San Jose Mercury News
Saturday, January 17, 1998
Schools Measure Derailed
SACRAMENTO -- A proposal by San Jose Assemblyman Mike Honda to ward off state attempts to dictate teaching methods in California schools suffered a major setback Friday and may be dead.
The state constitutional amendment, aimed at undermining an anti-bilingual education initiative on the June ballot, stalled in the Assembly Education Committee.
Although Honda said he will try to revive the amendment next week, the first-term Democrat has only until Thursday to get the Assembly and Senate votes needed to place it on the June ballot.
The education committee adjourned without taking a vote on the amendment. But it was clear that most members did not support Honda's proposal.
"I think this rejects the will of the people," said Assemblyman George House, R-Modesto, reflecting the sentiments of many committee members.
Called the School Board Bill of Rights, Honda's measure would forbid the state from requiring any uniform method of teaching that has not been fully and objectively assessed.
Honda's proposal was aimed at tripping up Silicon Valley businessman Ron Unz's English for the Children initiative, which would all but dismantle bilingual instruction in the state and force schools to educate children in English.
Honda, a former San Jose school board member, argued that questions about teaching methods are best decided by local school boards, not the state or ballot initiatives.
"If we believe in local control, which body is closer to the community?" Honda asked the committee. "The 80 members up here in Sacramento, or the local board elected by the community? If we're going to impose something at the state level, then there should be a standard that is high."
Under Honda's plan, a panel of educational experts would be appointed by the state superintendent of public instruction to evaluate any proposed teaching methods. For a methodology -- such as English-only instruction -- to be accepted for statewide use, it would have to be shown as objectively superior to other methods.
But conservative committee members worried that the appointed panel would either be biased, or unable to agree on which teaching method is superior. As evidence, one lawmaker pointed to the still unresolved debates among educators over the best way to teach reading and math.
Several lawmakers also said they were reluctant to cede all decision-making authority about teaching to local school boards.
"It's not OK for the state to do it, but it's OK for the local boards to do it, to try out untested methodologies in the classroom?" Assemblyman Rod Pacheco, R-Riverside, asked Honda.
Plan was long shot
Honda's proposal was considered a long shot at best.
He wants to place his amendment on the June ballot, alongside the Unz proposal. But to do that, he needs to garner support in several legislative committees and the full Assembly and Senate, all by Thursday.
Last week, Honda found a way to bypass a mandatory 30-day waiting period -- which would have automatically stalled the proposal -- by folding his measure into another constitutional amendment that was sitting idle.
The education committee was considered a key hurdle since it marked the first substantive debate about the measure's effects.
At least three Democratic committee members, including Chairwoman Kerry Mazzoni of San Rafael, appeared to support Honda.
But most expressed strong reservations.
Fears of change
Assemblywoman Elaine Alquist, D-Santa Clara, said she supported Honda's intent. But she worried about the dramatic effect of changing the state constitution, and making it easier to invalidate legislation or ballot initiatives such as Unz's.
"The core issue for me is this constitutional amendment would give a small panel the ability to override the will of the people or their representatives in the state legislature," Alquist said.
Honda said he would continue to seek support for the proposal before another education committee meeting next week, making amendments if necessary. But he acknowledged his chances of success were a little less than 50-50.
"I want to get it to the (Assembly) floor," Honda said. "If we can just get it to the floor for a vote, then we'll see what happens."