California’s economy is up, its crime rate is down and almost by default, the wretched condition of public education is likely to dominate next year’s campaigns — as well it should.

After years of being ignored by California’s supposed leaders, the schools’ plight has elbowed its way into public consciousness and, therefore, onto the political agenda. Californians may not agree on exactly what is wrong with the schools or how to fix them but they know that the status quo is an embarrassment.

This week’s revelation that a majority of California’s eighth-grade students score below minimal standards in science skills, as measured by a nationwide test, was simply the latest evidence that children are not being prepared for today’s and tomorrow’s high-tech economy.

Gov. Pete Wilson, who has become a born-again advocate of educational progress, described the science test results as “deplorable and inexcusable.” That’s absolutely correct, but Wilson must also shoulder a share of the blame for allowing the schools to deteriorate and thus require drastic repair. The decline may have begun years before Wilson became governor, but until the last couple of years he evinced no public desire to address it.

As the 1998 campaign season approaches, it’s virtually certain that education will preoccupy politicians and voters, albeit through myriad specific issues.

First, and perhaps foremost, it’s dead-certain that a ballot measure that would radically change bilingual education affecting more than a million youngsters will appear before voters in June. On Thursday, San Diego Mayor Susan Golding, who’s running for the U.S. Senate, became the latest Republican politician to endorse the measure.

Polls indicate that the proposal enjoys a 4-to-1 support level among voters, and if that translates into a landslide victory in June it could seriously undermine Democrats’ oft-demonstrated advantage among voters on the education issue.

If revenues continue to pour into the state’s coffers at a high clip, due to the surging economy, it will mean another mandatory financial windfall for schools and thus will touch off another round of jousting over how the extra bucks are to be spent since everyone in politics wants to appear to be a friend of education.

Should more money be spent on reducing class sizes, which has been enormously popular if educationally suspect, or should the dollars flow into repairing dilapidated buildings, buying more computers, books and other instructional materials or be used to raise teachers’ salaries and/or lengthen school years? The possibilities are endless, and everyone will be selling his or her panacea, especially in light of the bad news on science test scores.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who may or may not run for governor next year, has unveiled what she describes as a comprehensive educational reform scheme, and Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, who’s already declared for governor, has his own plan for pedagogic progress. Airline tycoon Al Checchi, another Democratic hopeful, says he wants to make educational improvement a cornerstone of his drive.

The Republican candidate, Attorney General Dan Lungren, would probably prefer to have crime, or at least the fear thereof, be the dominant issue next year. But with crime rates down and the death penalty no longer a burning issue for voters — since most Democrats now support it — Lungren will ignore the yearning for educational betterment at his own peril.

It’s an issue that burns the hottest with parents and voters who have the weakest partisan identification — immigrants and baby boomer suburbanites — and therefore could tip the outcome of contests from the top of the ticket to the bottom.

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