LOS ANGELES — PUBLIC education in the nation's largest state is facing its toughest multiple-choice test in decades: grow, adapt, change, or bust.
Against a backdrop of national and state budget deficits with little relief in sight, dozens of K-12 school districts across California are facing "all of the above" as they stumble from strike to strike, cutback to cutback.
Overwhelmed by a steady influx of population - including waves of immigrants who speak little, if any English - the state's classrooms are bulging while the funds to deal with them are shrinking.
"There is no question that California public education is in the fight of its life," says Alfred Lightfoot, professor of education at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. In the past 20 years, he notes, California has slipped from No. 1 among the states in several education indicators - among them student scores on scholastic aptitude tests as well as teacher salaries - to below 40th.
Some of the problems are of California's own making but sound the alarm for states following or considering similar paths.
Here, for instance, the decade of education reform that began in 1983 with "A Nation at Risk" ran headlong into the nation's first property-tax revolt. The voters who passed the state's famous Proposition 13 in 1978 clamped a lid on localized education funding.
"Prop 13 meant that parents had less and less say and control over what their children were getting, and organized lobbyists had more and more control," says James Guthrie, co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), an independent think tank.
"Those states which have already adopted or are considering similar tax reform might examine the California example for pitfalls," adds Charles Ericksen, senior associate at the National Education Association.
Statewide over the past two years, teachers in 478 school districts received no pay increases. And in 17 districts during that period, teachers and administrators have emerged from contract talks with smaller paychecks. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest, teachers recently agreed to a 10 percent pay cut.
At the same time, budget strictures have left students with fewer books, supplies, librarians, counselors, course electives, extra-curricular activities, and sports.
THE primary causes of California's public education woes are easily listed but not easily dealt with, experts say.
Though state population growth, which added nearly 800,000 residents per year during the 1980s, has slowed, it is still adding 200,000 students to the schools each year.
Between 1985 and 1990, the number of minority-language students grew at four times the rate of the overall student population. More than 1 million students - about 20 percent of the state's students - are classified as "limited English proficient." Three-quarters of these speak Spanish, and the remaining one-quarter speak 100 different languages.
Add to these statistics the state's current budget crunch - California faces an $8 billion-plus projected deficit for the current year, following a $14.5 billion deficit in 1991 and an $11.5 billion deficit in 1992 - and the result is some sobering headlines:
* Teachers in the town of Montebello, southwest of Los Angeles, have taken 5 percent pay cuts over the past two years.
* Last year in Vallejo, north of San Francisco, teachers went on a two-day strike rather than accept a 2.9 percent pay cut sought by the school board.
* In Visalia, located in the Central Valley, a last-minute settlement in March narrowly avoided a strike, but it included a 2.1 percent pay cut. The same week, the Laguna Salada school district near San Francisco was ordered into county oversight of its finances.
Many notable exceptions to the current litany of problems exist, among them school systems in wealthy San Marino and even wealthier Beverly Hills.
"There are over 1,000 districts in the state, and the media tend to paint an overly despairing and pessimistic picture," says Sen. Gary Hart, chairman of the state Senate Education Committee. "Our problems are particularly urban [and] the underlying causes relate to the entire urban environment."
The increased use of drugs by youths, for instance, has several repercussions for schools - from attendance, to attentiveness in class, to safety.
A pronounced national upsurge in violent attacks by young people at schools since 1990 has exacerbated problems associated with handguns. Two California students have been killed recently in handgun incidents at their high schools.
How California deals with problems in education will depend in large part upon the outcome of another controversy: finding a replacement for Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, who was removed from office two months ago. (See superintendent story, Page 12.)
Meanwhile, state education reformers are focusing attention on a concept called School Based Accountability and Management (SBAM). Its aim is to shift responsibility for day-to-day decisions to local school administrators and teachers, as well as students and parents in each community.
The Clovis Unified School District has already moved its 25,000 students toward one such model. Long Beach and Fresno school districts are moving in that direction. And the Los Angeles Unified School District last month adopted a sweeping SBAM reform. (See reform-plan story, Page 12.).
"Under present circumstances, teachers, principals, central-office administrators, and superintendents are all able to hide behind a regulatory protective shield," says Mr. Guthrie of PACE. "School-based management aligns decision responsibility, resources, and accountability with reality at the school site."