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May 20, 1999

The Hart of the Matter

http://www.jewishjournal.com/articles/item/the_hart_of_the_matter_19990521

The subject arose over dinner in a neighborhood restaurant. Have you heard, asked a friend who's generally up on current affairs, that the new governor wants to open the University of California system to the top 4 percent of every high school graduating class? The implications seemed obvious: If 4 percent of the graduating seniors of every public high school in the state were to receive automatic admission to UC, this would be one more signal that diversity was being prized over quality. Why, we all wondered, was Gov. Gray Davis putting his clout behind the dumbing-down of a once-proud university? And, more to the point, what would happen to our own teenaged children? As parents, we had worked hard to enroll them in public schools with high standards and large numbers of high achievers. If our high school seniors didn't fall into the magic 4 percent, would they be out in the cold? Would they end up wishing they had gone to school in South Central instead of Santa Monica or Beverly Hills? As parents, as UC graduates, and as taxpayers, we were sorely perturbed.

Now that I've talked with state Secretary of Education Gary K. Hart, I feel a bit better. Hart, not to be confused with the presidential candidate whose hanky-panky once made headlines, was Gov. Davis's very first appointment. Until recently he served as co-director of the California State University Institute for Education Reform, an organization he founded. Before that, he spent two decades as a state legislator representing Santa Barbara. As a former high school and college instructor, Hart often focused on education issues: he chaired the State Senate Education Committee and authored legislation involving charter schools, staff development, and class size reduction. So he's a man with experience in the field, as well as strong ideas about what works. Hart helped Gov. Davis spearhead the package of educational reforms that zoomed through a special session of the state legislature this past March.

Hart and I began with the question of admission to UC. The 4 percent proposal approved by the University regents is intended, says Hart, "in no way to displace any currently eligible students." The idea is simply to enlarge the eligibility pool slightly, to help it conform statistically with the mandates of California's Master Plan for Higher Education. The 4 percent plan will encourage those schools, often rural, that send no graduates to UC to beef up their programs and heighten their students' aspirations. The key point: these students (about 3,500 of whom are not already eligible by other criteria) must meet UC entrance requirements for coursework in a variety of fields. This distinguishes California's new scheme from that of Texas, which now admits the top 10 percent of graduates from each high school, regardless of whether they meet the University of Texas's entrance standards. Hart believes students who've fulfilled UC's A through F course requirements (four years of English, and so forth) and graduated in the top 4 percent of their high schools "have the capability to do well at the University of California," even though some schools may offer a less rigorous curriculum than others. He concedes, however, that it would be helpful to beef up the University's support systems, including the availability of tutoring, with this new group in mind.

To demonstrate that UC is not lowering its standards, Hart points to o ther changes in the eligibility criteria, including an added fine arts requirement. A controversial proposal to cut in half the extra grade point now awarded for high school honors and Advanced Placement classes was strongly opposed by Davis. The Regents tabled this indefinitely.

Although Hart rejects some new policies in Texas, he looks to the Lone Star state as a model in the area of accountability. True, Texas' adoption of statewide assessment exams has led to abuse in some districts, where administrative finagling has flourished as schools seek to preserve their reputation for high scores. Still, Hart cites major gains when the students of Texas are measured by national educational standards. This is partly why California students faced a barrage of state exams this spring, to the despair of principals who worry about the loss of instruction time. Hart is unmoved by the plight of top students trying to juggle California's Stanford 9 tests, Advanced Placement exams, and Golden State testing, which determines state honors. He says, "my principle concern is students who are in the bottom half of the class," for whom standardized assessments (and, down the road, exit exams) can provide long- range incentive to do better.

Low-achieving students are not rare in California, but Hart disputes the notion that the public school system "went into the toilet" after the passage of Proposition 13, which cut off property tax revenues as a source of school funding. He does admit that much of the state's current educational budget goes toward "the 100,000 additional immigrant children who arrive each year." But this hardly makes him a proponent of vouchers as a way to help those stuck in bad schools. Vouchers, he feels, would sap the public school system, which provides "a common experience that really adds to our democratic experiment in the United States." If most families counted on religious and ethnic groups to educate their children, he fears that "balkanization" would be the end result.

In the aftermath of the Columbine tragedy, it's hard to look at publ ic high schools as places where differences are respected and cherished. Without claiming to have all the answers, Hart comments that "we need to do a better job of listening to adolescents." This of course implies small class size and enough support staff to go around. Because California ranks last in the nation in the ratio of students to counselors, this is one of many areas in which Gary Hart has his work cut out for him.


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