California's vast wonderland of school reform

With last week’s entrance of Sen. Dianne Feinstein into the California school initiative wars, what had verged on chaos is quickly turning to farce. We may soon long for the good old days, when state and national politicians more or less ignored education.

Feinstein’s foray, a proposed measure requiring all students who don’t pass comprehensive exams to attend summer school; mandating class sizes of no more than 20 students in grades K-4, and requiring higher standards and training for teachers, was unwrapped just in time to go under the political Christmas tree last week. Twenty years ago, in the wake of Proposition 13, California abolished summer school. Now we are about to require it.

This will be hard to keep straight. In addition to Feinstein’s, four other school reform proposals are now on the table, one proposed three weeks ago by Gov. Pete Wilson; another from a state commission named by state schools chief Delaine Eastin; a third, virtually barring bilingual education sponsored by Silicon Valley executive Ron Unz; and still another, sponsored by UTLA, the Los Angeles teachers union, (and blessed by Feinstein) that would prohibit any district from spending more than five percent of its budget on administration.

That quintet follows hard on the heels of the new testing program mandated by state law and the shift-to-basics curricular changes already approved by the state board of education in the past couple of months in some cases over the strong objections of Eastin and the state bureaucracy. Those reforms are still months and in some cases years away >from implementation in the classroom and still further from being far enough along so they can be effectively evaluated.

Many of the proposals emanating from Wilson, Feinstein, et al. could have a lot to commend them. A longer school year (urged by both Feinstein and Eastin) probably makes sense. Class size reduction has become like catnip for parents and teachers.

But does it really make sense to write untested, costly inflexible formulas say the 20-1 class size ratio into a law that’s virtually untouchable by the legislature (as Wilson wants) before even partial returns are in on the educational benefits of those reforms? Should all primary classes be 20-1? or would it be better if districts could choose to make some 10-1 and some 30-1?

Does it make sense to give local school principals more responsibility to evaluate and discipline teachers (as Wilson and Feinstein propose) while at the same time limiting their resources to make and defend their judgments (as the Feinstein-backed UTLA initiative demands)? Some might even think it’s nuts. And surely giving school officials such authority in the face of union contracts that make real discipline or even re-assigning teachers all but impossible is meaningless.

A spokesman for the governor said Wilson “is glad to see that (Feinstein) is following the governor’s lead” on things like class size reduction. But Wilson, who didn’t discover California schools until he was halfway through his second term, was himself a Johnny-come-lately in the school-fixing game. Through most of his first term he argued that class size made no difference.

Wilson’s program, particularly the parts calling for the periodic evaluation of schools, comes on the heels of similar proposals from Eastin’s commission, and have all the earmarks of having been cooked up by campaign consultants and other political operatives, not by educators. Like Feinstein, Wilson can use an initiative campaign to keep his name before the public with funds that don’t count against California’s newly-enacted political spending limits.

The political opportunism here doesn’t invalidate any of the proposals, but it certainly reinforces the need to examine them carefully. Feinstein said her initiative has nothing to do with a possible race for governor. She’s just passionate about schools. “If I do nothing else,” she said the other day, as she neared the end of her fifth year in the Senate, “the one thing I want to do in public life is education reform.”

But the real problem here is neither motive nor, in some cases at least, even substance. It’s the means. Both Wilson and Feinstein want to go to the ballot thus writing untested and in some cases uncoordinated reforms into law or into the constitution and out of reach of easy legislative amendment, and totally out of reach of locally elected school officials. Feinstein wants to finance her program the summer school proposal, the upgrade in teacher training from a sharp ($1 a pack) increase in the cigarette tax.

Thus a worthy objective better schools is tied to a habit that the state is making every effort to end. A higher tobacco tax to discourage smoking and fund health care for smoking-related diseases, as Proposition 99 imposed, makes sense. A higher tobacco tax to fund education programs does not.

But the greatest hazard of all this reforming and initiating is the inflexibility and non-coordination that comes with the process, and particularly the constraints on the ability of local districts and teachers to experiment and to adjust programs as they see fit.

All of which again highlights the non-accountability of a system where authority is as crazily divided as California’s: between local officials and state politicians; between an elected superintendent and an appointed state board; between the elected governor who appoints that board and the legislature that appropriates school funds; and among countless task forces, commissions, and boards that dish up reports faster than you can read them. With schools the issue-of-the-day, it’s hardly surprising that every pol has dropped a hook into the pond where so many fish are jumping. But don’t expect any decent policy or planning to come out of it.

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