Credit: Christopher Schodt for EdSource
Michael Kirst, retiring president of the State Board of Education, during an EdSource interview in 2017.

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For more than six decades, Michael Kirst has made a mark on public education. Starting fresh out of graduate school to draft Title I legislation that was part of President Lyndon Johnson’s vision for a Great Society, Kirst has had multiple careers.

Author and professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University, Kirst is best known by Californians as president of the State Board of Education for all four of Jerry Brown’s terms as governor and the architect of the Local Control Funding Formula, which remade the state’s K-12 financing and school accountability system. 

Now he is also the subject of a new biography by Richard “Dick” Jung. A retired teacher, headmaster and adviser to independent schools in the Washington, D.C., area, Jung has known Kirst since he first took his course on the politics of education at Stanford and became Kirst’s teaching assistant.

In “Michael Kirst: an Uncommon Academic,” Jung chronicles Kirst’s life, his work and the evolution of his thinking about the role of the federal and state governments in education. The book includes QR coding that links readers to audio and video clips of Kirst and Jung’s conversations with Brown, whom Kirst advised for half a century, and others who knew and worked with Kirst. 

EdSource asked Jung about his insights on what made Kirst an effective academic and policymaker during an interview earlier this month that has been condensed for length. “Michael Kirst: An Uncommon Academic” can be purchased on Amazon. Jung is donating proceeds from the book to EdSource.  

EdSource: Why did you do the biography of Mike Kirst, and how did you get to know him?

Dick Jung: I got to know Mike when I went to Stanford in 1978, as a doctoral student. I had his course, the Politics of Education, and it was an unbelievable time to take a course from someone who was the state board president at a time when the whole finance system of education was turned on its head.

It turns out that he was so busy in California the next year that he asked me to be his teaching assistant. I was his TA for the Politics of Education, basically a year after the passage of the Proposition 13 in California. Mike has a wonderful ability to take people and give them things that are over their head. We also began writing together. And so he then became my dissertation adviser. Before long we did presentations on our work together.

Dick Jung

I would talk to people who had never heard of him. And when I told them they were fascinated about him, and I just knew that I had an opportunity to write about one of the most important people in education whose story had not been told.

EdSource: So you call the title “Michael Kirst: An Uncommon Academic.” How’d you choose that title?

Dick Jung: Mike’s mentor — Mike actually called him like a father figure ­­— was John Gardner. He knew him from his time in Washington, when Gardner was secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare for President Johnson. He and Mike were later reunited as neighbors when Gardner moved to Stanford. In 2001, PBS did a series on him, called “John Gardner, Uncommon American.” As I started doing interviews, a theme started to develop. Jim Guthrie (former dean of the School of Education, UC Berkeley), who Mike worked with, said he’s in a field by himself. No one in academics had the political instincts of Mike Kirst. Chester Finn (a retired president of the Thomas Fordham Institute), ideologically on the other side, actually nailed it. He said Mike is an uncommon academic.

From ‘vassal’ in D.C. to professor at Stanford

EdSource: Life can take serendipitous turns. Mike never expected to be at Stanford and never expected to stay in Stanford for very long. How did he get to Stanford in 1968?

Dick Jung: Mike had been working for Sen. Joseph Clark of Pennsylvania. Mike had started as a civil servant, but he eventually got into politics, and now he was associated with a Democrat. And the Democrats got creamed in 1968, when Richard Nixon became president.

Clark told Mike in the Senate, “There are barons and vassals. The barons are the senators and the vassals are the staff. And it’s like the Middle Ages. When the baron is slain, then the vassals are cut loose. And so I’ve got to give you six weeks to get outta here.”

EdSource: So he ended up in Stanford …

Dick Jung : The year before, when Mike had no idea that things were going to happen, the dean of the then School of Education at Stanford tried to recruit Mike for many reasons. One was because Mike had experience; when he was at Dartmouth, he started in a joint program in the business school and in the education policy school. And he was actually told, if you do that (with that double concentration), you’re never going to become a professor. Well, here comes Stanford, you know, saying, “We need that expertise now.”

He was 29 years old. He had a 6-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter, and he really wanted to get back to Washington. So he just came initially just because he knew that things could get better in Washington. The rest is history. He’s been at Stanford for 50 years.

Conditions for reform

EdSource: We associate Mike with the Local Control Funding Formula. But, in hindsight, it really was the capstone of a very long career. What about his career and his thinking led to the creation and adoption of the funding formula?

Dick Jung: Forty years before the local control funding formula, which was passed in 2013, he authored a major study of school finance in Florida. And it was amazingly similar to the principles that you have in the Local Control Funding Formula. People in California think that his life started working with Gov. Brown. He had been doing very important school finance work in other states, including Oregon and Florida in particular.

EdSource: There was the window of opportunity that enabled the adoption of the funding formula in 2013 that wasn’t available in the ‘70s because of the adoption of Prop. 13. So how did Mike and Jerry Brown take advantage of that?

Dick Jung: Mike feels like there were three vectors that really helped this be successful. One was a stable political coalition that was lacking certainly in the earlier period. Then there was the funding — it took a while, but the funding came back after the Great Recession.

And then there’s the big idea. In that interim period between Brown administrations, he worked with some lawyers, including Goodwin Liu (a law professor whom Brown later appointed to the California Supreme Court), to write a paper in 2008 which analyzed the problems with categorical programs, this mishmash of 43 programs. Mike had been one of the architects of some of these. He realized that this had been part of the problem.

EdSource: I was intrigued in reading your book that the coalition involved a deal with the California Teachers Association that reflected the pragmatism of both Mike and Jerry Brown.

Dick Jung: There were proposals in the Legislature to use student scores on standardized assessments as a basis for evaluating teachers. The union was happy to move the state away from overseeing and regulating them. Basically, he (Brown) was able to take the use of assessment data off the table and trade that for buying into the Local Control Funding Formula.

Change in perspective

EdSource: Talk about the evolution in Mike’s thinking that changed from the time he was in Washington, D.C., creating for Title I pockets of money we call categorical programs to a time when he and Jerry Brown said, “We’re going to get rid of the categoricals, and go to local control.”

Dick Jung: That’s one reason I wanted to write this biography. There were two major factors. Not only had Mike been working with Jerry Brown, separated by 28 years I called the interregnum, but in the middle of that period, he advised Brown when he became the mayor of Oakland. They really began to see firsthand how all the categoricals basically tied people’s hands. At that time, Brown was becoming more interested in charter schools. And so Mike realized that what might have been important in the ‘60s, in establishing federal programs for low-income students, had just multiplied. He began to be able to see it from the bottom up rather than the top down. And those things gelled with him.

The other reason is that Stanford became part of a consortium, and that consortium was really focusing on things that he had never focused on, which was what most affects instruction. He realized how complex it was. And so he decided it was important to strip away the categoricals, and send more funding to particularly the students who needed it the most and turn more of that authority over to the locals. It’s very much tied into Jerry Brown’s fundamental theological belief in subsidiarity — taking and giving the most power to those at the lowest level, the individual level.

Multiple legacies

EdSource: What, besides the Local Control Funding Formula, are Mike’s legacies?

Dick Jung: Besides the funding formula, we also have PACE. As soon as he stepped away from working with Jerry Brown in 1982, he and Jim Guthrie formed one of the more important policy shops and that is university-based, Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE).  It became one of the important things in his interregnum years.

He also wrote a lot of books.

Of the 15 books Mike has authored or co-authored, one he co-wrote with Fred Wirt (political science professor, University of Illinois-Urbana) became the most used textbook for the teaching of the politics of education, first published in 1972 and most recently republished in 2009, “The Political Dynamics of American Education.”  His most popular and frequently cited book was “Who Controls Our Schools: American Values in Conflict” first published in 1984.

He also did other state reforms.

One of the things that I wish I could have written more about is the vast network of people who continued to influence education. A good example is Susan Fuhrman (president emerita of the Teachers College, Columbia University and founder of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education). She learned about policy through reading Mike Kirst’s textbooks. Another is Reed Hastings. When he became the state board president, before Netflix took off, he sought out Mike’s advice to learn more about being a state president. Those are just two examples.

Mike was the nucleus, and these people have had a profound influence on American education. They, too, were his legacy. A whole book could be written about thought-leaders in American education whom Mike has mentored or with whom he has collaborated.

What’s ahead for Mike

EdSource: So Dick, what’s next for Mike?

Dick Jung: Mike is now 83. And still working really hard and doing some writing. It might turn into a book. Basically, it’s how can we continue, after we get over Covid, to use standards-based reform to improve instruction?

EdSource: From your discussions with him, would you say the attention to instruction is not a rejection, obviously, of a local control formula, but may be a refinement in terms of a different role for the state to lead districts in that area?

Dick Jung: You’re exactly right. He’s still trying to figure this out, quite honestly. It’s very complicated. He’s trying to get his arms around how can you build capacity without imposing undue accountability strictures? I think we’re going to have a real crisis in terms of teachers going into the teaching profession. What he’s landing on is how can we not only bring them into the field, but how can we build their capacity and build their efficacy? That’s what he’s trying to think through as his final legacy.

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  1. Jack Farrell 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    Good on you, Dick Jung, for writing this biography of Mike Kirst. Mike is certainly an uncommon academic. But just as extraordinary, he is also an uncommon practitioner and public servant (who served an uncommon governor!) As you’ll recall, we were classmates in that 1978 Politics of Education course Mike taught. I still remember discussions of the impending threat posed by Prop. 13 and Jarvis-Gann, and now, more than four decades on, that threat has … Read More

    Good on you, Dick Jung, for writing this biography of Mike Kirst. Mike is certainly an uncommon academic. But just as extraordinary, he is also an uncommon practitioner and public servant (who served an uncommon governor!) As you’ll recall, we were classmates in that 1978 Politics of Education course Mike taught. I still remember discussions of the impending threat posed by Prop. 13 and Jarvis-Gann, and now, more than four decades on, that threat has become a reality we still live with. On a brighter note, I look forward to reading your book about this uncommon academic and all-around good guy!

  2. John 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    Mr. Michael Kirst, thank you for your service…

  3. Brenda Lebsack 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    I’m grateful for the LCFF which provides an opportunity for community input. The problem though is how can taxpayers and parents know what they’re not being told? I created a website to help inform, but districts are keeping parents in the dark, which violates a very important piece of the LCFF for community engagement and parent partnership

  4. Dr. Bill Conad 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    After so many years. So few accomplishments. So many books written! The Local Control Funding Formula is just a way for school districts to feed their self above service and loyalty over competence culture. The theory of action of placing unaccountable funding into school districts is a bad idea The abysmal student achievement results verify it. Oh wait. There is an overly bureaucratic Local Accountability Plan that masquerades as an authentic strategic plan. School district leaders … Read More

    After so many years. So few accomplishments. So many books written!

    The Local Control Funding Formula is just a way for school districts to feed their self above service and loyalty over competence culture. The theory of action of placing unaccountable funding into school districts is a bad idea The abysmal student achievement results verify it.

    Oh wait. There is an overly bureaucratic Local Accountability Plan that masquerades as an authentic strategic plan. School district leaders fill in the blanks and then basically get a blank check. I dare anyone to actually try and read one an actual school district LCAP without falling asleep. They are filled with education jargon. a conflation of ends and means, juvenile data presentations, no monitoring, and no accountability. And that’s just for starters.

    And the beat goes on. Rather than mandating that school districts follow the science of reading, Tony Thurmond and the Board encourage lost in the fog school districts to go it alone and follow a failed balanced reading approach that can’t even get half of the children in CA reading.

    It is time for some strong centralized control with accountability for actual student growth in academic achievement. It is what the children, families, and communities within CA deserve but are not getting.

    Shameful to say the least.

  5. el 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Unfortunately the categorical programs and that funding style have all come back, like a hydra. Last I looked we have more than 43 now, and all of them require staff to spend time writing reports accounting for the money and explaining how we managed to use it to most benefit the students in spite of the various restrictions. If we could get back to the original idea of the Local Control Funding Formula, I think that … Read More

    Unfortunately the categorical programs and that funding style have all come back, like a hydra. Last I looked we have more than 43 now, and all of them require staff to spend time writing reports accounting for the money and explaining how we managed to use it to most benefit the students in spite of the various restrictions.

    If we could get back to the original idea of the Local Control Funding Formula, I think that would be terrific.

    The first LCAP template was a simple format that was readable for everyone – staff, parents, and community. The new one – used by all districts regardless of their size – is so full of garbage boilerplate that it is unreadable. In some districts this “planning” document has more pages than students – and yet it does not really address the needs of individual students in a useful way.

    How do we get back to the original idea, which was so promising?