By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Instead of switching gears and dedicating more time to the creation of strong math and reading programs for middle and high school students — his core responsibility to stanch the high dropout rate, experts and educators say — Brewer is still preoccupied with politics, recently hiring Democratic consultant Michael Bustamante for $15,000 a month to reverse his spiraling unpopularity.
“With that kind of retainer, he is not editing press releases,” says media-crisis expert Scott Schmidt, pooh-poohing the district spin that Bustamante is just a routine public-relations hire.
Brewer must also contend with teachers who are incensed about their paychecks and angry about middle school and high school literacy programs they say mistakenly try to bolster self-esteem rather than basic learning skills. And the aloof superintendent has let a power vacuum develop that racial and economic factions are seeking to fill. To top it off, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — Brewer’s off-and-on nemesis — has in recent months offered very few concrete plans of his own for improved schools, leaving the superintendent to take political hits that some fear could force his early departure.
Brewer cannot do “what the mayor is doing, and disappear from the press” on the issue of school reform, says former L.A. Unified board member David Tokofsky. “It’s somewhat of a brilliant political move, actually,” he says of Villaraigosa. The struggles of the mayor, whose school takeover failed miserably and whose own competing “Schoolhouse” reform landed with a thud and vanished from the public eye, throw the mistakes made by Brewer into starker relief.
And Brewer seems strangely determined to make things worse for himself. In a move last month that some observers found particularly appalling, district staff spent time, money and effort to compile a spiffy-looking pamphlet that spun his lagging first 12 months as a dubious-sounding “Year of Listening and Learning.” When Brewer finally presented his oft-delayed, all-but-the-kitchen-sink reform-plan outline to the school board on December 4, critics inevitably asked why he spent 2007 listening — not doing.
High school teacher Mike Stryer, who came downtown after his classes to hear Brewer out, grabbed the chance during a public comment period to eyeball his big boss, sitting just a few feet away, dismissing his reform agenda as a “hastily construed smorgasbord of ideas” that is “so vague it confuses goals with tactics.” Brewer stared back, but he had nobody to blame but himself.
Road warrior: Teachers’-union boss A.J. Duffy sleeps in a rented Winnebago one night a month outside L.A. Unified HQ, to protest the district's screwy payroll system. (Photo by Ted Soqui)
That’s not at all how analysts,the media, educators or community leaders thought things would go when the school board, openly exhilarated by their choice, unanimously selected the personable Navy leader on October 12, 2006, to succeed outgoing superintendent Roy Romer. Romer, a former governor of Colorado, had been the first effective superintendent in L.A. in two decades, with a strong record in building new schools and requiring solid instruction.
“Romer always talked about construction and instruction,” says former board president Caprice Young, who hired him. “His main strength was carrying out a vision.”
Unlike Brewer, Romer hired a senior management team in the first month.
An even more dramatic contrast to the camera-loving Brewer was the way Romer declined press interviews for weeks so he could concentrate on the nuts and bolts of his job. The former governor also stood up to the teachers' union, United Teachers Los Angeles, furious over Romer’s order that grade-school teachers spend at least two hours per day on reading instruction — his shock therapy for a district churning out tens of thousands of functionally illiterate children each year. It was a radical move that educators now widely accept.
Within a few years, Romer presided over a dramatic increase of student test scores in reading and math, particularly at the elementary level.
“[L.A. Unified’s] worst schools today are better than their average schools in 2000,” says longtime education expert John Mockler, former executive director of the California State Board of Education. “That’s an outstanding change,” marking the first sustained turnaround in nearly a generation in L.A.
Although test scores among middle and high school students rose over that same period, according to Mockler, they have much further to go. Romer’s next plan was to start rehabilitating secondary schools. (Romer declined to discuss his superintendency with the Weekly.)
In 2005, however, Romer faced a vociferous critic in the person of newly elected Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. According to former board member Tokofsky, the mayor “poisoned” the political climate to such a degree that it was nearly impossible to push meaningful reform or seriously address the dropout rate in the middle schools and high schools.
“When you declare all of the schools are failures,” says Tokofsky, “it’s hard to properly motivate people.”
Villaraigosa and his allies seemed not to grasp that test scores in L.A. were doing something they had rarely done — rising. He sought to take over the district with a special state law called AB 1381, which, had it not been tossed out by the courts, would have shifted decision making from the seven-member elected school board to a superintendent overseen by a “council of mayors” — with a lead role for Los Angeles’ mayor. Romer, meanwhile, signaled that he would soon leave after six years on the job. The board wanted not only a strong replacement to carry on Romer’s work, but a leader who could battle the then-popular and charismatic mayor.