Jerry Brown's greatest gift is his ability to infect other people with his vision. When he rode into Oakland back in 1998, he seemed almost more messiah than mayor, entrancing voters with the simple beauty of his four-point platform: ten thousand middle-class residents downtown; a no-nonsense crackdown on crime; remaking the city into Northern California's art mecca; and, of course, finally liberating children from the shackles of their own public schools. No more excuses for mediocrity, he promised, no more teachers sleepwalking through their classes or bureaucrats more interested in their pensions than jobs. Brown was going to endow the schools with his personal dynamism, and students would finally see their promise fulfilled.
Of course, not everyone went along with his dreams. When the Oakland school board refused to approve Brown's candidate for superintendent, the mayor launched a power grab so bold and uncompromising that it left people reeling. Forging an alliance with state Senator Don Perata and raising a war chest of more than $500,000, Brown won the power to stack the board with his proxies and push his agenda, in an election that left no doubt who was in charge in Oakland. And then, just like that, the mayor lost interest. His appointees proved to be disastrous for the schools: Paul Cobb was a Wilson-era patronage relic who spent most of his energy clamoring for black contracts, and Wilda White was just plain loopy. As the two of them wasted the district's time with pointless crusades and bizarre posturing, Brown simply floated away, preoccupied with his next big idea.
Brown's new project was a brand-new military school designed to apply the same iron discipline that characterized his own childhood education, which would turn disadvantaged ghetto kids into crackerjack students headed straight for college. Enlisting the financial and personnel support of the California National Guard, he opened the Oakland Military Institute in 2001 on the grounds of the West Oakland Army Base. Teachers would be assisted by a cadre of sergeants, who would drill the 160 seventh-graders in military science, march them around in platoons and have them salute the flag at morning reveille, and put a boot in their asses if they got out of line. The first year started with 169 seventh-graders, and school leaders expanded it to include roughly 130 eighth-graders in 2002, with plans to begin teaching high-school freshmen in September. As of the 2002-03 school year, the institute had fourteen teachers on staff.
Brown's soldiers, he hoped, would drive a tough-as-nails work ethic into his kids, who would graduate confident in their own abilities and eager to learn. "I'm very much influenced by Mortimer Adler, a philosopher and teacher, who felt that ordinary citizens could master the great works, and should have the opportunity for the kind of education that involves history, philosophy, and great literature," Brown told National Public Radio in 2001. "And I take that approach to the Oakland Military Institute. Because I think ordinary citizens are capable of great ideas and great participation."
The Oakland Military Institute was explicitly designed to shame by example the Oakland public school district, whose leaders had foolishly denied the school a charter. Other observers quickly got the message; George Will, for example, dedicated an entire column to the institute as proof that Brown had set aside his moribund liberal notions and seen the light. This was where the mayor's ideas about urban education would finally be put to the test. Unencumbered by small-minded interlopers who just didn't get it, Brown would succeed or fail on his own terms.
Two years later, the Oakland Military Institute is facing a profound, if silent crisis. According to teachers, administrators, and even Brown's own assistants, the school has been crippled by bureaucratic infighting, ceaseless turnover, policies that change from one month to the next, and a schizophrenic educational philosophy. Teachers have quit in disgust. Administrators have been fired. Student vandalism is an ongoing problem. In many ways, Brown has taken millions in public money and the energies of countless people and created just another public school.
The immature sniping that prevailed on the Oakland school board is an example of what happens to schools when the mayor stops paying attention. But what about when he focuses his remarkable intellect on just one idea, when he dedicates himself to a few hundred children and vows to turn their lives around? As it turns out, we get exactly the same outcome.
There's no denying that Brown's vision has produced some startling results. Two weeks ago, on the final day of the institute's second summer session, National Guard sergeants patrolled the sunbaked blacktop that snakes its way through the portable classrooms. Any student running through campus or caught without his or her regulation black cap had some serious explaining to do. Sergeants saluted superior officers as they passed and demanded similar respect from the kids; only the civilian teachers were exempt.
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