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Schools on Steroids 

Some clues about education under Riordan and Schwarzenegger

Thursday, Nov 20 2003
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Don’t bother to scan musty library shelves for treatises on education theory authored by the state’s new education secretary.

You won’t find even one.

On matters of education reform, former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan is more doer than thinker. And he’s cut a dogged and sometimes swerving reform path, not squeamish about making mistakes, not willing to settle for poor schools. But always, before he acts, he listens to a select few who have his ear. And what they’re suggesting today could well be what he’s doing tomorrow.

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If you consider whom he listening to now, he’s getting a consistent message: simplify the state’s stranglehold of regulations; wrest political control from both teachers unions and meddling, elected school boards; give more authority to school principals, but also demand results.

These were some themes at a hastily called, closed-door summit of superintendents in Los Angeles last week. The conversation included school chiefs from San Francisco and San Diego, the acting superintendent in Oakland and the recently retired Sacramento superintendent. At least one attended by phone. All of these educators have received some acclaim for raising student test scores. Several participants later spoke with the Weekly. Although the meeting was not top secret, they said they preferred to characterize the issues discussed in general terms. L.A. Superintendent Roy Romer had no idea what was up until he got there. He didn’t know if he was going to be listened to or told off. Riordan himself was not present, but his surrogate, management guru William Ouchi, a UCLA professor and longtime Riordan confidante, made it clear that their concerns would travel from Ouchi’s lips to God’s ears, as it were.

Not surprisingly, in the world according to superintendents, the key problems don’t include the supes. But teacher unions rate especially high for some. San Diego Superintendent Alan Bersin, for example, has battled his teachers union and its endorsed school-board members almost from Day One. And this year, the state and local teachers union backed a lawsuit opposing Sacramento Superintendent Jim Sweeney’s plan to shut down Sac High and start it over as a charter school. Along the way, he voided the district’s collective-bargaining agreement for that school’s employees. Sweeney prevailed, but he also subsequently retired.

Oakland’s state-appointed administrator, Randolph Ward, could recount his tale of how out of control, politicized school boards dragged both the Compton and Oakland school districts into bankruptcy. And also how he dealt with first Compton and then Oakland using virtual dictatorial authority — after elected officials surrendered local control as a condition of a state bailout. In an interview, Ward said his own experience is an imperfect model to guide public policy because of the calamities he walked into. As for Romer, the turmoil involving the union faction and Riordan’s own minions has proved, at the very least, a tortuous distraction.

Riordan, though an avid audience, will be hard-pressed to address these concerns at the state level, where the Legislature is peopled mostly by Democrats with strong ties to teachers unions.

He might have better luck with another complaint — the Gordian knot of Ed Code regulations that consume so much time, attention and money. No one defends this complexity, but it’s also true that every rule has either a valid, original purpose or a special interest ready to defend it.

Some complexities could end by giving school systems money in block grants — rather than through dozens of major programs, each with its own rules and compliance procedures. Governor Gray Davis proposed this reform in January, but also included an overall funding reduction in the bargain. The Legislature shot it down. The supes told Ouchi they still want the block grants, but they also want all the money.

“I’m optimistic,” said Oakland’s Ward. “There’s a window of opportunity here. My sense was that this conversation could expand to include others.”

The school chiefs too are interested in creating smaller schools and possibly in contracting out to save money — an approach that employee unions are likely to oppose.

Romer wants to try something like a block grant at the local level as well. He’d like to give principals real control over spending, while also holding them responsible for results. Riordan is almost certain to favor that concept, because it’s a fundamental principal of LEARN, the now-abandoned reform plan he championed in the 1990s. Riordan’s also hearing about more authority for schools — possibly through charter schools — from people such as Ouchi and former L.A. school board president Caprice Young, who now heads the state’s association for charter schools.

Riordan “really seems to be very focused on getting more resources to school sites and more authority to the school-site leadership,” said Young. “His roots are LEARN and they haven’t changed.

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