Richard J. Riordan
California Secretary for Education

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Sunday, March 20, 2005
(Television interview conducted March 4, 2005)

Richard Riordan     "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmaker is former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan, California Secretary for Education. The interview was conducted March 4. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: Has the reaction from the California Teachers Association to the governor's budget proposals surprised you?

Riordan: It did surprise me, but it shouldn't have. They've been misleading the public right down the line — because the governor increased the education budget by $2.9 billion, or $362 per child, and they're giving the impression that he lowered the budget.
    Now, what they're getting into, they're talking about what they call "maintenance" that started with Gray Davis. When they had more money than they knew what to do with, (during) the Internet bubble, they put all this money into the budget for education. But they didn't pay it out because the bubble burst. This money is, they say, "owed," but it's a maintenance factor which is supposed to be paid over a number of years. And that's what they're talking about, this increase.
    The bottom line is, Gov. Schwarzenegger increased the education budget in K through 12 by $2.9 billion.

Signal: The Legislature agreed to suspend Proposition 98 last year to help the governor balance the budget. At the time, he said he'd restore the education funding shortfall this year, but that's not happening. The CTA says he broke his promise.

Riordan: Well, Gov. Schwarzenegger doesn't walk through walls. The bottom line is, we have an $8.2 billion structural deficit that he had to make up in this year's budget.
    He had what I call a "Sophie's Choice." Remember the movie where Meryl Streep had to give up one of her children to the Nazis and she had to choose which one? It was choice between adding more than the $2.9-billion increase to education, and reducing health care for children and for senior citizens, or vice versa.
    I think he did a magnificent job of it. It was tough, tough leadership of picking, I think, the right balance of things to make sure that everybody gets their God-given right to health care and also a quality education.
    Signal: Do you see the CTA's arguments as legitimate, or is this just political maneuvering?

Riordan: The basis of the argument may or may not be legitimate, but the way they state it, they make it look like Gov. Schwarzenegger reduced the amount of money going into education. And he did not, as I say. He increased it by $2.9 billion — $50 billion of state money going to education, another $11 billion from other sources, mainly federal, which is by far the highest in the history of our state. Just a few years ago it was $35 billion.
    The question is, what is being done with this money? We have a dysfunctional, diffused system, and pouring extra money into that system is not going to work. Essentially what it's going to do is damn another generation of children to mediocrity. We first have to do what Gov. Schwarzenegger said: Make systematic changes in the education system. It's the basis of the Rand report — which has been misstated — is, you need basic, systemic changes. Like merit pay, where you reward people who perform very well.

Signal: Some people say more money is the answer; the CTA says California ranks 44th in per-pupil funding. Is that the number you use? When you factor in federal funding, is California 44th?

Riordan: No. It's not accurate, but for me to get into the details I think it would just bore the whole situation.
    Essentially we're 27th — and you have a cost of living that makes it tougher than that — but you also have about $1.5 billion that is not put into the equation, that actually does go into education in California.
    The bottom line is, again, it's a system. If you look at charter schools, some of them around here are paying the teachers far more than other public schools, and yet they get less money. If you change the system so that the money is well used, that the schools have the power to contract out to get the cheapest, most reasonable contracts, then you will have more than enough money.
    Look at Colorado. (It) is right with California in the amount of money they have in their education, and yet they rank in the top 5 and 10 percent of the schools in our country.

Signal: Our local state senator, George Runner, is carrying the governor's merit-pay bill. Tell us about the governor's proposal.

Riordan: Somehow or another the word "merit" is going out of style and they call it "performance" pay, but it's basically to have districts come up with a plan, each district, locally, to reward teachers who perform the best.
    Now, they can use different ways of determining it. For example — and this is where the unions have misled people — if you base part of it or all of it, whatever the district wants to do, on how children do on tests, obviously you have to take into account what kind of children they have. You can't compare children in one area with children in Beverly Hills or someplace else. You have to put in what they call "adding value." Like if there are a lot of English language learners who speak another language at home, then that's put into the equation. If there are a lot of special education kids, that's put into the equation, etc., etc.

Signal: Would this formula be determined by Sacramento?

Riordan: No. It's determined by each separate district.

Signal: Would the district have the ability to leverage merit against longevity (seniority)?

Riordan: No. The one thing that's in the Runner bill, and that the governor is strong on, is that you cannot put longevity into the equation. That's the only thing.

Signal: So tenure, as we know it, would be out the window?

Riordan: No, that's a separate issue, tenure. They can be tenured, but the fact they've been teaching for 10 years doesn't mean that they get some advantage over a newer teacher as far as bonus pay.

Signal: Come again?

Riordan: Essentially, a teacher who has been there three years can perform better than a teacher who has been there 10 years, or vice versa. And neither of them — the amount of time they've been teaching should not be taken into account in determining what their bonus is.

Signal: When you say bonus pay, would this include cost-of-living adjustments?

Riordan: It would include the cost of living adjustment.

Signal: So pay raises would be linked strictly to merit and not to longevity at all?

Riordan: Not to longevity at all. That's the one sine non qua.

Signal: Detractors worry that teachers won't be rewarded unless they suck up to the principal; and that classroom teachers will be pitted against each other for bonuses, trying to outperform each other instead of working together.

Riordan: These are ridiculous arguments, because each district comes up with its own plan, and they've got to protect against somebody sucking up to the principal or the owner.
    The bottom line is, if I own a restaurant or a business, can you say just because I reward someone who's an outstanding employee, that I'm doing it because they're sucking up to me or something? I mean, it's ridiculous.
    The bottom line is, you have to have confidence in somebody in determining who's doing the best jobs. Because we are doing a terrible job for our children. When you look at the percentage of kids, less than 50 percent of poor children are graduating from high school. There's something dysfunctional, terrible, about the system.
    So let's reward and retain the best teachers. And let's hold accountable those teachers who fail children.

Signal: It seems there are a couple of different concepts at play. On one hand, you're giving local control to school districts to design their own merit play formulas. On the other hand, you're saying bonuses can't be linked to longevity. What if a school district decides it wants to base bonuses partially on merit and partially on longevity?

Riordan: Well, they'd be violating the law, then. But they can do it on a lot of things. You make judgments. Maybe they have a plan where the teachers vote on it. I'm not suggesting that, but there's a lot of ways that local school districts can implement the plan. And I think as they go on, they may make changes because I think they'll find — first of all, they'll retain the best teachers. Because the average longevity of a teacher is like five years. And the best people are the ones who can most easily get other jobs in our economy. So we want to not only recruit the best; we want to retain the best.

Signal: At times, the state has flirted with the idea of bringing people into the classroom from the business world. Is the governor interested in augmenting the teacher corps in this way?

Riordan: Right. I think a lot of districts are working on this, too. When you look at the — we have so few math teachers who have been trained in math and who have been trained science — is to bring some of the executives who were the head of engineering or head of a science lab, to come in and teach at schools.
    This is something that is being done in some areas, but I think could be very, very important to the whole state.

Signal: We recently interviewed Jack O'Connell, the state superintendent of public instruction. What is your function?

Riordan: I am called secretary for education, and I am the advisor on education to Gov. Schwarzenegger. Jack O'Connell is superintendent of education, and he is elected independently by the voters of this state. So in effect, I'm appointed by the governor and advise him; (O'Connell) is elected and he oversees the Department of Education. He oversees a lot of what they call the categorical (programs), which say how money should be used, and checking to make sure they're used that way.

Signal: Since the power to make laws is vested in the governor and the Legislature, that would mean you've got quite a bit of influence over education policy in California.

Riordan: Sure, ideally it does, and I think that's good. Unfortunately, you have such a diffusion of power in Sacramento and throughout the state where you have the superintendent, you have myself, you have the governor, you have the Legislature, you have various committees — some appointed by the Legislature, some by the governor, some by the superintendent — and it's really very hard to hold anybody accountable with that diffusion. That's part of this very dysfunctional system where the kids are the ones who get hurt.

Signal: How much of Dick Riordan do we see in the governor's education proposals?

Riordan: Well, you know, it's hard to say because I — myself and others throw various ideas at the governor, and he's an incredible brain. This guy is a strong businessman as well as an actor and body builder, and he picks things up like that. He amazes you by how much he knows that goes on in the trenches.
    Certainly, I've been an advocate of smaller schools for years, and he has become the prime advocate of smaller schools. Because how can you run a school of 2,000 or 5,000 students where the principal can't possibly relate to all the teachers in the school, let alone the students? So ... let's have high schools, small schools, that are less than 500. And Bill Gates, who is Mr. Microsoft, the wealthiest guy in the country, is a huge advocate of that throughout the country. He has been partnering with Gov. Schwarzenegger toward that end.
    And charter schools. ... My big thing is "local," putting control right down at the schools, over the budget, over implementation of academics, but holding the principal and the teachers at that school accountable. That's what charter schools are all about, which Gov. Schwarzenegger is very much in favor of.
    You go visit any of the charter schools around here or around Los Angeles. The vast majority of them are thriving. The kids are doing well, the teachers love their job. They form teams to teach together; they put pressure on each other to do a better job. And this, I think, is the model that we ought to be looking for in every school, whether charter or not charter.
    And then we have the intervention (for) what they call decile 1 and 2 and 3 schools. These are schools that do the worst, where relatively no kids graduate from high school who go through the decile 1, 2 or 3-type schools. (Gov. Schwarzenegger) wants to have strong intervention in those schools to turn those schools around, to prove, as President Bush says, that no child need be left behind.

Signal: Along that line, in recent weeks, a consortium of law enforcement officials including Sheriff Lee Baca called for more preschool programs because statistically, kids who start school earlier have a better chance of graduating high school and staying out of jail. If "more money" isn't the answer, how will California develop more preschool programs?

Riordan: By running the schools more efficiently. Many of the schools in the state already have preschool. You have Elk Grove near Sacramento; they have preschools in, I think, every school in the Elk Grove system. And some in Los Angeles, some in Pasadena, which I'm very familiar with. But clearly, the governor wants to focus first — let's have preschools for all of the poorest schools, those decile 1, 2 and 3, the lowest ones.
    Let's say you take a child who's never had a book read to them when they get into school, doesn't know the difference (between) colors — and this is very common. What's the solution? Have a preschool and have them ready, so when they're in kindergarten, they'll have a level playing field.

Signal: The governor wants to reform teachers' and other public employees' retirement systems. Our local Assemblyman, Keith Richman, has been beating the drum for pension reform. Essentially, the idea is to switch from guaranteed benefits to defined contributions, like a private-sector 401(k) plan?

Riordan: Basically what has happened: When we had all this money in this bubble in the Internet — and not just the state, but the cities and everything were throwing money at their employees left and right and guaranteeing returns, 10, 20, 30 years from now — today, that bubble burst. And based on return-on-investment today, there's no way that you can meet that. You're going to bankrupt the state and every municipality by continuing it.
    So, what employees are getting — it's not just teachers; it's all employees — what the governor says they should get (is) a return based on the amount of money that their employer, the state or the cities, put into it, and (what) the employee puts into it. As a relation to that, as opposed to a guaranteed rate.

Signal: The Santa Clarita Valley is a donor community — we pay a lot in taxes but it doesn't all come back to us.

Riordan: We love you in Los Angeles.
    Signal: Larger districts like Los Angeles Unified get more per-pupil funding than our districts get. What is the governor's take on that? Can we ever expect to see equalization?

Riordan: First of all, as far as equalization — and quite honestly, I don't know how it literally applies to you — but the governor has a priority of bringing equalization back within several years, hopefully within four years. He started it last year; this year's budget is tighter, so he's not doing it this year, but I presume he'll do it in the coming years.
    The bottom line is, though, that with the courts' decisions like Serrano (v. Priest) and everything, you will never get back 100 percent of what you donate to the state and everything. Because in Serrano, the Supreme Court said that every child throughout the state and the country has an equal right to an education. The gripe that the governor is trying to cure is that you're getting less than even that equal amount because of the lack of equalization, and that is his priority.
    Signal: You're tight with Bob Hertzberg, who wants to break up the LAUSD. We've got many LAUSD teachers who live in our valley, so what do you and the governor think about LAUSD breakup?

Riordan: Well, both of us are in favor of smaller districts. The smaller the district, on average, the better it does. It's not true 100 percent, but it's true 90 percent of the time.
    It's liked I talked a little while ago about smaller schools. In a district like the LAUSD, (Superintendent Roy) Romer has over 700 schools reporting to him. He hasn't even met all the principals, let alone have relations (with them). If you have a district of 12 to 25 schools, say one high school and feeder schools, or two high schools and feeder schools, then you have a superintendent who can relate to every school every week, or every day if it's small enough, and do a much better job of managing.

Signal: Do you, personally, have the same "breakup" philosophy when it comes to San Fernando Valley secession from Los Angeles?

Riordan: You're going to get me in a lot of trouble here. But, what it comes down to, it's much easier to put something together into a big city than to break it apart. And quite honestly, the economics of running L.A. are built around the different areas of L.A. Maybe they should never have been put together, but now that they are together, it's very hard to pull them apart.

Signal: Let's talk a bit about Dick Riordan. You've been a lot of things — a successful real-estate investor, two-term L.A. mayor, you've run for governor. Why education? What enticed you?

Riordan: I was very involved in charities my whole adult life. I learned it at Santa Clara, the college out here, to have a social conscience. And then in the early 80s a report called "The Nation at Risk," a very famous report by the Carnegie Foundation, came out. It said, if a child cannot read or write at grade level by the end of the second grade, you have lost that child for life. You will not remediate them by the time they get into middle or high school.
    I took that seriously. And had I made a lot of money on computers and computer companies, and I tried to combine computer technology with teaching kids to read and write. I came up — with a partner called IBM — with a program called "Writing to Read." We have that, my foundation has that program in 42 or 43 states now. For example, we're in all of Mississippi, and 10 years ago, Mississippi passed California in literacy.

Signal: Thinking of literacy — in the course of interviewing Ray Bradbury over the years, he once said he would go over to your house once a week and you'd read together. What do you like to read?

Riordan: I read anything. I'm very eclectic. I just finished a book called "Past Imperfect" (by Peter Charles Hoffer), which is about the plagiarism by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose and others.
    And we just finished one before that, this one where (Charles) Lindbergh and the Nazis took over our government — fictitiously, by the way. (Philip Roth, "The Plot Against America.") Right now I'm reading a biography of P.G. Wodehouse. I have a lot of fun reading.

Signal: Do you guys still get together?

Riordan: Yeah, we do, although he's slowed down a little bit. I guess I have — some people say I have, anyway. But what a great human being, huh?

Signal: Agreed. Do you still own your L.A. restaurant, The Original Pantry?

Riordan: Yes, I do.

Signal: What's your recipe for cole slaw?

Riordan: None of your of business.

Signal: Figured you'd say that.

Riordan: Come there and eat it.

Signal: What's going to happen with the governor's proposed ballot measures? This is hardball he's playing.

Riordan: But I think it's realistic hardball. I mean, we have to redistrict this state if we're going to have true representation within this state. I think that's long, long overdue, and I think it's going to be a great legacy for the governor.
    But the bottom line, I'll get back to my education thing. The governor considers himself the voice of the children. The children have had no voice in education. Every argument that's made by the unions and everything is, "How do we stop embarrassing the adults?" Instead of saying, "How do we do a better job for the children?"
    We've had very little or any accountability for 20, 25 years, in our education system. No accountability of the superintendent, the principals, the teachers, and even the students. They stopped holding students accountable. They're saying, "Let them graduate from high school, even though they can't read and write at grammar-school level."
    So let's bring accountability back and let's put children first.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

©2005 SCVTV.
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