Can any governor fix California schools?

There is no doubt that Republican Bill Simon is correct when he says California's public schools are inadequate, that they have not improved enough during Democratic Gov. Gray Davis' three-year-plus in office.

But after almost 12 years of self-styled "education governors" from both major parties and after a decade of assured funding of schools under the 1988 Proposition 98, there is now reason to doubt that any governor can fix the public schools.

Not even the state's six-year-old $1 billion-per-year experiment with class-size reduction produced the benefits lawmakers and voters had hoped for. Some schools did indeed see greatly improved test scores and educational quality with smaller classes in the elementary grades, but others benefited little, if at all, from the smaller primary-grade classes that began in 1996 under Republican ex-Gov. Pete Wilson.

In virtually all large districts, schools with mostly low-income students saw test scores increase 10 percent or more, while schools with few low-income students experienced only an average one percent increase in math scores and 6 percent in reading. The numbers come from a new study by the Public Policy Institute of California.

But in the state's largest district, Los Angeles, lower class sizes actually produced lower test scores -- if there's any cause-and-effect relation working here at all. Los Angeles schools with the state's highest percentage of African-American students experienced drops of 15 percent after class sizes diminished.

This may say more about mismanagement or poor quality teaching in Los Angeles than anything else. There, as elsewhere, class-size reductions produced a shortage of teachers, leading to hiring of many who are less qualified than teachers usually are. What's more, many of the district's most experienced teachers resisted assignments to inner city schools. While there are exceptions, for the most part the newest, the least qualified Los Angeles teachers went to the worst schools -- and those schools got worse.

The contrasts are sharp between largely black schools in Los Angeles and those in the next five largest districts: Fresno, Long Beach, Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco. Scores in those districts rose an average of nearly 15 percent -- an overall 30 percent better performance than in Los Angeles.

Overall, class-size reduction -- billed by Wilson as an education panacea -- has achieved little, in part because it created more classrooms and brought large numbers of underqualified teachers into them. Even the improvements since reductions occurred might be no more than a product kids being taught the kinds of material that shows up on standardized tests. Teaching to the test, it's called.

Meanwhile, Davis tried to build on the Wilson class-size reductions by stressing achievement tests and school accountability. Results are far from fully known as yet, but early indications are that California has not risen much in national rankings. One survey classified 1,009 California schools as "failing" because of poor student performance, making kids there eligible for transfers to higher-performing schools within the same district under the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

That meant this state, with one-tenth of the national population, has one-eighth of its worst schools.

Could Davis have done much to improve this? He funded schools above the Proposition 98 requirements in each of his budgets until this year's shortfall came along. He expanded class-size reduction to more grades. He set up new tests and standards. Like Wilson, he wants desperately to be remembered as an education governor.

But Simon uses the overall results as fodder for attacks on Davis. "Gray Davis promised the voters he would make education his first, second and third priority," Simon said. "But just like the state budget, the governor has left our children in schools near education bankruptcy."

How would Simon do things differently? He doesn't say. His Spanish-language TV commercials promise Latinos their neighborhoods would get better schooling if he were governor, but don't say how.

He insists, "We cannot expect these (bad) numbers to turn around when we have a governor who is focused full time on fundraising for his political campaigns." But he won't say what he'd do, except wring his hands.

Which leaves open the question of whether any governor can improve public education here. The Public Policy Institute Study makes plain that a lot depends on individual districts. Tactics that work wonders in some districts don't work in others.

It's also plain that as long as California tests all limited-English proficiency children who have been in schools here longer than one year, it will have an especially hard time climbing in national test-score ranks. No one can expect kids not yet fluent in English to score well on English-language tests.

So a lot depends on who gets tested and where they go to school.

No governor can change this without dictating hiring, curriculum and discipline policies for local districts and without excluding immigrant children from testing.

Since no governor will soon want to do any of that, it will be hard for any governor to achieve much in education for the foreseeable future. -30-

Elias is author of "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It." His e-mail address is

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