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California Ed. Secretary Is Seen as ‘Oasis of Sanity’

By Jessica L. Sandham — December 08, 1999 6 min read

In his first year as California governor, Democrat Gray Davis has pumped money into teacher training and set up an index for grading schools. But to hear state education observers here tell it, neither of those actions were the best thing he did.

The best thing he did, they say, was asking Gary K. Hart to be his secretary of education.

Newsmaker: Gary K. Hart
Gary K. Hart
Position: Secretary of education, California, January 1999- present
Age: 56
Education: Stanford University, Stanford, Calif., B.A. in history, 1965; Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., M.A. in teaching, 1966.
Other career posts: Founder and co-director of the Institute for Education Reform at California State University-Sacramento, 1995-1998; state senator, 1982-1994; state assemblyman, 1974-1981.
Personal: Married to a pediatrician, Cary Hart; with three daughters, ages 17 to 23.

In a state government often marred by partisan sniping and political grandstanding, Mr. Hart seems to be nearly beyond reproach. When describing the 56-year-old state Cabinet member who helped shape numerous education bills during a 20-year career as a state legislator, public officials on both sides of the ideological divide are prone to use terms such as “enlightened,” “consistent,” and even “virtuous.”

And many credit Mr. Hart with transforming into sound, workable policies a package of education changes Gov. Davis first pitched in sound bites on the campaign trail last year.

“The politics in California are always bizarre,” said Maureen DiMarco, who served as the state’s education secretary from 1991 to 1996 under Gov. Pete Wilson, Mr. Davis’ Republican predecessor. “But one of the oases of sanity has always been Gary Hart.”

The crucial factor that differentiates Mr. Hart from lawmakers who embrace school reform only because of its political saliency, people who have observed him say, is that he has devoted his career to improving education.

After getting his undergraduate degree at Stanford University, the education secretary said in a recent interview here, he first thought about pursuing teaching during the Vietnam era as an “alternative way to serve my country.” He got his master’s in teaching from Harvard University, then spent one summer teaching at the all-black Tougaloo College in Mississippi during the civil rights movement.

“I was one of 10 white people in a black community,” Mr. Hart recalled. “It was so inspirational for me to see these kids who came from disadvantaged backgrounds and were so eager to learn.”

Teaching to Learn

Even after rising through the political ranks as a state assemblyman and later becoming a state senator who chaired the education committee for 12 years, Mr. Hart still occasionally returned to the classroom. Most recently, he volunteered to teach U.S. history at Sacramento’s Kennedy High School in 1993.

But despite his teaching roots, Mr. Hart has at times made highly public departures from the education establishment and gone up against the state teachers’ unions to fight for changes he believed would ultimately improve schools.

As a member of the Assembly, the legislature’s lower house, he was the author of a 1981 bill to require competency testing of teachers and used some teachers’ ungrammatical writing samples to help make his case. The California Teachers Association chose to back Mr. Hart’s opponent during his bid for the state Senate the following year. Mr. Hart won the race narrowly despite the union’s support of the Republican candidate.

The lawmaker went head-to-head with union officials again in 1993 when he sponsored legislation creating the state’s first charter schools at a time when the national movement for such schools was in its infancy. “We’ve had a love-hate relationship with Gary over the years, depending on the issue,” said John Hein, the associate executive director for governmental relations for the CTA, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “But he’s the only one in the administration who has a clue about public schools. He’s a vigorous advocate for doing the right things, and doing smarter things.”

Mr. Hart now faces the long road to implementation of a teacher peer review program, a high school exit exam, and an academic performance index that rates the state’s 8,000 schools based on their success on state tests—all initiatives that were passed during the first months of the Davis administration.

And even though Mr. Davis seemed well-positioned for support as the first Democratic governor in 16 years in a state with a Democratic majority in the legislature, lawmakers say the passage of his proposals was by no means a given. They credit Mr. Hart with working out the kinks.

“It was not a slam-dunk,” said Assemblywoman Kerry Mazzoni, the chairwoman of the chamber’s education committee. “It was a difficult package, and when it first arrived, it was not in good form. It was through [Mr. Hart’s] leadership and his relationship with the governor that we were able to negotiate some changes.”

Mr. Hart has also enjoyed an amicable relationship with Superintendent of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin, the former Democratic legislator now in her second term as California’s elected chief state school officer.

But despite the obvious goodwill he generates in the state capital, Mr. Hart says he has no political aspirations.

In fact, Mr. Hart thought he had split from the front lines of state government for good in 1995, when he ended his Senate service and founded the Institute for Education Reform, a think tank based at the California State University-Sacramento. He was drawn back into the fray in 1998, when “the governor approached me and pushed hard” about the Cabinet appointment, said Mr. Hart, who first knew Mr. Davis as a bunkmate in the Zeta Psi fraternity at Stanford. “I resisted at first, but it’s hard to say no.”

Some Californians wonder whether, left to his own devices, Mr. Hart wouldn’t push for more expansive changes to the education system.

Even as the Davis administration urged change in the way the state measures educational outcomes last spring, it failed to adequately address school funding issues, said Bruce Fuller, a co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a think tank based at Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley.

Although the legislature raised education spending to an average of $6,025 per pupil for fiscal 2000, California still spends below the national average, which was $7,583 in the 1999-2000 school year.

“I would characterize it as reform on the cheap,” said Mr. Fuller, who has known Mr. Hart for more than 25 years. “You hold schools accountable on the outside, but you don’t address the underlying concerns. I suspect Gary would like to work on some of these issues. But because Gray Davis is such a relentless centrist, he’s hemmed in somewhat.”

But while Mr. Hart concedes that he may have been spoiled by his years as an independent operator in the legislature, he says he is in a position now where he can still wield considerable influence.

“There are always going to be differences,” Mr. Hart said of his relationship with the governor. “But there haven’t been fundamental differences. And as he’s fond of reminding me, he got elected and I didn’t.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 08, 1999 edition of Education Week as California Ed. Secretary Is Seen as ‘Oasis of Sanity’


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