LOS ANGELES – Alan Bersin, whose stormy seven-year tenure at the helm of San Diego city schools has been marked by constant battles with teachers unions and school board members, was named Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's new education secretary yesterday.
San Diego schools chief Alan Bersin is set to leave his post June 30 and start his new job the next day.
In an unprecedented move, the Republican governor simultaneously appointed Bersin to the state Board of Education, giving him a unique opportunity to put his stamp on education policy in California much as he did in San Diego.
"Alan is a reformer and that is what I love about him," Schwarzenegger said in announcing the appointment at the Ronald Reagan State Building here. "As superintendent, he launched a major administrative reorganization and an academic reform plan aimed at improving student achievement. And the plan is working."
Bersin, 58, replaces Richard Riordan, the former Los Angeles mayor, who resigned this week after 17 months on the job.
Bersin will begin his new $123,255-a-year job July 1, a day after he is set to leave his post in San Diego. Confirmation by the Legislature is not required.
He will take his seat on the state Board of Education immediately. That post requires Senate confirmation within a year.
Reaction was mixed, as befits Bersin's polarizing tenure as superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District.
"I have known and admired Alan Bersin for many years," said Jack O'Connell, the elected superintendent of public instruction. "He has a wealth of experience, a passion for education, and strong leadership qualities."
Experience: Superintendent San Diego Unified 1998-present; U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California 1993-98; briefly a visiting professor, University of San Diego School of Law; 17 years with Los Angeles law firm Munger, Tolles & Olson.
Service: Trustee of The Neurosciences Institute; member Board of Overseers, Harvard University; advisory board member for the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies of UC San Diego; chairman of the California Commission on Teacher
Education: Law degree, Yale Law School, 1974; Rhodes scholar, Oxford University, 1969-71; A.B. in government, Harvard University, 1968
Family: Married to Lisa Foster, a Superior Court judge; three daughters, ages 27, 13 and 11.
"Alan Bersin's track record in San Diego is about being a top-down administrator who alienates teachers and the community," said Barbara Kerr, president of the California Teachers Association. "Maybe he'll change his ways."
The governor dismissed such union opposition.
"I'm not a governor that represents the unions," Schwarzenegger said. "I represent the people. And I'm most interested in improving education."
Some lobbyists and education professionals said they expected Bersin to help the governor's administration sharpen an often unfocused education message.
"I think it's to try to have a little more coherent administration policy," said Kevin Gordon, an education lobbyist whose clients include San Diego schools.
The president of the California School Boards Association, Kerry Clegg, said she saw Bersin's leadership abilities when he worked on the association's urban school districts council.
"Alan Bersin is the kind of leader who can make a real difference, as his track record clearly shows," Clegg said in a statement.
The early read on Bersin's confirmation prospects was favorable.
DAVID McNEW / Getty Images
In Los Angeles yesterday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed Alan Bersin as his new education secretary. Bersin was also named to the state Board of Education.
"Overall, I think it's a good appointment," said Sen. Jack Scott, a Pasadena Democrat who chairs the Senate Education Committee. "At the present time I would be comfortable voting for his confirmation and working with him in the Senate committee."
However, Sen. Denise Moreno Ducheny, D-San Diego, said the appointment showed "questionable judgment" on Schwarzenegger's part.
"Bersin's legacy as superintendent of San Diego Unified School District has been one of divisiveness," Ducheny said. "His controversial approach combined with his narrow focus on test scores has angered both teachers and parents. To make matters worse, there is still no credible evidence that his so-called reforms made any significant impact on student test scores."
Despite his rocky history with the San Diego teachers union, Bersin said he expected to be able to work with the powerful California Teachers Association.
"I think it's very important that we find common ground, but that we find common ground that's based on what kids need for their education, not what unions want for their employees," he said.
Schwarzenegger said he looked to Bersin to apply his approach in San Diego to statewide education policy.
"He's a big believer in standards and accountability in schools," the governor said. "He wants to use school performance reports in the most productive way for our children, the students and also for the teachers, including more professional development and more resources wherever they're needed. This is the kind of vision that I was looking for in my new secretary of education."
Schwarzenegger has been hammered by school officials, who say his budget shortchanges public education. Bersin said that while the state needs to spend more money on education, it must get its fiscal house in order first.
"The governor is saying that we need to solve the overall budget problem before we can make the investments we need in education or anything else," Bersin said.
He also enthusiastically endorsed Schwarzenegger's ballot initiative that would require teachers to be paid on the basis of performance rather than length of service.
"I support the concept 100 percent," Bersin said of the merit-pay initiative. "This is about getting incentives to reward and acknowledge those teachers who are the best public servants in America, and who need to be rewarded.
"We have to move away from a lock-step system that will not permit us to say to those teachers who are making the greatest contribution to our community, 'Thank you, thank you.' "
Hired by San Diego in 1998 with no background in education, Bersin proved wrong his critics who predicted he would be a short-timer on his way to higher office. The former U.S. attorney is one of the longest-serving big-city superintendents in the country.
Bersin's signature education plan, the Blueprint for Student Success, focused on ongoing teacher training, heavy doses of literacy and math instruction, and new screening and education for principal candidates. It proved a highly contentious agenda as its elements all passed with a narrow 3-2 school board majority.
Charter schools, a Schwarzenegger priority, flourished under Bersin. And in a recent controversial move, Bersin led an effort to let private organizations and nonprofits bid to run and improve some of the district's lowest-performing schools.
Throughout his tenure, Bersin has earned praise from top academics, politicians and philanthropists nationwide.
But he was never able to win over teachers and some parent and community groups in his own back yard. He has been called an autocrat and was criticized for a top-down management style and for failing to consult teachers on changes.
It's no surprise that Bersin, a longtime Democrat, would accept an appointment from a Republican governor.
Bersin has a reputation for ingratiating himself with influential people and organizations, regardless of partisan politics. At one point, he was advising both President Bush and Democratic Gov. Gray Davis on education issues.
Bersin's new post has historically been low-key and bureaucratic. But Bersin has a knack for attracting attention, media and recognition. San Diego may be one of the few places where young schoolchildren can name their superintendent and recite specific initiatives.
The California Teachers Association joined the local San Diego Education Association years ago in its opposition to Bersin and his polices.
The statewide union spent an unprecedented $300,000, the most ever on local school board races, to help anti-Bersin candidates in 2002.
Bersin has his own long list of well-heeled allies who have invested heavily in school board elections.
The most expensive school board campaign in city history came in 2000, when Padres owner John Moores, Wal-Mart heir John Walton and businessman Malin Burnham all spent heavily to oppose Frances O'Neill Zimmerman, a Bersin critic. Zimmerman won re-election, overcoming a campaign that spent more than $750,000 against her.
It wasn't until the November 2004 election that Bersin lost his voting majority on the board. The new board has dismantled some of the key planks in Bersin's blueprint, including the use of teaching coaches, tough kindergarten standards, and the widespread use of outside consultants.
Staff writer Ed Mendel contributed to this report.
John Marelius: email@example.com
Maureen Magee: (619) 293-1369; firstname.lastname@example.org