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Schools on Steroids

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.

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.

 

“We know the two reasons why LEARN failed,” she added. “For one, the school-site leadership never got power. The district bureaucracy wouldn’t release budget control. And for another, it was assumed that once the school board adopted reforms, it would carry them out well. The lesson of LEARN is that resources have to follow authority, and accountability has to follow both. And you can’t just give up when you think you’ve won.”

Others draw different lessons from the LEARN debacle, but the point here is what Young and Riordan have apparently concluded, because their interpretation is likely to shape state policy. Neither Riordan nor Ouchi were available for this article, though Riordan’s staff pledged they’d talk soon, perhaps once they have more specific proposals to lay out. Riordan’s actual authority remains a work in progress, because the state’s education bureaucracy is a many-headed Hydra that includes an elected state schools chief, a state board of education and a separate bureaucracy for building schools.

But Riordan generally likes what he hears from Steve Barr, who started a small group of well-regarded charter schools. “It’s not just the money” that’s key to improving schools, said Barr, who counts Riordan among his schools’ board members. “I didn’t have any experience, and I can build a better high school than L.A. Unified. If you want to change L.A. Unified, you can change it with competition. Feed competition and you will create change.”

Barr is speaking Riordan’s language — suggesting that change can happen fast, that straightforward, focused efforts will carry the day, that the system needs a pressure agent like Riordan, that getting more money isn’t the entire game.

But Barr also throws in caveats: “Creating a good school is really hard. If I’d had a relationship at the time, I would have killed it. If I’d had a mortgage, I would have gone bankrupt.”

And there is a money component, said Barr. Specifically, the state needs to back up its professed commitment to charter schools with substantially more seed money to get them started, he said.

And it isn’t just charters that need a dollar infusion, said Young. One successful school-reform technique, she noted, is to rebuild a failing school’s staff from scratch, but doing the job right could require substantial extra funding on the front end. “You have to spend money on things like getting a mix of more experienced teachers, getting more counselors or deans, improving the school’s physical plant — because a lot of these schools have been trashed. Getting books, putting in a system to handle discipline, hiring people to get on the phone to follow up on truancy.” Young’s hope is that money can saved elsewhere through improved efficiency.

 

Which brings matters around to Riordan’s new boss, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who also has placed great faith in improved efficiency. So much so that he tossed another $4 billion or so into the state’s deficit bonfire by immediately repealing this year’s increase in the car tax. His inaugural address made it sound as though the founding fathers themselves would have repealed the car tax if they’d had the chance — and had the cars. Schwarzenegger’s order certainly helped confirm his premise that things might get worse before they get better.

But a promise is a promise.

Schwarzenegger also has promised to preserve vital services, including funding to schools and local governments.

“The budget is a big, big issue for most of us, in the big cities in particular,” said San Francisco schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. “The health benefits are escalating at rates that are unbelievable. But I always look at the glass as half full. The new governor has said education is a priority. And he appears to be serious about that.”

Those pledges could get harder to keep as Schwarzenegger attempts a Reaganesque triangulation. The original Gipper, in 1980, promised to slash taxes and ramp up military spending at the same time. Reagan kept those promises by rolling up a huge federal deficit.

That solution is not available in California, which places legal limits on deficit spending. Instead, Schwarzenegger’s magical realism is to sell voters on bonds to pay off the deficit. “There’s a massive weight we must lift off our state,” said Schwarzenegger. “Alone, I cannot lift it. But together, we can.”

The new governor also pointed out that, as a bodybuilder, when he had to lift something that seemed too heavy, “What I learned is that we are always stronger than we know.”

A beautiful metaphor but maybe the wrong one. The guv could have recounted how, when something seemed too heavy or his thigh too flabby, he found he could successfully turn to steroids. That’s more the solution at work here as Schwarzenegger pushes a seductive fix of deficit bonds — which would add muscle to the current budget but augur chronic financial ailments from this point forward.

 

If voters aren’t impressed, Schwarzenegger’s deficit bonds also could pull school bonds to defeat in March, which wouldn’t make Riordan’s job any easier. So if there’s anyone out there who can tell Riordan exactly how to accomplish his ambitious goals during a budget crisis, he’ll probably be especially motivated to listen.


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