Tuesday, December 09, 2008


The outgoing LAUSD superintendent showed signs of succumbing to pressures within a year of his taking the job.

Opinion By Bob Sipchen  | LA Times

December 9, 2008  -- When I heard from afar Monday that former Adm. David L. Brewer would leave his post as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, I felt a pang of sadness.

When the school board hired Brewer, I wrote a weekly column on the subject for this paper. Now I have a different job in a different city. But on hearing of Brewer's announcement, I decided to treat myself to one final education rant.

A couple of weeks ago, I proof-read the essays two friends' sons had written for their UC system applications. One boy had left L.A. public schools to attend a private school in the area; the other remained in the system. Both of these kids are smart. Both are ambitious. Both have great stories to tell. But one had clearly received a stronger education -- not just in grammar, syntax and sentence structure. He had been intellectually nurtured and offered clear college-oriented guidance. No one reading this needs to be told which kid was which. And the public school student was middle class and went to a relatively good public school.

Brewer's arrival gave lots of people a faint, fragile hope for all the smart, ambitious kids in poor neighborhoods; kids who all too often weren't being challenged, held accountable and academically stimulated by their neighborhood schools -- and whose parents lacked the resources to help.

Brewer, lacking pedagogic experience, was an unorthodox choice for the job. But he spoke with passion about how the system was failing poor kids. He clearly cared. I reserved a measure of hope for the possibility that his apparent passion for helping students would enable him to overcome the bureaucracy that so often ensnares LAUSD superintendents.

I began losing hope early on, when Brewer, after publicly blustering against the difficulties of ridding schools of bad teachers, refused in a short interview to flat-out affirm that he would strive to fire teachers for incompetence.

Don't get me wrong. All three of my kids attended public schools. The majority of their teachers were good, many were excellent, and some were downright heroic.

But as I made my rounds of schools for the column, I saw more than a few who had burned out or should never have entered a classroom at all. If Brewer had drawn a line in the sand, and then set an example by fighting to make it easier to fire bad teachers -- and bad principals and bad administrators -- he could have set the tone for the sort of sweeping reform the district desperately needed then and, tragically, still needs now.

Clearly, though, Brewer had already begun listening to careerist district survivors' conventional insider wisdom about not bucking unions, about the need to buckle to bureaucratic constraints. Before his first anniversary, the Lilliputians had him hobbled.

The job Brewer is leaving is the most important public job in Los Angeles. Senior Deputy Supt. Ray Cortines will do a good job for as long as he's willing to stay. But he can't want to stick around for long. So during Cortines' tenure, I'd love to see the students, parents and teachers of Los Angeles rise up and demand a revolutionary leader to succeed him.

Last time out, a search firm kept the details of how it was finding superintendent candidates secret from the public. This time, the public should demand that the Board of Education try a new process. Let the district's own huge HR department post want ads in the usual places and screen resumes. Then leave it up to a committee of smart parents, teachers and civic leaders to find the right person for the job.

I suggest the committee include education activist and performance artist Sandra Tsing Loh, whose book, "Mother on Fire," reflects her simultaneous support and impatience with the LAUSD; Los Angeles teacher Rafe Esquith, who summed up his passion for his job in his book, "Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire," and civic leader Connie Rice, who would have no patience with an educrat candidate put forward solely on the basis of race, political connections or fluency in the jargon of obfuscation. And maybe Green Dot's Steve Barr could be on the selection committee. ... Wait. Maybe he could be the selection.

The LAUSD could do worse than having a superintendent who has already made the school board so mad he has nothing to lose.

Bob Sipchen is a magazine editor and former Times reporter.

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