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Commentary: Ray Cortines, the once and future

Charles Taylor Kerchner | October 20, 2014

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work begins zoneProbably no one has flunked retirement worse than Ray Cortines.  At 82, he’s signed on to steer the Los Angeles Unified School District for the third time.

Twice before he served as an interim superintendent, and he held the post for three years immediately before John Deasy’s tenure.

Cortines understands big city school systems.  In addition to Los Angeles, he was superintendent of New York, San Francisco, Pasadena and San Jose.  But why Ray again?

The answers are straightforward: peacemaking and getting things done.

The school board and the education policy elites (maybe) are tired of toxic warfare.  Cortines has a reputation of someone who can have a constructive relationship with the teachers and administrative unions without being a doormat.  He both charmed and bludgeoned the school board, threatening to resign if they misbehaved.  (Unlike most superintendents, he had a 30-day contract, which he would periodically threaten to not renew.)

And then there is the craft and politics of getting things done.  Most politicians, and most journalists, ignore the politics of implementation.  To them, reforming schools is about getting the right law passed or achieving a favorable court decision.  But as past school reform efforts in Los Angeles illustrate, the heavy lifting starts after decisions are made, not before.

Holding the school board together, implementing an agreement with the union when some teachers balk, attracting administrative leadership: all this is part of the political kitbag of seasoned superintendents.  Cortines is one of them.

When he was preparing to retire the last time, I reflected a bit on what L.A. schools need.  Some of what I said then bears repeating:

Los Angeles needs a professional superintendent with a vision larger than his or her ego. In education reform circles, career superintendents are not in fashion right now. The media and education policy writers swoon before self-styled entrepreneurs and education czars who talk big, ignore history and count success according to how many teachers and principals they fired rather than whether students did better.  LAUSD needs someone with a belief that building an effective organization is more important than swinging a big stick or buying a fix-it program from a vendor.  It needs someone with deep craft skills, and it needs someone who understands that information technology is rapidly changing how students interact with and acquire knowledge.


But most of all, LAUSD needs someone who understands what city they’re in.  The politics of Los Angeles is not that of New York or Chicago.  Our political world is that of changing and fragile coalitions.  Chicago and New York are built on the remnants of long standing political machines and around mayors with strong powers….


Throughout his tenure, Cortines has kept a relatively low profile.  Unlike Michelle Rhee, the Washington, DC, superintendent and current [former] media darling, Cortines has not posed for a cover picture in Time.  And unlike charter school founder Steve Barr he has not been the subject of a New Yorker profile.  Like most career professionals, Cortines understood that school superintendents are much like sailboat skippers, who use the prevailing winds to take them where they want to go. The lesson for a successor is that superintendents seldom have the power to create the wind, and they never want to be the wind.

Although different in many ways, Cortines and Deasy share an appetite for work at a relentless pace.  He’s called a staff meeting on Monday, at 7:30 AM.

A word to the wise: best not be late.

Charles Taylor Kerchner conducts the “On California” blog at  He is an emeritus professor at Claremont Graduate University.

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