If state Senator Marian Bergeson is confirmed by the Legislature next month to become California’s new superintendent of schools, children and teachers may soon notice some major changes in the classroom.
Unlike Bergeson’s predecessor, Bill Honig, who led the schools for the past decade, the Newport Beach Republican says she would open the door to commercial TV in classrooms. She also endorses a version of merit pay for teachers and wants bilingual education to be limited to two years.
Bergeson, 67, was a school board member for 12 years in her hometown of Newport Beach and is a past president of the California School Boards Association.
In a wide-ranging interview, the senator said she holds the biblical view that the universe was created ”in the last 300,000 years.” Despite that perspective, she said she supports California’s new science curriculum, adopted by the state Board of Education in 1990. It states that evolution is an accepted scientific explanation ”no more controversial in scientific circles than the theories of gravitation and electron flow.”
WHAT SHOULDN’T BE TAUGHT
Yet, the discussion of evolution in the curriculum has caused more controversy in many rural and suburban school districts than gravity lessons ever did, particularly in Southern California. In several districts, parents and church leaders are seeking to have their religious perspective on the origin of the universe taught as an alternative to evolution. ”I don’t believe creationism should be taught in the schools,” said Bergeson, who is a Mormon. ”But I think evolution is a theory and should be taught as a theory. I think religion belongs in the home and the church, and I say this as a religious person.”
Bergeson’s view that the universe was created relatively recently, however, directly conflicts with the state’s current science curriculum. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Berkeley, whose board members wrote portions of the curriculum, said that scientific evidence shows the universe is more than 10 billion years old, and Earth about 4.5 billion. Bergeson’s confirmation hearings are set to begin April 1 in the Assembly and April 14 in the Senate. She will need a majority in each house to win. The Legislature’s decision on whether to accept or reject her will help set the course of public education for more than 5 million children, possibly for years to come.
Consequently, whether to confirm her may be the most critical education decision the lawmakers will face this year. Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, D- San Francisco, has already vowed to try and block the move, saying that Honig, an elected Democrat, should be replaced by another Democrat. Bergeson is a conservative Republican.
Although Bergeson was nominated to fill out the remaining two years of Honig’s term, the job would leave her in an excellent position to win the four-year post in the 1994 race. Democrats would rather see Senator Gary Hart, D-Santa Barbara, or Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin, D-Fremont, land the top school job.
Politics have all but overshadowed the real issues on which a state superintendent is ultimately graded: educational expertise and the ability to translate that knowledge into a school system of well-educated students.
As with the science curriculum, Bergeson has supported California’s pioneering system of curriculum frameworks after joining the Assembly in 1984 and winning election to the Senate in 1984. Nevertheless, she gave California’s current system a D+.
”The expectations for our schools are not being met,” she said, noting that campuses are still no haven from gangs, drugs or violence. ”They should be working better.”
Her priorities for school improvement include making classrooms ”free from violence,” attracting ”the best and most ade quately prepared teachers,” and increasing partnerships between public schools and private enterprise.
If confirmed, Bergeson said schools ”could very well see” entrepreneur Chis Whittle’s Channel One TV program brought in. Honig had led a statewide campaign against the program because of its requirement that students view its ads. But the senator dismissed that concern, saying, ”Everybody tunes them out. Channel One doesn’t worry me that much.”
Her views on limiting bilingual education to two years also differ from those of Honig, who approved of expanded schooling in a child’s native language. A 1991 study by the U.S. Department of Education showed that students speaking limited English fare best if they have bilingual classes for at least five years.
”No program can effectively teach students the academic English required in that two-year period. They fall behind,” said Terry Delgado, president of the California Association for Bilingual Education and a consultant at the state Department of Education.
Bergeson has been criticized by many in the public school establishment for rushing to support Wilson’s $ 2.2 billion reduction to the education budget last year. She acknowledged that California schools have suffered from the cutbacks but urged parents and teachers to change their view of the problem.
”Accepting the idea that it’s getting worse and worse is a defeatist attitude,” she said. ”We have to look at ways to make the dollars we have available work as best we can.”