How Superintendent David Brewer Ran Aground 

The admiral's sinking ship

Wednesday, Dec 26 2007

Page 6 of 9

The question of how effectively he spends his time came up yet again in September, when Brewer made two visits to Washington, D.C., testifying before Congress as an “expert” on the federal No Child Left Behind Act — yet saying nothing that had not already been noted ad infinitum by weightier educators. On his second trip to Washington, he and board members Garcia and Aguilar lobbied for changes in federal funding rules — in particular, a controversial bid to bring back “native language” testing, or tests in Spanish, another sign that Brewer is listening to those who oppose the past five years of promoting English, and English tests, for all kids.

Amid all of this political jockeying, his High Priority Schools plan — Brewer’s response to the mayor’s slams over the dropout rate — had finally been scheduled for a widely promoted unveiling at a “committee of the whole” board meeting on November 20. Educators citywide marked their calendars for the big day, as Brewer launched a very visible public-relations junket, appearing on KPCC public radio and granting other interviews.

Things went incredibly sour, however, when, just hours before his big unveiling, district staff sent out an e-mail at 5 p. m. on November 19, canceling the “committee of the whole” meeting and setting off an avalanche of gossip about the Admiral at district headquarters. According to LAUSD spokeswoman Binti Harvey, the reason was simple: Brewer, now on his seventh or eighth rewrite of the plan, wasn’t ready.

click to flip through (2) (Photo by Ted Soqui)
  • (Photo by Ted Soqui)

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Board member Julie Korenstein believes Brewer’s now-pointless publicity tour was an example of his “wasting time.” A frustrated Korenstein, a board member for 20 years who is close to UTLA and represents the Valley, says, “I think he has the wrong advisers.”

Educators in the Valley are so squeamish about Brewer’s thus-far vague ideas that several schools flatly refused to be named in his list of 44 High Priority Schools — a vote of no confidence that eventually slashed the project to 34 schools. That represents only one-tenth of the district’s 300 or so most problematic schools.

Board member Galatzan, whose election to a seat representing the Valley was largely financed by Villaraigosa, says, “In the Valley, there are a lot of parents who feel middle schools and high schools aren’t safe and the education isn’t good.” She spoke to Brewer about it, and he said that while he was concerned with those bigger-picture problems, he was busy with his 34-schools plan. Galatzan says the two agreed to talk later about yet another plan, one more relevant to the Valley.

Unlike Brewer, superintendents Crew and Ackerman moved quickly in Miami and San Francisco to launch visible academic reforms, realizing that if they did not, the loudest voices — not necessarily the right ones — would fill the vacuum with plans of their own. Under Brewer, a power vacuum has plainly developed.

Now, sometimes-strident ethnic and economic lobbies — dominated by Latino and black advocacy groups — are demanding dollars and separate treatment.

The gaping power vacuum was apparent on October 23, when board member Marguerite LaMotte, who is black, pushed for a resolution to address academic and disciplinary problems among African-American students — the kind of separatist, color-based tendency resisted by former superintendents Ruben Zacarias, the first Latino to head the district, and Romer, both of whom saw it as the wrong direction for a district whose children speak more than 90 languages.

After LaMotte spoke, members of the self-described Committee for Educational Justice and Equality for African-American Students took turns dressing down the gathered bureaucrats. Brewer didn’t exactly stand up to them: He promised that things would change. But the crowd wasn’t placated. People sarcastically yelled, “Yeah, right!” One woman called out, with venom, “When are you going to do that? Today? Or tomorrow?”

Owen Knox, a retired LAUSD administrator who leads the justice committee — one of many race- or ethnically-oriented groups — complains, “The superintendent hasn’t put forward any plan for African-American students. I would’ve thought that out of all his plans, one of them would have considered African-American students.”

At a subsequent meeting, the board adopted LaMotte’s resolution, which orders the superintendent to devise yet another plan, and sticks a divisive race issue on Brewer’s desk. Not to be outdone, Latino groups are demanding changes specific to them — and their politicking could be more potent. In Los Angeles, 250,575 Spanish-speaking kids are “English-language learners” who lack basic English skills, which makes LAUSD arguably the largest teacher of English in the nation, if not the world. (By comparison, in New York, the nation’s biggest school district by far, just 95,000 Spanish-speaking children attend school not knowing English.)

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