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Candidates Split on Charter Schools, Testing

Gubernatorial hopefuls are also divided over teacher tenure and funding for education. Gov. Davis points to boost in K-12 spending.

September 15, 2003|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

The major candidates in the Oct. 7 recall election fall into two camps on issues related to the state's public schools.

Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the only prominent Democrat in the race to replace Gov. Gray Davis, Green Party candidate Peter Camejo, and Arianna Huffington are in general agreement that the state needs to spend more money supporting and improving the K-12 education system. In public statements and in response to a series of questions from The Times, each also expressed skepticism about the state's system of student tests.

The three differ, however, on charter schools -- public schools that are given a large measure of independence from some regulations. Bustamante and Camejo expressed doubts about charters, while Huffington urged that the state approve more of them.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), the two prominent Republicans in the race, both say that the level of spending is not the main problem facing the schools. Current spending needs to be better focused at the classroom level, they say.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Charter schools -- A report in Monday's A section on education policy incorrectly said that charter schools can choose which students they accept. By state law, charters must choose students by lot.

Both support student testing and expansion of charter schools. They also both say that principals should have more control over their schools on matters such as teacher assignments. The two support charter schools but differ on teacher tenure, which Schwarzenegger supports and McClintock opposes.

Davis falls in between. The governor notes that since his first term began, the state's spending on K-12 education has risen 30%. But he has not called for further increases beyond what is required by the voter-approved Proposition 98. California's spending per-student was 43rd nationwide when he took office and is now at about the national average, he notes. Davis also defends the testing program.

Although Schwarzenegger has hammered on the state's economy as a key campaign theme, he has also emphasized education issues.

Schwarzenegger entered California politics last year with his successful campaign for Proposition 49. That measure was designed to establish after-school programs for students. It has not yet actually produced any programs, however, because it did not include a source of funding. The proposition will pass money to after-school programs only if the state's revenue increases substantially.

On Friday, Schwarzenegger's campaign released a position paper on education. Covering a number of issues, the document calls for reductions in school district bureaucracies, measures to give principals more power and the adoption of more flexible rules for construction of new campuses.

Schwarzenegger also called for the opening of more charter schools as well as steps to ease credentialing for people who want to switch careers and become teachers.

Schwarzenegger's statement avoided positions on some issues. For example, he called for more attention to recruiting and training special education teachers, but did not mention the cost of meeting federal special-education mandates, a major budget item for many districts.

The great majority of funding for local schools in California comes from the state. Education is the largest part of the budget, and Proposition 98, passed by voters in 1988, requires that roughly 40% of all state revenue goes to public schools.

The candidates generally agreed that even in tough budget times education should be given a top priority. None suggested changing Proposition 98.

Two issues -- charter schools and teacher tenure -- alter the candidates' usual alignments.

Huffington lined up with Schwarzenegger and McClintock in calling for less regulation of charters. All three also argued for dropping the limit on the number of charter schools the state allows.

The state's charter school law allows groups outside the traditional education system to sponsor schools that then operate with significant autonomy.

Supporters say charters bring fresh ideas into the schools. Opponents see them as a potential threat to the public school system, fearing that charters, which are allowed to choose which students to accept, could skim off the best, most motivated students.

Critics of charter schools also have pointed to some cases of misconduct by organizations sponsoring charters.

Schwarzenegger said that he supports expanding the list of organizations that can approve the opening of charter schools. Currently, only state and county boards of education and local school districts can approve a charter; Schwarzenegger would expand the authority to universities and local governments.

Davis defended charter schools as providing "important options for students," but said he was concerned about "accountability for student performance." He also said that since the state is not yet close to hitting the cap on the number of charters, a debate over raising the limit is premature.

On tenure, which is a major issue for teacher unions, Huffington and McClintock both said they opposed lifetime job security for public school instructors.

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