An Education Warrior Takes the Fight Higher

Howard Blume is a staff writer for LA Weekly.

When it comes to education, what you think of Richard Riordan depends on your perspective. To John Perez, head of United Teachers-Los Angeles, former Los Angeles Mayor Riordan, who has been appointed state education secretary by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a philanthropist with good intentions who went astray. Perez draws the dividing line at the 1997 death of former UTLA President Helen Bernstein, who was Riordan’s education advisor.

Until then, Perez said, Riordan and UTLA had been partners in the since-abandoned LEARN reform effort. Riordan also had backed an unsuccessful UTLA-sponsored state initiative that would have limited administrative costs to 5% of a school district’s budget.

“When Helen died,” said Perez, “Dick Riordan ... went back to being an eccentric millionaire with some very strange ideas about education.”

But many of Riordan’s notions don’t sound strange at all. He says that all children can learn, and that it’s criminal for poor children to receive inferior educations in substandard school buildings. What Perez is noting, in essence, is Riordan’s split with the teachers union, which has included running school board candidates against those endorsed by teachers. In other words, Riordan has concluded that the best interests of teachers -- or at least of the teachers union -- do not always coincide with the best interests of children. And that, to Perez -- a dedicated, career-long union activist -- is as close to blasphemous eccentricity as anything comes.


Riordan’s path, however, is subtler than a pro-union/anti-union dichotomy. All along, he’s demonstrated an underlying, persistent passion to improve the fate of children, an impatience with slow, incremental progress and a desire to man the controls of school reform without actually slogging in the trenches. Riordan never shied from bringing money and influence to bear on L.A.'s school system. And he never feared being wrong, inconsistent or contradictory.

His early philanthropy focused on putting computers into schools -- a technological cure that failed because schools suffered from more stubbornly complex ailments. Of course, Riordan wasn’t the only one who hoped that computers would make everything better, only to find that educrats couldn’t even do computers right -- schools didn’t keep them safe, and they didn’t train teachers how to use them.

Riordan then decided that leadership was the problem, and his alliance with UTLA took that issue head on. LEARN, the acronym by which most people knew the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, was supposed to fix schools by putting teachers, parents and the wider school community jointly in charge of what happened at an individual school. Business leaders such as Riordan liked LEARN because they believed it embraced the notion that better management, not more money, was key.

For her part, Bernstein liked LEARN because it put teachers in leadership roles at schools. And she also saw great potential in focusing the entire community on improving schools, attention she believed would ultimately demonstrate that more money was indeed part of the solution. The LEARN model has since been abandoned, though vestiges remain -- some schools still use its process to choose principals. Riordan, who became mayor in 1993 just as LEARN was spreading across the Los Angeles Unified School District, eventually turned his attention elsewhere.


One such effort was his collaboration with the LAUSD to find available land where small schools serving the early primary grades could be built. The effort was a pitifully puny response to a school-facilities crisis, but that wasn’t exactly Riordan’s fault. The school district itself had quietly allowed school overcrowding to surge out of control.

During this period, Riordan enthusiastically embraced the notion that schools should run like businesses, and that out-of-date, out-of-touch school bureaucrats had to transform themselves into cutting-edge CEOs. Then followed a series of top-secret training sessions for senior administrators over more than 18 months provided by McKinsey & Co., a top business-consulting firm. Riordan never seemed to question the imperfect school-as-business paradigm, even as the metaphor was strained by the Enron scandal and its many successors.

Riordan finally determined that L.A. Unified’s leaders needed to be replaced rather than retrained. But replaced with whom? Well, with people who would answer to Dick Riordan, for one thing. The mayor chafed at his lack of authority over schools, especially when he saw mayors in cities like New York and Chicago wield considerable power. It’s not that Riordan wanted to bark out orders or run the show on a daily basis, or even that he embraced a specific policy or philosophy. And it certainly wasn’t that he wanted an opening for cronies to profiteer at the public’s expense. But he did want inside information he could trust, and a mechanism to assert occasional influence -- and to demand ongoing accountability. And he also came to want leaders who were willing to confront the teachers union.

Riordan accomplished these goals by raising money to elect his four endorsed school board members in 1999. They dumped Supt. Ruben Zacarias and eventually hired former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer. Romer later lost some favor with Riordan for getting along too well with teachers -- and for supporting a salary increase for teachers that Riordan judged too high. But rising test scores and a burgeoning school-construction program bailed Romer out. The academic gains came after Romer rejected LEARN’s emphasis on local control in favor of a top-down, central-office management system.

UTLA’s Perez asserts that the school system is better in spite of Riordan, not because of him, and that teachers deserve the credit. Presumably, however, teachers were working hard six years ago too. And it was Riordan, more than anyone else, who roiled the waters -- even as he engaged in a succession of seemingly failed moves.

“Look at the results,” said Bill Siart, a onetime bank president who heads a firm that provides business services to charter schools. “We got Romer. And at least in K-5, it’s clear that kids in L.A. are getting a better education. In middle school, it’s less clear -- there’s some opportunity. In the high schools, we’re probably doing no better in terms of results. As far as getting schools built that we desperately need, it’s clear that Riordan’s thrust has helped Romer and the school board get schools built. So I would give Riordan very high marks when he didn’t have direct authority over schools.”

Whatever the case, by March of this year, Riordan’s influence seemed in decline, especially after two of Riordan’s favorite board members were tossed out of office by voters in favor of union-backed candidates. Now, with the advent of Schwarzenegger, it’s a Riordan era all over again, this time at the state level. And Riordan’s early rhetoric has a retrograde, LEARN-like feel, with his talking once more about giving real authority and control over budgets to local school sites -- along with accountability for the results. Easier said than done, of course.

So where does this all come out? It could be that the 73-year-old warrior will get tired, or frustrated by the limitations of his advisory role. In the past, he’s rarely shown a long attention span for working plans through the bureaucracy. And sometimes it’s more satisfying being the outside power broker than a cog in the system. It could be that the hoopla over Riordan’s appointment will turn out to be much ado about very little or about something very short-lived.


If Riordan’s passion does remain energized, he’s likely to charge the dragons of educational inequality and low student achievement again and again. And critics will inevitably accuse him of policy contradictions, of choosing the wrong targets, of being a mile wide and an inch deep. But there’s no questioning his sincerity.