Sacramento Bee [Metro Final Edition], October 21, 1998, p. B9
Some school choice -- Status quo vs. the wrecking crew
Peter Schrag Column
Delaine Eastin, running for re-election as state superintendent of public instruction, faces a simple problem. Everyone and his brother is beating up on the schools that she is supposed to be in charge of, and while she controls almost nothing, she has that mind-numbing title.
Right now she leads her opponent by a shrinking margin of 28 percent to 18 percent in the Field Poll -- some polls have the margin even slimmer -- with "dunno" far ahead of both. For an incumbent, that is nothing to cheer about.
Running against her is an Orange County schoolteacher, Gloria Matta Tuchman, who has embraced virtually every conservative shibboleth about public education ever conceived, but has done nothing to show that she could run a major state agency.
Tuchman likes vouchers, opposes social promotion and, as the co-author of Proposition 227, the anti-bilingual initiative passed in June, doesn't want to let schools teach kids in their primary language, even if they know no English. Tuchman, candidata para jefe de las escuelas estatales, has a bilingual Web site on the Internet.
Eastin's biggest source of money is the California Teachers Association and other elements of the school establishment; most of Tuchman's comes from the voucher crowd. The status quo vs. the wrecking crew. What a choice.
Compounding the problem for everyone is an upside-down school governance structure that invites controversy and sabotage. Tuchman accuses Eastin -- correctly in many cases -- of getting in the way of the curricular reform decisions of the appointed state school board. She says she would implement the board's policies.
But what would she do if the board were appointed, not by a Republican such as Gov. Pete Wilson, but by a wholly owned subsidiary of the CTA such as Gray Davis, which, given Davis' lead in the polls, is highly likely? Suppose the board revised the controversial State Testing and Research (STAR) program test to make it fuzzier and friendlier? Would she, as the bearer of tougher standards, cheerfully implement that decision? Could she work any better with Davis than Eastin has with Wilson?
Eastin claims that she was pushing for class-size reduction and a longer school year well before Wilson wrapped himself in these things. But he's the governor and has the power -- and thus the ability to claim credit, if credit is deserved. And if truth be told, a lot of people were there before Eastin. Nor did she lead the push for the reform of the state's reading program, as she claims; she was dragged to it.
Still, when a politically appointed board is supposed to make policy for an independently elected superintendent, conflict is inevitable. And since California's 1,000 elected district boards are supposed to set local school policy, accountability becomes even more confused. If politics were rational, this election would be about abolishing the state superintendent as an elected office, not about picking yet another one, much less adding yet another bureaucracy, as proposed by Proposition 8.
But that's only part of the confusion. While voters say they're interested in education, few have any idea of what's going on in the schools; they don't know that California's school funding is far below the national average, and the lowest among the major industrial states. And if they believe the rhetoric coming from the politicians and most of the media, they're certain that they're in a great educational wasteland producing graduates none of whom can read or get a decent job.
That's hardly the whole picture, either in this state or nationally. Far more students than ever are taking the core academic courses required for admission to the University of California; many more are taking and passing advanced placement courses. And while SAT verbal scores for graduating seniors preparing to enter selective colleges are up only slightly in the past decade, math scores are at their highest point since 1973-74, despite the fact that many more students are taking the test. UC President Richard Atkinson says today's entering UC freshmen are far better prepared than their predecessors.
None of those things mitigates the dismal performance of California fourth- and eighth-graders on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or the state's worrisome dropout rate, which, as The Bee's Deb Kollars recently reported, is a good deal higher than the phony numbers touted by Eastin and the state Department of Education. Nor does it mitigate the rigidity and bureaucratic arrogance of many schools and districts.
But given the high concentrations of limited-English-speaking kids in the state's classrooms -- roughly one of every four California students; given the chronically high child poverty rate; given the high rates of transiency; and given a 20-year history of underfunding and public indifference, it's surprising that California does as well as it has been doing.
For 20 years we've systematically starved the schools -- of facilities, books, libraries, laboratories, counselors, nurses. We've let buildings rot, watched the quality of the teaching force decline and, in the face of general indifference, allowed teachers unions and deadbeats to run many of our districts. For nearly a decade, we were without a statewide test. Why are we surprised that we stink in so many areas?
In the end, Eastin will probably win, in part because she has more money for last-minute TV time and slate mailers, in part because Tuchman's only real strength is that she's not the incumbent. Who in her right mind would want this office?
The best course would be to abolish it, turn the superintendent into a gubernatorial appointee and thus make clear to all that the governor has the accountability that his power already gives him. Eastin deserves to take the rap for a lot of things. But most of those now looking for a target to blame for our 20-year record of neglect ought to look in the mirror first. ***************************************************** Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618)453-4244 Phone: (618)453-4241 (office) E-mail: JBECKER@SIU.EDU