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Who's the next state school board chief?


Michael Kirst, a Stanford emeritus professor and a confidant of Jerry Brown for more than thirty years, is the leading candidate to become president of the State Board of Education, according to education sources.

It would be the same position Kirst occupied 35 years ago during the first Brown administration.

Kirst was president of the State Board of Education between 1975 and 1982. When Brown first appointed him, he was a 35-year-old assistant professor of education and business administration at Stanford – just a year younger than the governor. 

Kirst has remained close to Brown since then, advising him on education issues while he was mayor of Oakland and during his tenure as attorney general. He played an important role in shaping Brown's unusually detailed education platform [PDF] during his most recent gubernatorial campaign.  

Kirst declined to comment on rumors about his possible appointment to a largely volunteer position that is scheduled to have six two day meetings in 2011. “It is all pending,” Kirst told California Watch.

Brown "has gotten lots of recommendations from lots of different groups,” Kirst said, adding that at the moment the governor-elect is “submerged in budget details.”  

“There are a significant number of people who are interested in these positions," he said. 

A Brown spokesman said, "We are not commenting on speculation about appointments."  

Given Brown's reputation for unpredictability, anything could happen over the next few weeks. But Capitol insiders say that they have not heard of any other names being floated to lead the board. 

"I think he would be great," said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell. "He is experienced, he has the confidence and trust of Gov.-elect Brown, and he has helped him craft a thoughtful education policy."

Many appointees and officials who served in Brown I are likely to serve in Brown II. But if appointed, Kirst could have the distinction of being one of the few to serve in the same position. Brown would first need to appoint Kirst as a regular member, leaving it to the full board to select its president. But if he expressed his preference for Kirst to be president, the board would almost certainly bow to his wishes.  

Although not widely known outside education policy making circles, the State Board of Education is more than just another obscure state body. The board makes crucial decisions on issues such as curriculum standards, textbooks, charter schools, and enacting regulations on key laws such as the "parent trigger" law, which allows a majority of parents to force major governance changes to their children's schools. In addition, reforming how schools are financed could be central to resolving the state’s budget crisis, and the state board could play a central role in that process. 

The board is likely to have an even more critical policy advisory role to the new governor because Brown has already indicated that he will eliminate the position of Secretary of Education position, a fixture in governors' cabinets for the past two decades. 

Kirst first connected with Brown during his first gubernatorial as an adviser regarding the complexities of the landmark 1974 Serrano v. Priest decision, which was intended to remove the disparities in funding enjoyed by high-wealth districts in California.  

Kirst is one of a rare breed of academics who is comfortable both doing research and in applying that research to policy. He is widely regarded as one of the most knowledgeable people in the state when it comes to education politics and policy, and despite being a major player on the education arena for three decades, has achieved the unusual feat of not being closely identified with any major education reform camps. In that sense, he could be a unifying figure on the board.

Kirst would succeed current board president Ted Mitchell, president and CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund and former president of Occidental College in Los Angeles. Mitchell was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to a four-year term, which expired last February. Schwarzenegger then reappointed Mitchell to another four-year term. But under the peculiar laws governing the state board, Mitchell is allowed to serve for a year on the board pending confirmation by the state Senate. Without any Senate action, Mitchell’s last meeting on the board will be at its next meeting on January 12, according to a board representative. To effect a smooth transition, Brown would need to appoint Kirst to the board before that meeting. 

As I wrote in a previous post, Brown has an unusual opportunity to appoint seven out of 10 members of the current board (excluding the student member who also has full voting powers).  

That has raised the prospect that for the first time in years the key players in education governance on a state level – the governor, State Board of Education and state superintendent of public instruction – will work more cooperatively, instead of being in open conflict with each other. 

Former Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, founding president of the Consortium on Reading and Excellence, said that the ability of these leaders to work together has an important trickle-down effect on school governance at a local level.

"It is crucially important for people in the schools that the people in Sacramento work together, that there is a common policy from the governor, the superintendent (of public instruction), and the board,” Honig, who was superintendent from 1983 to 1993, told California Watch. “If there is conflict over all these issues, no one knows what to do. Schools don’t work well with conflict at the top."

Honig should know. During the 1990s, Gov. Pete Wilson waged a fierce war against Honig, a Democrat, who for a time was viewed as a possible Democratic gubernatorial candidate. In 1993, the Wilson-appointed State Board of Education filed a suit against Honig to reduce his control over the administration of the California Department of Education.

The Wilson administration won that suit, which continues to limit the powers of the state superintendent of public instruction. 

Should he be appointed, Kirst would have to adjust to these and other changes that have occurred since he was on the board 28 years ago. "The board is entirely different from what it was back then," he said. 


Filed under: K–12, Daily Report


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Caroline Grannan's picture
The current state Board of Ed is basically a pro-charter school lobbying organization, stacked by Gov. Schwarzenegger with charter industry insiders and advocates. It will be a welcome change if Gov. Brown appoints members with strong education backgrounds who are advocates for public schools and for all students.
Betsy's picture

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