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Governor stays the course on school standards

By Daniel Weintraub February 5, 2004

Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor as a change agent. But the appointments he made last week to the state Board of Education suggest that the new governor won't undo one thing Gov. Gray Davis did well: school reform. With seven new appointments on the 11-member board, Schwarzenegger had an opportunity to put his own stamp on education policy. He did, but in a way that promises to continue the legacy begun by Gov. Pete Wilson and extended by Davis.

Despite a wide partisan gulf on many issues, the Republicans and Democrats in Sacramento have managed since the mid-1990s to work together to put in place the foundation of an education policy that makes sense.

They adopted grade-by-grade standards in the basic subjects, so that students, teachers and parents in every school in California know what the kids are expected to learn. They put in place tests designed to determine which kids are learning that material and which are not. And they built the beginnings of an accountability system that offers help to schools where kids are falling short while holding out the possibility of a state takeover if a school persistently fails to improve its students' performance.

That system isn't perfect. But the basic framework is sound, and the schools needed a signal that the new governor doesn't intend to dismantle it all and start from scratch. Schwarzenegger has now delivered that signal.

"On balance this is a very strong group," said David Gordon, the superintendent of Elk Grove Unified School District and a widely respected advocate of reform. "It portends a real staying of the course on standards and accountability."

The strongest indication of that was Schwarzenegger's reappointment of Reed Hastings, who was one of the best of the Davis board members and who served as president of the board in 2003. Hastings is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and chief executive of NetFlix.com, a subscription DVD service, and he contributed several hundred thousand dollars to Davis over the years, including a huge sum during the recall campaign last year.

But Schwarzenegger didn't let politics stand in the way of a good appointment. Hastings has been an effective leader for standards and accountability, and a passionate advocate for charter schools, which are public schools run free of most state and local regulation and which are the best long-term hope for true education reform. The new governor was smart to keep him on the board.

Next, Schwarzenegger did something unusual. He named to the board Bonnie Reiss, his senior adviser in the governor's office. Reiss, a former entertainment lawyer, is a longtime friend of Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver, and for many years ran the Schwarzenegger foundation that promoted after-school programs until the actor ran for the state's highest office. She will be the governor's eyes and ears on the board and ensure that communication among the various layers of the education policy apparatus is not a problem.

The other five appointees are a good mix of former teachers, school board members and policy experts who have been in the trenches, but also above them. They know what it's like to work in or run a school, but are also familiar with the bigger issues that are common throughout the state.

One of them - Glee Johnson - was there at the creation of California's reform movement. As an assistant to Wilson, Johnson, a former math teacher, was part of the team that drafted the first legislation moving California toward standards and accountability. When the going gets tough on the board, Johnson will be able to remind her colleagues of the origin of the debate on accountability, and she has the technical expertise to spot subtle policy shifts that might look innocent to the layman but that could undermine the standards effort.

The most intriguing new board member is Johnathan Williams, who is a former teacher and co-founder of a charter school that works with some of the poorest kids from inner-city Los Angeles. The Accelerated School, as the campus is known, sets high standards for all its pupils, and works closely with parents to get them involved in their children's education. In 2001 the school was named Elementary School of the Year by Time magazine, and Williams is on the board of directors of the state association that promotes charter school development and accountability.

Also among Schwarzenegger's picks were Jeannine Martineau, a former teacher, author and currently a school board member in Lake Elsinore in Riverside County; Ruth Green, a school trustee in Santa Barbara and an expert in teaching reading to at-risk kids; and Ruth Bloom, a jewelry designer, businesswoman and teacher who has been a passionate advocate for the arts in education.

Schwarzenegger has some big ideas about changing the way schools are run, which, if adopted by the Legislature, could shift significant power and responsibility from Sacramento to the local level. But his first selections of the people who will help shape education policy in California demonstrate that the new governor also understands that when something is working, the best approach might be to leave it alone.

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Last modified: February 9, 2004

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