Ready to Take On Schools

Times Staff Writers

Alan D. Bersin plays hardball.

As the nation’s “border czar” in the 1990s, he led a crackdown on illegal immigration and drug smuggling along California’s frontier with Mexico.

As the San Diego schools chief for the last seven years, he tangled with teachers and school board members over his vision for improving the city’s schools.

Now, as California’s incoming education secretary, the blunt-talking former U.S. attorney is set to bring his unflinching -- some say autocratic -- style to Sacramento.


There, he will enjoy considerably more power than his soon-to-be predecessor, Richard Riordan, who possessed limited authority within the administration and held little sway outside of it.

Not only will Bersin, a Democrat, serve as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s top education advisor, he will sit on the state Board of Education -- a dual role that will vastly expand his authority and tighten Schwarzenegger’s grip on public education. Riordan did not sit on the education board.

Schwarzenegger introduced Bersin at a news conference Friday, heaping praise on his incoming secretary, who will make $123,000 a year.

“He’s the perfect choice at this critical time for education,” Schwarzenegger said of Bersin, who served two years on the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

Bersin, 58, offered a glimpse of his hard-hitting approach at the news conference. Standing next to the governor and speaking in a relaxed but firm tone, Bersin did not shy away from taking on teachers unions.

“It’s very important that we find common ground for what our kids need, not what’s good for the union,” he said. “This has to be premised on what’s good for children.”


Barbara Kerr, president of the California Teachers Assn., which represents the state’s 330,000 teachers, offered her own blunt assessment of the incoming education secretary.

“CTA is ... disappointed that the governor chose someone who has no track record of building consensus or working with parents and teachers to improve public schools,” Kerr said in a written statement.

“During his seven-year tenure in San Diego, Alan Bersin’s top-down bureaucratic style divided the community, hurt teacher morale and failed to significantly improve student learning. We hope Mr. Bersin will take a new approach in his new job.”

Those who know Bersin best say his straightforward management style wins over admirers and fuels detractors. But virtually everyone agrees that he brings substantial intellectual vigor to the job.

Many in Sacramento say they expect Bersin to effectively move Schwarzenegger’s education agenda forward -- a welcome departure, they say, from Riordan.

Bersin, for example, said he supports merit pay for teachers “100%,” adding that he also favors paying more to teachers who work in the most challenging schools. “We have to use the incentives in other sectors to get teachers to take on the toughest jobs,” he said.


And he said that the state’s school finance system must be revamped to provide schools a more reliable funding stream.

“The governor has appointed a very smart and very engaged person to carry out his education agenda,” said Scott Plotkin, executive director of the California School Boards Assn. “It sends a very clear signal that the governor intends to take a very firm hand in education. That is certainly what I am picking up from people and certainly what I believe.”

A lawyer by profession with strong connections to the Democratic Party, Bersin worked for the Clinton administration in the 1990s. He oversaw California-Mexico border issues for then-U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and earned the moniker “border czar.”

Bersin left that job in 1998 to take the helm of the San Diego city schools, the state’s second-largest school system. He was an outsider to public education with no formal training in the field.

He brought swift and sometimes wrenching change. In his first year as superintendent, he stripped more than a dozen principals and assistant principals of their duties, a move that infuriated many and triggered a lawsuit that the district recently lost.

He secured about $40 million in grants from philanthropists, including Bill Gates and Eli Broad, who made his funding of a principal-training program contingent on Bersin remaining superintendent.


Bersin addressed the district’s academic deficiencies with his Blueprint for Student Success, a sweeping set of reforms aimed largely at narrowing the wide achievement gap between white and Asian students on the one hand, and Latinos and African Americans on the other.

The blueprint required intensive training for district teachers, eliminated hundreds of teacher assistant positions to raise funds for other purposes, and called for tutoring and in-class programs for underperforming students.

The plan’s scope and intensity set Bersin’s efforts apart from similar reforms in the state’s other large urban school districts, said Julian Betts, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California who has extensively studied the school district.

“What Bersin put in place was very systematic and focused,” Betts said.

A Times analysis of standardized test score data shows that San Diego’s schools have raised their achievement scores over the last four years but at a slower rate than the state’s other large urban districts, including Los Angeles Unified and Santa Ana Unified.

While Bersin’s plan produced academic results, however, it also set off political tremors that are still rumbling.

Robin Whitlow, executive director of the San Diego Education Assn., criticized Bersin for what she called his “top-down, dictatorial leadership style,” adding that he “is not afraid to be punitive and vengeful when people challenge him.”


In 2001, San Diego teachers gave Bersin a no-confidence vote.

Throughout Bersin’s tenure, the district’s five-member school board remained divided, with three trustees consistently voting to support his initiatives; they extended his contract in 2002.

With the election in November of three new board members, support for the superintendent eroded.

In January, Bersin agreed to leave his post at the end of June, one year before his contract expires. Trustees have agreed to buy out the last year of his contract for $240,000.

Former board President Ron Ottinger, a Bersin ally, said the superintendent’s blunt leadership style angered teachers and trustees but was deliberate.

“He was hired at a time when this district was held in very low regard,” Ottinger said. “We needed a change-agent to come in. Many people don’t like his style ... but he had to come in and be very direct in the early stages if anything was going to get done.”



Alan D. Bersin

Age: 58

Education: Earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College, attended Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar and obtained a law degree from Yale Law School.


Work history: Practiced law at Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles from 1975 to 1992; served as U.S. attorney for California’s southern district for five years; and joined the San Diego city schools as superintendent in July 1998.

Family: He and his wife, Lisa Foster, a San Diego Superior Court judge, have three daughters.

Times staff writer Doug Smith and data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.