Respond to this Article June 2001

The Super

L.A. Superintendent Roy Romer may be the most talented man ever to run a big-city school district. He is also bound to fail. There's a lesson in that.

By Matthew Miller.

Roy Romer flipped through the 20-page list of demands and felt the anger rising. He'd rushed across the country for this? It was October 30, and Romer, the former three-term Democratic governor of Colorado who had taken over July 1 as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), had caught the first plane from Pittsburgh that morning for what he'd been told would be the final days of teacher-contract negotiations. The stalled talks had put most other district business on hold. For months Romer had personally wooed the union over breakfasts, at church meetings, and in countless listening sessions. As governor he had successfully mediated teacher talks in Denver and felt a reprise was certain. With state coffers flush, Romer reckoned, he'd lock up a win-win deal with the teachers early, clearing the decks for a single-minded district focus on better instruction for L.A.'s languishing kids. He'd offered a 10-percent raise from the start, hoping to skip the usual inch-by-inch dance. Romer had even reneged on a deal inked by his predecessor that tied administrators' pay hikes to teachers', leaving more money in the pot for teachers alone. Instead of thanking him, Romer knew, the union was plotting with administrators to gin up a strike.

Now, in the conference room at union headquarters, Romer, 72, flanked by 10 district colleagues, faced a phalanx of union reps across the table. Union president Day Higuchi walked Romer through page after page of demands. Eliminate travel for certain types of training, establish a "classroom bill of rights," cap class size permanently in all grades. District staffers exchanged confused glances. Higuchi was presenting the work of virtually every union committee. Most of the demands had been heard before.

"This is not what I expected," Romer said finally, boiling over. "I've been devoting a lot of time to this process, and neglecting other things I need to do in this district. It doesn't look like you're ready to seal the deal. I'm questioning whether you want this thing sealed at all."

"No, no, no," the union leaders said in chorus. They weren't trying to kill things, they insisted. This is important for our internal politics, they explained. We need to be able to say these issues were raised directly with the superintendent.

"When you get rid of all these," Romer replied, waving the handout, "and you're ready to deal with four or five important issues, I'll come back into the picture."

Romer was having his epiphany. He had impeccable pro-labor credentials. As chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), Romer had plotted political strategy with the teacher unions, one of his party's most loyal and powerful supporters. Yet four months in the trenches had Romer thinking dangerous thoughts; namely that the teacher unions might be the biggest problem urban school systems faced. The bosses ran the place like an old-style industrial union, he felt, screaming about wages, hours, and working conditions---not collaborating like professionals on ways to lift student achievement. They demonized Romer and his staff to build power. And since the union largely controlled school-board elections, the whole system felt rigged. How was a super supposed to make headway when the union was on both sides of the table? Every time he tried to hang tough on issues of management authority over teacher assignment or training, for example, the union would get four members on Romer's seven-member board to pull the rug out. Frustrated, Romer had to face facts: The radical change in labor relations he felt was a prerequisite for improved student performance was not going to happen. It was tragic, Romer thought, but it was also reality. Time for Plan B.

Romer's appointment last year marked a climax of sorts for Los Angeles after a decade of well-meaning but ineffective attempts to fix its schools. In the early '90s, civic leaders flocked to "systemic reform" schemes with acronyms like LAMMP and LEARN. Millions of foundation dollars documented the dysfunction of the district central office, dubbed "the forbidden city" by one local wag. In 1999, frustrated by the district's resistance to change and by his own lack of official power over the schools, Mayor Richard Riordan, an uncharismatic multimillionaire with a strong moral streak, successfully bankrolled a three-person slate of reform-minded school-board candidates. The new board promptly ousted Ruben Zacarias, a superintendent widely viewed as incompetent. His interim successor, the well-regarded educator Ramon Cortines, came out of retirement to reorganize the sprawling district into 11 "local" districts with the hope that they might prove more manageable. Cortines also established the depressing (but revealing) goals of a textbook and clean bathroom for every student.

These sad milestones had not been reached when Romer found himself in L.A. last spring helping plan the Democratic convention. One day he met with Eli Broad, the billionaire real-estate developer and civic activist, in Broad's office in Century City. As they gazed over the L.A. basin from Broad's sweeping 38th-floor view, Romer told Broad about his passion for schooling. Romer had chaired the key education forums in the governors' groups. He'd studied the standards movement and felt it held promise for poor kids. He told Broad he planned to launch a think-tank-style project that he hoped would do for schools what the famed Jackson Hole group had done to advance ideas on health reform. Broad instantly saw a different possibility. With interim superintendent Cortines set to depart, he told Romer, the L.A. superintendent's job was open. Why don't you consider it, Broad suggested. It would be a chance to "do" education before reflecting on it.

Romer was brought up short. He had just bought a new house in Denver. He had a ranch outside of town, and 18 grandchildren. Most of his contemporaries were on the golf course. But the audacity of the idea appealed to him. Could a farmboy turned Midwestern governor possibly fix city schools in which 83 languages were spoken? It would mean walking into a district where 70 percent of the children were Latino, with more school kids (725,000) than 29 states. With 800 principals and 35,000 teachers, LAUSD's $8.8 billion budget dwarfed Colorado's; indeed, its budget exceeded that of 50 countries. As a matter of management, in dollar terms, the district would rank 229th on the Fortune 500. And the sprawling district was unimaginably diverse, encompassing dilapidated, gang-ridden campuses in South Central, where little kids prayed for no gunshots as they walked to school, as well as shiny new facilities on the affluent west side, where 17-year-old boys fondled designer-clad girlfriends in their BMWs between classes.

The district's educational woes, Romer was told, were equally outsized. A stunning two-thirds of L.A. third graders could not read at grade level. The dropout rate was more than twice the state average. One in four teachers lacked proper training and credentials, including roughly half of all newly hired teachers. The district had balked on an earlier pledge to end "social promotion" when up to 60 percent of kids were in danger of flunking.

What can I bring to this chaos? Romer asked himself. While he'd always seen himself as a man of action, he'd been a big-picture political leader, not a frontline implementer. Romer had no constituency and no more knowledge of L.A. than a tourist. But he had the itch. "I'm a challenge junkie," he said. "This is the hardest job in America." One of Romer's many baffled Colorado friends said pursuing the post seemed like "an attempt to avoid obscurity." Days after Broad planted the seed, however---and after consulting with his family, who knew what that sound in Romer's voice meant---Romer decided he would go for it.

"My first thought," recalls school-board president Genethia Hudley Hayes, a black reformer backed by Mayor Richard Riordan, "was, this is a 71-year-old white guy from Colorado.'" Romer dogged her for days seeking an audience to discuss his interest. Hayes asked him point blank about rumors that Romer was looking for a credential that would position him to become secretary of education if Al Gore won the election. Romer told her no: Like Hayes, he saw urban school improvement as a matter of social justice. And L.A.'s ethnic cauldron was America's future. If its troubled schools could be turned around, a new sense of hope would spread to other big cities. Hayes was impressed.

As the father of a pre-schooler, so was I. After moving to Los Angeles a few years earlier, I'd written several pieces on the schools and knew what a mess Romer was taking on. The idea that a man of Romer's stature was jumping in was genuinely exciting. Surely an accomplished, substantive politician seasoned by decades of experience (and not thinking about his next job) would have a shot at altering these kids' prospects. So I struck a deal to follow him on and off for what turned out to be most of his first year in office.

After months of watching Romer closely, I'm convinced that his experience, skills, and intellect make him the most talented person ever to hold the superintendent's job in Los Angeles, and perhaps in the nation. I also believe Romer is almost certain to fail, if by success we mean moving the needle on poor student achievement in a meaningful, lasting way. At a time when President Bush has pledged to "leave no child behind," with an education reform effort that no honest person can believe will make more than a marginal difference to troubled urban schools, Romer's early tenure shows how shockingly hollow the education debate remains. It's not simply that we're not having the right dialogue about urban schools; like some terminal patient in denial, we seem unable to acknowledge what the real conversation would sound like. "I am determined not to just be here to run an institution five percent better than the last guy," Romer told me at one frustrated moment. But what should he and the rest of us do if today's system makes that the outer limit of realistic aspiration?

Emblem of Disaster

The first time I met Roy Romer he'd just taken a nap. It was late June, a week before Romer was officially to start, and he was already on the job. Romer had stayed up until 2:30 a.m. in his hotel room the night before, mulling over ways to solve the Belmont High School mess. At $200 million, Belmont was the most expensive high school ever built in America. Or rather half-built: Its site above an old oil field near downtown, combined with epic mismanagement, had left the project abandoned due to risks of methane-gas exposure. Everyone was suing everyone. The fiasco had led Mayor Riordan to fund his winning troika of reform-minded school-board candidates. Belmont had been intended to help end the chronic overcrowding that forced the district to bus 15,000 kids a day from the inner city to the San Fernando Valley---up to two hours on the bus each way. The new board had voted to walk away from Belmont, for fear that the environmental and liability issues could never be settled. Belmont was a symbol of everything that had gone wrong in L.A.; despite forecasts of soaring enrollments, the district hadn't managed to build a single new high school in 20 years.

While Romer picked at pork and beans from a Styrofoam container in the central office's dreary cafeteria, I asked him how he planned to craft an agenda and make it happen. Romer tore a page from my pad and wrote down six items. First was making the new system of decentralized "local" districts work. Then "instruction," a world of reform unto itself. Then "space," meaning getting new schools built, renting space to relieve overcrowding, and dealing somehow with Belmont. Romer was convinced Belmont's gas problems could be remediated, but the political problem---finding a way to persuade his board to reverse a decision several members had been elected on---was another matter. That's the political equation that had kept Romer up late the night before. Maybe he could get some private-sector bigwigs to buy Belmont, he'd finally decided. They'd fix it up, immunize the district from liability, and operate it for a fee as a charter school. If the thing could attract private sector insurance, Romer reasoned, you'd know it had been built safely. And instead of being an emblem of disaster, he'd turn Belmont into a 21st-century model for urban schooling.

Labor negotiations came next, not only with the teachers, but with a dozen other bargaining units. Then Romer wrote "political turmoil," meaning, for starters, L.A.'s ethnic thicket; a well-funded voucher initiative on the November ballot; and strained relations with Sacramento, where the legislature held the purse strings and viewed LAUSD as such a black hole it planned to install a new special monitor to oversee it. Finally, Romer wrote "infusion of new talent." Nearly 10,000 teachers were on emergency certification without essential training, he said. They were warm bodies placed in front of the city's neediest kids. Decent principals were scarce. The downtown headquarters hadn't seen new blood in ages. Romer was coming in alone.

Hearing this catalog was exhausting. And this was just Romer's in-box. Romer's challenge was to repair a host of basic functions while at the same time figuring out how to move enough big levers on teaching and learning that student achievement could rise five or eight years out. He'd have to do this in what one longtime observer told me was "the least honest political culture" she'd ever seen, a bureaucracy "where if you say to someone, So does this mean that if "a" happens you'll do "b,"' they will look at you and say, Oh, yes,' and you know they are lying."

Despite the air of triage, Romer appeared energized, ready to act. At first glance, Romer seemed the classic chief executive: the silver hair, the dark suit, the firm baritone, the clipped, confident phrases. Surprises emerged on closer inspection. Romer wore either hiking boots or dark sneakers because a congenital deformity left one of his ankles swollen gigantically (and often painfully). His shirt collars were perpetually rumpled; his shirt pockets stuffed with pens, like an engineering grad student.

Romer leaned in over the table. "I come in and I've got to go really fast," he told me. "You have to have broad peripheral vision." Romer's cell phone rang. On the other end was a Democratic Party heavyweight who wasn't sure whether to congratulate Romer on his new assignment, or offer condolences. "It's stimulating, that's correct," Romer told his friend, chuckling. "I'll tell you what's doable later."

Disfunctional Logic

Romer bridled when the mayor pulled out the list. A few weeks into his tenure, he and Richard Riordan were having their first substantive meeting. They sat at Riordan's regular back table in The Pantry, a greasy spoon the mayor owned downtown.

"Here's a list of really good people you should talk to to help you think through this facilities issue," Riordan said. Romer knew the mayor's commitment to kids was genuine; for years before he'd entered public life, Riordan had donated millions for computers and reading programs. Some close to Riordan even speculated the mayor wanted to be superintendent himself when his term ended. But Romer wasn't about to take orders. He sidestepped Riordan's suggestion, saying he was pulling together his own team. Their talk grew frosty, two shrewd septuagenarians circling each other warily. Romer's message was clear: I don't work for you.

In truth, Romer knew he needed help. The more he learned about the facilities situation, the more he realized it was a nightmare. Fifty-five percent of L.A. students were already in schools operating on year-round, multi-track schedules. Los Angeles had more such campuses than Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, and Houston combined. Full-year scheduling increased school capacity by half, but at a huge academic price. To make it work, the district had to cut each track's school year by 17 days. In theory, schools made up for it by adding 39 minutes to each school day, or six minutes a class. In reality, as everyone knew, those six minutes vanished into the ether. Yet with enrollment expected to rise from 725,000 to 800,000 over a decade, every child was slated to attend a year-round school within five years.

At first Romer told staff this was intolerable. He wanted kids back on a normal schedule by the end of his three-year contract. Then they'd offer intensive remedial classes over the summer for kids who needed it. Romer told everyone they'd need to think creatively---they'd rent space, streamline the construction process, mobilize the city. "His goal was right," one of the new local district superintendents, a 25-year LAUSD veteran, told me. "But once he learned of the magnitude of the things we have to do to build schools," this person said, Romer had to accept that it would happen only on a much longer timeline, if ever.

In L.A.'s dense metropolis, finding workable school sites and getting support from the neighborhood meant navigating a political minefield. And there were other snags: One promising site ran into trouble when planners were told that to get to school, kids from the nearby housing project would have to walk through a rival gang's territory. Meanwhile, one earthquake-related law, the Field Act, effectively killed Romer's sensible rental idea. As one critic put it, the law essentially required schools to be able to withstand "a nuclear strike." Most existing buildings couldn't pass muster without costly structural work to thicken walls and deepen footings. That left the district building from scratch.

As the real-estate staff told Romer, two and half years could easily pass from the time a site was located to the time it received approval to break ground; a district rule of thumb reckoned on five years to build a school. This was astonishing, given the scale of the need---and compared with retail chains, for example, that routinely opened a hundred stores a year. Still, as Romer learned, amending the Field Act seemed impossible: Who wanted to be the politician who voted to relax the seismic code when the first kid died? This reluctance was complicated by the dearth of Latinos in positions of power. "You cannot have black, Jewish, [or] white leaders saying we're going to suspend earthquake safety regulations for Latino children," one activist told me. "It's just not going to happen." In the dysfunctional logic of LAUSD, therefore, it was "better" to bus city kids two hours each day while downtown buildings stood empty.

Some officials joked perversely that it was best not to worry about the district's appalling dropout rate; efforts to keep kids in school only made the overcrowding worse. The prefab, portable classrooms installed on central city campuses gave them a shantytown feel, and shrank playgrounds to the vanishing point. In one school, auxiliary services like speech therapy were conducted, literally, in a closet. In another, a teacher taught science in an auditorium, wheeling around a cart with beakers in lieu of a classroom lab. In tonier Pacific Palisades, meanwhile, the elementary school basketball court boasted a million-dollar view of the ocean.

One top district official, a 30-year veteran, told me he believed the district would only make headway on construction if it bussed enough poorer kids to L.A.'s wealthier, less crowded west side, threatening the elite's tranquility. To be sure, Romer was coming up with creative ideas at the margin. He was taking options on land, allowing the district not to lose sites while plowing through early approvals as it had in the past. He struck a deal to house an innovative new high school in a Department of Water and Power facility that would focus on science and technology, and use DWP professionals as instructors. Still, Romer knew the depressing truth: When set against the surge in enrollment, the most aggressive facilities plan deemed remotely feasible---adding 65,000 new seats over six years---would leave the district more overcrowded than it was today.

Delusions of Mediocrity

"I'm an impatient soul. The reason we're not doing grades 3 to 5 is because textbooks are not available?" It was mid-July, and Romer was meeting in his office with three top staffers on the district's big reading initiative. An unopened salad from the cafeteria sat on his desk, alongside Romer's ever-present yellow legal pad and blue felt-tip pen. A promising literacy program called "Open Court" had been launched in grades K-2 under his predecessor Cortines, and Romer wanted to expand it. But, as one staffer told Romer, the state hadn't yet approved the texts for grades 3 to 5, so state funds couldn't be used to buy the books.

"What if you want to buy Moby Dick?" Romer snapped.

"That has to be on a state-approved list," he was told.

Like a management consultant, Romer drew a staircase representing the diagnostic tests Open Court used at six week intervals on a nearby white board. "If you doubled the time on a reading program, how much would that increase learning of reading---10 percent? 20 percent?"

While the staff mulled this question, Romer erased the staircase and wrote down four items: "more time"; "coaching"; "Open Court texts"; and "two semesters."

"Let's assume we're sitting on the supreme throne of how to improve learning in this district," Romer said expansively. "You'd probably get a bang from all of this and should do all of them---but which gets you the most?"

The consensus was swift: Textbooks and coaching---that is, a corps of reading coaches who teach teachers how to teach reading because too many simply couldn't. It was the kind of focus that had delivered results under Superintendent Anthony Alvarado in New York's District Two, a model Romer admired. Romer peeled the sticky wrap off the Styrofoam container and stabbed at his salad. "I'm not trying to be harsh with this question," he said, "but why did it take so long for us to get to this point?"

In math, they told him, the situation was even worse. In eighth grade and above, they explained, the math teachers were better because they tended to be math majors. But the early grades were a mess. And training for math teaching was more complicated. All teachers knew how to read, after all---they just might not know how to teach it. But many early grade teachers had genuine math phobias.

"What's the content level for third-grade math?" Romer barked.

Multiplication tables, division, that kind of thing, came the reply.

"What percent of math teachers in grades 3 to 5 are adequate?" Romer asked.

The staffers looked at each other a little helplessly, unused to being pushed in quite this way.

"Forty to 50 percent" are adequate, they finally offered.

"Excuse me," Romer erupted, "but how can the most technically advanced nation in the world have a situation where maybe 40 percent are adequate?" Romer tilted back in his chair and put his feet up on the desk. He squinted at them. "Any logical person coming in from Mars would say, What gives here?' I'm really genuinely curious. What is the culture of the society that lets this happen?"

The question hung there. Romer paused. "What do we plan to do about it?" A training program for math teachers starts next March, one staffer explained. Romer suddenly looked weary, as if registering that this was eight months away. He took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. He folded and refolded a Post-It into tiny pieces.

"Let me tell you," he said quietly. "We spend $8 billion in this district. We have 70,000 employees in it. We have to make this work. We have a plan," he said, pointing to the board. "But is it enough? Is it fast enough? Should I set up an office of the 10 best budget cutters in the world to review every [outside] contract we have and say, Cut them in half and put the resources into accelerating this?'" Could they use the money wisely if he did? Romer wondered. "I'd like you to quantify it," he said, asking them to bring back options to redirect more money to textbooks. It was Friday afternoon; Romer wanted the numbers Monday morning. The staffers exchanged unhappy glances as the meeting broke up.

Then Romer stopped them with one more thing. "Any chance we could have bright math kids in senior high school teach the elementary school kids?" The abysmal math-teaching gap was gnawing at him. "Ah, that's probably too embarrassing to do," he said, shaking his head.

School Prayer

In the recession of the early 1990s, as part of a deal mediated by then-Assembly Speaker (now San Francisco Mayor) Willie Brown, Los Angeles teachers took a 10 percent pay cut; to soften the blow, senior teachers were given considerable power over the schools, grade levels, and tracks to which they were assigned. Teachers also won the right to pick certain school administrators. To Romer and others, this cession of authority made it impossible to manage the system intelligently, and to hold principals accountable for their schools' performance. Reclaiming this authority in exchange for a pay hike was Romer's chief aim in the contract talks.

In practice, said school board president Hayes, the current labor agreement was not only unwieldy, but discriminatory. Upper-middle-class parents who knew how to work the system got their kids on a "traditional" school schedule. There they were taught by the best senior teachers, who preferred that schedule as well. The poorer a child was, the likelier she was to be on a track taught by teachers with emergency credentials or who were teaching "out of field" in subjects they hadn't really mastered.

In elementary schools, teachers basically chose their classes by seniority. That meant a senior teacher could get a first-grade class where the student-teacher ratio was (by law) 20 to 1 and the kids were younger and easier to control, even if she didn't know anything about teaching reading. Other senior teachers preferred grades 3, 4, or 5 precisely because they didn't have to teach reading, which was hard. In all these cases, the principal didn't have the authority to assign a talented reading teacher he knew was better for the kids. Taken as a whole, the system seemed perversely designed to pair the least prepared teachers with the neediest kids.

Union politics made a fix difficult, however, because the senior teachers who'd been around 10 or 20 years had the clout---and they benefited most from these prerogatives. None of the ambitious officials vying to succeed Higuchi as president wanted to antagonize this group; and with half of all new teachers quitting after three years, no younger block could form a stable counterweight to the veterans' power.

Romer was, at first, undaunted. He also wanted more than the raise-for-authority deal. Romer was appalled by the six-hour day on campus that teachers had secured by contract, and he demanded more time each month for needed "professional development." Romer wanted principals to have the power again to name their own "deans" and "coordinators," which Romer felt could be important junior management posts useful for grooming the desperately needed new generation of principals.

Teachers saw these proposals through jaundiced eyes. Letting the principal assign teachers made sense in theory; but with the mediocre crews actually running most schools, it wasn't so clear. Why should a history major get stuck teaching immigrant English and coaching the soccer team because some middle-school Mussolini said so? It was already hard enough to keep good people in the classroom. Teachers were happy to consider more time for professional development, meanwhile, so long as the district would pay them for it. In any event, the union argued, Romer & Company didn't have a clue as to how to use the extra hours in the first place.

While the unjust distribution of top teaching talent might be a problem from the system's point of view, the union conceded, at the level of the individual teacher, what did the district expect? The fact that a white, 53-year-old teacher-of-the-year in suburban Woodland Hills, for example, didn't want to drive an hour and a half to South Central to teach reading didn't make her a racist. It wasn't what she had signed up for. If you tried to force her to do it, she'd find other work. As Romer was learning, everyone's position deserved empathy when examined in isolation; somehow, however, it added up to an intractable morass.

The big picture was disheartening. The district's tiny, pilot merit-pay proposal that would have been voluntary at participating schools had been shouted down as unthinkable. Salaries, which would start around $37,000 and rise to an average of $54,000 after Romer's raises, remained far too low to lure the best college graduates to teaching, especially given L.A.'s tough working conditions. Yet the only rational way to raise pay substantially---ending the union's traditional lockstep pay schedule (under which a biochemistry graduate with lucrative options had to be paid the same as an Phys. Ed. major with the same tenure)---was never on the table. Without addressing such fundamental ways to draw fresh talent in large numbers to the teaching corps, the talks seemed a depressing effort to more fairly ration mediocrity.

In December, Romer took questions for two hours from hostile teacher-union chapter chiefs. It was the kind of session no super had dared before; though the chiefs didn't love what Romer had to say, it was hard not to respect him for facing them head-on. As the meeting ended, an impassioned black teacher, who had assailed Romer, caught him in the doorway and took his hand.

"You know," she said, "we ought to pray about this thing. We've got to get over this. We've got to get back together." Romer thought she was going home to pray and wanted him to do the same. "Yeah," he said, "that's a good idea." No, she said, he didn't understand. She meant right then and there. She put her other hand on Romer's and closed her eyes. While a crowd of stunned teachers looked on, they prayed.

To Live Or Die in L.A.

When he was weighing the idea, Romer promised himself three indulgences if he was crazy enough to take the L.A. job: He'd live on the beach, have a great "hi-fi" (Romer's a jazz lover), and drive a convertible. One crisp Saturday morning, I visited Romer at his beachfront condo to talk about his life. Romer usually had working breakfasts on Saturday; he'd pick the brains of small groups of teachers, principals, or other instructional personnel over eggs and coffee. Work was the most deeply ingrained part of Romer's character, the legacy of a childhood spent on his family's farm in Holly, Colorado. In the Dust Bowl during the Depression, there wasn't much else. "I never learned to recreate," Romer explained sheepishly. "I don't do anything but work."

"I came from a very small town where you always feel inadequate," Romer told me. But he was determined to make it in the wider political and intellectual worlds. Romer studied agriculture at Colorado State and went to law school at the University of Colorado. He got married, joined the Air Force, and was sent to Germany as a prosecutor. When he came back, Romer spent a year at Yale Divinity School, where he read "most of [Paul] Tillich and all that stuff," not seeking the ministry, but wanting to think life through. After a few years in a Denver law firm, Romer won a seat in the state legislature at 28. Four years later, he moved up to the state senate. Four years after that, at 36, Romer decided to run against an incumbent Republican for the U.S. Senate. It was 1966. Romer had marched in Selma and toured Vietnam. Party elders said he had a big future. Then Romer lost the senate race in a blowout. It was a big Republican year nationally, and few Democratic challengers fared well.

In the months after his loss, Romer became increasingly obsessed with the Vietnam War, reading everything there was to read in English about the conflict. Romer became convinced that the "white man's arrogance" he saw at work in the Southern civil rights battles had brought us to the brink of calamity in Vietnam. But with the luster now off the rising star, Romer's deepening preoccupation with the war made him seem flaky and too intense. Romer's law firm kicked him out, reasoning that a visible anti-war activist was bad for business.

With five kids to support and feeling he no longer fit, Romer dropped out of politics and started over at 37. The energy and risk-taking he had brought to politics made him a natural entrepreneur. Romer developed real estate, building homes west of Denver. He and a partner bought ski areas and flight-training centers. Romer became one of the biggest dealers of John Deere farm and industrial equipment in the country. By 1975, when Governor Richard Lamm (who had worked on an early Romer campaign) brought him back into public life as his agriculture commissioner, Romer was financially independent. After subsequent stints as Lamm's chief of staff and state treasurer, he set his sights on the statehouse. He shaved his dark beard and mustache, which one aide says gave him the look of "a leftover '60s chemistry professor," and won the election.

Though Romer developed the look of a leader, his iconoclasm remained. He sat for his official governor's portrait in what was then his trademark bomber jacket. He was seen jogging in street clothes and shoes. But mostly Romer worked. When the push was on to get voters to approve Denver's new airport, Romer ordered staff to make sure he was out stumping earlier each day than Denver Mayor Federico Pea. Romer's 5:45 a.m. "oatmeals" at truck stops captured the public's imagination and were credited with putting the airport over the top.

Romer was tapped to be chair of the Democratic Party not long after leaving office in 1997, where he helped pare the party's massive post-1996 debt while fending off GOP attacks about White House fundraising excesses. He became a fixture on the Sunday news shows, defending the embattled Clinton administration. At the height of the Lewinsky mess, Romer was also forced, in an awkward irony, to admit to a "very affectionate relationship" with a longtime aide when a conservative weekly was on the verge of running embarrassing photos of the two.

Given his wealth and diversity of experience, Romer's observations about the superintendent's job carried weight. "The intellectual energy it takes is more demanding than anything I've ever done," he said, with real excitement. "There's the political layer. There is the management layer. There is the substantive layer." In his retreat by the beach, with its wide, gorgeous view of the Pacific, Romer's fascination with what he was trying to accomplish seemed to trump the day-to-day frustration.

Atlas Shrugged

Despite Romer's inner buoyancy, the political ground was shifting beneath him. Civic leaders whispered that if Romer couldn't produce a breakthrough with the teachers' contract, he was useless. They asked how he could possibly shake up the district with the career bureaucrats who'd been named by Cortines to the new local superintendent posts days before Romer came in---and whom Romer hadn't changed. Romer himself was finding it impossible to recruit for other top jobs. He sorely needed a chief information officer, for example, to push the district's ancient computer systems into the new century. But talented technology executives laughed when headhunters called from LAUSD; they sought lucrative private sector posts, not some civil service job. Romer ended up looking in the military.

One day, after I'd sat with Romer through a particularly depressing meeting, he closed the door. "I don't want to be self-serving with these comments," he began. "But I am thinking harder and deeper than most people have thought about this damned place. You've got to make a judgement about that, because you've got to make decisions about whether you're just talking to hear yourself talk, or whether you are on target."

The average urban school superintendent stays in the job for two years and four months. Anyone familiar with leadership in complex organizations knows this tenure is too brief to change much that matters. The superintendents hailed by many experts---Rod Paige of Houston, who now serves as President Bush's education secretary, for example; or Tony Alvarado of New York's District 2---served much longer. Paige was Houston's superintendent for seven years; Alvarado had an uncanny 12-year run in New York. Scholars of the superintendency say their colleagues face an impossible task and a predictable pattern.

"You put them into a situation where you're not allowed to bring in your own people, you're not allowed to fire people, you can't reward or sanction people," says Frederick Hess, professor of education at the University of Virginia, and author of Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform. "You have very few ways of monitoring performance. It's actually a miserable leadership position, and it doesn't matter that it's the school system---if you put the same kind of restrictions on Larry Ellison or Bill Gates or Michael Dell, you wouldn't expect them to be successful."

As Hess and others explain, a city typically tells its new super, "Hey, we'll be patient, we know it takes time"---before throwing him out a year or two later because it's a way to "take action" when performance isn't improving or has come at too high a price for vested interests. Superintendents complain they can't fairly be held accountable when the power in big districts is really held by the teachers union. To have any chance of surviving, most feel they need to deliver some kind of visible "results" fast.

The problem, of course, is that when a series of new leaders feel pressured to launch their own "initiatives," the fads pile up and no one pays attention to how they get implemented. The cycle breeds cynicism; teachers eventually hunker down, close the door and vow to do their best by the kids on their own, rather than be buffeted by the latest reform elixir. "The scary part," Hess adds, "is that none of this presumes bad intentions on anybody's part."

An aggressive corporate community; a vigilant press; meddling board members; entrenched unions; and neighborhoods fractured by race, language, religion, and income, all fighting for scarce resources over the one thing people care about most: kids. Add to this combustible mix the fact that urban school districts, unlike private corporations, reflect democracy at its most extreme. Everybody has a right to a say, and everybody exercises that right.

Since deep problems of poverty and family breakdown are involved in urban districts, and a thousand laws and constraints limit what superintendents can do on everything from facilities to teacher recruitment, there are no easy fixes. But analysts note that, broadly speaking, there are only two ways to create accountability for student progress in large systems: standards, or competition. The standards movement is getting its chance now. Depending on how well it delivers, the voucher movement, or at least more radical forms of public-school choice, may not be far behind. This remains true in spite of the defeat of poorly crafted voucher measures on the November 2000 ballot in California and Michigan. Poor black and Latino parents are open to measures that shake up districts that don't serve their kids. And as I learned from speaking with Latino officials in Los Angeles, minority leaders, despite longstanding Democratic Party ties with teachers unions, are increasingly open to vouchers as well

Romer believed in standards. His stature, plus the fact that he was not scheming for his next job, freed Romer from many ordinary survival pressures. He built on Cortines' reading initiative, for example, feeling no need to scrap it because it wasn't his idea. Romer's mantra of "instruction, instruction, instruction," and his quest to manage the system to improve it, came from his study of what had worked elsewhere. Romer told me once, only half in jest, that he was trying to compress into a few years everything that Tony Alvarado and other heralded educators had done over a lifetime. Yet in many ways Romer's experience was typical of his brethren's. "I didn't know what graduate level politics was until I took this job," he quipped to one audience.

Romer felt an old political hand like himself could beat the odds partly by using the bully pulpit to frame the way educators and citizens saw the district's mission. Take standards. What you need to know to fly a plane, Romer (the old pilot and flight school owner) told audiences, was the standard. The amount of time it took a student to master this material could vary---some took 35 hours, some 42 hours, and so on. But in school, he would then explain, we've said that seat time is what's fixed, and the output---what you learn---is variable. "We need to change that," Romer would boom, and you could hear tumblers clicking in brains across the room.

The Myth of Sisyphus

At the end of January, Romer and the union announced they had reached a deal; despite the district's spin and some modest rejiggering of managerial power, most observers agreed there were few significant changes. Mayor Riordan was furious about the lost opportunity. Eli Broad briefly considered funding a campaign against board approval of the pact. Both men, key allies in L.A.'s governing class, were said privately to have written Romer off. Romer, for his part, maintained he'd gotten the best deal he could without putting the district through a wrenching strike that would have produced little more. In late February, the school board approved the contract on a 4-3 vote, with the three members Riordan backed in the last election opposing it. Riordan withdrew his support for an incumbent board member who OK'd the deal and funded one of her opponents, as well as two other challengers, running in the upcoming board election. Riordan wanted a sustainable reform majority on the board that wasn't beholden to the unions. Romer had to wonder if he was really better off with a board in thrall to Dick Riordan, given the mayor's recent habit of declaring that he planned to work for the district after leaving office in July---and swirling rumors that Riordan wanted to be superintendent himself.

Meanwhile, eight months after that first night Romer stayed up thinking about Belmont, he had finally persuaded his board to at least study the thorny particulars again; the review would last through the end of Romer's first year. Romer had successfully persuaded Sacramento to back off the idea of a special LAUSD monitor; he'd also gotten the state to change how it allocated school construction funds, in order to give more to urban districts. He'd worked hard to infuse his senior team with his focus on instruction, requiring them, for example, to attend weekend retreats with nationally known experts. At one retreat, Romer had everyone, himself included, take a version of L.A.'s standard high school achievement exam. Some top officials found it tough going. "They're not looking at their watches [anymore]," said one Romer hire, explaining how longtime district staff responded to the boss. "They're thinking they've got to change or they won't be around." Still, 10 months in, Romer had brought in few new people. Teachers said it was hard to sense the new super's presence in the classroom.

In late March, First Lady Laura Bush made her maiden trip to L.A. to speak about teacher recruitment at Occidental College. Many local business leaders and other worthies involved in school reform attended. Even by the standards of scripted political events, Mrs. Bush's bromides were disappointing. But I was more stunned by how universally L.A.'s elites seemed to feel that Romer's chance had already come and gone. He gave away the store to the teachers and got nothing in return, one CEO told me. He's been here nearly a year and hasn't brought in his own team, griped another. The bureaucracy has swallowed him up. And who can even hear him through the clutter? Does anyone know or care what he's up to?

These critiques weren't unfair, I knew, yet somehow their tone made me angry. How much better would these big shots have done? Romer could hardly build schools on his own. He couldn't snap his fingers and make the union disappear. And his own board's politics were like quicksand. As I listened to L.A. luminaries render smug judgement on what Romer had wrought, I couldn't help thinking that none of them had traded their comfortable jobs for the quagmire of LAUSD. Romer had one hand tied behind his back, maybe both. What scars gave them the standing to be so confidently dismissive?

"What I'm waiting on is his diagnosis of the scope of the problem, which is dangerous for him to honestly portray," said Connie Rice, a prominent local public-interest lawyer. "It's dangerous for him to come out and say, this is how far under water we are." Others worried that two years from now Romer would still be passionately articulating what ailed L.A.'s schools, while little will have changed.

If so, it won't be Romer's fault alone. Romer's early experience raises the essential question that anyone serious about urban school kids must answer, and which President Bush's pledge to "leave no child behind" cynically mocks: What do we do when big district problems are orders of magnitude larger than any superintendent's capacity to address them? When well-meaning people in a dysfunctional equilibrium can't break old patterns? When the variables in the existing dialogue don't begin to encompass what's needed to make honest progress? Even if Romer were a benevolent dictator, it wouldn't be obvious what he should do. And a big-city superintendent, even one with Romer's ability, operates in a straitjacket so far removed from the powers of a benevolent dictator that "superintendent" might as well be its antonym.

The chief lesson of Romer's Sisyphean efforts thus far---coming, as they do, after two decades of ineffectual preoccupation with urban school improvement---is that the existing boundaries of discussion don't work. Whatever one's ideology, one thing is clear: Another decade of measures at the margin will leave millions of city school kids doomed. For conservatives who think vouchers are part of the answer, that means not advocating the typically puny $1,500 vouchers that would do nothing but fill a few empty parochial-school seats; it means a call for $10,000 vouchers that stand a chance of truly shaking up a system with incentives for new school formation. For liberals who want more money for teachers, it's time to admit that modest raises that can't change the career choices of top young graduates aren't worth debating. Fealty to lockstep union pay scales that block bolder efforts is completely indefensible. Only if each side surrenders its marginal shibboleths can the discussion about commitments on the right scale even begin.

Progress is possible. Other big urban school districts, such as Boston, Chicago, and Houston---where superintendents have more clout than Romer enjoys---have seen modest, but real, academic gains in recent years. No one can say what combination of reforms might lead to the truly major improvements that urban schools need. But as we've seen from falling crime rates and plummeting welfare rolls, it is possible to make serious headway against problems once thought to be intractable.

Ironically, the things Romer will be free to say when his L.A. stint is over may be more important for the cause of urban school improvement than anything he can do while he's in the saddle, given the constraints that come with trying to make things happen. In the meantime, what redeems Romer is what ultimately lifts all good politicians above their critics: He sought the power and was willing to take responsibility for acting.

And Romer remains determined to act. When we met in his condo before Christmas, Romer looked out at the ocean, pensive. "On a Saturday morning, when most of my family and friends are back in Colorado, I have to ask myself the question, What are you doing, Romer?'"

He stood and paced the room. "I'm 72. I've got 8 or 10 years of productive functioning work left. I've got to make the most meaning of that that I can. You've got to take what you are given. I'm no longer governor. I'm sure not president of the United States. I'm here. This is a very, very important job It's kind of like Normandy. You've got 11 fronts out there, you can't move them all simultaneously. You've got some, you're pushing more, but eventually you know you've got to move all of them." He turned and looked at me. "There's no miracle cure here. There's no bomb you can throw and cure it. There's no wand you can wave. It is incremental. It is painfully incremental. This society doesn't change unless you do it incrementally. You've got to accept that, but then you've really got to be smart about getting all the pieces of the orchestra moving it."

Then Romer's face brightened, and he told me about a meeting he had had the night before. California had barely taken advantage of a new federal program to insure poor kids without health coverage. The state was embarrassed not to be using the aid. Los Angeles had most of the eligible children. Romer wanted a new district outreach program.

"It's kind of like the grocery store adding a new department called video,'" Romer said, his voice rising with enthusiasm. "We need to add a new department called universal health coverage.' Have this agency called LAUSD be the place where you can come in and you enroll your kid for lunch and he's automatically also enrolled for health coverage It's a new idea, but it's an incremental thing. It'll mean kids getting their teeth fixed and getting their eyes [fixed] so they can see the blackboard. We'll get those families believing in this institution," Romer said.

It's a great idea. Maybe it will happen.

Matthew Miller, a nationally syndicated columnist and an L.A.-based senior fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly.


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