Governor's embrace of reading comes at the right political moment; Widespread support makes reform easier


SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- He enlisted The Fonz for moral support. He called a special session of the legislature. And he visited so many schools in his first weeks in office that some aides complained that newly elected California Gov. Gray Davis wasn't minding the rest of the store.

Davis, the first Democrat in 16 years in the Golden State's top job, is the nation's latest "reading governor," proclaiming at his inauguration last month that improving reading in California will be his "primary, if not exclusive" focus.

The new governor set his sights on having all California children reading by age 9, climbing on the reading bandwagon with the likes of a fellow Democrat, President Clinton, and Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Other governors, including Maryland's Parris N. Glendening, have aligned themselves with the public's deep concerns about schools, using the powers of persuasion -- and of the purse -- to bolster education from pre-school to post-graduate.

But only Bush, of the other 49 governors, has mounted a full-scale attack on illiteracy. The political stars may be aligned for Davis to do it, too, in the nation's most populous state. And this could have broad ramifications for the rest of the country.

Davis, 56, took office with a friendly legislature and state school board, a longtime ally as secretary of education and a freshly re-elected Democratic state schools superintendent, Delaine Eastin, who says the opportunity for reform "is like Christmas come early."

In his first budget message, Davis proposed a $444 million package of initiatives he called "Raising Expectations, Achievement and Development" (READ). A special session of the California General Assembly is considering the proposals.

Davis wants to send 6,000 teachers -- new and current -- to a summer boot camp where they'll be trained in the phonics method of reading instruction. He has proposed $75 million for summer, after-school and Saturday "reading instruction academies," $25 million to stock elementary school libraries, $5 million for high school reading programs and $60 million to help non-English speakers learn to read.

Actor Henry Winkler, who as The Fonz on television's "Happy Days" became perhaps America's most famous school dropout, helped launch Davis' initiatives. Winkler, a poor student in grade school, discovered at 31 that he is dyslexic, then went on to earn a master's degree.

California schools are among the nation's most troubled. Only 22 percent of the state's third-graders tested above the national average last spring on statewide achievement tests, and the National Assessment of Educational Progress put California last of 39 states tested in 1994, with 60 percent demonstrating poor reading skills. (Maryland fourth-graders ranked 27th.)

"The NAEP scores were an embarrassment," says Gary K. Hart, Davis' secretary of education. "It was unacceptable to the politicians that we were down there with Mississippi and Louisiana in terms of reading scores. That, more than anything else, led to changes in state policy."

Among those changes is a mandate to invest $1 billion in reading and math textbooks under a new curriculum that emphasizes phonics in beginning reading and calls for every elementary classroom in the state to devote two hours a day to language arts.

Hart, a prominent former state senator, says the new governor "very much believes there needs to be a heavy emphasis on phonics and that a significant part of California's reading problems can be traced to whole language."

The whole-language method teaches reading by immersing children in literature. In the 1980s in California and much of the nation, it eclipsed phonics -- the method that begins with the sounds of words -- as the primary means of instruction.

Davis' approach strikes a chord outside the capital, too. A 23-year career politician and former chief of staff to Gov. Jerry Brown, Davis "isn't just a dreamer," says Judy Nakadegawa, a volunteer in her grandson's class at Oakland's Hillcrest Elementary School. "He knows what's possible. He didn't have to start running from a standing start."

Many in California are hoping that Davis will extend the state's 20-pupil limit on class size in the early grades -- put into effect 2 1/2 years ago -- to the upper elementary grades, which are bursting in a state with the highest enrollment growth rate in the nation. But Hart says that's not on the governor's immediate agenda.

Whatever happens in California, there is bound to be a ripple effect across the nation. With almost 6 million students, 124 languages spoken in its schools and a statewide textbook purchasing system, California is the 500-pound gorilla of American education.

As in the past, school districts across the nation will be choosing from reading textbooks that have been tailored to the huge California market. If the class-size initiative bears fruit, there will likely be pressure in other states to follow.

And if Davis thrives as an education governor focused on reading, he, too, may well be emulated by politicians across the nation.

Pub Date: 2/28/99

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