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Riordan to Quit Post in Education

The former L.A. mayor is said to be frustrated over his limited role in crafting state policies.

April 28, 2005|Peter Nicholas and Jean Merl | Times Staff Writers

SACRAMENTO — Richard Riordan, the former two-term mayor of Los Angeles, is stepping down as state secretary of education after an uneasy 17-month tenure, during which he enjoyed little authority in shaping education policy.

The resignation comes at a time when polls show public confidence in the state's education policies sagging.

Earlier in the week, administration officials, including communications director Rob Stutzman, had brushed aside as "rumors" inquiries about whether Riordan planned to resign. Riordan himself, asked in an interview in his office Tuesday whether he was leaving, replied: "I don't know."

In a statement released Wednesday, however, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the former mayor had submitted his resignation last month. Riordan had agreed to stay on until Schwarzenegger began the search for a replacement, the statement said, adding that Riordan, who turns 75 on Sunday, will leave office June 30.

Neither the governor's statement nor one released by Riordan gave a reason for the departure.

Ben Austin, a former aide to Riordan, said the former mayor "feels he has accomplished what he set out to accomplish as secretary of education."

"He honestly feels he's at a point now where, in order to continue working on those issues -- accountability and innovation -- he's a better advocate on the outside ... where he can really put himself out there."

Riordan's supporters credit him with championing charter schools -- giving families more choices in education -- and pushing to make principals more accountable for school performance.

But even friends of Riordan's have said that despite being close to Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver, he has had limited influence on administration policy and has been frustrated.

As mayor of Los Angeles, Riordan was the chief executive who set his own goals. He has nothing like that autonomy as Schwarzenegger's education secretary; he is one of dozens of aides, political consultants and advisors involved in crafting the governor's agenda. The secretary of education has little authority. Most state education power is wielded by the elected superintendent of public education and state school board.

"You have a man who was mayor of the second-largest city in America and could do things overnight," said Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria). "Then he comes up here. It's got to be a culture shock.... This city operates on a more incremental basis."

The Rev. Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest who runs a family service center in Los Angeles' skid row and who worked closely with Riordan on education issues in Los Angeles, said, "I can't imagine he would quit being secretary of education unless he found the position failed to allow him the opportunity to effect change in education.

"I am counting on his not abandoning education reform, and I am sure he won't," Callaghan added. "He doesn't need to be secretary of education to effect change, but I am sorry he won't be in that office anymore."

Leaders of groups that lobby in Sacramento on education policy say that Riordan's influence seemed small. When they wanted to reach the administration, they said, their practice was to call Bonnie Reiss, a longtime friend of the governor's who serves as a senior advisor.

Some involved in last year's tense negotiations over the education budget said the secretary was conspicuously absent from the talks.

"I would say that he has not been a player," said Barbara Kerr, president of the California Teachers Assn. "He doesn't seem to be able to move beyond an L.A. context in his thinking or in his advice, and this is a very varied state."

A spokesman for the Education Coalition, a group that includes teachers, parents, school board members and others formed to battle the governor's school finance proposals this year, said Riordan "has basically been AWOL" on state funding and other serious issues confronting California schools.

In an administration that is sensitive to bad publicity of any kind, Riordan caused a furor last year when a young child asked him during an appearance at a Santa Barbara library whether he knew what her name meant.

Riordan told the girl, whose name is Isis, that it meant, "stupid, dirty girl."

Riordan later said he had been joking and apologized. But the gaffe made national news.

Some Schwarzenegger aides have privately complained that some of Riordan's moves created political difficulties. One example was Riordan's long-standing advocacy of paying teachers based on merit -- a proposal that has embroiled Schwarzenegger in a costly fight with teachers unions.

A poll released Wednesday from the Public Policy Institute of California showed 82% of those surveyed said they believe the K-12 education system has problems. About half of those surveyed said they disapprove of the way Schwarzenegger is handling education.

William Ouchi, a UCLA management professor who served as a key advisor during Riordan's first term as mayor, praised the former mayor as a "heart-on-the-sleeve, never-say-die, give-it-all-you've-got and don't-criticize-other-people kind of guy."

Ouchi credited Riordan with doing "a great deal to develop the ideas of empowering local schools and of rethinking and simplifying the currently bizarre, baroque way in which the state funds schools, with all kinds of strings attached.

"While he hasn't had the opportunity to actually put those in place, it is clear that he has succeeded in getting a whole lot of people to take these ideas seriously."

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