The Magazine


May 18, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 35 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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The California governor's race -- with two millionaires, Democrats Al Checchi and Jane Harman, and two statewide officials, Democrat Gray Davis and Republican Dan Lungren, contending -- 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 52-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 Checchi, Harman, and Davis are banking on. The cultural issues the Democrats will use against Lungren -- "choice, tobacco, and guns," as Harman puts it -- are established winners for Democrats in the Pacific states. And though Republicans have held the California governorship for 16 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 California Democrats are saying on education shows that opinion on this leading issue has moved sharply to the right. Checchi, Harman, and even Davis sound very much like William Bennett or Chester Finn. They have 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 '60s, 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 20 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 49th 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? As Al Checchi said in late April, when asked whether he sent his children to public school, "Of course not. Why would I do that?"

But after 20 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 can't lead the nation and the world in prosperity and opportunity if we continue to accept schools that are falling behind," says candidate Checchi. " 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 23 of the last 25 years and is supported by the very teachers unions that have influenced the school system more than anyone else. 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."