Can we trust Michelle King, the newly appointed superintendent of L.A. Unified, California’s largest school district?
After all, she’s from Los Angeles. Even worse, she attended L.A. Unified schools, sent her own kids to them and served as teacher, principal and top deputy to the last two superintendents. If she were any good, wouldn’t she have worked someplace else?
Is that question ridiculous? Yes, but it mirrors L.A.’s reaction to King’s appointment.
Many politicians, education leaders and journalists had wanted a star from the outside – a political figure like the Obama Cabinet member Julian Castro; or a high-profile superintendent from Miami or St. Louis (even though both cities have far fewer residents than L.A. Unified has students).
These days, we’re supposed to celebrate the local – local produce, local bookstores, local governance. But in Southern California, we’re not so excited about locally grown leaders. We have for so long been a city of stars from someplace else that we have little faith in those local grinds who pay their dues and think they might one day run things.
L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck, for all his progress in crime-fighting and diversifying his force, labors under the sense that he’s not in the same class of better-known out-of-town predecessors.
No matter who you are, making The New York Times has always been a far bigger deal than making the Los Angeles Times – even before our local paper was downsized by out-of-town owners. And Hollywood has organized itself as an exclusive club so distant from the diversity surrounding it that it has turned the Academy Awards, with another slate of all-white acting nominees, into a national joke.
L.A. also has a habit of outsourcing thorny problems: When our big institutions get into trouble, we don’t fix them ourselves. We bring in outsiders. Over the past generation, our Sheriff’s Department, Police Department and the Dodgers, among other institutions, have been taken over by trustees or outsiders.
So the reaction to King’s appointment is unsurprising, if frustrating. Given her success as a teacher, principal and administrator, you could argue that she’s the best prepared L.A. Unified leader of the last generation. And as L.A. School Report pointed out, King was far and away the most frequently mentioned person in the district’s online survey of community preferences in a superintendent.
This public support, however, counted as a strike against her in editorials by the Los Angeles Times and L.A. Daily News. Both editorials damned her credentials with faint praise (the Times editorial called her “obviously capable” twice). Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote, condescendingly, that the school board chose “a good, low-profile soldier rather than a strong, independent voice, and for now at least, I find that disappointing.”
I find maddening Lopez’s notion that a good local can’t be independent. The reality is with all our diversity and strange governance, California’s institutions are getting more complicated, making it harder for outsiders to step in. And L.A. Unified’s challenges, from poor students to budget deficits, make it perhaps California’s most complicated government.
In other school districts, local leaders have succeeded. The well-respected Long Beach district has been run for 14 years by Chris Steinhauser, who was both student and teacher in the schools he leads. San Diego Unified’s Cindy Marten, despite political missteps, has made improvements in teacher training and personnel.
Of course, L.A. Unified presents a bigger challenge. Which is precisely why a woman tough enough to negotiate the L.A. district as parent, teacher and administrator for 30 years stands a better chance of succeeding than just about anyone else.