Wilson Riles will be remembered as a person who changed the definition of equal educational opportunity to include equal access to public education for all California children, and as the person who provided the leadership resulting in the fiscal survival of public elementary and secondary schools in the wake of the passage of 1978's Proposition 13, during the "taxpayers' revolt".
During the 1960s California public schools and school districts throughout the nation struggled to define and implement educational opportunity for all pupils. Society focused considerable attention on the great fiscal and programmatic disparities afforded pupils from low-income families and pupils from moderate and high-income families. More pointedly, it focused on the contrasting public education it provided for Caucasian majority and ethnic minority pupils. Education reforms often centered on attempts to make programs and financial resources equal between these groups.
In 1971, Wilson Riles brought more than ten years of experience to his newly elected position of Superintendent of Public Instruction. He had been intimately involved in the design and implementation of many efforts toward equal educational opportunity, such as statewide compensatory education for economically disadvantaged pupils and desegregation efforts in Pasadena and Sacramento. In 1971, he also brought to the Superintendency a vision of "equal access" to public education for all children, which he felt was integral to individual self-sufficiency, self-worth, and full participation in our society and our economic system.
Wilson Riles' vision for equal access manifested itself in "master plan" efforts to include many children and parents who had been formally or informally excluded or "pushed out" of public education and its governance system. Four "master plans" immediately come to mind:
- Early Childhood Education (ECE) was the forerunner to today's School Improvement Program (SIP), and it focused attention on the educational needs of children between the ages of four and eight. It included a significant and necessary role for parents in the educational process and the governance of their child's education;
- Master Plan for Special Education set governance, programs, and services policies to meet the needs of handicapped pupils, a plan so well grounded in educational policy and vision that it evolved with the federal government into the national Education for the Handicapped Act. A key feature of the Wilson Riles vision for handicapped pupils was the destigmatization of handicapped children and the need to bring all pupils into mainstream education programs as much as possible;
- Bilingual Education programs and services for non- and limited-English speaking pupils to assist each pupil to acquire English language skills without losing academic gains acquired in the child's native language;
- The Reform of Intermediate and Secondary Education (RISE), a plan to focus on the needs of junior and senior high school students to enhance student counseling to prevent dropouts, and to signal the need for significant changes in instruction to meet societal and employment demands.
Each of the four plans, if fully implemented and adequately funded, was designed to provide a public education for many children who, until Wilson Riles' vision of equal access emerged, were kept at home, wandered the streets, or left school for jobs that would soon become non-existent or obsolete because of technological changes. Their inability to earn a viable living would result in future increases in the number of dysfunctional families, major increases in crime statistics and the institutionalization of many young adults.
The Wilson Riles' vision announced to everyone in a loud and clear call that every disadvantaged four-year-old child deserved a developmental program to help ensure equal educational opportunity. All disabled persons between the ages of three and twenty-one needed to be a part of the public education system. Disabled children could learn to the maximum of their mental and physical potential, obligating public schools to provide them individual education plans to ensure their equal educational opportunity. No longer would an institutional setting of "keeping the child at home" be the main environment for a handicapped child. Every pupil should learn to communicate in the English language. Yet, until learning could be achieved in an English-only speaking environment, instruction was necessary to the maximum extent possible, in the child's native language. If not, that child would be denied equal educational opportunity. Keeping a child at home or putting him to "work in the fields" similarly denied him educational opportunity, and was not acceptable to Wilson Riles. Finally, secondary education needed to be changed to keep upper- grade students in school. They needed instruction that included acquisition of skills and knowledge that were meaningful and career-related. Of equal importance, secondary education needed to "recover" those students who dropped out before completing high school.
The Wilson Riles' vision of access was not limited to pupils. With equal vigor, determination, and rationale, he designed and implemented policies and procedures to ensure meaningful and appropriate roles for parents. Statutes, regulations, and policies enacted to ensure equal access to a public education for all children carried provisions to ensure the role of parents in educational activities, the overall plans of their child's school, the governance of education at the local district level, and in many advisory capacities at local, state, and national levels.
Public education in California has a long way to go to accomplish equal educational opportunity for all pupils, but thanks to Wilson Riles' leadership, the barrier to equal access has been removed by statutes and policies that emerged through the legislative and executive branches of government. The attainment of equal opportunity goals for every child is dependent on the political "will" of California's citizenry.
How did California's public elementary and secondary schools survive the financial difficulties brought about by the taxpayers' revolt of 1978 with the passage of Proposition 13?
California's "Tax Revolt" of 1978, manifested by Proposition 13 on the June 1978 election ballot, established a ceiling for local property taxation. This new limit would have a dramatic impact on the funding of public schools. The basic general operating revenue for local school districts was, and still is, a combination of State subventions to districts and revenue raised from local property taxes. Before describing the Wilson Riles' leadership that led to fiscal survival for the schools, a little history is in order.
During the 1960s, California's school finance system was challenged in the landmark Serrano v. Priest court case. The court found California's system to be unequal and required a remedy to alleviate financial disparities between high wealth and low wealth school districts. An early 1970s remedy was fashioned under the leadership of Wilson Riles, with the cooperation of the Governor and the Legislature. Annual increases in funds for local districts would be less for high wealth districts and more for low wealth districts, thereby establishing a "narrowing of the fiscal differences" via a squeeze formula. Although a squeeze formula put some constraints on high wealth districts, it was preferable to the redistribution of existing dollars which would have required the "leveling down in a drastic fashion" for many of our school districts. In the mid 1970s, the Serrano plaintiffs sought court intervention because they felt that the remedy was being implemented too slowly, and the disparities in funding were still too great. Once again, Wilson Riles' leadership resulted in 1977 legislation, signed by then-Governor Jerry Brown, to modify school finance formulas in such a way that rapid removal of fiscal disparities could become reality without taking general operating revenues away from high wealth districts. This new legislation was scheduled to be implemented on July 1, 1978. Proposition 13 passed on the June 1978 ballot and negated this new effort. What now?
Public schools would lose "a ton of money" as a result of Proposition 13 unless the State coffers, which had a large surplus, backfilled the loss of local property tax revenues. Something had to be done in three weeks' time - the period between the passage of Proposition 13 and the start of the new fiscal year on July 1. Wilson Riles did not sit idly by and wring his hands. He prepared a fiscal bailout plan for public education, and within a week of the passage of Proposition 13, he presented his plan to the Governor and the Legislature.
The plan, in its most simplistic fashion, acknowledged that public schools would receive less revenue than they had planned on for the 1978-79 fiscal year, and recognized the need to adhere to the Serrano decision. Therefore, a sliding scale of reduced revenues was proposed; low wealth districts would only be reduced five percent of their 1978-79 revenues and high wealth districts would be reduced fifteen percent. (A special note is necessary to point out that high and low wealth terminology became meaningless after Proposition 13. The more relevant and accurate terms are "high revenue limit districts" and "low revenue limit districts.") Before Wilson Riles boldly went to the Legislature with his plan, he consulted with the leadership of many districts, particularly those who would not realize ten to fifteen percent of their anticipated revenues.
With his plan in-hand, and with the support of the public education community, he went to the Legislature with a solution to meet the fiscal crisis facing the schools, effectively assisting State government in general.
The Legislature enacted Wilson Riles' plan in virtually every aspect as he presented it. It became very evident, as Wilson Riles said in subsequent years, that "education had the data, we had the numbers, we had the formulas, we knew specifically what the fiscal impact would be on every district, and we had the support of the education community". He had marshalled his staff, given policy directions, made decisions, negotiated and solidified the education community, and "sold" the package to a grateful Legislature and Governor.
The slings and arrows of Proposition 13 would absorb much of the time and attention of Wilson Riles during his third term as State Superintendent, and some of the insidious provisions of Proposition 13 are still negatively impacting public school finances today. Every year of Wilson Riles' third term, he had to lead an education coalition to "fight" with the Governor, the Legislature, and other units of local government for funding. He wanted adequate State funding since Proposition 13 transferred to the State all mechanisms for achieving additional revenues for any governmental service. The annual spring battles for funds became particularly intense after the State exhausted the financial reserve it had "in the bank" when Proposition 13 passed.
The significance of this fiscal survival effort could not be fully appreciated in the 1970s and early 1980s, but looking back on that time, one wonders how much more severe the financial crisis for our schools would be today if that 1978 Proposition 13 bailout plan had not been implemented as proposed by Wilson Riles!
BILL WHITENECK taught high school in Sacramento for ten years during the late 1950s and early 1960s; became a school administrator for five years in Sacramento; went to work for Wilson Riles in January 1973 for ten years - the last six and one-half as one of his Deputy State Superintendents; and, from January 1983 to December 1994, he was Chief Consultant for the California State Senate Committee on Education.