WHEN I LEARNED that the Los Angeles school board had hired retired Navy Vice Adm. David L. Brewer III as superintendent, I confess that my initial reaction was nakedly political. Well, I thought, score one for us.
I'm not proud of myself. Yet this is what the battle for control of L.A. schools has come to. After last week's news, it feels almost appropriate for skeptics of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's school reform plan to do a little touchdown dance in the end zone. Especially ebullient were black skeptics, who couldn't resist airing their satisfaction — and surprise — that the board went against political and demographic trends to hire an African American to oversee the nation's second-largest school district.
I count myself among the skeptics most days, but I do not see Brewer's appointment as an automatic windfall for black folk. History argues against it, and besides, he hasn't done anything yet. All the same, almost despite myself — and my initial reaction — I don't fault their optimism.
Struggling in recent years with declining numbers and influence, blacks haven't had any genuinely good political news for a long time. So it was almost inevitable that the arrival of a black superintendent would be seen as a symbolic victory of the highest order, much like the election of former Mayor Tom Bradley in 1973. At last week's news conference, the normally starchy Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte was downright giddy. "Is this a party or what?" the school board's lone black member was overheard saying.
The question is whether it is more than just a symbolic victory. Of course it is a political triumph; LaMotte opposed Villaraigosa's power redistribution plan from the beginning and has joined her fellow board members in a lawsuit they hope will render the whole thing null and void. In the meantime, she can cheer herself up with the knowledge that the board was able to install its own choice in the superintendent's office while the mayor was half a world away — and that it voted to put a black man in charge of a district that is overwhelmingly Latino and decreasingly black.
Brewer arrives at a time when it's become almost impossible to muster the political will to address the crises of black students who consistently do poorly in terms of dropout rates, test scores and other measures. One of many things on Brewer's resume is that he started a scholarship foundation for African American students; that's not a qualification for anything, but it might indicate what his priorities are in the daunting task of fixing public education. It's a start.
But it's not nearly enough, as Brewer surely knows. He'll be caught in so many headlights — those of the district, the state, the city, the mayor's office, the teachers union, education reformers at the grass roots and in high places — that he may go blind, at least for a while. Ethnic interests and anxieties will shape every agenda, some of which will be perfectly justifiable (bolstering the poor performance of black and Latino students) and some of which will not (scrapping desegregation and other color-conscious programs as needless in the age of multiculturalism).
Everybody's touting Brewer's no-nonsense military background, but public education is a different kind of war — less confrontational, more rhetorical. In a milieu that requires nuance, finesse and a strong vision, Brewer comes off as somewhat lacking in all three.
At this very early stage, he seems personable, inclusive, charismatic in a motivational-speaker kind of way. His claim that he's not a "reformer" but a "transformer" has a whiff of the religious about it that sets well with a black constituency — and with the district's truest believers. But the comments also feel a little over the top, a little indecorous. The school district needs a morale boost, yes, but it needs a lot more than that — as do its 700,000 students.
All that said, I also have to say that Brewer looks like he could be a good fit for this town. He exudes presence and has a feel for his audience that was bred in the military but is worthy of Hollywood. It doesn't hurt that he's a sharp dresser who can go toe-to-manicured-toe with our image-conscious mayor. Brewer may also benefit from his passing resemblance to Charles Dutton, the actor and director whose affability masks a grit and determination that powered him to considerable success in the most uncertain of professions.
If L.A. could get all this and real educational leadership too, Brewer could finally make winners of us all.