School & District Management

Oakland’s Jerry Brown Could Join Mayors With Power Over Schools

By Robert C. Johnston — March 03, 1999 3 min read
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Mayor Jerry Brown of Oakland, Calif., has become the latest big-city leader to flirt with the possibility of exerting broad new power over local schools. A bill that was expected to be introduced late last week by state Sen. Don Perata would give Mr. Brown the authority to choose an administrator to oversee the city’s 54,000-student school system.

“This was not my first idea. It’s not the kind of thing you jump at,” Mr. Brown said in an interview last week. “But if they want someone to do it, I’ll step up to the plate.”

Since the Illinois legislature gave Richard M. Daley broad authority over Chicago’s long-troubled school district in 1995, the notion of putting mayors in control of schools has gained considerable attention. The mayors of Cleveland and Baltimore have been given a greater role in school district affairs, and the Michigan legislature is debating the idea for Dennis W. Archer in Detroit.

Mr. Brown, a former California governor, is no stranger to drawing attention to himself or his causes. While campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, he often displayed a placard in public appearances that announced a toll-free phone number for donations. And he is just as unabashed over the school issue.

He argues that a proposed high school exit exam that is moving through the California legislature would be disastrous for Oakland students, based on their recent scores on standardized tests. He says the system’s current administration, led by Superintendent Carole C. Quan, who took the job 17 months ago, has failed to rise to the challenge.

“Those scores are going to condemn thousands of kids to failure,” he declared. “This is a freight train about to go off the track.”

Back Off

But, according to Oakland’s school board, it is the mayor and Sen. Perata who are off track. On Feb. 19, the board voted 6-0 for a resolution denouncing the idea of a mayorally appointed administrator. The resolution also asked “all of those discussing and proposing such efforts to cease their actions at this time.”

Ms. Quan is rallying an aggressive defense of the system to counter the Democratic senator’s legislative efforts and the mayor’s public pronouncements.

“The system is not in a state of denial,” she said last week. “We’ve raised graduation standards. Every 9th grader must take algebra, and next year, every 10th grader will take geometry. We are moving forward.”

In a side-by-side comparison of statewide test scores with the state-run, 29,000-student Compton schools, Oakland comes out ahead at every grade level, according to statistics provided by district officials to the Oakland school board to demonstrate that outside intervention does not guarantee success.

For example, 21 percent of Oakland 4th graders scored above the national average on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition last year in reading, compared with 12 percent in Compton, a suburb south of Los Angeles.

Both districts are often cited as among the most troubled in California after years of poor financial management and dismal achievement.

Mayor Brown said he was not impressed with the comparison, however. “I don’t see how [Ms. Quan is] going to deal with the problem at the level of crisis she faces,” he said. Using the numbers as a defense, he said, shows the superintendent’s “acceptance of mediocrity.”

Ms. Quan responded that the mayor and other elected officials could do a lot more to help students: by restoring $800,000 in city funding for summer internships, for example, or finding low-cost housing to bring top teachers to the area.

“I see no legal or educational basis for [Sen. Perata’s bill],” she said. “It’s absolutely political.”

Call Waiting

In pushing for the change in Oakland school governance, Mr. Perata, whose district includes Oakland, wants to test the boundaries of laws that allow the state to impose new governance for school systems in fiscal distress.

The senator, who did not return phone calls seeking comment, has argued that Oakland is “academically bankrupt” and thus is an appropriate target for state intervention.

Compton, which was nearly bankrupt when it fell under state oversight in 1993, remains the only school system in California to be run by a state-appointed administrator.

The arrangement has stabilized the system’s finances and brought modest gains in academic achievement, though the system remains far behind goals that have been staked out for it by state officials. The arrangement also remains controversial locally.

Meanwhile, Mr. Brown said that he plans to talk with Mayor Daley in Chicago to get an idea of what lies ahead if he gets the new power. “I’m waiting for a call now,” he added.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 1999 edition of Education Week as Oakland’s Jerry Brown Could Join Mayors With Power Over Schools


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