The Caustic Reformer 

Randolph Ward has proposed the boldest school reforms in America. But can Oakland's most hated man sell his vision?

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When Randy Ward arrived in Oakland in 2003, all he really had to do was make some tough cuts, balance the budget, and move on. But Ward, who was viewed in education circles as somewhat one-dimensional, had something more to prove. By the time he left Compton, the once-bankrupt district south of Los Angeles had repaid all of its original $20 million loan from the state. Yet Ward had made little progress in improving student achievement.

Former state superintendent of schools Delaine Eastin had tapped Ward to run Compton because he had turned around a struggling elementary school as a principal with the Long Beach Unified School District. Yet Ward could never repeat that success on a larger scale in Compton -- which had been underperforming long before his arrival. Although Compton's test scores inched up slightly during his tenure, they still were among the worst in California.

Ward's Compton critics blamed his authoritarian management style and a lack of follow-through for the district's poor academic record. One of Compton's most glaring failures was the district's consistent inability to attract and retain good teachers. When Ward left, more than half the teaching force was not fully credentialed. "Providing qualified teachers was his responsibility, and he didn't make that happen," said Compton teachers' union president Thomas Hollister. Veteran educators also resented Ward's penchant for hiring young and relatively inexperienced professionals to be school principals. The group became known as the "kid principals," and most of them didn't last long, Hollister said.

The administrator argues he simply couldn't convince qualified candidates to come work in Compton, a city that remains mired in poverty, drug dealing, and violence. "Compton did not have the capacity Oakland has," he said. "We did have people who wanted to help us, but it was few and far between."

Ward also hadn't yet embraced the vision that emerged from Edmonton, Alberta in the early 1970s. The dramatic changes begun there were brought about not by a financial meltdown but by a sweeping demographic shift. Families were fleeing to the suburbs and abandoning inner-city schools. Instead of closing older schools, as was happening across North America, Edmonton Public Schools Superintendent Mike Strembitsky created competition. His open-boundaries plan, which subsequently has been copied elsewhere, allowed students to attend any school they wanted, as long as there was space available. And to provide real choices for parents and attract students back to inner-city schools, the district launched an array of alternative programs. Today, Edmonton operates 31 alternative programs in the district's 200-plus schools.

Yet by the late 1970s, Edmonton still suffered many of the same problems that plague urban districts such as Oakland. Academic achievement lagged, while an us-versus-them mindset permeated the system. Teachers and principals were expected to boost student test scores, but had no real control over their schools. Instead, that power rested in the hands of a byzantine bureaucracy. So Strembitsky turned the power structure on its head.

The district developed a new system called school-based budgeting. Strembitsky took financial control away from the central office and handed it directly to principals. As a result, with input from teachers and parents, they started deciding how many instructors, custodians, secretaries, or security officers they needed. Principals and teachers took ownership of their schools like never before, said Angus McBeath, who succeeded Strembitsky as the superintendent of Edmonton Public. "Staffs give up in schools when they don't have enough control," he said.

Edmonton transformed its central office into a group of separate operations that sell goods and services to principals. Again, the idea was to upgrade the system through competition. If principals were unhappy with services provided by the district, they had the authority to buy from outside vendors, McBeath said. "Initially, they thought it would be awful," McBeath said of principals and teachers. "Now, they love it."

Parents apparently love it too. Private school enrollment in Edmonton declined during the 1990s, according to the Edmonton Journal. Consequently, Edmonton has become an education mecca. Nearly every month, school district leaders, city council members, and state legislators from around the United States journey over the border to observe the hottest new trend in school reform. In October 2003, Time dubbed Edmonton "the most imitated and admired public school system in North America."

One zealous proponent of the Edmonton model is Eli Broad. Broad, who along with his wife has poured $400 million into his Broad Education Foundation, is exerting considerable influence in Oakland schools these days. He is helping fund the redesign of Oakland schools and has supplied some of its new leaders, including Barak Ben-Gal, the district's new acting director of fiscal services, and Troy Christmas, the district's new acting director of human resources. Both are young graduates of the Broad Foundation's urban education residency program.

Ward learned the details of the Edmonton model during his 2003 tenure at the Broad Foundation's school for superintendents, which trains CEOs and business leaders to run school districts. His instructor was William Ouchi, who wrote a book in 2003, Making Schools Work: A Revolutionary Plan to Get Your Children the Education They Need. (California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reportedly handed out the book as a Christmas present that year.) Ouchi champions the Edmonton model because it borrows from the lessons learned in corporate America. "The research on large businesses is when you get large, you become centralized, autocratic," said Ouchi, who made a name for himself in the 1980s as a best-selling author of books about corporate teamwork. "The answer is decentralization. In a large business, if you don't do that, you will be out of business. School districts don't go out of business. But by now people realize these districts are failing."

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