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O'Connell's a good guy but can't break with the establishment

By Dan Walters, Sacramento Bee Columnist, January 25, 2005

Jack O'Connell is, by common consent, one of the Capitol's truly good guys - a one-time classroom teacher who carved out a 20-year career in the Legislature, representing the Ventura-Santa Barbara area, by walking precincts and taking care of his constituents.

O'Connell was elected as state schools superintendent in 2002, but the office he assumed had been reduced to little more than a bully pulpit by political action and judicial decree.

As the state assumed the central role in financing public schools, and as public concern about academic performance increased, governors began asserting an expanded role in making education policy. And much of the superintendent's authority vanished when the courts ruled that the state Board of Education, filled with gubernatorial appointees, outranked the superintendent on policy issues.

O'Connell's predecessor, Delaine Eastin, had been virtually ignored by governors and the Legislature, and her predecessor, Bill Honig, had been driven from office by scandal.

Understanding, if not accepting, the office's much-diminished role in educational policy, O'Connell has spent much of his time orating publicly, most prominently in annual State of Education speeches designed to mimic the governor's State of the State addresses.

O'Connell delivered the latest version of his speech Monday before an appreciative audience of educators. Alas, it fell far short of a comprehensive appraisal of the state's single most expensive and important program and demonstrated that for all his personal qualities, O'Connell cannot bring himself to break with orthodoxy and assert true leadership in addressing California's chronic educational crisis.

Stripped to its essentials, O'Connell's message was that he and other professional educators would solve the problem easily if only they were given as much money as they believe they need, which would be, he implied, about $20 billion more than the $50 billion or so in state funds and property taxes they are now ticketed to get (not counting billions more in federal funds) next year.

Taking a direct shot at Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for holding spending $2.3 billion below what the system might get under the state's convoluted school finance law, and for advocating differential merit pay for teachers, O'Connell told his applauding audience: "My, friends, the problem with our schools is not our teachers. The problem is that education today is significantly underfunded throughout the state of California."

California does spend significantly less than most other states on a per-pupil basis, and a good case could be made for raising spending - if O'Connell and others in the educational establishment would also agree to some other reforms, such as doing something about the billions of dollars that vanish each year into the sinkhole called categorical aid or being more receptive to charter schools.

O'Connell, however, either completely ignored or mentioned only in passing some of the system's most obvious problems, such as the spate of school districts facing financial disaster because they overpromised benefits to politically powerful unions, the decline of vocational education, the state's scandalous high school dropout rate, or the need for realignment of district boundaries to handle declining enrollments in some and soaring enrollments in others.

Instead, O'Connell launched a new crusade for universal preschool classes as an addendum to last year's crusade for high school improvements that, inexplicably, would have every high school student automatically folded into a college-prep program, even though relatively few of them would ever graduate from college.

Broadcasting grandiose schemes that please politically influential constituencies, but lack real world credibility, is not true leadership. O'Connell's predecessor, Eastin, spent her time in the office doing much of the same thing and rendered herself even more irrelevant than the diminished powers of the office dictated.

O'Connell has a choice. He can use his bully pulpit to talk realistically about public education's problems or he can bolster his relations with the educational establishment that resists true reform. So far, he's opting for the latter.


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Last modified: January 25, 2005

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