A Radical Proposal to Give Parents Control of Schools California Proposition Would Be Biggest Test Yet of How Much Authority Parents Should Have over Budgets and Curricula. Series: Election for a New Century -1998

Article excerpt

Across the political spectrum, parental involvement in schools is seen as a good thing.

But California, in keeping with its trend-setting reputation, is considering a role for parents in local schools that makes even the state's PTA blanch. Contained in a ballot initiative that goes before voters Tuesday, the measure would put parents in control of a large slice of school budgets and curricula.

For supporters it's the logical extension of a nationwide movement of the 1990s to involve parents more in education, a practice that has declined in recent decades, particularly in the inner cities. For critics, it's a good idea taken to a frightening extreme, with no proof of its effectiveness. For all sides, it's a radical step that, if approved, would again make this state a bellwether on social policy, particularly in the field of education, as it was in 1996 when it ended race-based preferences in public education and earlier this year when voters terminated bilingual education. THOUGH this measure lacks the racial components that made those earlier initiatives so attention-grabbing, it too is sweeping and revolutionary. "This would be an unprecedented step into the great unknown," says Bruce Fuller, co-director of the Policy Analysis for California Education, a research group funded by Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley. The measure to give parents new clout is contained in a ballot initiative that includes a number of fundamental changes in how the nation's largest public school system would be run. Crafted and supported by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, the initiative would do things he was unable to push through the state's Democratic legislature. The initiative (called Proposition 8), comes wrapped in a feel- good banner of making permanent cuts in class size that even critics find hard to oppose. For two years, California has been offering money to school districts that reduce class size, and this initiative would establish a permanent fund to continue that shrinkage in Grades K through 3. But other key provisions of the initiative are vigorously opposed by the state teachers union, the state PTA, and others. Those provisions include establishing a new state inspector general for education, who would rank and evaluate all the public schools; giving principals the authority to fire teachers; requiring subject-matter competency tests for teachers; and forcing local schools to establish governing councils that would be two-thirds parents, one-third teachers. …