SACRAMENTO, CA—Gray Davis has set out to be the education governor but his plan for improving the state’s schools, while dubious, provides both a revelation about himself and a prophecy.
Proclaiming himself “the most determined man in Sacramento,” Davis has been visiting schools reading such texts as “The Little Engine that Could,” a title he sees as exemplifying his own run for governor, the little guy bucking the odds.
Davis’ plan to revive California’s schools includes intensive reading programs, a mandatory high school exit examination and more accountability for teachers. Nothing in that list will disturb those responsible for the dismal state of education in this state.
Of more interest is what Davis did not mention.
Charter schools _ deregulated public schools run by community organizations including parents and teachers _ are the most meaningful reform on the current scene and California was the second state to approve them.
There are now more than 150 charter schools statewide, most with waiting lists and high levels of satisfaction on the part of students, parents and teaches alike.
Teacher unions and education bureaucrats have opposed charter schools, likely the reason the governor failed to include their expansion in his agenda.
The powerful California Teachers Association (CTA) backed Davis run for office and his legislative aide Rick Simpson, according to one insider, “has carried water for the California Teachers Association for so long his shoes squish when he walks. ” California’s non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office has supported a pilot program of vouchers for students in the worst schools.
Allowing parents to choose their children’s education is not part of Davis’ vision, but he thinks it may be coming anyway.
“If we do not fix the schools,” he says “we’re looking at vouchers or some other seemingly attractive concept that will be imposed on us by the voters. “
It is dubious that any reform package that pleases the status quo will have much effect on California’s schools. And if they fail to improve, according to Davis, vouchers are inevitable.
But note that, in Davis’ view, the voters will “impose,” them, a revealing formulation which the governor has backwards.
By his standard, the voters have “imposed” Davis on the state.
Actually politicians and unelected regulators impose policies, many of them bad, on the populace, and our ballot initiative system allows voters to get rid of them.
For example, unelected bureaucrats had imposed bilingual education on the populace and voters wanted it abolished, voting in Proposition 227. Politicians imposed high taxes on the populace. In Proposition 13 voters chose to lower them. Unelected officials imposed racial preferences and in Proposition 209 voters chose to eliminate preferences.
The “us” Davis refers to is the professional political class of which he is a leading member.
This class, like royalty past, sees itself as above the common herd whose taxes support it, and considers itself possessed of a higher wisdom. Only a member of that class perceives the populace as “them” and an expression of the popular will as an imposition.
But the governor’s prophecy about vouchers is likely correct.
A spate of reforms, increased spending and even measures like charter schools have not removed the push for choice in education.
Indeed, African-Americans such as former Rep. Floyd Flake, New York Democrat, see parental choice in education as the civil rights issue of the 1990s. Backers of vouchers are considering a bid for the year 2000 and polls show that a majority of voters support school choice, a proven concept the governor should understand.
Davis is a veteran, eligible for the GI Bill, a successful program that funded not an educational system but individual students who studied at the school of their choice, from Notre Dame to UCLA.
Vouchers would extend the same privilege to children in the K-12 system.
If voters approve such a measure, they won’t be imposing anything on anybody.
They will simply be saying what our professional political class, including the governor, fails to understand: All parents should have choice in education as a matter of basic civil rights.
THE WRITER: Mr. Billingsley is editorial director of the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco.