Los Angeles — For public education, the atmosphere, at least, is changing. Here in California, reform is in the air. Next year will see fewer music classes and more students per room in many districts, and few teacher pay raises. But there are signs of new vigor in the schools.
John W. Nichol, the superintendent of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District in Newport Beach, Calif., says he sees attitudes toward education shifting in Sacramento, the capital, and around the state. ''There's the feeling that we've just about torn it down; let's get together and build it up again.''
Dr. Nichol, like many district superintendents here, is heartened to see the quality of schools become the subject of a lively national debate. But he remains skeptical: ''It's a bunch of political malarkey unless and until we get the funds to pay for it.''
As President Reagan tours the country touting issues like higher standards for high school graduation and merit pay for outstanding teachers, the California Legislature has already passed two major education bills along these lines - both include $4,000 annual bonuses for ''master teachers.''
The state school board has recently set tough new standards, recommending that local school boards require four years of English, three years of math and two of science, and a semester of computer science, among other courses, for high school graduation. It is expected shortly to outline further what those courses should teach.
What the country is coming around to, school professionals here generally agree, is a clearer grasp of just what is wanted - and in fact needed - from public schools.
Bill Honig, California's superintendent of schools, lays out the most compelling reason for making education more rigorous - economic survival.
He offers this telling comparison: Japan graduates 91 percent of its students from secondary schools that are more demanding than those in the United States. California graduates only 74 percent of its high school students.
To be competitive as an industrial state, he explains, California needs more than just an educated elite of engineers and scientists. It needs 60 to 70 percent of its work force to have a solid education in the basic skills learned in literature, science, and math courses.
Mr. Honig is buoyant with optimism. The state has good reform packages in the Legislature, he explains, and news polls show Californians are more willing than most Americans to spend more money on schools.
''Everything seems to be pointed in the right direction,'' he says.
If the Legislature's reform bills pass (they need the signature of a governor concerned with balancing the budget), Honig says California will be leading the nation in educational reform.
California's educational system has fallen farther than most. In making schools a budget priority, the state has slipped from very near the top of the nation's list to very near the bottom in the space of a few years.
A beginning teacher still starts at $13,000 a year after five years of college. So when the state school board requires more math and science courses, Newport Beach's Superintendent Nichol asks, who will teach them?
At California State University at Northridge, Carolyn Ellner, the dean of the education school, was a little surprised herself recently when she checked and found that not a single graduate of her school this year had earned credentials in either science or math.
In fact, there are currently fewer than 400 students training to be math or science teachers in the whole state.
This has roused the state's industrial community. The leaders of 45 of California's largest corporations, like Robert Fluor of Fluor Corporation and Robert O. Anderson of Arco, have written to Gov. George Deukmejian in support of the reform bills passed by the Legislature.
The state Chamber of Commerce supports the packages as well, although one would cost $700 million and the other $850 million as now written. State Superintendent Honig says the ethnic communities are backing the reforms. The two bills are now being combined in legislative conference.
''In California, it has turned into a very broad-based coalition for education,'' Honig says. ''People know the time is right and we've got to do something about it.''
The teachers' unions are going along cautiously. Marilyn Russell Bittle, president of California Teachers Association, sees merit pay, generally, as a ''cop-out'' to avoid raising the base pay of teachers to make their salaries competitive with other industries.
The union supports the California proposals for master teachers, however, since these teachers would be selected largely by their peers and spend part of their day as ''mentors'' for other teachers.