Gray Skies Ahead

He’s been talked up on the national scene, wooed by special interests and corporations, and achieved wild successes in fundraising — raising a stunning $37,000 per day since he took office in 1998, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Gov. Gray Davis, elected in an impressive victory three years ago, was widely hailed as just what the doctor ordered after former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson left office.

Sky Frostenson
Guardian

However, since those optimistic days, the economic and political climate here in California has soured, and the downturn has taken Davis’ popularity in a tailspin with it. The challenges Davis now faces, in terms of education, leadership, and the ever-looming energy crisis, have shown his true colors. Despite his above-average public relations and fundraising, Davis has been revealed as no more than your average self-interested politician, with a below-average knack for managing our complex state.

During Davis’ election campaign in 1998, he touted himself as a reform candidate, ready to step into the governor’s seat and address the myriad of problems that have always plagued California. A major element of his platform was education. Obviously, California’s public education system needs a shot in the arm: We lag near the bottom of national rankings for test scores and other barometers of student achievement.

Davis has done nothing to address the underlying problems at work here. Instead, he has implemented a largely worthless and incredibly costly standardized testing system that wastes teachers’ and students’ class time. Instead of learning the fundamentals, they spend days reviewing test-taking techniques. With the University of California’s recent steps toward eliminating the SAT I requirement for admission, it is clear that the ability of standardized tests to accurately measure student achievement is limited at best and should only be considered in conjunction with a wide variety of other criteria. Davis’ claim that standardized tests will light the way toward a better educational future for California’s children is clearly flawed.

Davis uses these tests to determine which schools should receive bonuses based on demonstrated improvement, meaning increasing test scores. However, while this may seem to be a good incentive to encourage schools to shape their kids up, this is clearly flawed. Such a program suggests that school administrators and teachers are somehow slacking off, and all they need is to have a monetary carrot dangled in front of them in order to mysteriously improve student achievement. This is insulting and certainly not the case. Schools whose students score poorly on standardized tests are not failing due to lazy faculty and staff, but due to lack of funding and the socioeconomic base of the surrounding neighborhoods. Giving funding to schools that perform well is an example of the backward thinking characteristic of Davis.

The issue on most Californians’ minds currently, of course, is the energy crisis. Power service is sporadically interrupted, rates are skyrocketing, and blame is being placed on anyone and everyone. Clearly there are no easy solutions to be found. What is necessary to get on the right track, however, is an end to the politicking and finger-pointing, and mature, thoughtful leadership to guide us through the inevitably painful process of keeping the lights on.

As governor, Davis would be the man to do this, one would think. Unfortunately, he has repeatedly shown himself to be unwilling to step forward and make necessary and necessarily unpopular decisions to secure long-term success. Instead, he relies on the whims of the energy-hungry California public. According to a March 26 editorial in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Davis went so far as to claim that because public opinion polls showed that Californians didn’t feel Davis was to blame for the crisis, he must be doing a good job in solving it. This is obviously ridiculous; just because Davis didn’t start the fire, doesn’t mean he can avoid picking up a hose and getting himself soggy in the process of putting it out.

The irony of this is that a March 30 poll commissioned by the Service Employees International Union shows that fewer than 30 percent of Californians would re-elect Davis if the race were held today. The reason? Davis’ manhandling of the energy crisis. Had Davis made less popular decisions when the crisis first reared its head last summer, had he adjusted rates and allowed long-term contracts between utilities and energy brokers and generators, rolling blackouts would today be nothing more than a distant, dreary threat and not an immediate and inconvenient reality.

Also, much confusion and panic on the part of the public could have been avoided had Davis created an open rapport and communication about the crisis, clearly delineating his plans and how they would help hard-working Californians. By shirking his responsibility and providing no leadership, Davis has enflamed the energy crisis and provided no comfort or aid to us.

California is a difficult state to manage, to be sure, especially when years of under-funding in schools have left our children ill-prepared for the challenging jobs of the future, and when Wilson’s de-regulation has spun horribly out of control. However, Davis’ inability to move beyond buzzwords, political fads, and public opinion polls has greatly hindered his ability to effectively govern California, and we are all the worse for it.

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