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Davis, Simon Both Claim Mantle of Schools' Savior

October 30, 2002|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

Ask Gov. Gray Davis why he deserves a second term and he'll tell you that he kept his word with California voters: public school test scores have risen steadily since he took office.

"For the first time in decades, California's schools are showing real improvement," he says.

But Republican challenger Bill Simon Jr. believes that Davis' education policies have failed, particularly for students in the state's worst schools.

"There has been marginal improvement ... but it's not the type that anyone should be proud of," he says.

As the Nov. 5 election approaches, both candidates are trying to position themselves as saviors of public education -- the top issue, according to polls, in the minds of California voters.

Davis is capitalizing on the rising Stanford 9 test scores, repeatedly emphasizing the upbeat news in television commercials and on the campaign trail.

What he doesn't tell voters is that the pace of improvement has slowed and that California students look far less impressive on separate tests linked to the state's new academic standards. Those results show that just one-third of students are proficient in reading, math, history and science -- a subpar performance that educators chalk up to tests that are both highly challenging and new.

Vow to Press Ahead

The governor said he would press forward with reforms he set in motion over the last three years. They include teacher recruitment and training programs, a new high school exit exam and an accountability system that ranks campuses by their test scores and punishes schools that continually falter.

Davis said he would also do his best to once again protect education funding during difficult budget years ahead.

Simon says he wants to empower parents, teachers and their schools by freeing them from the state's bureaucratic dictates -- what he calls the command-and-control culture of Sacramento. He would require local school leaders to develop their own education plans for their campuses, complete with goals and budgets. And he advocates expansion of charter schools.

The Republican candidate also says Davis has not enforced punishment of all schools that perform poorly.

Still, the two men have found common ground on several key issues.

Both want more financial incentives to attract qualified teachers to the lowest-performing schools. Both want smaller campuses so students can get more personal attention.

Both, seeing a need to upgrade the state's aging schools, support a state bond measure on the November ballot that would raise $13 billion to build new campuses and repair existing ones. And both say they will try not to raise fees for in-state students at Cal State and UC campuses.

Budget Crisis

But whoever wins will probably see his education plans held hostage to California's ongoing budget crisis.

The state's financial woes have already forced Davis and the Legislature to scale back funding for school libraries and for programs to retrain ineffective teachers, and have eliminated a popular tax credit meant to reimburse teachers for spending money for class supplies out of their own pockets.

Davis has even suspended some of his own pet initiatives, including multimillion-dollar awards programs for teachers and schools whose students surpass expectations on state tests.

"If the economy doesn't rebound, everyone is going to be facing extraordinarily difficult decisions," said Bob Blattner, director of legislative services for School Services of California, a private consulting and advocacy organization in Sacramento. "If we don't get more tax revenues, we're looking at a world of hurt."

Davis vowed early in his administration not to seek reelection unless Stanford 9 test scores rose. In fact, the scores have gone up each year since. Now, 45% of students statewide are at or above the national average in reading, and 55% meet that mark in math. The results represent a 6-percentage-point gain in reading, and a 13-point gain in math since the test was introduced four years ago.

Even so, the rate of improvement has slowed: 53% of schools statewide met their state-set test score targets this year, down from 72% just two years ago. And the results show that a wide achievement gap continues to separate rich and poor students.

Still, Davis sees reason for celebration.

"There's no question we've made great progress," he says. "I'm very proud that we have laid the groundwork for the restoration of California's schools to their right place, which is at the top of the pack."

Simon calls the Stanford 9 test results "false comfort," arguing that test familiarity and coaching explain part of the gains. He maintains that the "bottom third of schools are failing."

Simon stresses that California's public school students have done far worse on tests other than the Stanford 9. He points to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which rank California dead last or near last in reading, math and science when compared to most other states that participated.

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