What’s really happening at the OC Department of Education

This article was first published on February 11th in the Orange County Register.

If you’re getting sucked into the whirlwind of national and international dramas, there’s now “The Al Mijares Show,” a reality-TV blockbuster based in the very real County of Orange.

Al Mijares, the main character, is the county superintendent of education. In his seven years in this elected position, he’s grown increasingly imperial. He’s decided he’s above everyone — state laws, judges, elected school board trustees and citizens. That’s where the drama and comedy — the dramedy! — originate.

Mijares’s open war against the elected board isn’t really about money. It’s about Mijares’s use of public dollars to pursue his campaign for government mandates and union influence, and against public charter schools and parental rights. The truthful but pained statements about “The Al Mijares Show” aren’t funny at all. The show is about a powerful bureaucrat conducting the people’s business without transparency, and a secret campaign to kill educational opportunity for the county’s poorest kids.

The board majority that Mijares disparaged promised to push for top-quality schools, and sometimes that means approving public charter schools in places where existing union-run schools aren’t educating kids. Mijares believes our mandate doesn’t matter. His own not-so-secret agenda is aligned with the CTA to close charter schools, driving all Orange County children into schools run by the bureaucrats and unions. In return, Mijares maintains his $400,000-plus per-year job.  

For many California children, charter schools are the only way out of failing union-run schools. If you’re reasonably wealthy, you can escape bad schools by moving into a better neighborhood or can send your child to a private school. If you can’t afford those options, Mijares says, too bad. You get an education no one else wants. It’s not the job of any county employee, no matter his or her title, to make life harder for the children.

Mijares has gone rogue in another episode. Last year, he spent nearly $200,000 of your money lobbying state officials to shut down some of Orange County’s best charter schools, like the Orange County School of the Arts and Samueli Academy. That’s why the board cut $172,000 on lobbyists, board and executive staff travel, and conferences from a budget of $254 million. We preserved staff salaries, benefits and student programs. We adopted the budget by educational statutes and via the legal authority vested to the board by the supervisors in 1977.

Still Mijares continues to moan, hoping parents across the county will elect board members backed by big government and public employee union leaders. He has tried to deflect his own malfeasance and mishandling of public funds, asserting a ruse that the proposed budget is about his autonomy, the promotion of radical sex-education mandates or a single attorney illegally hired by him.

Mijares demands parents across the county elect board members backed by big government and public employee union leaders. Given a week, he’ll find other excuses for violating state law, turning our hardworking teachers, students and parents into hostages.

Two months ago, Will Swaim of California Policy Center reported in these pages that new statewide data show public charter schools provide dramatic improvements in even the poorest neighborhoods. In the case of Anaheim’s Palm Lane Elementary, Swaim noted, state-mandated testing revealed that student achievement rose upwards of 41 percent in just one year. Why? One year ago, frustrated parents forced Palm Lane to become a charter.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa described the power of charters to turn around foundering union schools. Villaraigosa credits charter schools with producing the “most improved math scores in the district.” Mijares should reflect this openness in approving public charter schools rather than disobeying the law and whining.

The county department of education board trustees are charged with setting department policy. Mijares is charged with implementing those policies. Mijares broke public promises and all litigation is because he failed to follow the law.

Unfortunately, voters won’t have an opportunity to get rid of Mijares this election cycle.

Constituents do, however, have an opportunity immediately to flip the script — to support candidates who will expand on the last two years of transparency. Jim Palmer, president of the Orange County Rescue Mission, Tim Shaw, a La Habra councilmember and professor of political science and I are all running to make sure that children are served — not special interests and educational bureaucracies.

Ken Williams is a physician and the president of the Orange County Board of Education.

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