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Beware the 'Era of Higher Expectations'

By Mark Baldassare, senior fellow, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Sacrament Bee on January 24, 1998

In his State of the State address on Jan. 7, Gov. Gray Davis told Californians to prepare themselves for an "era of higher expectations." He also made it very clear that the major triumph of the new era would be a significant improvement in the stateís underachieving public school system.

For someone who got to the governorís office by convincing voters that he is a careful and deliberate politician, Davis certainly seems to have thrown caution to the wind. After all, for the stateís top elected official to link his political fate the turnaround of a complicated public school system is a truly bold and daring - if not potentially self-defeating - move.

Making good on his promise to hit the ground running, Davis called the Legislature into a special session on education last Tuesday. The aim of this session is to quickly pass a package of school reform bills and then send them to the governorís desk for speedy approval and implementation. While Sacramento buzzes with activity and optimism, it is perhaps a good time for a reality check on what the public expects from their new governor and the Legislature, and what voters are likely to do next if they donít get what they want.

A new Statewide Survey by the Public Policy Institute of California shows Californians are in remarkable consensus about the need to improve K-12 public education. No other state issue - not crime, immigration, the economy, taxes, traffic, environmental pollution or health care reform - ranks anywhere close in importance to reforming the stateís public schools.

Moreover, the public is undeterred by any talk of a looming state budget deficit in their quest for better schools. Roughly nine in 10 residents say that K-12 public education spending should be given the highest priority, even if the state government has to reduce other spending this year. Fewer Californians place such high importance on the major spending categories in the state budget - higher education, public health and welfare, and prisons.

So, Californians will not take a shortfall of funds as an excuse for not making improvements on the school; instead, they would want their elected officials to reorder the state governmentís fiscal priorities, even though state law and federal mandates leave them little discretion to do so.

When we asked why schools are not performing as well as they could, Californians had a number of ideas. At the top of the list were teachers, mentioned by one in five residents. About 10 percent named the lack of state funding, overcrowded classrooms and lack of involvement by parents. Fewer than 5 percent said the fault lies with a lack of standards and testing, curriculum and books, or with the failure of local school bond measures. Surprisingly, only 2 percent said that non-English speaking students are to blame for poor school performance.

The public today feels strongly about a variety of school reforms, some of which Davis has advocated. More than eight in 10 want to increase teachersí pay based on merit, in order to attract and retain the best teachers. A similar number want to require teachers to be given more training and meet tougher credential standards before they enter the classroom. Eight in 10 also want to reduce class sizes to a maximum of 20 students from the kindergarten through the sixth grade, extending a popular program that now applies only through the third grade. Eighty-eight percent want the state to raise standards for learning and require that students pass achievement tests before they are promoted to the next grade.

But while Californians this year seem to want it all in terms of school reform, they have deep doubts that the governor and Legislature can actually deliver on any of it. For instance, only 11 percent have a "great deal" of confidence in the ability of the governor and state Legislature to solve the stateís most important problems. Six in 10 have "only some" confidence in their stateís leaders, while three in 10 have very little or no confidence.

Two thirds see the state government as "pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves," while only three in 10 see it as "run for the benefit of all of the people." More than half think that state government wastes "a lot" of the money collected in taxes, while four in 10 say it wastes some money and only 5 percent say it doesnít waste very much.

There are obviously many skeptics out there when it comes to the new governorís promise of an "era of higher expectations." So, how is the public likely to respond to talk of education reforms this year?

First and foremost, with disbelief. They expect the governor and state Legislature to get bogged down in the details, cave in to special interests and end up in gridlock. Thatís their image of how state government works. If a legislative agenda actually comes to fruition, voters will want concrete proof that these government actions are having immediate results.

That makes this a time of political danger for Davis and the Democratic-controlled Legislature as they begin to grapple with school reform. They have already complicated the process by creating expectations that will be hard to fulfill right away.

Before it is too late, Davis has to change the nature of the conversation about school reform. He needs to focus on creating more realistic expectations for school improvements, including creating a time schedule, setting short-term goals and making people aware of the progress along the way toward the ambitious goal of having among the best schools in the nation. Otherwise, he risks facing the consequences of creating expectations that may not be immediately attainable.

For one thing, big institutions such as public schools do not change overnight. The public must understand that it may be years before laws passed today have any significant effect on the quality of education at the local level. In fact, changes in this yearís test scores may better reflect actions taken by former Governor Pete Wilson in previous years than the proposals that are implemented by the new administration.

Further, student achievement test scores will not necessarily show large, across-the-board gains as a result of school reforms, and the public must learn to view these achievement tests with great caution.

For instance, in neighborhoods with growing concentrations of non-English speaking immigrants and poor children, there will continue to be downward pressure on student scores. School reforms do nothing to address the growing gap between the wealthy and poor that is reflected in many underachieving local schools. There is no reason to expect scores in truly disadvantaged areas to get significantly higher until the parents of school children in those areas move into the economic mainstream.

If Californians are not carefully led through the school reform process, and told to expect smaller short-term gains in advance of truly remarkable changes, the public could easily become disappointed and frustrated by the end of 1999. In California, this frustration has a tendency to play itself out through the initiative process.

In fact, 75 percent of Californians in our latest survey said that they think the best way to address state problems is to bring initiatives to the ballot box and pass them. Only one in five said the best way to solve problems is to have the governor and state Legislature decide what to do and pass laws, which is the route we are now taking with the special legislative sessions. By as soon as the 2000 election, voters could be angry enough to send a message to Sacramento by supporting ballot initiatives that would bring about more drastic changes in the stateís schools, such as vouchers, expanding charter schools, tougher teacher credentials, greater accountability for local school officials and required funding for extending class size-reductions up through the higher grades.

Davis is off to an excellent start with the proposals he has offered for school reform. He enjoys broad public support for his ideas, and these efforts are likely to make a difference in due time. At the State of the State address, Davis made his point about increasing local school accountability by saying, "When an NFL coach has one losing season after another, he gets replaced. Period. End of the story."

California voters are likely to show the same kind of loyalty to their stateís elected officials if they canít clear the bar they have set for improvements to public education. If Davis creates impossible dreams, and doesnít demonstrate steady progress, then he could pay the price at the ballot box. After all, only a little more than half of Californians in our recent survey have even bothered to learn the name of their new governor.


California in the New Millennium: The Changing Social and Political Landscape

Statewide Survey Series