Michael Kirst, president of the State Board of Education, says the process that resulted in his confirmation, which involved getting a two-thirds vote in the state Senate, was “useful” in getting to know Republicans in the Legislature and has laid the groundwork for cooperation on a number of issues in the future.
Kirst is one of the few people in state government to return to the same post he occupied during Governor Brown’s first stint as governor. (Another is Mary Nichols, reappointed by Governor Brown as chairman of the California Air Resources Board.) In an interview with EdSource’s Louis Freedberg, Kirst reflected on how much has changed in education and on the board since he last held this role three decades ago—and how much hasn’t. He and other board members receive a $100 per diem for their labors.
One of the biggest changes is the large amount of time the board spends on charter schools. Kirst says Governor Brown’s elimination of the Secretary of Education position from his cabinet has not made a difference to the board’s functioning, although he worries that higher education may not be sufficiently represented in the state’s executive branch. He also never saw as much public engagement during his first term on the board as the sustained outpouring of support by parents and others organized by the Los Angeles-based Parent Revolution earlier this year for a state law allowing a majority of parents to turn their schools into charter schools.
Freedberg: The first time you became president of the State Board of Education was 33 years ago. How have things changed since then?
Kirst: There are some things that are different, and then some things that surprised me that haven’t changed. Among the things that haven’t changed is that there’s hardly any more technology in the classroom now then there was then. We were at the beginning of the technological age then, and we had a few computers in the back of classrooms. So I go back on the board in 2011, go to the classrooms, and there are (again) a few computers in the back of the room. I would have thought in all these intervening years that there would have been a considerable transformation of the technological delivery of education services, and that has not happened.
Freedberg: Governor Brown did away with the Secretary of Education position in his cabinet. For many years, before you assumed your position last year, the State Board of Education had been at odds with the governor and the Department of Education. But when Governor Brown took office, there were all kinds of predictions that, once and for all, these different sectors of government were going to work together. Has it worked out that way?
Kirst: They’re working out very well. Our arrangement is unusual. Governor Brown cut about twenty positions in the Secretary of Education’s office, and some more positions in the inner office and the horseshoe (the U-shaped corridor of offices in the governor’s office in the State Capitol). For K–12 education, he now has a direct line between his office and the State Board president and the executive director of the State Board, Sue Burr. So the State Board not only is in the middle of policy, but we’re also in the middle of legislation, in that there are a hundred or more bills that have come to the Governor. Sue Burr and I worked with him directly on legislative matters on some of these bills. So that is very different.
Freedberg: Are you in touch with Governor Brown on a regular basis? During this budget mess he has had to deal with, how much has he been able to focus on education?
Kirst: He focused on it intensively in the last two-to-three weeks of the legislative season and (will be doing so) in the next three-to-four weeks going ahead, because either he has to sign the bills or they become law without his signature.
Prior to that, he was involved in particular issues, but mainly involved in budget issues, and in that area he works heavily with the Department of Finance. When I came back to the board, I was told “you are part of the Executive Branch of government.” That’s very different from when I started 33 years ago.
When I was on the board before, we were sort of like a board to Wilson Riles, the State Superintendent. Now we’re part of the Executive Branch, like the Executive Office of the President in Washington D.C. So we are paired with the Department of Finance and the State Board of Education, and some people in the governor’s inner office.
That’s a tremendous reversal from the past when I worked with the same governor.
Freedberg: You said that about 20 positions were eliminated from the Secretary of Education’s office. Can you eliminate 20 positions without it having an impact?
Kirst: Well, so far we’re functioning well with a much smaller staff. I think that the Secretary of Education’s office became just another layer that people had to work through. Brown doesn’t like lots of layers and bureaucratic, up-the-line kind of things. People said then it wouldn’t be missed, and I don’t see that it is being missed at this point.
An area where it could be missed would be in higher education, for which there is still no administrative structure in the Executive Branch of Government. But for K–12, I think we’re able to run with a lot fewer layers and check points, and a lot less conflict in terms of three or four people arguing over turf.
Freedberg: One of the issues that you didn’t have to deal with in 1978 was charter schools. At the board’s last meeting a big chunk of the day was taken up with charter schools, even though it just deals with about five percent of the kids in the state. Admittedly, five percent is a lot of kids, but it’s not a 100 percent.
Kirst: Yes, charter schools are the biggest addition since I came back to the board. The thing we spent the least time on compared to the old days consumes 21 percent of our expenditures, and its called special education. So we’re spending less time on that, and more on charters.
Freedberg: Do you see more or less public engagement than during your earlier term on the board?
Kirst: Engagement still comes up around particular issues. So the parent empowerment issue brought in busloads of students and parents from the Los Angeles area. I can’t recall an issue in my whole last tenure where we had that many people coming to the board in consecutive months.
We have also shifted a lot from being a wholesale policy organization, to being what I call a retail organization. We’re making decisions on specific schools, and specific districts, and this gives us less time and energy to focus on broad policy. I am worried that we will lose the broad policy focus, which is the board’s essential rationale in the state’s constitution.
Freedberg: Your confirmation in the state Senate did require getting a two-thirds vote. Remarkably, after a little bit of politics behind the scenes, the Republicans did support you and all the Governor Brown’s appointees. How did that happen? There’s some speculation that there had to have been some agreement or deals made behind the scenes as a kind of quid pro quo.
Kirst: Well, that really has to be answered in detail by people in the Governor’s Office. They are responsible for getting their nominees confirmed. And the Republican leadership did want to meet directly with the Governor, and they did meet with him. I did meet with the Republican leadership on some issues, but you’ll really have to ask the Governor’s office that was in charge of our confirmations. We were really not running that show.
Freedberg: So you weren’t asked to agree to certain things in exchange for your confirmation? Or were there more broad ranging kinds of discussions?
Kirst: They were pretty broad ranging, more concerns that were general, more generic questions. There were a few specific questions. But in the end, really only the Governor can provide assurances to the Republicans about what they will be interested in.
Freedberg: But do you think the fact that the Republicans did come on board sends some signal that there might be some bipartisan collaboration and cooperation in terms of education and education reform going forward?
Kirst: I hope so. Board members were interviewed by various state Senators who asked us to meet with them. The Republican group was particularly interested in career and technical education, and we have a chance of forging some common policy there. I’ve talked to State Superintendent Tom Torlakson about that as well. We’re going to try some bi-partisan things (that came) out of this confirmation process—which may have been very useful in getting us to know the senators, and what some of their concerns are.
Freedberg: Compared to 33 years ago, the whole fiscal landscape is transformed. Does this make it very difficult for you to advance real reforms when economic survival is what school districts are facing?
Kirst: I went through this before when Proposition 13 passed in 1978 and I was president of the Board. We went through some severe cutbacks at that time. A lot of the school districts went down to five periods a day. But we were able to do things in that era. So while schools are extremely hard pressed, I think we’ll be able to make some moves forward.
If we continue to go down (in school funding), some of the conditions might be even worse than last time. For example, we have been asked to approve a waiver from Inglewood (Unified School District) to increase class sizes to 38 as a base level. That is beyond anything I ever saw in the ’78 to ’82 era. So it’s problematic, but at this point I think we can move forward.