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O'Connell Is Champion of Exit Exam

May 29, 2006|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

Whatever else he has done for the last 3 1/2 years, state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell heads into his reelection bid with a reputation as the leading proponent and defender of the high school exit exam.

As a state senator, O'Connell sponsored the 1999 legislation creating the test, and as the state's top education official, he has resisted political and legal pressure to let students graduate from high school this year despite failing it.

When the state Supreme Court reinstated the exam last week after a lower court tossed it out, O'Connell was ecstatic -- and a bit defiant. "I will continue to fight to make sure every student who graduates in California has the skills necessary to succeed," he said.

O'Connell was elected to the nonpartisan post in 2002 after two decades as a Democratic assemblyman and senator. In making student accountability his hallmark, he has managed to win support, or at least discourage attacks, from Republicans and conservatives.

At the same time, his dedication to closing the achievement gap between rich and poor, white and nonwhite, has helped maintain his credentials among Democrats and liberals.

Perhaps as a result, no established political figure has challenged O'Connell in the race, and his four opponents -- three teachers and a retired school district superintendent -- have failed to attract the support needed to make a serious run for a statewide office.

Dan Bunting, who once ran a small district and is on the Cloverdale school board in Sonoma County, says he has experience that O'Connell lacks. He wants to increase school funding and get parents more involved in education.

Sarah Knopp, a teachers union representative who teaches at an alternative high school in L.A., has criticized the "testing and accountability craze" and called for more money to lower class sizes and improve the quality of schools.

Diane Lenning, an Orange County high school teacher, has chaired a GOP educational caucus and backs efforts to make campuses safer, as well as to foster greater local control of schools.

Grant McMicken, a high school teacher in Sacramento, says O'Connell is out of touch with classroom realities. He stresses career and technical education for students not bound for college.

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