Kirst, Rucker nominations in flux

Senate Republicans are threatening to hold up or block the nominations of State Board of Education President Michael Kirst and board member Patricia Rucker. They have become bargaining chips for reasons that Republicans have not explained.

Kirst, a Stanford emeritus professor of education who served as State Board President under Gov. Jerry Brown in the ‘70s, and Rucker, a lobbyist with the California Teachers Assn., were among the seven Brown nominees who were endorsed Wednesday by the five-member Senate Rules Committee. But both Republicans on the committee, Sens. Tom Harman and Jean Fuller, abstained from voting on Kirst and Rucker while joining Democrats to unanimously approve the other five nominees: Trish Williams, Carl Cohn, Aida Molina, James Ramos, and Ilene Straus.

The full Senate will vote on the five nominees before the end of the legislative session next week. But the nominations of Kirst and Rucker are up in the air. State Board nominees need a two-thirds majority for confirmation, and Republicans have the numbers to block them. Speaking before the Rules Committee on Wednesday, Sen. Bob Huff, chairman of the Senate Republican Caucus, indicated that might happen while at the same time expressing hope it could be avoided. He implied that the unstated objections were legislative and policy-based and not related to Kirst’s or Rucker’s qualifications.

While acknowledging members of the Caucus had “a good conversation” with Kirst, Huff said, “we still have questions to be answered” and urged that votes on Kirst and Rucker be delayed until January “without prejudice.” Doing so, however, would be problematic. Brown nominated them to four-year terms in early January, and they can serve no more than a year before they must be confirmed. With the Legislature adjourning next week until January, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said he wanted to bring the nominations before the Senate within days. But Huff said what he wanted might take longer, perhaps including new policies by the State Board.

Open Enrollment at issue

Huff is a big proponent of the state’s 18-month-old Open Enrollment Act, giving students in low-performing schools the right to attend higher achieving schools in other districts, and he is apparently upset by what he considers efforts of the Legislature and the State Board  to weaken the law. Two Senate aides in the know I spoke with surmised he was using the nominations to get Brown’s attention on the issue.

The Open Enrollment Act was sponsored by former Democratic Sen. Gloria Romero to strengthen the state’s application to Race to the Top. As with its policy cousin, the Parent Trigger, there are problems with the law’s drafting. It was designed to liberate students in  the lowest performing 1,000 schools – about the lowest 10 percent. But some schools with relatively high API scores – even above 800 – have been on the list due to problems with the formula. They have to notify parents that, in effect, their children are attending failing schools. ***

As a result, 96 schools that feel they shouldn’t be included have appealed to the State Board, and all have gotten waivers, according to an analysis of AB 47, another cause of Huff’s displeasure. Sponsored by Jared Huffman, a Democrat from Marin County, the bill would exclude schools with at least a 700 API or those that have increased API scores by at least 50 points in the prior year and would add in about 100 of the lowest performing charter schools. The 1,000 schools would not be a hard number but a ceiling, with a lower number on the list possible. AB47 now awaits a final vote in the Senate,

Huff and Republicans may view the nominations as leverage with Brown on a bunch of issues, but my guess is that Open Enrollment is high up there.

As an employee of the CTA, which is allied closely with Democrats and was Brown’s biggest financial backer, Rucker would seem a likely target of Republicans. But there has traditionally been a seat on the 11-member board for a CTA member, and Rucker, an attorney, would not be the first CTA lobbyist to serve on it. She made that point to Harman in response to a question about potential conflicts of interest. “I have demonstrated that I can separate my obligation to the education community at large and my obligation to the CTA,” she said. Fuller and Harman gave no indication that they objected to her personally. Rucker gave clear, cogent answers during two hours of questioning of all seven candidates’ broad views on ed reform at the hearing.

The nomination of Kirst, Brown’s education adviser during the gubernatorial campaign and a pragmatist and a moderate on education reform, has received near-universal praise. His primary interests – improving classroom instruction, preparing the state for the implementation of Common Core standards, and better aligning K-12 expectations with college and career goals – match Brown’s. Kirst showed his skills and even temperament in crafting Parent Trigger regulations that satisfied  antagonists on the issue.

During testimony, education advocates spoke on behalf of various nominees. But Sherry Griffith, legislative advocate for  the Association of California School Administrators, spoke on behalf of many when she praised all seven of Brown’s nominees. Calling them “phenomenal,” with 200 years of experience in education among them, she said, “This is the strongest set of board members in 15 years.”

*** Whether their children could then find a school in a nearby district willing to accept them is a different issue. The law allows districts, especially wealthy districts, to opt out easily, by citing financial hardship if they had to admit more students.  Districts with declining enrollments would be most likely to declare themselves receiver districts. Because the law is new, it’s too soon for data on how the Open Enrollment Act is working.

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (, one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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