FOR some educators, it is nothing less than a ''battle for the souls of children.'' For others, it is simply a decision to bring California's educational curriculum ''back to the center.''
One way or another, the state legislature has sounded a wake-up call to top education officials: Children must be taught the core skills of spelling, reading, and math in the state's public schools.
California's back-to-basics swing - including a return to phonics - mirrors a nationwide trend. The legislature's order to reform the textbooks - known as the ABC bill - takes on added significance here, however, given that this is the country's largest school system, and the largest textbook market.
The bill, passed last week by a unanimous vote, sends a strong message to the state Department of Education that its progressive 1987 comprehensive language-arts program - despite the best intentions - is not measuring up.
Critics say lawmakers are pushing a simplistic solution to a set of complex problems facing the troubled California school system.
Once considered a national model, California schools have declined sharply over the last 20 years. The drop in financial support for schools can, in large part, be traced to the passing of Proposition 13 in 1978, which limited property taxes. California now has the lowest per student spending of all the industrial states and ranks 42nd in the country overall.
Recently released national and state test scores show that the majority of the state's schoolchildren are struggling with math and reading. California's fourth-graders tied with Louisiana's as having the lowest overall reading skills in the 39 states that participated in the national test.
''Despite all our excuses, what we see are abysmal reading and math scores,'' said Assemblywoman Dede Alpert (D) of San Diego, chair of the Assembly Education Committee and co-sponsor of the ABC bill. ''What we're hoping to do is return to the middle and not let the pendulum swing wildly one way or another.''
Although touted as a back-to-basics bill - sponsored by three legislators from across the political spectrum - much will be retained from the controversial 1987 curriculum reform program. Rather than being completely rewritten, textbooks will once again include a focus on the fundamentals of grammar, spelling, and arithmetic.
Glen Thomas, director of curriculum frameworks for the California Department of Education, says that the authors of the new curriculum mistakenly assumed that phonics and other essential learning tools would continue to be taught.
He agrees that spelling and computational skills have been given short shrift.
''Looking back, we should have made explicit to teachers and parents the instructional goals of the language-arts program. We as educators haven't done a good job.... We haven't implemented the program we're espousing.''
California's new teaching methods are an outgrowth of ''whole language'' theory, which integrates reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills.
Research into how children learn prompted educators to move away from repetitive drills and memorization to an emphasis on creative and critical thinking. Teachers are encouraged to help children think for themselves rather than merely lecture; children often work in cooperative groups rather than compete against each other.
In many school districts, phonetic drills - sounding out letters and syllables - have been replaced by children writing their own stories and listening to teachers reading literature out loud so children can hear how language is used. Children are encouraged to use ''inventive'' spelling until they reach the third grade in the belief that spelling naturally improves with age.
In math, students learn to problem-solve rather than memorize number tables and formulas. The ability to explain how a solution is reached is considered more important than a correct calculation.
Maureen DiMarco, the top education adviser to Gov. Pete Wilson, says she believes that California interpreted ''most extremely'' whole-language theory. ''You can't assume that children will learn to read by reading to them, or that they can learn math by discussing concepts. You need the foundational skills as well as the applied skills. One without the other won't work,'' she says.
Kenneth Goodman, a pioneer of whole language theory at the University of Arizona in Tucson, says it is premature to conclude that whole language has been a failure and argues that test results are misinterpreted, noting that the state test has been thrown out and the national test is new.
''What looks like a pendulum swing is really scared administrators responding to fright techniques.... We shouldn't let legislators make professional decisions,'' he says.
Mr. Goodman, who taught for 10 years in California's elementary schools, says that children are ''coming to life'' in whole-language classrooms. ''Dull, tedious exercise rooms are replaced by excited children working in teams, seeking knowledge, asking tough questions, and, in the process, learning to read and write.''