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At center of school reforms

The usually quiet state Board of Education is now tasked with figuring out how to turn around 98 'failing' districts.

January 10, 2008|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

The state Board of Education is virtually invisible to the public and routinely ignored by the media, but suddenly sits at the center of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's school reform initiative: his announced intention to turn around 98 "failing" school districts, serving about one-third of California's students.

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, it's the job of state board members -- who are appointed by the governor -- to determine how that happens in each of those school systems, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, with nearly 700,000 students.

As of Wednesday, the state board this year will be headed by former Occidental College President Ted Mitchell, a respected education insider with deep, ongoing ties to reform movements in Los Angeles. In late 2006, the onetime education advisor to former Mayor Richard Riordan emerged as a finalist to head L.A. Unified before withdrawing from consideration.

Over the last two years, on behalf of Schwarzenegger, Mitchell has chaired a committee charged with making recommendations to reshape California's education system.

And in recent weeks, the 51-year-old Tustin resident also took part in intense discussions with state officials regarding the 98 underperforming school districts. The options under consideration ranged from doing very little to outright takeovers.

"I and my colleagues . . . have a very high sense of urgency about the need to bring about substantial, fundamental and systemic progress in the state's lowest-performing districts," said Mitchell, who also runs a private venture fund supporting charter schools and other initiatives. "And our impatience is independent of No Child Left Behind."

The federal law "creates the necessity for the state board to act in ways that it has not acted before."

This week, Schwarzenegger turned a spotlight on the board's role. "To varying degrees, 98 school districts in California are out of compliance with the No Child Left Behind Act," Schwarzenegger said in his State of the State address Tuesday. "The state is required to take action or lose federal funding."

He added: "Now, we have identified several of the districts that on a whole have persistently failed to educate children. So I'm announcing today that California will be the first state to use its powers given to us under this No Child Left Behind Act to turn these districts around."

The least-extreme measures stipulate broad changes in curriculum and training. But the board also could replace school boards and superintendents or dissolve districts.

In fact, some senior advisors to the governor were advocating aggressive tactics, such as state takeovers, according to sources close to the deliberations. But there was reportedly a split among the governor's staff as well as resistance from Jack O'Connell, California's elected superintendent of public instruction, whose Education Department manages the state's education system.

The governor's traditional authority to be involved in school takeovers is limited, but the 11-member state board, with its federal mandate, is widely considered part of the governor's education team, even though it acts independently to approve state policy.

Already a board member, Mitchell was drawn in to help forge a compromise, sources said. What emerged was closer to what O'Connell wanted.

The major players declined to discuss the rift, focusing instead on the resulting compromise.

"We're working collaboratively to help design a plan to help districts that need assistance," O'Connell said. "It's not intended to be punitive and this is not a one-size-fits-all approach."

Education Secretary Dave Long, a gubernatorial appointee, spoke in similar terms.

Some sources speculated that the get-tough approach became appealing when the projected $14-billion state budget deficit precluded increased funding.

As it happens, more money for schools is one recommendation of Mitchell's committee, whose report has not been officially released. The report also echoes the governor and others in saying the system needs massive overhaul beyond financing issues.

"The budget is not helping us follow through where we know new investments need to be made," Mitchell said.

Affordable measures could include improving the collection of data so that the progress of individual students could be tracked, Mitchell said.

The 98 affected school districts have been invited to testify briefly at Friday's board meeting about why they should manage their affairs with little interference. The original number was 99 but one district, Centinela Valley in Lawndale, successfully argued that it didn't belong on the list.

The remaining districts include Montebello, Pomona, Palmdale and Compton in Los Angeles County; Hemet, Moreno Valley and Palm Springs in Riverside County; and Ontario-Montclair and San Bernardino City in San Bernardino County.

Officials from L.A. Unified will argue that they are making progress, and missed only three of 46 federal targets -- although one was performance by English learners, a shortcoming affecting tens of thousands.

"We don't need any major sanction imposed on us," said Supt. David L. Brewer. "We want support, not sanctions."

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howard.blume@latimes.com

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