Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's announcement April 29 that departing San Diego schools Superintendent Alan Bersin would be his new secretary of education happened to coincide with the California Teachers Association's annual convention, held this year in Newport Beach. That afternoon, Terry Pesta, president of the San Diego teachers union, found himself the target of a few jokes.
"Of course, all the CTA leadership were telling me, "Oh, thanks a lot, now you saddle us with him,'" Pesta said, referring to the strained relationship between Bersin and the union that largely defined the superintendent's seven-year tenure.
Prior to last Wednesday, when Secretary of Education Richard Riordan, 75, announced his resignation, ostensibly for health reasons, Bersin seemed more likely a candidate to replace San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy, who'd resigned two days earlier. When asked Thursday whether Bersin was in the running to replace Riordan, a school district spokesperson said he wasn't aware of any offers from Schwarzenegger. Less than 24 hours later, the governor announced his decision.
Bersin will join the Schwarzenegger administration July 1, the day after his contract with the San Diego Unified School District expires. In February, the district's board of trustees voted 4-0, with board president Luis Acle abstaining, to buy out Bersin's contract a year early. The buyout was the result of a school board overhaul that shifted the board make-up from a pro-Bersin majority that supported his education-reform program, the Blueprint for Student Success, to a majority that's spent the past four months dismantling some of those reforms. The school district will pay Bersin $240,000 for his early departure, twice what he'll be making annually in his new post.
On Friday Schwarzenegger championed Bersin, the former Clinton administration border czar, as a "reformer" who shares the governor's tough stance against unions. California Teachers Association President Barbara Kerr later released a statement saying Bersin "has no track record of building consensus or working with parents and teachers to improve public schools."
Pesta called the secretary of education post "redundant."
"It's really unnecessary bureaucracy," he said. "We have an elected superintendent of public instruction [Jack O'Connell]."
As for Riordan, "I can't think of anything positive he's done in that job," Pesta said.
The position of secretary of education was created in 1964 and elevated to a cabinet position in 1991 when then-Gov. Pete Wilson sought to put a buffer between himself and Superintendent Bill Honig, with whom he didn't get along. (Bersin comes into the job with, by all accounts, a good relationship with O'Connell, who on Friday praised Schwarzenegger's choice).
In choosing Bersin, Schwarzenegger isn't straying from the principles that drove him to appoint Riordan in 2003. At that time, Schwarzenegger praised Riordan as a reformer who stood up to the teachers union while mayor of L.A.-one analyst went so far as to call Riordan "feisty." But as secretary of education, Riordan was almost invisible, garnering the most attention when he made an offhand comment to a Santa Barbara 6-year-old. Lately it's Schwarzenegger's lack of a coherent position on education that's been blamed for his slipping approval rating, according to a report released last month by the Public Policy Institute of California.
Currently, the secretary of education serves as an advisor to the governor. Schwarzenegger's California Performance Review (CPR)-the governor's 2004 plan to restructure state government and tighten spending-recommended giving the secretary a greater role in shaping policy and making budget recommendations. The CPR also recommended the creation of a new Department of Education and Workforce Preparation, which would be headed by the secretary of education and would focus on matching educational objectives to labor needs.
The idea, however, didn't make headway during Riordan's tenure. Rick Hess, director of education policy for the American Enterprise Institute, who edited a book looking at education reforms in San Diego under Bersin's leadership, said he couldn't see Bersin opting for a position in which he was merely a figurehead.
"That's not his style," Hess said. "I think it's a safe bet that he made it clear that if he's going to take [the position], it was going to be significant."
Kerry Mazzoni, who served as secretary of education under Gray Davis, said Riordan's problem was that he never really learned how to work the system.
"Maneuvering through Sacramento and understanding how Sacramento works oftentimes takes Sacramento experience," she said. "It's not a business in which you say, "I want this to happen,' and it happens. You must bring people along with you."
One of Bersin's flaws as a leader, pointed out in a 2003 school district-commissioned American Institutes of Research Study, was that he failed to create an environment in which teachers trusted the decisions made by school district leaders. On the community level, he reportedly turned his back at a meeting of parents and teachers when criticism of the Blueprint started to fly. He leaves San Diego probably better known-and better respected-outside the district rather than within.
Upon news of Bersin's appointment, trustee John de Beck, a former teacher and Bersin critic, issued a terse two-sentence statement: "Arnold won't help his reelection campaign with this controversial appointment. If he doesn't need to carry San Diego, this is a good choice."
Mike McCarthy, who heads the grassroots organization Voters for Truth in Education, said Bersin's appointment has less to do with education policy and more to do with political connections. Both Bersin and Schwarzenegger are pals with Eli Broad, the real-estate tycoon and education philanthropist whose large grants to the San Diego school district were often contingent on Bersin remaining superintendent. Broad was on the governor's transition team and has donated close to $200,000 to Schwarzenegger's string of government reform efforts. Padres owner John Moores, also a Bersin supporter, has donated close to $100,000 to various Schwarzenegger reform projects.
While Bersin's appointment to secretary of education is solely at the discretion of the governor, in an unprecedented move Schwarzenegger simultaneously appointed Bersin to the state board of education. School board appointees must get approval first from the Senate Rules Committee and then the full Senate.
In January of this year, the rules committee failed to re-appoint Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings to a second term on the board. Hastings, a Democrat, was first appointed to the board by Gray Davis in 1999 and was nominated for a second term by Schwarzenegger. His ouster, considered a loss by other board members, was due to his support of two-hour blocks of English-only education for non-English speakers, as opposed to bilingual classrooms. Hastings is also the founder of EdVoice, an education-policy advocacy organization for which Bersin serves on the advisory board.State-level education observers have said the fight over bilingual vs. English-only classrooms could be a battle that defines the future make-up of the state board. In San Diego, Bersin was criticized by groups like the Latino Education Coalition, which gave him a "no confidence" vote in 2001, for his support of English-immersion programs for non-English speakers.