Dan Walters: Retiring Sen. Wyland has rare analytical approach to education policy

03/17/2014 12:00 AM

03/17/2014 12:16 AM

The state Senate’s education committee held an “informational hearing” recently on the recruitment and retention of quality teachers – no small matter in a public school system with such evident achievement shortcomings.

Witnesses offered suggestions about what it takes to improve the quality of classroom instruction and members of the committee asked questions. And the most cogent questions and observations came from Sen. Mark Wyland, who will be leaving the Legislature due to term limits later this year.

It was not surprising to anyone who watches the Legislature closely. While many politicians look upon the schools as just another arena for interest group conflict, mostly over money, Wyland is deeply interested in the real issue – how well California is preparing 6 million kids for higher education, jobs and adulthood.

Wyland’s a Republican from the conservative northern portion of San Diego County, but he evinces little interest in the Capitol’s ceaseless games of gotcha and oneupsmanship.

He is intensely engaged, however, in governance of a state that is very difficult to govern well, especially public education. He shows up at committee hearings, really listens to what is said and offers both well-reasoned questions and pertinent observations that defy easy ideological pigeonholing – and are usually ignored.

It reflects Wyland’s unusual, if not unique, background in academic, intellectual and analytical pursuits and practical business.

After receiving a cum laude degree in international relations from Pomona College, he was a Fulbright scholar in Germany and an international fellow at Columbia University, where he also earned a master’s degree in government and won the Einstein Award for writing the best thesis.

Wyland remained in New York to work for the International Fellows Program and analyze education issues for the city, then returned to California to run a family lumber firm and serve on the Escondido School Board for three years before winning an Assembly seat in 2000.

He is, in brief, exactly the sort of person who should be fashioning public policy for 38 million Californians, seeing it as a civic responsibility, not a personal career path.

The flip side, however, is that his analytic, apolitical approach makes him an outsider. There’s no way he could achieve leadership status without concentrating on the purely political side of the business, and without such a role, there was no way for his rational attitude to have an effect.

Wyland says, however, he intends to pursue “my passion” for making public schools work better “for the rest of my life.”

Once, legislators of an intellectual bent could influence what happens in the Capitol.

But those days have long passed; independent-minded members like Wyland have become an oddity – and that’s a pity.

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