As tough as I have been on former Gov. Gray Davis, one of the worst governors California has seen, I’ve taken pains to single out his remarkable efforts to fix the state’s public schools and disastrous teaching methods in the face of intense opposition by labor unions and his own California Democratic Party.

With Davis gone, the labor unions and leading Democrats in Sacramento are shamefully gearing up for another major assault to roll back and halt public school reform. And it’s not at all clear that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is as focused as Davis was on stopping them.

Led by Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Jackie Goldberg, a failed former high school principal and loud apologist for the discredited fads that helped send California to near the bottom among the 50 states, Sacramento’s furthest left Democrats are mounting another bizarre campaign to lower standards and dumb down kids.

Their favorite target, once again, is Latino kids, who liberal Democrats in Sacramento just cannot seem to see as equals in the classroom. Latino kids have proved that they are up to the task by showing substantial academic gains in reading, writing, math and science in statewide testing during the past five years.

In fact, the gains of California’s Latino children, now immersed in English classes thanks to Proposition 227 (a measure virulently opposed by the far-left and the unions), are historic. Never in contemporary California history have poor immigrant children shown sustained gains in academic achievement for five years, via honest and tough tests that can neither be gamed or spun.

Now they have. But some of the most powerful people in Sacramento are actually, and unforgivably, angry to see the kids succeed in a way that these adults claimed was not possible.

At the March 9 meeting of the California Board of Education, the anti-reformers will push hard for the board to adopt their latest plan to dumb down the education of Latino children in California. With Schwarzenegger’s own education policy people asleep at the wheel, I am told the rollback has at least a chance of being approved by the Schwarzenegger-appointed board of education and its president, Glee Johnson.

What an unmitigated tragedy it will be if the board caves.

The dumbing-down plan is being pushed by the usual suspects, including Goldberg, state Sen. Martha Escutia and a bunch who still mourn the end of the “bilingual” disaster they invented, including educator Shelly Spiegel-Coleman, an outspoken opponent of Prop. 227 who should not even be involved in schools.

Ever since they lost at the polls, this old “Spanish-first” crowd has been trying to wrest control of the English-reading program away from the true reformers. It’s all part of the Education Wars.

Under the backroom plan pushed by Goldberg, Latino kids learning English would be robbed of the excellent reading program they now thrive under. They would be subjected to dumbed-down curriculum, fake “standards” that are not research-based, too-easy content that does not keep these children at their normal grade-level, and the old unproven fads.

All that “garbage” as one reformer described it to me, would be incorporated into the hard-fought, Davis-backed, and highly successful reading program now used statewide.

Think about what is actually going on here, in this effort to water down the educations of Latino children once again.

When kids who live on Skid Row in Los Angeles show serious gains in reading and math at the long-troubled 9th Street School, it wipes out the long standing claims by California’s out-of-step education lobby that “poverty” is to blame for low achievement of California kids.

Poverty, it turns out, is a corollary to low achievement. It’s not a cause of low achievement. Poverty does not cause children to fail in arithmetic. That’s false. Rather, poverty causes children to be warehoused in bad schools with the worst teachers — thanks to union rules in California that let the senior teachers pick the easiest schools and stick the green teachers in the toughest schools.

Because poverty is merely corollary to childhood failure at school, not a cause, that means that even if we cannot fix poverty — and clearly we can’t — California’s disadvantaged students can still learn their math.

If only somebody will just teach it

to them.

But enter the politicians. For as long as I have been a journalist, the education wars have been waged on the backs of the kids, entirely by the adults.

The rich California Teachers Association, United Teachers–Los Angeles, and the teachers unions in Sacramento, San Francisco, San Diego and most other cities, have tried to do the best for their adult, dues-paying members by saving teachers from the laborious retraining and retooling they need to actually teach poor kids their math, reading, writing, science and history.

Any industry’s unions would probably strenuously resist retraining and retooling of its members. But any industry doesn’t directly torpedo the dreams of children when it decides to help its members drag their feet.

So California’s teachers’ unions did something pretty brilliant. Beginning more than 20 years ago, they began loudly blaming poverty and other things that could not be fixed. The declining schools were never the fault of unprepared yet certified teachers.

The unions became increasingly emboldened, even trying a couple of years ago to turn their absurd views of “how to teach” into a formal part of their bargaining power during contract negotiations.

In 2002, under Davis, Democratic legislators who had received huge CTA campaign contributions tried to push through the creepy Assembly Bill 2160, setting off a war between the unions/far-left Democrats and most of the rest of California society.

Davis’ opposed AB 2160 and stopped the unions from getting control of sweeping curriculum decisions. Can you imagine a union deciding what kids should learn? Yet the 330,000-member California Teachers Association, which had given Gray Davis some $2 million, was furious when he refused to capitulate.

The education wars are renewed every year about this time, as the far-left legislators or unions try to scuttle reform. Even so, a lot has changed for the better since the 1990s, when California embraced the now-discredited “whole language” theory of reading, the “self-esteem” movement, the “fuzzy math” movement, and other interesting-sounding but horrifically failed fads.

Teachers wanted their kids to succeed and they were desperately searching for answers. Thankfully, along came serious researchers — people like reading expert Alice Furry of Sacramento City Schools, language acquisition researcher Reid Lyon of the National Institutes of Health, and mathematician Jim Milgram of Stanford University.

They and hundreds of experts began to say that kids weren’t learning math or English or reading or science because so few teachers had any idea anymore how to teach it. The ability to impart basic skills to kids had been lost in a fog of political correctness.

As the serious researchers began to be proved right — and the virulently anti-research theorists and fad-peddlers like California’s Stephen Krashen began to be proved wrong — that meant something pretty terrible.

It meant that millions of children had been the victims of useless teaching theories — especially disadvantaged minority kids in California.

What is unfolding now, in front of the California Board of Education, is a shameful continuation of that guilt-ridden psychodrama. The drama stars guilt-riddled adults who are desperately trying to prove that they were right back in the 1990s and 1980s about teaching kids in Spanish for years and banning phonics, and banning spelling tests and all

the rest.

Their current push will be to persuade the Board of Education to dumb-down reading classes for Latino children learning English — a huge number of kids. Goldberg has seen many failures in her efforts to turn back the clock, but chillingly, she has also seen some successes.

In 2004, for example, she torpedoed the efforts of globally respected Stanford professor Jim Milgram and UC Berkeley professor H.H. Wu to create a turnaround program for math in California, in which teachers would be re-trained to actually know math.

Goldberg, and a mathematically challenged math teachers’ group, the so-called California Math Council, fought hard to scuttle and rewrite the Milgram-Wu plan. The two math reform experts, unaccustomed to virulent politics, bailed out.

As Milgram told me back in 2004: \”Wu read their rewrite and was just sick, and wrote a note to them — a public document — saying it was filled with mathematical errors, all the old problems. … The problems were so intense that it would be unconscionable not to speak up. It was riddled with a total lack of understanding of what is going on in mathematics and what the kids need.\”

Now the failed far-left and the me-first unions will turn their politics loose on Latino kids, on March 9 before the state board of education. How ironic, and how sad, if the Schwarzenegger board of education caves to them, and Gray Davis goes down in history as the guy with

the guts.