While former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer
has begun speaking about the importance of educating "the new
face of America," his appointment last week as L.A. Unified's
new superintendent had everything to do with the school board's
desire for leadership reminiscent of the "old face of America."
Fed up with being a victim of state and local politics beyond
its control, the board selected the former chair of the Democratic
National Committee so it can become a political player, too.
The board's choice of a politician over a seasoned educator
to run LAUSD didn't necessarily reflect faulty priorities. Rather,
the Romer appointment can also be seen as a long-overdue recognition
that L.A.'s $ 8-billion-a-year school system does not belong
strictly to children and good intentions. In their urgency to
push through instructional reform and begin building as many
as 150 new schools, board members moved beyond idealism and
entered the world of realpolitik. They acknowledged that substantive
improvements cannot be made if the district's top official lacks
political prowess. "We live in a political world," says school-board
president Genethia Hayes, "and we have to grow up and learn
how to deal with it."
Hayes has been widely criticized for not being a strong believer
in parliamentary process or "governing by committee," a charge
she duly acknowledges. She concedes that last year's ungraceful
sacking of former Supt. Ruben Zacarias was a political and public-relations
blunder. But she is unapologetic about keeping undue outside
political influence out of this year's superintendent selection.
Paradoxically, Hayes depoliticized the search for a new superintendent
in order to make a highly political appointment.
Some blame state Sen. Richard Polanco's bill authorizing the
appointment of a state monitor to oversee LAUSD for scaring
away qualified candidates. But the real effect of Polanco's
bill on the search process was to underscore the district's
need for a powerful in-house political advocate. As such, the
board could have done worse than picking a top Democrat to negotiate
the political minefields in a Democratic city in an increasingly
In the face of criticism, district officials have strived to
highlight Romer's familiarity and experience with educational
issues. In his first press conference, the new superintendent
announced his three primary concerns will be "instruction, instruction,
instruction." But Romer won't be implementing day-to-day change
in the district's classrooms. That job will be handled by the
11 regional sub-superintendents he and interim superintendent
Ramon C. Cortines will be hiring next week. Romer's mission
will be to forge the political, public and financial support
the district will need if it's going to turn around.
It may be a sign of the times that the baby-boomer-dominated
school board selected an old-style, glad-handing Democrat more
reminiscent of the late California Gov. Pat Brown than of, say,
his new-age son, Jerry. Each era demands different qualities
of its leaders, and the board's selection of Romer may signal
the beginning of a broader trend of seeking out public officials
better suited to meet the state's challenges in a new era of
expansion. While former Gov. Jerry Brown played symbolic politics
and advocated the philosophy of "small is beautiful" in California's
"era of limits," his father had the political might and vision
to build infrastructure in the booming postwar era.
The greatest difference between then and now, however, is the
absence of a broad-based political will to pay for massive public
works with tax dollars. Pat Brown had the luxury of tapping
the aspirations of the then-ascendant Anglo middle class. Today's
politicians have to drum up political consensus in a state that
has not fully recovered from the distrust and declinism of the
post-Vietnam and Watergate eras.
School districts have recently turned to noneducators to solve
the economic and political problems U.S. education faces. Many
have selected businessmen whom they believe can better manage
large public entities. But LAUSD already has former real-estate
attorney Howard Miller as its chief operating officer, and its
most glaring administrative liability is its lack of political
The school board has charged Romer with rallying greater public
support for school spending and securing more dollars from the
state and federal governments. In doing so, it picked an aging
Anglo politician to be the face of public education for a still
largely Anglo--and aging--California electorate. Moreover, Romer
relishes jumping headlong into the fray, and his stature allows
him the luxury of having nothing to lose. His first day in action
revealed a lot about his upcoming tenure as school chief. The
day after his appointment, while local activists were criticizing
his selection, Romer was already in Sacramento hobnobbing with
key state legislators.
Yet, that was not his first foray into California politics.
In 1998, as chair of the Democratic Party, Romer made unsubstantiated
accusations that GOP poll guards were keeping Latinos from voting
in a special election to fill the Central California seat of
the late Rep. Walter Capps. Comparing Santa Barbara County to
the Alabama of the early 1960s, Romer was employing the Democratic
Party's current strategy of leveraging ethnic distrust to push
Latinos to the polls. Such tactics, Romer should know, only
undermine efforts to build public consensus among Californians.
They only further fuel the fractiousness and parochialism that
make it so difficult to get anything built in this city.
In its interviews with candidates, the school board discussed
potential strategies for fighting the continuing effects of
Proposition 13, the 1978 property-tax initiative that has had
the effect of transferring control of schools to Sacramento.
Presumably, Romer is poised to lobby for changes in the way
California funds its schools. Depending on one's point of view,
this emerging battle could be either incredibly courageous or
downright foolish. Either way, it is undeniable that loosening
Sacramento's grip over education spending is essential to the
future well-being of L.A. schools.
The school board apparently considered Romer to be the best
candidate to tackle such politically sensitive issues. Choosing
a politician to run L.A. schools does not mean that the school
board has betrayed its mission of reforming the system; it just
means that this time they are playing for keeps.
Copyright 2000, Los Angeles Times