by Sigrid Bathen published November 22, 1998

The day after Lt. Gov. Gray Davis’ gubernatorial victory, Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni (D-San Rafael), a former school-board member and current chair of the Assembly Education Committee, made a telling observation. “The voters have thrown us the ball,” she said. “We’d better not drop it.”

Not only had voters elected as governor a candidate whose No. 1 issue was education, they had passed a whopping $9.2-billion statewide school bond and numerous local bonds and sent a strong message that the state’s crumbling education system must be fixed. Mindful of this, Davis moved swiftly to appoint a 13-member task force on education, naming Barry Munitz, the former California State University chancellor and current president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, to head it. The team is charged with making immediate recommendations on how to fix California’s education network.

Yet another study group to ponder the state’s ailing education system, with its complex and special mix of problems, is hardly a new idea, though Davis’ task force is something of a precedent. The difference now is the extraordinary attention and money being focused on the schools, at all levels, and the pressing sense of urgency that reforms must come before yet another crop of ill-educated students graduate.

What is especially striking about Davis’ education task force is the influence of higher education on the panel (six of the 13 members are connected with the state college and university systems), which partly reflects the growing concern over the sorry state of teacher training, the main duty of the state’s colleges, and the heavy demands being placed on the system by unprepared high-school graduates who require intensive remedial education in college. California also needs to train considerably more, better-prepared teachers for schools facing huge population increases, as well as to meet the demands of class-size reduction.

Although the panel represents a broad spectrum of the education community–teachers’ union representatives, a pioneering elementary-school principal, the superintendent of a large district (San Diego), and charter-school advocates–it also includes business leaders and pointedly excludes the heads of several major statewide education groups routinely named to such study groups in the past. “Everyone wanted a seat,” Munitz says, “but this is not like a two-year study commission to look at the root causes of problems in K-12. We have key deadlines to meet, and we have to move quickly. . . . Our single most important deadline is to call a concurrent special session [on education].”

Among the notably absent are the state’s overburdened community colleges, with their maze of locally elected boards and a statewide governance system with limited authority. Nor are the state’s plethora of local school boards represented–some 1,000, all elected, with wide variations in district size and, many critics say, general competence–or the obscure county boards of education, one for each of California’s 58 counties, all elected, except for L.A. County’s, which is appointed by the Board of Supervisors. Perhaps the most daunting task of the education panel will be what, if any, recommendations it makes about this unwieldy system of governance, a subject hardly mentioned in any of the quick-fix political-reform proposals but at the heart of the state’s education quagmire. “It’s got to be streamlined,” Munitz says. At some point, he added, “we have to take a look at this massive truckload of an education code.”

Not only does California have a constitutionally mandated state superintendent–Delaine Eastin, elected to a second term–who has little real power over either the state education budget or local schools, but policy authority is vested in an 11-member state Board of Education appointed by outgoing Gov. Pete Wilson. Since Davis will have at least five–six by this summer–appointments to the board, the currently divisive relationship between the board and Eastin will doubtless change. It is unclear what, if anything, Davis will do about the “education secretary” position created by Wilson, the latter’s attempt to create a Cabinet-level education post that was repeatedly rebuffed by the Legislature.

While Eastin and Davis reportedly have dealt with the fallout from Eastin’s decision in the primary to do a TV ad extolling then-Democratic candidate Al Checchi for supporting her education-funding proposals, she will be expected to toe the line and defer to the governor-elect on education. Munitz puts it bluntly: “[Davis] is the sole, senior intellectual leader, and she is a member of that team.”

A key member of the Davis task force is Gary K. Hart, a former state senator and Santa Barbara high school teacher who is codirector of California State University’s Institute for Education Reform. Former chair of the Senate Education Committee, Hart says the diverse backgrounds of task-force members represent both “its strength and its challenge” in reaching consensus on such issues as teacher preparation, early reading instruction and the twin reform buzzwords of “accountability” and “excellence.” A school-accountability measure, which would have held local school-site officials responsible for student performance, was vetoed by Wilson last session. Some type of accountability proposal–“one with teeth,” Munitz says–will probably be a centerpiece of the education package Davis submits to the Legislature. “We have to explore many options,” says Hart. “No one has a corner on this market. If you want to put together a package that is credible, and will get through the Legislature, all sides have to come to the table. Everyone, including the employee groups [the teachers’ unions] will have to give up something.”

Task-force members are moving through some uncharted territory in devising legislation for a special session. The announcement Thursday by the state legislative analyst that a $1-billion budget deficit may be looming for the 1999-2000 fiscal year puts a damper on new spending proposals. But the legislative proposals will probably target teacher preparation and training, school accountability and early reading proficiency, to name a few.

The California Teachers Assn. was a major Davis contributor and will certainly influence the content of the task force’s recommendations, though Munitz says “no constituency owns this governor.” The task force’s staff director, named two weeks ago, is Rick Simpson, a former teachers association lobbyist and longtime legislative staffer who is education advisor to Assembly Speaker Antonio R. Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles). He takes on the staff role, he says, “with the speaker’s” blessing.

Simpson concedes that the accountability or “rewards and consequences” aspect, clearly one of the most difficult legislative elements of the education-policy stew, will present the most formidable challenge for the panel. What rewards? What consequences? At the individual, school or district level? What about factors such as poverty and language differences? “It is fraught with political land mines,” he says, “and some technical land mines, as well. . . . You need to do it carefully, and not punish them for factors that are not in their control.”

Sigrid Bathen, a longtime education writer, is senior editor of California Journal, an independent monthly magazine that covers state government and politics.