schools. The legislative analyst's office report found more than a third of students in the state's top 50 high schools would be rewarded, while only 5% at the 50 lowest performing would qualify.

Sen. Jack O'Connell (D-San Luis Obispo) advocated providing the merit awards only to students who rank in the top 10% to 15% of their schools "so that not all the kids from Beverly Hills monopolize the money."

Others suggested following the National Merit Scholar model, in which all top performers receive the honor, but only the needy get the money.

But Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), who is handling the merit scholarship bill for the governor, said, "It's very important that we adhere to the principle that merit should be recognized." Polanco urged the Legislature to turn its concerns about need toward a separate proposal to increase state needs-based scholarships by $102 million.

And the principal of Berkeley High testified that "it's time to send a message" to students that performance counts.

"We've historically focused on that which is wrong," said Principal Theresa Saunders. "Yet we have done almost nothing for the kids who succeed academically."

Civil rights representatives who attended the Senate hearing also described as woefully inadequate Davis' $20-million proposal for extending Advanced Placement college tests to more high schools.

At an early morning news conference, the activists implored Davis to approve a bill by state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Los Angeles) to study inequalities in opportunities to learn in California. Last year Davis vetoed the bill, which would compare schools on criteria such as experienced teachers and administrators, Advanced Placement courses, up-to-date textbooks and technology.

"I think everybody knows what these statistics are going to show," said Eva Paterson, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. And faced with that information, she said, they know "people will have to act."

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