14th Installment: Mike Kirst and Jerry Brown: Act 1
"Conversations With and About Mike"
When Mike received EdSource’s Pioneer Award in 2017, he summarized, “You can’t divorce anything I’ve done from my relationship with Governor Brown” 1—at least in California.
In this installment, we focus on how these two leaders forged their relationship over more than a half-century of policy advances, false starts, failures, and accomplishments. We also capture Mike’s academic publications at the time, noting their role in establishing a new field in education and Stanford’s decision, accordingly, to grant him tenure. The synergism of these two parts of the life of our “uncommon academic” supported policy advances in this first sojourn with Governor Brown and laid the groundwork for subsequent partnership “acts”—especially when Brown served as the Mayor of Oakland (1999–2007) and during his final set of terms as governor, nearly 40 years later (2011–19). Both of these following “acts” will be fully documented in later installments.
Let’s start, though, at the beginning.
The Initial Meeting
Pictured above is a very young Jerry Brown, as California’s Secretary of State, before his first run for governor. At the end of his second 8-year tenure as governor, on his last day in office in January 2019 (the end of his second term), I asked him what he recalled about how he and Mike first met in the early 1970s. Let’s listen to his recollections of that initial encounter.
Audio Clip 1: Jerry Brown first met Mike Kirst “at Stanford, preceding my race for governor” in 1974 (0:13) 2
After hearing this audio clip of Brown, Mike responded, “I’m amazed that he could remember that meeting. Oh my God. I mean, it was of course a big deal for me, but it was, you know, hardly earth-shattering for him. What a memory! And he’s right, we met at the (Stanford) Faculty Club.”
In the audio clip below, Mike elaborates on what prompted this first meeting and where it led.
Audio Clip 2: Mike Kirst: How and why Jerry Brown “sought me out, and we clicked.” (1:14) 3
Mike mentions Harry Rowan, an acquaintance from his days in D.C., as the likely person who recommended Mike to Jerry Brown (at that time California’s Secretary of State preparing for a gubernatorial campaign). (See Installment Nine about Mike’s early work in D.C. and Installment Thirteen for his role in helping establish Stanford’s novel joint MA/MBA program.) Before the meeting with Brown, Rowan had told Mike that “Jerry Brown was looking for somebody who was an expert on California education.”
Brown had identified California’s school finance approach as an issue for the upcoming gubernatorial campaign debates. As Mike elaborates in this clip, “California’s state’s finance system for education was dependent on the local property base” and “some districts had huge property bases [to fund K–12 education] and others didn’t.”
At the heart of this key issue was the California Supreme Court’s 1971 landmark Serrano v. Priest ruling that the state’s local property tax-based funding was unconstitutional. 4 (See this footnote for a fuller explanation of the Serrano decision.)
Mike also notes in this interview that he’d built up a specialty in school finance in California, which we elaborate on later in this installment.
Let’s hear more about Mike’s sense, even in that initial meeting, that he and Brown had “clicked” and the “audition” that followed.
After that first meeting, according to Mike, Brown wanted to do “a tryout thing at an old abandoned Catholic nunnery.” It’s fun and important to hear Mike tell this whole story in his own words about how Brown staged Mike’s “tryout” to be campaign advisory and Mike’s discovery of Brown’s way of thinking. Let’s listen in:
Audio Clip 3: Mike catches on quickly to Jerry Brown’s Jesuit way of thinking (1:08) 5
We learn from this clip that Mike discovered, even in this initial “tryout,” the influence of Brown’s training to become a Jesuit priest. After Brown’s graduation from St. Ignatius High School in 1958, he entered Sacred Heart Novitiate, a Jesuit seminary, and attended for more than four years. 6
During this tryout, Mike observed that when he’d say ”A,” Brown would say “Z.” If Mike began with “Z,” Brown would say “A.” So once the two were on the same “Jesuitical” wavelength, according to Mike, they “got along fine.”
Mike’s understanding of Brown’s thinking and communication approach was crucial for their productive relationship preparing for the gubernatorial debates…and in the following decades.
Mike notes that after this successful tryout, Brown tapped him to be his key education adviser for the debates and for formulating the education plank of Brown’s platform. It also served as the foundation for the two of them working together over the next four decades.
Brown echoes Mike’s assessment of how well they “clicked” from the start at the end of this 40+ year relationship. Let’s listen to what he said about working with Mike as he prepared for his first election campaign for governor in the 1970s and then over four decades later when I interviewed him as he was cleaning out his office in January 2019 as his second term of governor ended:
Clip 4: Jerry Brown: “We could actually work together in the drafting of ideas and policies.” (1:12) 7
Brown responds to my question about what he feels explains how effective he and Mike were together, even as staff are cleaning out his office on his last day as governor. He describes their relationship as having been one of sharing drafts, discussing, and revising. That process began as they composed the education platform for his first campaign in 1973 and continued for more than four decades, into the years of “actual governing” as Brown served as Governor of California and Mike served as a member—and then President—of his State Board of Education. Brown concludes, “it’s unusual for an academic and an elected politician to work so amiably and so closely together.”
A Key ’70s Education Policy Trio in California: Brown, Kirst, and Riles
On June 4, 1974, Brown defeated San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto and Assembly Speaker Bob Moretti to win the Democratic nomination for governor. On November 5 of that year, at the age of 36, he was elected to his first term as governor, beating his Republican opponent, Houston Flournoy. He was the youngest California governor in 111 years. 8
Brown is pictured above delivering his 1975 inaugural speech. In that speech, he outlines a “new spirit” with a no-nonsense budget, promising he will do his best not to raise taxes and to promote fiscal austerity in the post-Serrano era, beginning with a 7% budget cut for the governor’s office. 9 At the far right in this photo is Wilson Riles, the first African American to be elected to statewide office in California, serving as the state’s Superintendent for Public Instruction. He served from 1971 (four years before Brown’s election as governor) to 1983.
When Mike saw this picture recently, he enthusiastically explained that he had met Wilson Riles when Mike had been Director of Planning and Evaluation for the Title I federal program office and when Riles had been California’s Director of Compensatory Education.
Let’s listen to Mike describing the start of this relationship with Riles, and later when Mike was just starting his tenure at Stanford, even before his meeting Jerry Brown:
Clip 5: Mike Kirst on early connections with Wilson Riles: “I liked him so much. We had such a great relationship….” (1:20) 10
Mike describes their meeting and later work together with notable fondness and respect. The relationship had begun when Mike was still in D.C. and led to his first trip ever to California, about which he comments, “I’ll never forget.”
Mike reports that he (in the role of a federal employee reviewing California’s Title I program, which Riles headed) felt Riles and his executive assistant were “doing a great job”—even beyond what was required by Title I’s targeting and assessment regulations. Later, when Mike joined the Stanford faculty, Riles “immediately” invited him to serve on a key advisory commission for the state’s federal education programs. The commission met in San Francisco, and Mike emphasizes that he and Riles “worked together closely.”
Soon after Brown was inaugurated as Governor of California in 1975, he turned to Mike to be his point person in K–12 education by making him his first appointment to California State Board of Education (SBE). As soon as Brown was able to appoint enough additional members to the board, he named Mike to serve as board president in 1977. Brown was easily re-elected governor in 1978, and Mike continued as the president of the SBE through the end of that term in 1983, the same year that Riles ended his term as state superintendent.
Defeat, Detente, and a Deferred Legacy
Defeat: Events Outrun Policy Reform
Prior to his appointment to the State Board of Education, largely through Ford Foundation-funded research projects, Mike, with several colleagues, had developed important methodologies and expertise for studying state education finance reform approaches and attempts, especially in two states: Florida (1972–mid-1970s) and Oregon (1974 through 1975). 11
As Jerry Brown and Mike were laying out their approach to redressing the inequities in California’s education financing (which had been declared unconstitutional by the Serrano decision as noted above), California voters in 1978 preempted their work by passing the now-famous Proposition 13.
In Installment Four we heard Mike summarize this unexpected “Prop 13” upheaval: “I was traveling around the states advising them: school finance reform in Florida and then school finance reform work in Oregon. We got really close just before Proposition 13. We passed a bill called the Assembly Bill 8, which was an equalization bill using property taxes, where we equalize the property taxes. And then Proposition 13 just blew that up.” 12 (See this footnote for a fuller explanation of Proposition 13.)
Prior to the voters approving this amendment to the state’s constitution, property taxes furnished about two-thirds of K–12 California education’s revenues. As explained by EdSource, California’s major education-focused news source, “Proposition 13 caused a nearly exact flip-flop when the legislature bailed out school districts with state funds. The governor and legislature also took over the allocation of local property taxes to schools, cities, counties, and special districts.” 13
How did this taxation change affect California’s K–12 education system? The name of the 2003 Merrow Report documentary signals that report’s sense of the effects: “California’s Descent First to Worst.” Similarly the Learning Policy Institute uses this wording as the title for its opening chapter on the history of California’s education finance and policymaking, entitled The California Way. 14 The chapter includes data showing that California was among the top ten states in the country in per-pupil spending, but by 2013, the state had dropped to 35th. The full report, though, emphasizes the complexities of describing Proposition 13’s effects on California’s K–12 system.
Accordingly “defeat” seems an appropriate one-word summary of what Prop 13 did to Mike’s and Brown’s plans for K–12 financial reforms during Brown’s first two terms in office (1975–83).
Detente: Between Riles and Brown via Kirst
Mike spoke of the relationship between Brown and Riles during these two terms (1975–81) in a recent interview; his overall assessment is that “we got to a detente with Riles.”
Mike defined several contrasts between Brown and Riles. He noted that when Brown was elected governor, Riles was already a “very transcended political figure”: he had already served a term as the elected State Superintendent of Education (1971–75), and he had already amassed notable and multifaceted K–12 education experience.
In 1968 Riles earned a bachelor’s degree in math from Stanford and began teaching math in Sierra Leone, West Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer. When he returned to the Bay Area in 1970, he took graduate-level courses at the University of California – Berkeley in child development and became State Superintendent of Education Max Rafferty’s Deputy Superintendent for Program and Legislation. He reports that he soon became “convinced that the State’s education system could not survive another term with Rafferty,” and he ran for the office himself, winning in a stunning victory in 1971. 15
In 1973 the NAACP awarded Riles the Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement by an African-American. 16 At the time, according to Mike, Riles “had a higher favorability rating than California’s U.S. Senator Cranston, adding “and that was amazing for a state superintendent.”
So, as Mike notes rather matter-of-factly, Riles “regarded the (state) board as a subordinate to him.” For example, when Mike and Brown asked for their own independent staff, Riles said, “No.” Instead, Mike recalls with a note of disappointment that the “liaison [between the State Board and the Department of Education] was on his [Riles’] staff,” and that Riles’ staff “were very committed to him.”
Still, Mike first asserts that in general there was “no tension”…but then immediately qualifies that depiction by saying that there was “no deep tension” between Brown and Riles. At one point in the interview, Mike called it a “collaborative relationship,” again qualifying that assessment, recalling “except that Brown vetoed a bill on high school reform that Riles had advanced” because it “just couldn’t be implemented; it was a reach too far, too vague.” That veto, Mike concedes, led Riles to “denounce Brown that, I think, led to some distancing between the two of them, but not a lot of confrontation.”
According to Mike, the Board’s deliberations toward widespread education reforms then proceeded something like this: “Wilson Riles was a protégé of the categorical programs here (in California). He was a deep believer in categoricals. And the board concluded, ‘we’ll give him the categoricals, but we have plenary power over the curriculum and testing’ as the state board is granted in the state’s constitution. So the board at that time then particularly began to focus more on curriculum frameworks, teaching issues, professional development.”
Here’s how the Riles-Brown detente unfolded: the school finance side of state education policy (which despite a major setback, was the Kirst-Brown forte) was mostly a legislative and gubernatorial prerogative. However, as we heard earlier, Proposition 13 turned education finance into a ballot/electoral issue. Second, over the two terms working together, they made room for each other by taking the lead in other policymaking areas which played to their respective strengths and interests at the time.
Deferred: State Board of Education Legacy
Mike and Brown found a sort of common ground with Riles, Mike believes, because the two of them were not particularly interested in the operation and implementation of categorical programs and their assorted regulations, and because, according to Mike, “they had good people working on that” (referring to Riles and his staff).
The board took the lead in other areas, most notably in setting up a curriculum committee of subject matter specialists, which the board appointed, and worked with these specialists on revamping the state’s policy in terms of curriculum, thereby developing a niche which Mike considered a major legacy of these eight years, despite the early defeat on the finance side.
Mike stated the “detente” this way: “Riles always viewed his legacy as his early childhood (categorical) program. And we viewed our legacy on the curriculum and instruction side.” And with the trifecta of a Democratic governor, state superintendent, and state legislature, overall while they weren’t necessarily working together, they weren’t fighting either.”
As a final note, Mike said, “I felt really good about what we did as a board because we spawned a superintendent who followed through in a dramatic way, which is still talked about today as an era which led with absolute, real, and strong instructional capacity of this state education department with Bill Honig,” who beat Riles in his 1982 bid for a fourth term as state superintendent.
We will hear more in subsequent installments about this legacy-building at the state level in defining K–12 curriculum and instruction when Louis “Bill” Honig takes over in 1983 for his decade-long tenure as California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Staking Out A Key Academic Niche and Legacy
During Mike’s service with Jerry Brown for his first two gubernatorial terms, he was also analyzing and producing research reports, supported mostly by the Ford Foundation, on how Florida and Oregon financed their schools.
These efforts led to publications in professional journals that defined a new discipline: the politics of education, an important contribution both to analysis and thinking about education policy and to his academic career at Stanford. Typically, at that time, Stanford required that professors be rated as one of the best in the country, in a particular field of study in order to be granted tenure. For Mike, that turned out to be the nascent “politics of education” field of study.
Mike’s resume enumerates, as he calls it, “a robust list” of 47 publications during this eight-year period, including five books which he either authored, co-authored, or for which served as the editor:
- State School Finance Alternatives (Eugene, Oregon: University of Oregon, 1975), with L. Pierce, W. Garms, and J. Guthrie
- Revising School Finance in Florida (Tallahassee: Florida Governor’s Office, 1973), with W. Garms
- Federal Aid to Education: Who Governs, Who Benefits (Lexington, Ma.: D.C. Heath, 1972), with Joel Berke
- State, School and Politics, editor (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1972)
- The Political Web of American Schools (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972), with Frederick Wirt. Revised in 1975 and republished as Political and Social Foundations of Education (Berkeley: McCutchan)
In addition to these books, he published pieces in academic monographs, juried academic journals, as well as in the popular press. He covered topics including desegregation, education equity, the federal role in education, and the impact of Proposition 13. He also served as the editor for Phi Delta Kappan‘s entire issue on “The Politics of Education.”
Mike feels that his real “claim to fame” in earning tenure in 1976 at Stanford was The Political Web of American Schools, co-authored with Frederick Wirt, a leading political scientist at the University of Illinois, and first published in 1972 by Little Brown Press. It has been updated and republished three times, most recently in 2009.
Kirst and Wirt wrote that they decided to write this book because up until this point, “political science research had little to say about schools” and “for reasons not altogether clear.” And they further considered it to be an “oddity” that the tools of political scientists had not been applied yet to the “units and electoral contests more numerous than any others in America” 17—namely those electing members to American’s school boards across the 50 states and more than 16,000 local school boards.
And that’s exactly what they set out to do, hoping “to talk to political scientists and educators about what was happening to American education” especially in what at the time were major changes in federal and state roles and financing of elementary and secondary schools.
Because the state and federal roles were expanding so rapidly, Wirt and Kirst updated the book just three years later to include analyses of school governance during a time of declining enrollment and resources. The book was published in 1975, the academic year of Mike’s tenure decision, with a new title, Political and Social Foundations of American Education. The revised textbook again used the analytic tools and language of political scientists—political systems theory in particular—to see schools as part of a “political system” in which it is important to determine: the “origins of demands and supports”; which actors had “access channels to school policy-making”; the increased use of voter referenda in “the conversion process”; and the nature of “curricular decisions in the political process.” And they used updated empirical data and case studies that focused on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 and the school desegregation movement.
Almost three decades later, after two more published revisions, this textbook became the most used textbook for the study of the politics of education 18, entitled:
Mike also collaborated with Fred Wirt on several other academic writings over more than three decades, several of which are referenced in Mike’s resume:
- in 1975: “School Desegregation” chapter in Frederick Wirt (ed.), The Polity and the School.
- in 1986: coauthored with Ming Chan, “Hong Kong: The Political Economy of Education,” in Frederick Wirt (ed.), Education, Recession and the World Village.
- in 1991: coauthored with Frederick Wirt “State Education Politics and Policymaking,” in Marvin Alkin (ed.), Encyclopedia of Educational Research, 6th Edition.
- in 1996: co-authored with Frederick Wirt, “Unexplored Dimensions of Political in the Politics of Education,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the America Educational Research Association.
Long-Last Relations and Looking Ahead
Through these installments we are accumulating an impressive list of people critical to Mike’s accomplishments, both personal and professional, as well as insights into his ways of working with them. We’ve learned of different influences from Fred Wirt, John Gardner, Jim Kelly, Wendy Burdsall Kirst, Tom James, Jim Guthrie…and, of course, Jerry Brown, just to name a few.
Ahead lie more reflections on people and accomplishments from before and during Brown’s second gubernatorial terms (2011–19) in California…and beyond.
Editor’s Note: The Appendix for “Conversations With and About Mike” contains transcripts for the recorded audio and video clips. To view the Audio Transcripts go to this page >
- Excerpt from audio in EdSource video made upon Mike Kirst receiving its first Education Champion Award, October 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CejRk_B2vsc&t=106s
- From Dick Jung’s interview with Jerry Brown (January 4, 2019).
- From 2013, recording. Michael W. Kirst, Stanford Historical Society Oral History Program Interviews (SC0932). Department of Special Collections & University Archives, Stanford University Libraries & Academic Information Resources, Stanford, California.
- “In 1968, when this lawsuit was first filed, local property tax revenue accounted for approximately 55 percent of the total revenue across California’s school districts. However, assessed value per pupil and revenue per pupil both varied widely across the state’s thousands of districts. Although state funding was higher for districts with low assessed values per pupil, significant gaps remained between high- and low-property wealth districts. The plaintiffs argued that those spending differences among the state’s more than one thousand school districts resulted in unequal educational opportunities.” From The California Way: The Golden State’s Quest to Build an Equitable and Excellent Education System, p4. This report can be found online at
- From June 9, 2014, recording. Michael W. Kirst, Professor Emeritus, “Autobiographical Reflections” presentation for the Stanford Emeriti Council. Republished February 5, 2015, by Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis. https://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/nc116hr7647
- “Jerry Brown’s life in politics from governor to presidential candidate to mayor and back again, the California leader’s political life spans 50 years.” https://projects.sfchronicle.com/2019/jerry-brown-timeline, Bill Van Niekerken, January 4, 2019.
- From Dick Jung’s interview with Jerry Brown (January 4, 2019).
- And in 1978 Brown wins his second term, with Mike continuing as the President of the California State Board of Education.
- “Jerry Brown’s life in politics from governor to presidential candidate to mayor and back again, the California leader’s political life spans 50 years.” https://projects.sfchronicle.com/2019/jerry-brown-timeline/ Bill Van Niekerken, January 4, 2019.
- From Dick Jung’s interview with Mike Kirst (August 23, 2021).
- With funding for the Florida study coming from “State of Florida Study of Educational Financing and Management” (Citizen’s Committee on Education, 1972) and for the Oregon study coming from the “Study and Development of a School Finance Data System (Oregon State Legislature, 1974).
- See EdSource’s glossary for further Proposition 13 explanation: https://edsource.org/glossary/proposition-13
- The full title of this report is The California Way: The Golden State’s Quest to Build an Equitable and Excellent Education System. This report can be found online at
- From the “About the Book” preface for Frederick Wirt and Michael Kirst, The Political Web of American Schools (Little, Brown, and Company), 1972.
- From the “About the Book” preface for Michael Kirst and Frederick Wirt, The Political Dynamics of American Education, Fourth Edition (McCutchan Press), 2009.