Superintendent Moonbeam?

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Jerry Brown is the latest mayor to flirt with taking control of schools.

New legislation in California would hand political gadfly and former presidential candidate Jerry Brown control of the Oakland school system. Brown, elected mayor of Oakland last year, is the latest big-city leader to flirt with the possibility of exerting broad new power over local schools. A bill introduced in the California legislature in late February by state Senator Don Perata would give 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," Brown said in an interview before the legislation was formally introduced. "But if they want someone to do it, I'll step up to the plate."

Since the Illinois legislature gave Richard 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 schools, and the Michigan legislature may do the same for Dennis Archer in Detroit.

Brown, a former California governor whose flaky personality earned him the nickname "Governor Moonbeam," is known for drawing attention to his causes-and himself. While campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, he often displayed a placard that announced a toll-free phone number for donations.

Naturally, Brown's thoughts on education are provocative. 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 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."

But according to Oakland's school board, it is the mayor and Perata who are off track. On February 19, the board voted 6-0 for a resolution denouncing the idea of a mayorally appointed administrator. Quan said, "The system is not in a state of denial. 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.

Brown said he was not impressed with the comparison, however. "I don't see how [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."

Quan responded that the mayor and other officials could do more to help students by re storing $800,000 in 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 [Perata's bill]," she said. "It's absolutely political."

--Robert C. Johnston

Vol. 10, Issue 7, Page 16

Published in Print: April 1, 1999, as Superintendent Moonbeam?
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