Tuesday, May 17, 2005 | This is part one in a two-part series.

Alan Bersin will become the next state secretary for education on July 1, one day after the expiration of his contract as superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District. Bersin replaces Richard Riordan who resigned April 27. On April 29, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also appointed Bersin, 58, to a seat on the 11-member state Board of Education.

The controversial superintendent sat down with Voice of San Diego education writer Marsha Sutton several days after the governor’s announcement, for a conversation about San Diego City Schools, his stormy tenure at the helm of the state’s second-largest school district, his views on education and what changes are needed statewide to improve academic achievement. Excerpts from the interview follow.

Tell me about the new position. How long has this been in the works, and how did this come about?

That’s a good question. I was up in discussions for a while with the people on the governor’s team. The specifics of when and how, I think, are probably inappropriate to talk about and are really not germane to the issue in terms of what specific discussions led to this decision or that decision.

Some people have said that the position of secretary for education is just a figurehead and the governor’s mouthpiece with little power. What kind of impact do you hope to make in that position? What do you hope to accomplish?

There’s an opportunity to be a spokesperson for the governor’s point of view on education, to represent that point of view, to find common ground with the people inside and outside the education world. While the situation is polarized at the moment, I don’t believe that there’s anything necessary in that condition, that there’s considerable common ground that can and will be found among the people of good will. The job of secretary for education was created during the administration of Gov. [Pete] Wilson with the intent of providing a focal point for policy formulation at the governor’s cabinet level that could engage in dialogue with the superintendent of public instruction and with the state board and with the education coalition. I think that is more than a full-time job and one that represents an opportunity I’m eager to embrace.

I interviewed [former SDUSD trustee] Ron Ottinger and [SDUSD trustee] Katherine Nakamura and several other people, who have said they’re very excited that you’ll be going to Sacramento, that it will bring potentially more resources to San Diego and they’ll have more of a voice in Sacramento. But [SDUSD trustee] John de Beck says that’s nonsense and that you’re not going to divert resources from other areas of the state. Which is the case?

Obviously, the responsibility is statewide. The fact that my experience in education is rooted in San Diego has helped to shape my point of view. Will there be a putting of the finger on the scale in favor of San Diego to the detriment of other regions? No, that would be inappropriate. But will the point of view of San Diego be able to be articulated simply because people like [Oceanside Unified School District superintendent and recently appointed state Board of Education member] Ken Noonan and myself understand that point of view? The answer is yes. How that translates into decisions of other people remains to be seen.

So there will be a voice for San Diego there, on the state board at least, that perhaps …

It’s not a voice for San Diego. It’s a voice that reflects deep knowledge and experience with San Diego, with the system of public education here, and that can’t help but influence the way in which I think about issues or Ken Noonan thinks about issues. But at the end of the day, the decisions are not solely those of me, or Ken … I think it certainly doesn’t hurt in the same way that having [former San Diego-area state Senator] Dede Alpert play a major role in the Senate didn’t hurt San Diego. But it’s not quite the same in the sense that our role will be policy formulation and the expression of policy, rather than representation in the legislative sense.

Are you more excited about the state board position, which is where many people see the power?

I think the positions of the secretary for education and member of the state board have their roles and their responsibilities. I’m looking forward to exploring the intersections of both being on the state board and being in the cabinet as Secretary for Education. In Sacramento at the level of state policy, it’s all about discussion and dialogue and then finding the common ground, being able to forge the compromises.

Do you find it strange that you as a Democrat are being portrayed as aligned with a Republican governor? Are you philosophically matched, two of a kind?

I think if you look at education both at the state level and at the national level, you see that it’s an area of wide bipartisan cooperation. The issues of education, that confront education, actually have created a common ground … There’s a broad center that avoids either the extreme of the left or the right … I think it explains the genesis of No Child Left Behind as a bipartisan measure … This is about creating a system that puts children’s achievement first, that actually aligns resources to support teachers to improve the quality of their teaching, and students the engagement of their learning … I think that vital middle is one that is very consistently nowadays bipartisan in nature.

The governor has polarized a lot of people with some of the things he’s said and done. Do you believe that education is underfunded in California?

The difficulty with our situation in California [is that] our fiscal house is simply not in order. In fact, it’s characterized by gridlock, characterized by inability to align revenue generation with spending which puts us constantly running to chase our tail – having come through the worst fiscal crisis in California’s history, which we felt very directly here in San Diego…

The fact is, until we get our fiscal house in order and living within our means, we will not be able to invest in education or anything else to the extent that we need to do that, to put us back first in public education. Proposition 98 was intended to actually increase education funding. The way it’s worked out in practice since the late ’80s is that it’s been a ceiling on spending. If Prop 98 is so good for us, how is it possible that we’ve ended up being in the bottom 10 states in terms of per-pupil funding, while at the same time our teacher salaries are the highest average in the country? Teachers need to be paid more, but there’s a mismatch between that fact and where we stand in terms of per-pupil funding. This is the kind of fundamental matter that I think the governor is trying to address overall in his approach to the budget.

So you support his fiscal plan?

I think it’s very important that we get hold of this budget situation, and I have not heard another plan that offers us a way to put the fiscal house in order [and] live within our means.

Will more money in education make a difference? Some people say no, it’s just how you allocate the money.

That’s always a question. The amount of money does count, both from a political as well as from an educational standpoint. The allocation, how effectively you use that money, is really critical. I think one of the lessons of San Diego is that, if you don’t reallocate your funds from unproductive uses into those strategies and supports for teachers and students that lead to student achievement, what you end up with is one layer of resources on top of another in which programs attract constituencies, they involve jobs, and they become irreversible, such that you add resource to resource to resource without ever galvanizing the cost-effectiveness of the entire system. That’s not a sound investment. And for those taxpayers who say, ‘We will not further invest in the system of public education until we are convinced that the resources are being used appropriately and with good effect,’ that’s a point of view that’s hard for me to dispute.

Tomorrow: Part two of “A Conversation with Alan Bersin.”

Read Voice’s May 2 article, “New Bersin Positions Have Overlapping Duties” for more information on the responsibilities of these two positions.

– MARSHA SUTTON, Voice Education Writer

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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