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The Chicken Littles of Education By: Chris Weinkopf
FrontPageMagazine.com | Tuesday, September 12, 2000

SHORT of admitting more states into the union, nothing could cause California schools, which are ranked among the worst in the nation, to fall any lower.

That sad reality is the impetus behind Proposition 38, a statewide ballot initiative that would give parents $4,000 tuition vouchers for private and parochial schools. It’s why Silicon Valley venture capitalist Timothy Draper is willing to contribute as much as $40 million of his own money for the effort, and why the education establishment -- which knows that parents would choose private schools if they could afford them -- has responded to the initiative with knee-jerk hysteria.

These anti-reformers comprise the unified forces of school administrators, teachers unions, and the politicians who depend on their campaign contributions. They speak earnestly of the need to “improve” public education, but reflexively denounce any plan that might actually change it. They play the role of Chicken Little in the public-policy debate, breathlessly warning anyone who will listen that, if their monopoly fell, the sky would quickly follow.

If the panic seems familiar, it’s because it was last on display only two years ago. Then, the anti-reformers frantically mobilized against Proposition 227, which ended bilingual education in the state. Although they conceded that the decades-old bilingual-ed system was “broken,” they gravely cautioned against taking kids out of it.

They thought they saw chunks of the heavens falling to the earth.

Gray Davis, in the midst of a gubernatorial campaign largely financed by the education establishment, was a prominent voice in the anti-227 chorus, calling the initiative “a mistake.” Speaking before the Mexican-American Committee on Education, he denounced the proposition as one of the “unfortunate weapons of choice for ambitious politicians that seek to gain political power at your expense.”

Two years later, the governor has rejoined the anti-reformers in sounding the alarm. Davis stars in the unions’ TV spots against Prop. 38, calling it “a giant step backwards.” He warns that the initiative would “take money from public schools and spend billions on voucher schools, with no standards for students, no credentials for teachers, and no accountability to taxpayers.”

Davis’s screed is a variation of the old refrain from the 227 days -- as bad as California’s public education might be, reform would make it even worse. Only now, it’s harder to put much stock into the unsurprisingly grim forecasts. Far from devastating California’s education system, Prop. 227 -- which 69 percent of the state’s voters approved -- has strengthened it.

The average standardized reading score for California second graders with limited English skills has gone up 9 points in the last two years, from the 19th to the 28th percentile. Math scores have followed suit, leapfrogging from the 27th percentile to the 41st. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the number of kids who became fluent in English was nearly 25 percent higher than in the last year of bilingual education.

The dramatic results have prompted some of the more honest naysayers to recant. Ken Noonan, superintendent of the Oceanside School District and onetime co-founder of the California Association of Bilingual Educators, predicted that Prop. 227 would be disastrous. Now, having witnessed its success firsthand, he’s seen the light. “I thought it would hurt kids,” he told the New York Times. “The exact reverse occurred, totally unexpected by me. The kids began to learn -- not pick up, but learn -- formal English, oral and written, far more quickly than I ever thought they would.”

But mostly, the anti-reformers hope that the public will forget how wrong they were last time they issued their dire predictions. Gov. Davis ironically cites the state’s improved test scores -- in large part the fruit of the reform he opposed -- in his latest defense of the status quo. He told the Associated Press that because the state’s education programs “are beginning to work,” California should “stay the course.”

Davis and fellow anti-reformers argue that if Prop. 38 passes, kids and voucher money will find their way into substandard private schools. It’s an elitist position based on the assumption that poor parents would actually choose an inferior education for their own kids.

That seems doubtful. Unlike the education establishment, which prioritizes its self-preservation above all other concerns, the vast majority of parents want nothing more than what’s best for their children.

Davis calls Prop. 38 a “mistake,” which, amusingly enough, is the same word he used to deride Prop. 227 in 1998. It’s also a fair description of previous prognostications, which now seem much more like cheap scare tactics than a realistic assessment of state education policy.

The sky isn’t going anywhere, but the anti-reformers’ credibility is falling fast.

Chris Weinkopf is an editorial writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News. To read his weekly Daily News column, click here. E-mail him at chris.weinkopf@dailynews.com.

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