In one of Gov. Jerry Brown’s first official acts this week, he sacked the majority of the state Board of Education, replacing several vocal proponents of charter schools, parent empowerment and teacher accountability.
A broad range of educators, policy makers and others say the move was widely believed to be the handiwork of the California Teachers Assn., which heavily supported Brown in his gubernatorial campaign. The union’s support will be vital if he, as expected, places measures on the June ballot to temporarily raise taxes to ease the state’s budget deficit. It also appears to delay a key vote about parents’ power to reshape failing schools — an effort opposed by the union — leading to strong criticism of the governor from fellow Democrats.
“No doubt about it, this is in part looking at the November election first and foremost, and then of course upcoming elections,” said former state Sen. Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles Democrat.
The 11-member state Board of Education has a seemingly dry set of kindergarten-through-12th-grade education responsibilities but recently, it has inserted itself into the most controversial topics in California classrooms: the evaluation of teachers based on their students’ performance, charter schools and the turnaround of failing schools.
Brown’s seven new appointees will dramatically alter the panel’s make-up in age, geography and educational resume, shifting it from a board containing vocal advocates for a reform agenda championed by the Obama administration to one that is more closely aligned with traditional education policy makers.
Although two of Brown’s appointees — a CTA lobbyist and a tribal official — are viewed by some as obvious political payback to campaign loyalists, most of the new board members are widely regarded.
Carl Cohn led the Long Beach Unified School District to national acclaim during his decade-long tenure as superintendent there. Michael Kirst is seen as a powerful choice because of his deep understanding of the state’s kindergarten-through-higher education needs and the state’s political complexities. Trish Williams won respect from both sides of the political aisle while serving as the executive director of EdSource, a respected nonpartisan clearinghouse for education data. Bill Honig, whose appointment sparked controversy because the former state schools chief was convicted of conflict-of-interest charges 18 years ago, is regarded as an advocate for reading education.
Williamson M. Evers, a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, called them “strong appointments” and urged patience.
“We don’t really know till the state board starts acting. We don’t want to put them in a box,” he said. “Let’s let them act.”
This is the second go-round for Kirst and Honig, who served on the state board during Brown’s earlier time as governor, from 1975 to 1983.
“Jerry Brown is trying to bring back the ‘70s and ‘80s to Sacramento, which raises some interesting possibilities but also some interesting challenges, because we’re in such a different environment today in California than we were 30-plus years ago,” said John Rogers, director of the Institute for Democracy, Education and Access at UCLA.
Most notable are a financial crisis that has cost California schools billions of dollars in recent years and a burgeoning national education reform movement pushed by the Obama administration that Brown has publicly criticized as simplistic, unproven and overly “top-down, Washington-driven.” Among other things, reform advocates have focused on dramatically altering the way teachers are hired, evaluated and fired, which has caused major clashes with teachers unions.
The board could have a greater voice in the Brown administration because Brown has decided to eliminate the position of education secretary as a budget-cutting measure.
Brown’s appointment of seven new board members at once effectively eliminated several members who were viewed as strong voices for reform, including Ted Mitchell, the president of NewSchools Venture Fund; Johnathan Williams, founder of the Accelerated School, a charter organization in South-Central Los Angeles; Alan Arkatov, president of Changing.edu; and Ben Austin, chief executive of Parent Revolution.
Austin is a lifelong Democratic stalwart who worked in the Clinton White House. He was appointed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whom he actively campaigned against, and fired by Brown, whom he voted for.
“I got yanked and replaced on his first full day in office by literally the lobbyist for his biggest campaign contributor,” he said. “At the end of the day, what yesterday proved was an intellectually honest kids-first agenda is probably one of the most radical political agendas in the state of California.”
CTA president David Sanchez said the union was thrilled by the new appointees because he believed the board had been stacked with too many members connected to charters, which are mostly nonunion.
He said that although there was no quid pro quo, “we did work our butts off with getting the word out” about Brown’s candidacy, adding that he had told Brown of his concerns about the board numerous times. Sanchez also said that if Brown proposes June ballot measures to help fund schools, “we’re going to invest time and money in it.”
Critics say the string of appointees was more than payback for the union’s support during the election, it was an effort to keep them and their coffers in Brown’s corner. The union is a powerful voice in California politics and was instrumental in foiling several Schwarzenegger ballot measures in 2005.
A spokeswoman for Brown declined to comment on whether the appointments were politically motivated.
“As with all appointments, the governor consults with a variety and wide range of individuals to select the best qualified person for the job, and he’s working to put his team together quickly,” said spokeswoman Elizabeth Ashford.
The state board took on a more prominent role in the reform movement when the Obama administration began pushing its education agenda in 2009, using the Race to the Top competition as leverage. That competition for billions of federal dollars, at a time when many states were facing budget deficits, prodded California and other states to implement legislative changes aligned with the reforms.
California failed to qualify for the money, but one legacy of its effort is the “parent trigger,” a school-turnaround law used for the first time in December by parents in Compton when they petitioned to convert an elementary school into a charter.
The state board is scheduled to finalize the regulations for the law on Friday, but the vote is expected to be delayed.
Romero, author of the legislation, said that although the law cannot be repealed by the new board, it can be harmed.
“They can put poison pills along the way, they can water it down and of course, they can delay, delay, delay,” she said.
Brown has expressed skepticism about many elements of the reform movement, and education experts said this was evident in his shake-up of the board.
“The governor has selected some of the smartest policy thinkers in California. They’re experienced, they’re thoughtful and they’re largely independent minded, with the exception of the CTA staffer,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at UC Berkeley.
“But the move does signal that the governor is breaking from President Obama’s reform agenda quite sharply.... The downside of that is, if not the Obama reform agenda, what is the governor’s specific plan for lifting public schools? It’s an independent, smart and sage group, but will they coalesce around a pointed and aggressive plan?”