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Observations: Lessons from San Diego

LA School Report | April 30, 2013

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This is a guest commentary from longtime journalist Richard Lee Colvin comparing the current debate over the leadership of LAUSD to a similar one that took place nearly a decade ago in San Diego:

School board elections typically are low-cost, low-turnout, low-visibility exercises in democracy. But, in this one, philanthropists and other moneyed interests spent big money backing reform candidates whose opponents enjoyed the strong support of the teacher union. It featured lots of partisan campaign ads, some that pushed right up to the edge of truth. The fate of the aggressive superintendent, who had made improving teacher effectiveness the centerpiece of his administration, seemed to hang in the balance.

The election I’m talking about took place in 2000 in San Diego, not Los Angeles earlier this year.

But the similarities are such that an analysis of the former yields insights that may be relevant to the latter as well.

In Los Angeles, Superintendent John Deasy had deep-pocketed supporters including  New York City’s billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg and philanthropist Eli Broad contributed nearly $4 million to support friendly candidates in the primary. (Another $600,000 has been put into a run-off for one of the seats.) The results were mixed in the primary, with one Deasy supporter winning and the incumbent union loyalist retaining his seat.

The superintendent in San Diego was Alan Bersin, who had been the U.S Attorney in San Diego before being hired in 1998 as one of the country’s first non-traditional superintendents.

As I recount in my new book, Tilting at Windmills: School Reform, San Diego and America’s Race to Restore Public Education, in the 2000 election, he secretly helped raise money from wealthy San Diego business leaders and the Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad for a $500,000 advertising campaign to defeat his harshest board critic.

Had the campaign succeeded, his allies would have occupied four of five board seats, and strengthened him politically. But it didn’t and for the next five years he had to fight to maintain that one-vote majority.

After the election, the board member he failed to defeat was bitter and angry and even more committed to getting rid of him, frequently calling him a Nazi and rallying the opposition. The lesson is that, if you go to war with a member of your board, you’d better make sure you win.

The teacher union, emboldened, came back at Bersin two years later with an $800,000 campaign to elect a Bersin naysayer. By then, the business leaders he’d counted on in 2000, fatigued and discouraged by the nonstop public battle with his critics, were unwilling to get involved. (Bersin’s supporter still won, however, because the teacher union backed a weak candidate and also because it was forced to withdraw a television ad that turned out to be scurrilous.)

Deasy’s opponents are likely to still be there come the next election, and may be armed with even more financial firepower. To maintain political support, he has to show that the district is making progress. He also has to develop a compelling, non-technical narrative to explain the reforms he’s pursuing. His opponents will do all they can to convince parents and community leaders that he does not respect or care about teachers and blames them for low student achievement. Parents and communities love their teachers. Bersin’s experience shows that reforms are not sustainable if teachers are not fully on board, even if their union is not.

Another lesson, however, is that thorough, systemic change is not possible without conflict. Although consensus is a good goal, the lack of it cannot be allowed to paralyze an organization.

It’s a cliché, but it’s also true that there is no natural constituency for change. That is particularly true in public education. The way school districts operate results from a complex, multi-dimensional balancing of needs, interests and power. Every aspect of the district is in tension with every other aspect and no one gives up advantage or power willingly.

Bersin resigned in 2005, soon after a board election wiped out his majority on the board. By the time he left, most of the principals and the majority of teachers had embraced the culture of adult accountability for student learning that he had tried to create from his first day on the job.

A superintendent, or any leader of an organization, has to win hearts and minds within the organization. He or she also has to cultivate a demand for change in the community. That’s a battle that has to be fought every single day, and the victories have to outnumber the defeats.  It’s not enough just to win on election day.

Colvin’s book, Tilting at Windmills: School Reform, San Diego and America’s Race to Restore Public Education, is available via Amazon and other outlets.

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