Monday, May 02, 2005 | Alan Bersin, outgoing San Diego Unified School District superintendent, thanked his staff in an e-mail message on Friday, and said California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s decision to appoint him as Secretary for Education and to a post on the state Board of Education, “reflects favorably” on the past seven years at San Diego City Schools. “To hold ourselves responsible and accountable for improved instruction as we hold all children to high expectations for their learning is a lesson San Diego offers our colleagues across California,” he wrote.

“This is a time of transforming challenge for public education in California and throughout the nation,” Bersin continued. “It is a time when our dedication in meeting the educational needs of children and finding common ground across differences of opinion will be sorely tested.”

Schwarzenegger seemed to agree that there is a heightened need for fundamental, far-reaching improvement of California’s educational system. In a prepared statement, he said, “Alan is a reformer and the perfect choice for secretary for education at this critical time for education in our state.”

California’s Secretary for Education, one of nine cabinet members, is appointed by the governor and serves as the governor’s spokesperson and chief advisor on education matters. The Office of the Secretary for Education was established in 1991 by then Governor Pete Wilson, but the office has never been formalized and is not responsible for the administration of programs or funds. That responsibility goes to the California Department of Education and its head, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The 11-member state Board of Education, which now includes Bersin, is widely regarded as the power center for statewide education policy. It is the governing and policy-making body of the CDE, and all its members are appointed by the governor. Besides Bersin, also representing San Diego County on the state board is Ken Noonan, superintendent of the Oceanside Unified School District, who was just appointed by Schwarzenegger two weeks ago.

As the next Secretary for Education, Bersin, a Democrat, will work with Jack O’Connell, also a Democrat and California’s 26th State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Serving as the chief executive officer of the CDE, the state superintendent, a nonpartisan position that has existed in the state for over 150 years, cannot be hired or fired by the governor. As an elected official, the state superintendent is accountable directly to the people of California.

O’Connell, elected in 2002 to a four-year term, oversees elementary and secondary public school programs, implements policy established by the state Board of Education, and, as chief executive officer of the CDE, has overall responsibility for the supervision of the state’s public education system.

The intent is that these officials and departments work together in a concerted effort to advance the cause of public education in California, which serves seven million K-12 students in more than 9,000 schools.

A lightning rod for controversy

Yet Bersin’s changes, under his plan called the Blueprint for Student Success, resulted in higher test scores and improved achievement in elementary grades, and won him the loyal approval of many in both the education and business community who vehemently defend him.

His detractors claim the Blueprint may have improved scores in the lower grades but scores throughout the state and the nation rose in the last eight years as more focus was placed on testing and accountability. They also say his policies generated little if any change in middle and high school performance.

Openly critical of union policies, Bersin operated with a divided board and little union support for his ideas, and his relationship with the teachers’ union has remained sour over the years. He has stated publicly that the lack of flexibility in hiring practices and pay schedules for teachers has contributed to an inability to make significant progress in education reform. Schwarzenegger has made similar comments.

A practicing attorney until 1998, Bersin had no prior experience as an educator. From 1993 to 1998, Bersin served as U.S. attorney for the southern district of California, and from 1975 to 1992 he worked for a private Los Angeles law firm specializing in RICO, securities, commercial and insurance litigation.

Married to Judge Lisa Foster, Bersin received his bachelor’s degree from Harvard in 1968, studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar, and received his law degree from Yale in 1974. The couple, who live in Point Loma, has three daughters.

Bersin, 58, will be paid $123,255 annually as Secretary for Education, and he will assume his new post July 1, one day after his term as San Diego Unified School District Superintendent ends. Beginning July 1, he will also receive $240,000 from the SDUSD, as a settlement agreed to in January by Bersin and the SDUSD school board that ended Bersin’s contract with the district one year early. His annual salary as head of San Diego City Schools is $189,000.

Bersin will immediately begin serving on the state Board of Education, a position that pays $100 per diem. Although appointed by the governor, members of the state Board of Education require Senate confirmation; the position of Secretary for Education does not.

Read “San Diego Education Leaders React to News of Bersin Appointment to State Posts.”

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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