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Monday, February 27, 2006 | Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part interview.

Alan Bersin. Say the name to almost anyone in San Diego, and you are bound to get a reaction. People either love him or hate him, and this nearly a year after leaving his post as superintendent of San Diego City Schools.

Because his seven-year tenure here was so stormy and the changes so extensive, he remains the subject of contentious debate. Now, as California’s education secretary, Bersin, 58, has taken his particular brand of education philosophy to Sacramento where he advises Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on education matters affecting millions of California’s public school students.

Bersin said that $26.3 billion of the $38 billion would be allocated to K-12 educational needs, to be used for modernization and new construction. “So in San Diego, for example, we need both,” he said. “Even though we have declining enrollment, people want schools built in overcrowded neighborhoods. The same thing is said in Los Angeles.”

San Diego City Schools, the second largest school district in the state, is forecasting 130,000 students next fall, a decline of 2.2 percent from last fall’s enrollment of 133,000 students.

This is the fifth consecutive year of declining enrollment in San Diego, a pattern consistent with other large urban school districts throughout the state. A common problem facing these districts is what to do with existing facilities in low-enrollment areas.

“That’s where the governor is proposing over 10 years [to spend] $2.4 billion for charter schools, to provide a separate pot of money for charter schools to both modernize facilities as well as to build them,” Bersin said.

A staunch supporter of the charter-school movement, Bersin said the governor is asking districts and charter schools to communicate with one another about the best use of facilities. “What we have to do is use this separate allocation for charter schools to have a collaboration, a cooperation, which was intended by Proposition 39 but not really achieved,” he said. “And the governor’s bond does that.”

Proposition 39, passed in 2000, requires that school districts make facilities available to public charter schools to accommodate their students. Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that operate under a charter that gives sites more local control over their curriculum, instruction and business practices.

Bersin said the governor’s proposal also provides $2.4 billion for career technical education – “but not the way we used to do, with woodshop and home economics,” he said. “This is to build the kinds of laboratories, media rooms, classrooms that are needed for the kinds of jobs we need to prepare our young people for – health care, public safety, media, communications. So this is an important down-payment on an investment that’s long overdue in career tech.”

And $2.1 billion would be allocated to convert large, four-year high schools with thousands of students into small ones with only 400 to 600 students. “This is money, for example, that would permit [San Diego’s] Kearny or Crawford [high schools] to complete the modernization and the creation of separate small schools,” Bersin said.

Besides the $26.3 billion for K-12 needs, $11.7 billion is being designated for higher education – for the University of California and the California State University systems, as well as for community colleges which Bersin calls a “critical element of public education.” The money would provide the capital resources needed to accommodate new students and new educational programs in colleges, he said.

“We’re seeing movement through the population bulge,” Bersin said. “The bond takes into account that we can project the need for 600,000 more places for students at the higher end.”

The entire $222 billion measure, about half of which Schwarzenegger wants allocated to the state’s transportation and aging public works systems, would call for $68 billion in general obligation bonds.

“Between 1998 and 2004, the voters authorized $28 billion in bonds, as part of our Proposition MM here in San Diego, and all of that was good,” Bersin said. “I think the experience of the California public with school bonds has made the electorate safe to bring on bonds having to address other infrastructure needs strategically, such as water and levees and bridges and air quality and so on.”

Schwarzenegger’s initiative would span five election cycles, over 10 years, Bersin said. “We have to give our school world a 10-year horizon to make investments, with a 20-year planning horizon in view,” he said. Using demographic data, “we can start to make long-term facility plans.”

Most lawmakers doubt that the governor’s sweeping proposal will be finalized in time to meet the March 10 deadline, to qualify for the June 6 primary election. If not, voters can expect to see some form of the plan on the November ballot.

Teacher Training and Recruitment

Bersin was in town Feb. 10 to speak at a conference of the National Center for Alternative Certification, an organization that supports alternative routes to teaching.

“What this national center has become is a clearing house for the 50 states on all of the various experiments and pilots and established programs that exist around the country for the purpose of encouraging people, many mid-career switchers but not all, to come into the teaching profession,” Bersin explained.

Many of these professionals hold great potential, he said. Yet, “simply having a content background doesn’t permit you to come into the classroom and succeed with students.” They need training, according to Bersin, but would lose their primary income if they quit their jobs to return to college for a teacher preparation program. The NCAC provides support for these individuals.

“Yes, we want to streamline and facilitate the movement and tear away unnecessary boundaries,” Bersin said. “But it seems to me a friendly amendment is that we should not be talking about alternative certification, but we should be talking about alternative routes to certification – particularly in those areas where we need teachers, like math, science, special education.

“To do that, we have … to be sure it’s not a route that gets unprepared, ill-equipped people into classrooms. That’s one of the problems we’ve seen in California with emergency credentialing. We don’t want this to be another form of emergency credentialing.”

Bersin believes the way to accomplish this is to set a single standard for content and pedagogy. “The ways in which people satisfy those two standards can differ from the traditional preparation route, but the quality standard should be the same,” he said.

One option is an internship program, where mid-life professionals can “come in and begin teaching but under the care and feeding of a seasoned master teacher who mentors you and helps you develop the skills that give you the classroom management capacity to actually engage in quality teaching,” Bersin said.

The traditional route for becoming a teacher is through a fifth-year preparation program. “They get their B.A. and then go on to the college of education, and it’s a one-year experience of course work and student teaching,” Bersin said. The internship program is intended to accomplish much the same as the fifth-year program.

Although the need for more teachers is indisputable (Bersin estimates needing 300,000 over the next decade), it’s not just a question of numbers. “We also need to take into account the kinds of expertise those teachers are going to need,” he said. “Right now, we have pronounced shortages across California of math, science and special education teachers.”

Bersin only expects a net increase of 250,000 students in California in the next 10 years. “But there will be some places in the state where there will be explosive growth – places like the Inland Empire where there will be many more than a quarter of a million students, places like north San Diego County or south San Diego County, some parts of the San Joaquin Valley,” he said. “At the same time, we’re seeing declining enrollment in all of our urban areas, including San Diego.”

So there is a mismatch, he said, between where teachers currently are and the communities where they will be needed.

Bersin said the governor wants to make it easier for experienced teachers from out of state to come to California and “streamline the system.” These teachers, he said, need to be taught California standards (what’s expected to be learned in each subject at each grade level) and must have the skills and knowledge to teach English to non-English speaking students – a fast-growing segment of the state’s student population.

“But we can accomplish that,” he said. “We have training programs and professional development for English language learning instruction.”

Placing high-quality teachers in the schools that need them the most remains one of the most challenging issues facing education. To address this problem, Bersin said the governor is proposing a $100 million block grant in his budget that awards incentives to teachers “to go to hard-to-staff schools and stay there.”

Schools that scored in the lowest 30 percent on the state’s standardized tests would draw on resources at the rate of $50 per student, if this idea is approved by the legislature, and use the money in a variety of ways, he said – “everything from student loan forgiveness, to signing bonuses, to retention bonuses, to professional development. And districts will be able to customize that program to suit their own needs.

“For example, if you remain in the school for five years, there’s a retention bonus. Or … less of a teaching load, more prep time, more time to confer with your colleagues. All of that would be possible within this context. And it also applies to principals.”

Bersin said the money will be available on a block grant basis, not on an application basis, to every student in a decile 1-3 school. That school and its school district will have more money “for the right incentives based on the circumstances of the school and the district,” he said.

“Teacher quality is the objective. But how you fashion the incentives is best left to local discretion. That much I learned from my own experience. Don’t micro-manage that from Sacramento, but rather provide the resources. And let districts craft, together with their unions, the best solution.”

Bersin knows first-hand how categorical funding ties local administrators’ hands, and said it’s important “to avoid, as best we can, sending very specifically earmarked funds in the categorical vein to school districts.”

He said school districts should be held accountable but given the resources in the most flexible way possible so they can set their own priorities. “The typical and most effective way of allocating resources is to set frameworks and standards but let local decisions be made case by case,” he said. “It’s the way the system needs to work. You can’t possibly make the right decision for every school district from Sacramento. Top-down at that level is not serviceable.”

In Part Two tomorrow, read Bersin’s views on the high school exit exam, the API/AYP controversy and the governor’s proposed increase in education spending.

Marsha Sutton writes about education and children’s issues. She can be reached at

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