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Monday, May 02, 2005 | Reaction from local education leaders ranged from wary to jubilant over the announcement Friday that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had named outgoing San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Alan Bersin as his next Secretary for Education.
Few were shocked about the cabinet appointment, saying Bersin was the logical choice after current Secretary for Education Richard Riordan resigned last week. But many expressed surprise that Bersin was also chosen by Schwarzenegger to serve on the state Board of Education.
It is unprecedented that an education secretary, largely an advisory position, has simultaneously been a member of the powerful state board, so many view this as an unmistakable signal that the governor expects Bersin to play a major role in shaping education policy.
The following local education leaders offered their comments on the appointments, the message it sends and how San Diego may be affected.
Luis Acle, San Diego Unified School District trustee and board president:
“I’m an optimist. I’m inclined to look for the silver lining. Having someone close to the governor – it will come in handy, having a secretary of education who knows this district well. He knows the students, our challenges, our needs. If San Diego comes to Sacramento asking for assistance, I would think he would be our advocate.
“Alan is an honorable person. He will try to do what’s best for the children of California. There was never a question about our same interests – it’s been about a difference in style and implementation.
“The teachers’ union will react in a predictable way. Many of his ideas are not welcome. But some teachers are very open-minded about some ideas. Merit pay does resonate with some teachers.”
Rudy Castruita, San Diego County Superintendent of Schools:
Through a spokesperson, Castruita declined to comment on the appointments.
John de Beck, SDUSD trustee:
“It’s a perfect match, Alan and the governor. I don’t agree with either of them. They’re both macho guys. Alan’s saying the right stuff. Politically, it’s the right thing for Alan. They’re aligned as far as their philosophy about teachers.
“[The message to the teachers’ union is that] it’s a declaration of war. Alan Bersin has for the whole seven years never negotiated a teachers’ contract. He believes the unions are a problem for advancing education, but the cooperation he wants is all one way. Alan’s biggest weakness is compromise. I never felt Alan’s attitude toward labor was Democratic.
“He hasn’t got any power in this new job [as education secretary]; it’s just advisory. But the seat on the state board is more powerful. Working with [State Superintendent for Public Instruction] Jack O’Connell will be like mixing oil and water. Alan doesn’t have the same depth of education knowledge.
“I can’t imagine that [Bersin will bring more resources to San Diego]. Why would Alan divert money from other areas? This brings Alan to the forefront, not San Diego.”
Ginger Hovenic, president/CEO of the San Diego Chamber Foundation’s Business Roundtable for Education:
“Because he has such in-depth knowledge and overview, he’ll bring quite a sophisticated experience to that position. He has a great way of getting people to see the big picture and getting people to talk. I’m pretty excited about it, but I’m not surprised.
“The governor’s message is that he wants business not as usual, and that’s Alan Bersin. He’s passionate and dedicated toward academic achievement for all kids. And he’s politically connected. There have been some real conflicts, but you can’t take away from his dedication to academic achievement. That has to be the number-one priority.”
Mel Katz, executive officer of Manpower Inc., member of the board of directors of California’s EdVoice education reform organization, cofounder of San Diego Chamber Foundation’s Business Roundtable for Education:
“It’s a fantastic move by the governor. Alan will be great as Secretary of Education. He has made very good progress in six years here. He’s recognized around the country as a change agent. Education experts are applauding.
“Five years from now people will realize what he’s accomplished. He’s made systemic changes – an emphasis on literacy, uniformity in curriculum, teacher training, principal training. Did it work for high school? No. But he had other plans for high schools that he didn’t get to implement.
“Alan has always been able to work with unions, but he wouldn’t give them veto power. That [reputation of being anti-union] isn’t really Alan’s personality. Many teachers didn’t like how he did it but they liked what he did. [To the California Teachers Association], I hope they can work together. I think Alan will be receptive.”
Katherine Nakamura, SDUSD trustee:
“I’m thrilled. It makes sense. Alan has learned a lot. Working as a superintendent helped him. Without that, he would have just been a policy wonk – a brilliant policy wonk, but a policy wonk nonetheless.
“He understands which battles to fight. He has a broad vision of education, with tremendous contacts all over the country. He has negotiating skills and a sophistication that’s needed at that level. He will temper some of the things the governor has said. But it’s not exactly an olive branch to the union.
“This is good for us as a board. This can only be good for San Diego. I think we get less than Los Angeles and San Francisco. We should get a more fair allocation of resources. Our concerns will be paid more attention. And I’m hoping his skills will bring more resources from the feds for the state.”
Ron Ottinger, national associate director for the nonprofit A.V.I.D. Center, former SDUSD trustee:
“There will be access, and that makes a big difference. San Diego hasn’t had a voice in state policy. This can only be good for San Diego school districts, all 43 of them.
“Alan will forge a statewide agenda. He will reach across party lines to focus on a statewide plan to improve student achievement. First thing, he’ll try to build bridges. My advice to the CTA is to attempt to work with him. They’ll find a real willingness. This is a different office, a different position. Give him a chance. They shouldn’t rush to judgment.”
Terry Pesta, president of the San Diego Education Association (SDUSD’s teachers’ union):
“The secretary for education is a useless bureaucracy. We already have an elected state superintendent for public instruction. It’s a shame to put anyone in there. The governor could have used the opportunity after Riordan resigned to have left it open.
“Alan Bersin has no track record of consensus. He hasn’t learned how to work with teachers and parents. I don’t think he’ll accomplish much. He’s left the district in disarray. He promised they’d double test scores, but overall they’ve been flat. We have not out-performed the rest of the county. It’s taken a human toll. He’s wasted money on outside consultants, and the principals have been taught to lead by intimidation. Before, we had strong site-based management.
“[Bersin and the governor] are two of a kind. They’ve shown they’re both anti-public education and anti-union. Eventually the governor’s agenda will go down in flames.”
Robert Watkins, president of the San Diego County Board of Education, head of R.J. Watkins and Co. global executive search firm, chairman of The Lincoln Club:
“I think it’s terrific. It’s a recognition of the achievements that were brought to bear in San Diego Unified. I thought after Riordan left, the automatic appointment would be Alan Bersin. I know Alan – he stands for education. He is not part of the established system. Therefore, he sees a lot of the issues, and he can help resolve those issues. He can see above the fray. Everyone is so status quo. But Alan said, ‘I’m not buying status quo. We’ve got to make changes.’ Alan has fresh thoughts, not the old industrial mindset.
“The CTA has got to be foaming at the mouth over this. They are an impediment to progress. They’ve got to move ahead.”
Frances O’Neill Zimmerman, former SDUSD trustee:
“This means little or nothing for education in California. The position was an invented position by Pete Wilson to undercut the elected position of the state superintendent of public instruction who is often of the opposite political party, as is the case now. His seat on the [state] board was tossed in there to sweeten the deal.
“Alan is a titular Democrat – he’s no Democrat by my standards. From a political point of view, he and Arnold have a lot in common. He will harm the governor, and both will plummet in public standing. Alan is not a people person, not an education person. Alan is a very abrasive figure. His real forte is public relations. This will further inflame the teachers of California.”
Read “New Bersin Positions Have Overlapping Duties.”