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Policy on Education Still Vague

Arnold Schwarzenegger favors schools as campaign stops, but has yet to develop a platform on the subject or show familiarity with issues.

September 04, 2003|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

With great ceremony, Arnold Schwarzenegger took his staff and press corps to Edison-Bethune Charter Academy in Fresno last week to emphasize that education is his issue.

But in practice, the visit to a charter school in a city where charters have been the subject of scandal served to demonstrate his unfamiliarity with the state's education policy, its rigid system of student testing, and its most popular experiment with school choice.

Even as Schwarzenegger promised that he would visit a school in every city in which he campaigns, his aides were forced to concede that he had no thoughts on the school he had visited, had no policy on charter schools like it, and was weeks away from producing an education plan.

Schwarzenegger has said he will put together a council of education advisors. The legendary calculus teacher Jaime Escalante, whose success in East Los Angeles was dramatized in the movie "Stand and Deliver," says he is advising Schwarzenegger, and the candidate's campaign platform begins: "Education is my passion."

But less than five weeks before election day, the campaign has yet to make any education announcements. Schwarzenegger has no stated education policy beyond a belief that spending on education, which makes up just over half of the state's general fund budget, should not be cut.

He also has given no indication of how he would balance the state budget without cutting education or raising taxes, the two approaches that he has said he rules out.

Schwarznegger has claimed that education is one issue in which he has expertise.

He has visited dozens of schools around the country, led the campaign to pass the after-school initiative Proposition 49 last fall, and has made "Education" one of the four major headings in an agenda -- posted on the campaign Web site -- that is otherwise devoted to economics and government reform.

On Wednesday, Schwarzenegger even released a new 30-second campaign commercial, titled "Education," which has the candidate saying: "For me, children come first. Always have, always will."

"Arnold says he knows education and cares about kids, but as with everything else about Arnold, there's very little detail there," said Brian Crosby, an English teacher at Hoover High School in Glendale and author of the book "The $100,000 Teacher," which argues for a radical restructuring of teacher pay around merit. "You just get the feeling that everything is not quite formed yet."

A campaign spokesman, Rob Stutzman, said Schwarzenegger was trying to become better informed on education issues.

His Web site offers a guarantee of safe schools, classroom instruction based on proven research, quality textbooks for each student, student testing, after-school programs, and increased local control over education -- but not a plan for how he would ensure such things.

In a radio interview, Schwarzenegger said he is against vouchers, which allow parents to use public funds to pay private school tuition, but he has said he favors allowing parents with children in failing schools to have a choice in where to send them.

"He hasn't taken a position on the most controversial issues, and that would be the amount of funding, teachers' salaries -- certainly not things like Proposition 98," which mandates that roughly 40% of state revenue go to K-12 education, said Mike Antonucci, director of the Education Intelligence Agency, which conducts research, analysis and investigation on public education and its unions.

"These are very vanilla positions he's taking: 'We want more money for kids.' "

Even as he says little, Schwarzenegger has held half of his campaign appearances at schools. At each, he typically addresses groups of children, urges them to do their homework, and then meets with school leaders.

At the Fresno school, Schwarzenegger told a group of teachers and parents in a private session, according to one attendee's notes of the meeting: "You are the educators. You know what's working and what's not working. I don't know. I'm not an educator."

Fresno-area educators say that lack of knowledge was evident in his decision to visit a charter school in Fresno. The city has been a focal point for corruption in the charter school movement.

The scandal surrounding Gateway -- a charter granted by the Fresno school district that set up unregulated satellite sites, rolled up $1.3 million in debt, failed to do criminal background checks on employees, and used public money to teach religion, including Islam -- provided much of the impetus for a regulatory crackdown on charters across the state.

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