In Jerry We Trust

By Catherine Gewertz — May 01, 2000 13 min read
The biggest test of Brown’s leadership may lie ahead.

Nearly eighteen months ago, Jerry Brown rode into the gritty city of Oakland, past the boarded-up shops and paint-chipped schools, welcomed like a savior by the droves who sent him to City Hall. It didn’t matter that the former California governor had not held elected office in 16 years, that he had no experience in city management, or that he was perceived in some political circles as a bit of a fruitcake. The people of Oakland put their trust in him. We want you to make our streets safer, they said. And we want something we haven’t known for decades: to live in a city where good things seem possible.

So faithful were the voters who elected him mayor in a June 1998 landslide that they gave him rare, expanded authority over the city’s affairs. And Brown responded not with the soaring, hyperliberal rhetoric that is his trademark but with tough talk and action. The man once lampooned as Governor Moonbeam hit the streets as Mayor Practicality. He booted out the police chief, pressed the embattled superintendent of schools into quitting, and coaxed piles of development money to downtown’s iffy streets. And he became a one-man chamber of commerce, boasting that Oakland has more affordable rent, better weather, and an easier commute from anywhere than that boutique of a city across the Bay Bridge.

So far, Brown’s performance as a city pol has been rewarded with big civic kisses. Some California reporters have fawned over the resurrection of Jerry Brown, and in one local poll, 82 percent of respondents rated him favorably.

But the biggest test of Brown’s leadership may lie ahead. This spring, he joined the growing list of big-city mayors who have wrestled some control of school systems from elected boards. Brown, like many of these leaders, is promising results-fast. Yet his power grab is risky, as the Oakland school system is notorious for rebuffing change. Long regarded as one of the state’s most troubled districts, it struggles with a huge population of poor students, abysmal test scores, fiscal mismanagement, lamentable school maintenance, and transient leadership-eight brave souls have tried the superintendent’s chair in the past dozen years.

Brown’s critics think that the mayor’s crusade to improve education could prove his undoing. It will reveal to all that the emperor has no clothes, they say, that Brown has appealing ideas but not viable plans. Voters in the election saw him almost as royalty and expected great things from him, says Mary King, an Oakland County official and a Brown opponent in the race. “A kind of blind faith took over Oakland, and it was all in Jerry. It’s the kind of blind faith that can lead to disappointment.”

The political career of Edmund G. Brown Jr. can seem like one long quixotic attack against the status quo. Poverty, campaign finance laws, and the military-industrial complex have all come under withering fire from Brown over the years.

Brown’s record defies stereotypes.

A San Francisco native, Brown studied to become a Jesuit priest for several years before earning a Yale law degree and following his father, California Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, into politics. He won his first statewide election in 1970, becoming secretary of state at the age of 32.

When two terms as governor followed, beginning in 1974, many political observers touted the telegenic bachelor-an African safari and romance with singer Linda Ronstadt made national news-as the leader of a new generation of politicians. Brown, however, never lived up to that promise: He lost a race for the U.S. Senate in 1984, and he’s been little more than a sideshow candidate in three presidential elections-1976, 1980, and 1992.

For much of his career, Brown, 62, has been branded a liberal. As California governor, he disbanded the old boys’ network of government and appointed record numbers of women and minorities into high office. He also halted nuclear power development within the state and encouraged exploration of solar power and other alternative energy sources. During his 1992 presidential candidacy, he railed against corporate corruption and advocated slashing the federal defense budget in half.

But Brown’s record defies stereotypes. As governor, he promulgated an “era of limits"; he was even more stingy with funding for state universities than his predecessor, Ronald Reagan. Among California politicos, Brown is known for juggling liberal and conservative stands. Asked once how he could support so many liberal positions yet still argue for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget, Brown replied: “It’s the canoe theory of governing. You paddle a little on the left, paddle a little on the right, and keep going straight down the middle.”

Navigating the whitewater of Oakland politics, Brown has steered a hard course to starboard. Though his plan for reviving the city includes pumping up its arts community-the arts was a pet issue for Brown as governor-Brown also seems to have lifted liberally from the rhetoric and policies of New York’s Rudy Giuliani. Like the Gotham City Republican, he has made quality-of-life issues his top priority, often tackling them with conservative strategies. Brown, Rolling Stone magazine noted last year in wonderment, “has abandoned the Democrats to sell his pro-development, tough-on-crime agenda from beyond party lines.”

As part of his bid to make Oakland a more livable city, Brown has pressed hard to improve schools. “The game plan in Oakland’s public schools,” he said in his January 1999 inaugural speech, harks “back to the ‘gradualism’ which Martin Luther King Jr. condemned at the height of the civil rights movement. Gradualism accepts glacial change and fears rocking the boat. Gradualism is prepared to wait for many generations until sometime in the far-off future things are finally made right. . . . There must be a clear plan of action that will enable the students in Oakland’s public schools to succeed and a way to demonstrate success-now, not in the by-and-by of some distant future.”

The particulars of Brown’s school agenda, like his law-and-order tactics, puzzle some old-time California liberals. While governor, he secured key collective-bargaining rights for public employees, yet as mayor, he has spearheaded opposition to legislation that would require charter school teachers to be unionized. As a presidential candidate, he denounced corporate greed, but in Oakland,

he has lavished praise on Edison Schools Inc., entrepreneur Chris Whittle’s for-profit school management company. And though once a pacifist, he now talks of establishing a military academy run by the National Guard within the public school system, praising the Guard’s “pride and discipline.”

In his inaugural address, Brown proclaimed that he was “ready to work with the leadership of Oakland schools.” But it wasn’t long before he was moving to oust some of those same leaders. The first white mayor in 20 years in a city where two-thirds of the residents are minorities, he floated a proposal of a mayorally appointed school board to replace the existing elected board. Appointed boards are standard practice in Boston, Chicago, and Detroit. But his plan-mixed with the “strong mayor” authority already given him by voters to hire, fire, and appoint city workers and cast tie-breaking votes in the City Council-sparked accusations that Brown was power hungry, and he backed off.

Instead, he proposed late last year the creation of what would likely be the nation’s first “hybrid” school board, combining elected and appointed members. Even that compromise met with enough resistance in the City Council that the mayor had to use his newly minted tie-breaking powers to get it placed on the city’s March 7 ballot. Known as Measure D, the proposal passed narrowly, with just 52 percent of the vote, even though a Brown-backed political action committee outspent opponents 15-to-1. Now the mayor can appoint three additional members to the city’s seven-member board. But Brown’s influence doesn’t stop there: Two board candidates that he supported in the March election won seats; another won enough votes to force a November runoff. Potentially, six members of the newly constituted board will have ties to the mayor.

On election night, Brown trumpeted the results as a sign that “the people of Oakland are ready for change.” Meanwhile, Dan Siegel, the city’s school board president, cautioned that Measure D’s small margin of victory was a message that the mayor “doesn’t have a huge mandate, that he will have to share decisionmaking.”

Brown is not the first mayor to make a power play on school matters. Thanks to broad authority given him by the Illinois legislature, Chicago’s Richard M. Daley appoints the district’s board and a school system CEO. Test scores have climbed since Daley gained this clout in 1995, and the administration has forged a peace

Cleveland and Baltimore have both given their mayors a greater say in schools.

with the city’s powerful teachers’ union. Though critics say the test gains are artificial and blast Daley for homogenizing schools, the Chicago model of governance is popular today; Cleveland and Baltimore have both given their mayors a greater say in schools.

Once upon a time, it would have been unheard of for mayors to meddle with school boards. Early 20th-century civic reformers tried to insulate school boards from political pressure by severing their ties to the mayor and making them autonomous entities, says Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University. “Nowadays, we say those autonomous boards have become the problem and we need to shake them up.”

Because Brown’s idea of a hybrid board is untested, some advocates of urban schools see risks for any city that adopts it. Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group for urban school districts, fears the mix of an elected and appointed board may confuse lines of loyalty and accountability, with some members answerable to the mayor and some to the voters. “When it comes to changes in governance, cities make stuff up all the time, but no one has tried this stuff yet,” Casserly says. “It will be interesting to see how it works.”

In Oakland, the idea is drawing mixed reviews. Bruce Fuller, a professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley, says a strong, effective mayor can bring change to schools. But Fuller argues a more-powerful mayor must be balanced by mechanisms that preserve community input. In Chicago, for instance, where the mayor appoints the school board, school-based councils of parents, teachers, and community members also have a voice in decisionmaking. Oakland, Fuller says, has nothing comparable. “Jerry has not moved toward grassroots democracy at the same time that he is centralizing authority,” he adds. “That is the worry.”

Ignacio De La Fuente, president of the Oakland City Council, supports the hybrid board. Brown’s influence is no cause for concern, he says, because it would be balanced by the ultimate accountability: the power of the voters. “By the end of his term, either the schools will have improved or they won’t have improved,” De La Fuente says. “Then he will have no excuses that the council or the voters didn’t give him enough tools to accomplish change. He will be held countable.”

Sitting by a soaring, arched window in his City Hall office for a recent interview, Brown dismisses concerns about his influence in schools. “This baffles me: ‘Let’s not have the mayor have a voice,’ ” he says. “This cannot come from a logical mind.”

The board, he claims, has had ample chance to improve schools but has long been mired in “inertia and obfuscation.” He decrys the district’s staggering problems, pointing to recent audits that criticized low student test scores, substandard facilities, and fiscal mismanagement that has made the district a candidate for a state takeover. “This place is a mess,” the mayor says.

No one contests that the schools need massive help, and the roots of their problems are deep. The city of 383,000 has seen better days. Once a booming port, it thrived as the end point of the transcontinental railroad. Heavy industry, meanwhile, lured African Americans from the South, and a racially diverse middle class flourished.

By the 1970s, though, Oakland was tumbling into hard times. Technology was replacing the old-line industry, leaving fewer workers skilled for the changing job market. The city continued to be remarkably integrated-today its population includes large numbers of blacks and whites as well as sizable communities of Hispanics and Asian Americans-and its middle class remained stable. But the city also became home to painful extremes, with luxurious cliffside houses in its northern hills and one of the state’s largest welfare-dependent populations in the squat cottages and aging Victorian houses of East and West Oakland’s “flatlands.”

And as the city goes, so go the schools. Among the gently winding hill streets are freshly painted schools with high test scores and impressive family incomes. On the stark streets of the flatlands, drug dealers hang out near graffiti-marked schools, where as few as 2.5 percent of the students in a given grade read at the national average.

It’s part of the “savage inequity” of Oakland schools, says Sheila Quintana, president of the Oakland affiliate of the National Education Association.

Aggravating these problems has been the district’s stubborn culture of inefficiency and incompetence. The troubles range from the estimated $20 million budget deficit and corruption scandal that put the district under the scrutiny of a state-appointed trustee in 1989 to simple but highly symbolic problems-such as a classroom fire alarm that sounded for days, ignored by district headquarters, until a parent came to fix it.

Fewer than a third of the 54,000 students in the district read or do mathematics at national norms, and that’s not even counting the huge and growing chunk of students who are exempt from standardized tests because of their limited English proficiency. In a 1999 Educational Testing Service survey of parents in 55 cities, dissatisfaction with schools was second-highest in Oakland, exceeded only in Cleveland.

Brown has a vision for change. He would add dozens of smaller schools to the 90 overcrowded ones and create charter schools-such as the military academy for top achievers-and a performing arts high school. He would support innovative program designs, give principals greater control over their own schools, closely monitor test scores, and make sure principals designed academic improvement plans.

Brown would add dozens of smaller schools to the 90 overcrowded ones and create charter schools.

Siegel, president of the school board, acknowledges that Oakland has a long way to go. But he dismisses Brown’s claims that the board is stalled. He cites a 15 percent hike in principals’ salaries, a planned 21 percent pay increase for teachers over the next three years, a proposal to create a unified facilities department to streamline repairs, and a 1999 school year that opened with no teacher or principal vacancies-a departure from past years when school officials scrambled to fill scores of positions. “He can say we drag our feet, but I say some improvements take time,” Siegel says.

Some Brown skeptics say the mayor only tinkers around the edges of a district crying out for profound, systemic improvement. In interviews, educators throughout Oakland say Brown ought to be talking about such measures as extending the school year, providing after- school and preschool programs, recruiting better teachers, and emphasizing smaller classes, especially for the poorest children. “Charter schools are a good idea for how many, about 2,000 of our students? What about the other 52,000?” asks Quintana, the teachers’ union president.

“He’s got sound bites but not a plan,” grumbles one school board member.

Brown waves off the criticism that his plans aren’t comprehensive. “I don’t accept the word ‘comprehensive.’ That means you have planners, they write all this stuff up, and nothing happens.” General George Patton didn’t have a comprehensive plan, the one-time peacenik proclaims, smacking his palm on his gleaming desk. “He had a strategy, and it was highly focused. ‘Comprehensive’ can just be the rationale for never achieving. . . .You’ve got to make stuff happen.”

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.