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An Education Warrior Takes the Fight Higher

November 30, 2003|Howard Blume | Howard Blume is a staff writer for LA Weekly.

When it comes to education, what you think of Richard Riordan depends on your perspective. To John Perez, head of United Teachers-Los Angeles, former Los Angeles Mayor Riordan, who has been appointed state education secretary by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is a philanthropist with good intentions who went astray. Perez draws the dividing line at the 1997 death of former UTLA President Helen Bernstein, who was Riordan's education advisor.

Until then, Perez said, Riordan and UTLA had been partners in the since-abandoned LEARN reform effort. Riordan also had backed an unsuccessful UTLA-sponsored state initiative that would have limited administrative costs to 5% of a school district's budget.

"When Helen died," said Perez, "Dick Riordan ... went back to being an eccentric millionaire with some very strange ideas about education."

But many of Riordan's notions don't sound strange at all. He says that all children can learn, and that it's criminal for poor children to receive inferior educations in substandard school buildings. What Perez is noting, in essence, is Riordan's split with the teachers union, which has included running school board candidates against those endorsed by teachers. In other words, Riordan has concluded that the best interests of teachers -- or at least of the teachers union -- do not always coincide with the best interests of children. And that, to Perez -- a dedicated, career-long union activist -- is as close to blasphemous eccentricity as anything comes.

Riordan's path, however, is subtler than a pro-union/anti-union dichotomy. All along, he's demonstrated an underlying, persistent passion to improve the fate of children, an impatience with slow, incremental progress and a desire to man the controls of school reform without actually slogging in the trenches. Riordan never shied from bringing money and influence to bear on L.A.'s school system. And he never feared being wrong, inconsistent or contradictory.

His early philanthropy focused on putting computers into schools -- a technological cure that failed because schools suffered from more stubbornly complex ailments. Of course, Riordan wasn't the only one who hoped that computers would make everything better, only to find that educrats couldn't even do computers right -- schools didn't keep them safe, and they didn't train teachers how to use them.

Riordan then decided that leadership was the problem, and his alliance with UTLA took that issue head on. LEARN, the acronym by which most people knew the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, was supposed to fix schools by putting teachers, parents and the wider school community jointly in charge of what happened at an individual school. Business leaders such as Riordan liked LEARN because they believed it embraced the notion that better management, not more money, was key.

For her part, Bernstein liked LEARN because it put teachers in leadership roles at schools. And she also saw great potential in focusing the entire community on improving schools, attention she believed would ultimately demonstrate that more money was indeed part of the solution. The LEARN model has since been abandoned, though vestiges remain -- some schools still use its process to choose principals. Riordan, who became mayor in 1993 just as LEARN was spreading across the Los Angeles Unified School District, eventually turned his attention elsewhere.

One such effort was his collaboration with the LAUSD to find available land where small schools serving the early primary grades could be built. The effort was a pitifully puny response to a school-facilities crisis, but that wasn't exactly Riordan's fault. The school district itself had quietly allowed school overcrowding to surge out of control.

During this period, Riordan enthusiastically embraced the notion that schools should run like businesses, and that out-of-date, out-of-touch school bureaucrats had to transform themselves into cutting-edge CEOs. Then followed a series of top-secret training sessions for senior administrators over more than 18 months provided by McKinsey & Co., a top business-consulting firm. Riordan never seemed to question the imperfect school-as-business paradigm, even as the metaphor was strained by the Enron scandal and its many successors.

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