by Sigrid Bathen published May 31, 1998

When Kevin Gordon, governmental affairs director for the California School Boards Assn., showed up in mid-May for a scheduled cable-TV debate on Proposition 223, which would limit school-district spending on administration, the “pro” side didn’t send a representative. A few weeks earlier, at a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters, Gordon again appeared as scheduled. Again, the “pro” side didn’t show. “There have been many events where we’ve done it by ourselves,” Gordon says.

The lopsided debates over 223, known as “95-5,” are just one slightly bizarre turn in California’s continuing obsession with government by initiative. The fact that educators are at the epicenter of this season’s initiative wars, sometimes on different sides, underscores how intense is the debate, and how high the stakes, in the public demand for education reform. Indeed, two other initiatives, directly or indirectly, affect education, and the state’s powerful education lobby finds parts of itself moving in opposite directions and in a quandary over where to put its limited resources.

Proposition 223 pits school administrators, board members, nonteaching employees and many teachers against the 37,000-member United Teachers of Los Angeles. (The California Teachers Assn. and the California Federation of Teachers are neutral.) Proposition 227, which would end bilingual education, has drawn the ire of organized education groups but enjoys substantial voter support. Proposition 226, which would force unions to seek permission to spend dues on political campaigns, is opposed by the California Teachers Assn., which expects to spend at least $3 million to help defeat it.

“We’ve never had so many mega-issues [on the ballot],” says Davis Campbell, executive director of the California School Boards Assn. and a longtime deputy superintendent of the state Department of Education under then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Wilson C. Riles. “There are multiple issues in the Legislature as well–the school facilities battle, academic standards.” Unfortunately, says Campbell and other state education leaders, there is something of a “reform du jour” mentality in the rush to improve California schools.

Regardless of their views on the ballot measures, educators bemoan the huge expenditures necessitated by big-issue campaigns–money that is not going to the classroom, or to improve teacher training at a time when California is facing a huge teacher shortage, or to repair aging schools and build new ones. “I hate to be trite,” says Campbell, “but the devil is in the details. . . . They take our time and energy away from real solutions.”

Leading state educators dispute the perception that the education community–never a monolith on issues, but never so visible as it is now with public attention focused so intensely on the schools–is fractured and divided on the details of reform. Some blame Gov. Pete Wilson for creating this impression. He is clearly intent on being remembered as California’s “education governor” for his class-size reduction and other reform proposals while, to the angst of educators, vetoing bipartisan bilingual-reform legislation, sponsoring 226, supporting 227 and insisting all California students be tested in English whether or not they are proficient or even vaguely schooled in the language.

Although slightly leading in the polls, Proposition 223 seems to have no clear public presence as the primary draws near. Seemingly based on a simple premise–who among us with any knowledge of the state’s crumbling education system would not favor, at least in principle, the notion that less could be spent on administration of the schools, more on “direct services” to students?–it is facing heavy opposition. Opponents, including the school-boards association, the Assn. of California School Administrators, the state PTA and several major business groups, were expected to spend upward of $2.5 million in the homestretch on TV ads and phone banks to influence public opinion. It’s working. The most recent Los Angeles Times Poll found support for the initiative had dwindled from 55%, in April, to 40%, with an almost equal percentage opposed (38%), up substantially from 26% in April.

Admitting there are disagreements among teachers on 223, which would levy major fines on school districts spending more than the 5% permitted on “administration,” the initiative’s backers at UTLA say they cannot afford to spend heavily on 223. Privately, critics of 223 say UTLA leadership realizes the initiative, which is confusing on the key element of what constitutes administrative expenses, enjoys waning support and decided to put their remaining resources elsewhere.

UTLA leadership is unfazed by its lone-wolf image on 223. “We knew that CTA was going to be neutral, just as the CFT (California Federation of Teachers) was,” says Michael Cherry, UTLA-AFT vice president. “It’s a misunderstanding, a fear of the unknown. . . .” Cherry insists many smaller districts support 223, though opponents say they stand to be big losers if it passes. As the state’s largest school district, L.A. Unified would be the big winner, according to the opposition campaign.

Gordon insists the “split” among educators over 223 is “really not a split, but a splinter–a split assumes there is an equal number on both sides. Not one statewide group supports it. There is not one issue in the 10 years that I have been representing public schools that we have been on the same side as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., and this one we are.”

Perhaps the most worrisome initiative for the education lobby, principally the teachers’ unions, is Prop. 226, which does not, on its face, affect education. Yet, the initiative is seen by teachers as a slam at the power of their union to block vouchers. “The people who are behind this are the same people who want to privatize public education,” claims the CTA’s principal lobbyist, John Hein.

While many teachers are dissatisfied with the glacial pace of “transitioning” non-English-speaking students to “regular” classes, they generally oppose Proposition 227, although individual teachers support it. There are an estimated 1.4 million children in California, nearly one-fourth of them in L.A. Unified alone, who are not proficient in English. Most educators believe that while bilingual education can be vastly streamlined, abruptly dumping immigrant kids from many cultures into English-only classes would be disastrous.

Yet, solid opposition to Propositions 226 and 227 in no way means educators are agreed on how to reform the state’s education system. Educators are notoriously fractious and argumentative. They seem even more so now because their disputes are fully exposed to public view under the unforgiving microscope of political notoriety and expediency.

The spate of education initiatives and legislative wrangling over reform offer some indication of the intractable nature of the problem. But if there is one thing upon which educators agree, the initiative process is not the way to accomplish substantive change. It surely isn’t the least expensive, or the quickest–drawn-out court fights after passage are the rule rather than the exception.

Marion Joseph, a battle-scarred veteran of California’s education wars, longtime top administrator in the state Department of Education, now a member of the state Board of Education, says Californians have “this whole notion of systemic reform” that will somehow, magically, change the schools, preferably overnight. “I feel like a keeper of the history. I keep thinking, we did that, we didn’t get that done, why?”

“The problem,” she adds, “is that the systemic reform has often stopped at the classroom door.”


Sigrid Bathen is senior editor of The California Journal, a monthly magazine about politics and government.