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California Education Reform Stalls. Increased spending on schools has not kept up with the deluge of children into the system. A STATE AT RISK

California's public-school system - responsible for educating one of every eight children in America - is struggling to reestablish its position as an education leader among the states. But after almost five years of a costly statewide reform effort, some education specialists say the state is only a tiny fraction closer to that goal.

``Yes, we've seen improvements,'' says education professor James Guthrie of the University of California at Berkeley, a co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE). ``But overall, education in California is very mediocre.''

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State education leaders say they need more funds if the reform effort is to pick up momentum, but at the same time critics are asking why student achievement is improving at such a sluggish pace. Either way, experts warn that inexorable forces outside of anyone's control threaten to derail reform altogether - perhaps sending California public education back into a tailspin. These forces include the following:

One in every five children in California public schools lives in poverty, and many of them are underprepared when they enter school.

One in every six children was born in another country, and most of them are not proficient in English when they arrive.

Enrollment since 1983 has been climbing at a rate of more than 100,000 students each year. The education budget, therefore, must grow by leaps and bounds just to compensate for inflation and to keep spending-per-pupil constant.

``The magnitude of the problem is huge,'' Dr. Guthrie says, noting that every year the job of educators gets harder. ``In the aggregate, the state has made an awesome commitment to educating its 8 million schoolchildren [since 1983], even though spending per pupil isn't that great.''

But spending per student is precisely the measurement that most concerns state education superintendent Bill Honig. Given the extraordinary needs of California schoolchildren, ``we have to swim faster just to stay in the same place,'' he says.

The state's elementary and secondary public-school system, once widely regarded as an education pacesetter, began to lag in the 1970s, hampered by high inflation, dropping enrollment, and the loss of local taxing authority under the Proposition 13 tax revolt. Between 1978 and 1983, the disinvestment pattern continued, with the average California classroom losing $7,000 in purchasing power, Guthrie says.

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The state's landmark education-reform law of 1983, however, marked a renewed commitment to public education. Dovetailing with reform efforts nationwide that were prompted by the federal government's stinging education critique in ``A Nation at Risk,'' California was one of the first states out of the starting blocks in the race to reform.

But the state's pace has slackened during the past two budget years, Superintendent Honig says. Although California now spends $1,200 more per pupil than it did in 1983, that increase is just about even with the national average for all states, he notes. Further, California's competitive position compared to the 49 other states is not much improved - and it is slipping farther behind other major industrial states such as New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania.

Voters here, however, may have just provided Honig with the fuel he says he needs to power the reform movement full steam ahead. In November, Californians approved the controversial ballot measure Proposition 98, which requires that 39 percent of the state budget go to elementary, secondary, and community-college education. In the past five years, the percentage has ranged from 37 to 38.5.

To Honig, a major backer of Proposition 98, the victory represents a vote of confidence in the reform drive and in the concept of public education. During the campaign, he developed a primer full of statistics to convince Californians the reforms were working: increased teacher pay, better teacher training, higher academic standards, longer school days and school years, more students taking more classes in core academic subjects, and improving test scores. But to the measure's detractors, including Gov. George Deukmejian (R), Proposition 98 is an ``irresponsible'' idea that in effect will take money from programs such as highway construction, law-enforcement operations, and social services.

Education experts say a battle is likely to ensue this month over how the added education funds will be spent. Governor Deukmejian in the past has set a priority on lowering class sizes, which are the largest in the nation. Honig, however, is likely to advocate more flexible uses for the money.

But some critics, while conceding public education has improved under Honig, say the pace of progress is too slow to keep up with the challenges confronting the state. They are calling for basic structural changes in the education system - not just more money.

``The state's education system is like a wounded person bleeding, and we're just putting Band-Aids on it,'' says Joseph Alibrandi, chief executive officer of Whittaker Corporation, and a member of the influential California Business Roundtable that last year issued a critique of state public education. Calling for education to be based on ``the free-enterprise system,'' the roundtable report advocated competition, parental choice of schools, and bonuses for schools and teachers that meet or exceed achievement goals.

``As businessmen, we are seeing this nation's competitive position around the world deteriorating,'' Mr. Alibrandi says. A top-notch productive work force could be the saving grace, he says, ``but so far we're losing that competitive edge, and we're losing it dramatically. The time for tinkering is over.''

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