The Big Enchilada

Friday, October 30, 1998

The California governor’s race—between two statewide officials, Democrat Gray Davis, currently California’s lieutenant governor, and Republican Dan Lungren, currently the state’s attorney general—is easily the most important election this year. For one thing, it is the Democrats’ best chance of picking up a big-state governorship; for another, the race tells us a lot about public opinion on the number-one issue in most polls, education.

There is some good news for the Democrats. They now hold the governorship of only one of the eight largest states, Florida, and they seem likely to lose it; they are far behind in Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, and Michigan and behind in Illinois and Ohio. But California is the big enchilada. If the Democrats win the governorship and hold the legislature, they will control redistricting for 2002 in a state with fifty-two-plus U.S. House seats. They will get a chance to build an attractive track record for their party, as Republican governors have done in so many states in the 1990s. And they might create a viable presidential candidate—a help to a party whose list of prospective candidates is as embarrassingly short as the Republicans’ is embarrassingly long.

But a Democratic victory in the California governor’s race would tell us little about public opinion. Bill Clinton has carried California twice, with the same blend of cultural liberalism and economic moderation that Democrat Davis is banking on. The cultural issues the Democrats will use against Republican Lungren—“choice, tobacco, and guns,” as one Democrat puts it—are established winners for Democrats in the Pacific states. And though Republicans have held the California governorship for sixteen years, Democrats came close to winning it the last two times it was open (Tom Bradley in 1982 and Dianne Feinstein in 1990). A win this year would not necessarily mean that California or the country had moved left.

In fact, it might mean the opposite. For what Gray Davis and the two Demo-crats he beat in the primary are saying on education shows that opinion on this leading issue has moved sharply to the right. Davis sounds very much like William Bennett or Chester Finn. He has repudiated the dogma of the teachers’ unions, whose political slaves Democrats heretofore have been.

The education debate is more starkly drawn in California than anywhere else. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the California school system seemed a model for the nation. It expanded to meet a vast population influx, adding a huge community college system (Lungren calls it “a jewel”), and produced some of the nation’s highest test scores.

But that was another California. About twenty years ago, the state embarked on an experiment, backed by Democrats and never effectively opposed by Republicans, that can be described with only slight exaggeration as a decision to stop teaching children to speak, read, and write English. Those with custody of the public school system—the schools of education, the teachers’ unions, the school administrators, and the Democrats in Willie Brown’s Assembly who blocked any possibility of reform—adopted policies of bilingual education and whole-language reading instruction that left California ranking forty-ninth in the country on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The affluent left, epitomized by the wealthy donors of Westside Los Angeles, actively supported this experiment, and the affluent right, epitomized by the Orange County Lincoln Club, responded with blank indifference. These groups could send their children to private schools, and who cared about the immigrant kids anyway?

Davis, who depends heavily on teachers’ unions and other traditionally Democratic groups, has used his considerable intellectual skills to come up with reforms that won’t antagonize them. But even he employs rhetoric tinged with scorn for the current system. When asked why the system has deteriorated during his twenty-three years in state government, he talks wanly about how 1978’s Proposition 13 cut revenues for schools but then launches into fairly sharp criticism of the status quo. “We need to ask more of everyone, students, teachers, parents,” he says. “If kids don’t meet standards, they should go to summer school or be held back.” He would copy Chicago’s practice of having every parent sign a contract promising to spend one hour a month in the children’s schools and twenty minutes a night helping with homework. He would have the state take over poorly performing schools. He would have teacher performance reviewed by peers every year, with recertification every five years. He promises to implement Proposition 227, which he opposed, which limits Spanish-language instruction to five years, and says he favors requiring foreign-language courses for high school graduation. This seems to be motivated by his desire to find jobs for surplus Spanish-language teachers but may be a good idea nevertheless. On whole language, he says, “I’m more inclined to basics for the twenty-first century—a heavy dose of phonics, memorizing multiplication tables. Some of my supporters”—the teachers’ unions—“don’t agree,” he says. “But school is not about teachers, it’s about students.”

Lungren has supported education reform for years, but with no serious primary opponent and every reason to conserve money for a general election race, he waited until April to run TV ads and come up with an education plan of his own. “Education would have been a Democratic issue four years ago,” he says, “but people have moved beyond the answer that money is the sole remedy.” He would discard new math and whole language for basic math and phonics, with student skill tests every year. “We need greater flexibility at the local level, with strict statewide standards, and accountability from teachers, from students, from administrators.” He favors greater choice of schools, moving toward vouchers. He favors smaller classes and greater flexibility for school districts. He favors a proposed November ballot initiative that would ease requirements for charter schools and encourage the founding of charter schools in low-performing school districts. He has already succeeded in getting more places reserved at the University of California and the California State University system for community college graduates. Harking back to the 1950s, he says, “I want to see California the kind of state I thought it was when I was growing up.”

Of course, there is no guarantee that either of these candidates would follow through on these reforms. And it is easy to see how some reforms could be sabotaged by teachers’ unions and education bureaucrats—what Bill Bennett calls “the Blob.” But it is clear that the voters of California, speaking through these two candidates, are issuing a stinging rebuke to the public school establishment.

They are demanding that kids be taught to speak, read, and write English. And there is no reason to think that opinion is very different in other states. True, the situation is not quite as dire elsewhere, the contrast with a golden past not so glaring, the mismatch between a competent private economy and incompetent public schools not so obvious. But the point has general application. Voters are fed up with the work of the education apparat. They are ready to vote not for the candidate who promises to spend most on public schools but for the one who promises to change them most dramatically.

One might suppose that this would give a big advantage to Republicans. But not necessarily. California is an apolitical commonwealth, where most media do not cover state government or politics (no Los Angeles or San Francisco TV station has a bureau in Sacramento), and either candidate for governor could have walked into a shopping mall in January without being recognized. That gives an enormous advantage to the celebrity candidate (Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown) and to the candidate who can spend vast sums of personal money. And it gives a big advantage to the candidate who has the discipline to concentrate on two or three popular arguments in his very limited time in the spotlight: This is how Pete Wilson, despite an acerbic personality, a small local base (San Diego), and middling poll ratings, has twice been elected senator and twice governor.

The public is demanding education reform, and one might suppose that this would give a big advantage to Republicans. Not necessarily.

But after twenty years, the contrast between California’s highly competent private economy and its highly incompetent public schools—between Silicon Valley and the public education system—has become too stunning to ignore. “We’re enjoying a good measure of prosperity. The only threat to that prosperity is our K through 12 system,” according to Gray Davis, who has held high state office for twenty-three of the last twenty-five years. Noting the mismatch between the supply of unskilled labor produced by public schools and the demand for skilled workers produced by the private economy, Davis goes on, “We are not growing our own. We have to import people from Asia and Europe.”

On the education issue, the politicians are struggling to keep up with the people they seek to lead. Others have already taken action. High-tech millionaire Ron Unz and Orange County teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman put Proposition 227 on the June ballot, to stop the practice of teaching non-English-speaking pupils in their native language (a practice known as “foreign-language instruction”) and instead provide them one year of “sheltered immersion,” instruction in English, but with special allowances for the linguistic transition they are going through. Proposition 227 passed overwhelmingly. Bill Honig, the man who as state superintendent introduced whole-language instruction, now is calling for more use of phonics. And outgoing Governor Pete Wilson, who allowed class size to balloon, has put up the money to cap classes at twenty kids in kindergarten through grade three.

Both candidates are trying to relate to a California with which neither is entirely in sync. Democrat Gray Davis did not grow up in California: Davis went to Stanford, returned to the state after law school, and immediately ran for office. He is completely in tune with the secular sensibility that dominates such public discourse as there is in California. Republican Dan Lungren has a different background. He was educated in Catholic schools (Notre Dame, Georgetown) and is the California version of a small-town boy, the son of Richard Nixon’s physician who grew up in Long Beach when it was an Ozzie-and-Harriet suburb. He is less smooth and poll driven than Davis, unafraid to stand up for his strong and, in some cases, unpopular views. In a pro-choice state, he proudly proclaims his opposition to abortion. But he is also politically adept enough to point out that on the only abortion issues likely to arise—parental consent, partial-birth abortion, and public funding—he stands with the large majority of voters. Lungren shows a solid command of the issues and a knowledge of state government that make him at least a match for Davis. Perhaps more important, he has the sunny optimism and self-confidence of the California of the 1950s, a time many look back on with longing, even though most voters don’t remember it.

This is a race that could go to either party. The outcome will have great practical political significance. But on education, the returns are already in. An ambitious Democrat is harshly attacking the education policy that the Democratic Party has backed for the last quarter century. Conservatives have carried the education issue, and in the long run, that should have much more significance for how Americans live than who becomes the next governor of California.