SACRAMENTO – If it weren’t for Mrs. Rutherford and the sheep, Kerry Mazzoni probably wouldn’t be advising the governor of California about education.
Mrs. Rutherford was Mazzoni’s sixth-grade teacher at Oxford Elementary School in Berkeley. She taught students a lesson about democracy that Mazzoni says kept her from cutting short a career in state education policy.
Though Mazzoni hasn’t worked in the classroom, she says teachers such as Mrs. Rutherford have been so important in her life that “education was a natural.”
Mazzoni is now Gov. Gray Davis’ new education secretary. She started the job this month after six years in the Assembly, four chairing the Education Committee.
Davis has made education the top priority in his first two years, pushing through new high school testing and a system of rankings, rewards and sanctions for test results.
Mazzoni now becomes the governor’s main education spokeswoman, a position separate from the elected state school superintendent, Delaine Eastin. She runs the Department of Education.
Davis won’t announce his education proposals for 2001 until early January. Mazzoni says the biggest needs still facing public education are qualified teachers, modern buildings and sufficient help for poor and limited-English children.
Mazzoni is still settling into her new office. During an interview, she apologized for the bare walls, saying she would soon put up some of her favorite children’s art.
Her family is the source of her education interest.
Her father was vice principal and principal of Novato High School, from which she, her former husband and their two children all graduated. Her mother had an elementary teaching credential, but stayed at home to raise the kids. Her maternal grandmother taught first and second grades.
“Always, the topic of public education was foremost in my home,” she recalls.
After graduating from the University of California, Davis, Mazzoni worked for a short time in child care and Head Start programs for the Vallejo Unified School District. She and her husband started their family and she soon became a PTA mom.
In 1987, Mazzoni won a seat on the Novato Unified School District board, where she served seven years. She says she first ran because the district was not creating enough choices for parents.
“My desire was to have a system in which principals and parents and teachers would look at a child and say, ’Well, I think this program is best for this particular child,”’ Mazzoni says. “That hasn’t happened in California as it relates to public school choice.”
This was before California’s 1993 charter school law allowed communities to create schools free of most state regulations, a policy Mazzoni supports.
Fellow Novato board member Jeff McAlpin says he and Mazzoni differ politically — he’s more conservative — but agree that the state’s education standards should be rigorous.
“I look for her leadership in this position,” he says. “If she can push and drag some people along, the state will be better for it.”
McAlpin said California’s 1993 voucher initiative prompted Mazzoni to consider state government. She chaired the Marin County committee opposing the voucher initiative, which was defeated.
“The more she got into it, the more involved she got,” McAlpin says. “That really kindled her interest in the broader view of state issues.”
In 1994, Mazzoni decided to challenge the Democrat holding the Assembly seat that includes Marin and southern Sonoma counties.
Incumbent Vivien Bronshvag had compiled a dubious record of speeding tickets and little else — Mazzoni and other local Democrats feared a GOP challenger would win the seat. With the fund-raising advantage of incumbency, Bronshvag hugely outspent Mazzoni.
“I was pressured to get out of the race,” she says.
That’s where she turned to the lesson taught by the late Mrs. Rutherford.
The teacher secretly asked a popular girl to circulate a petition that the girl said would help Mrs. Rutherford. The students eagerly signed without reading it. Mrs. Rutherford then wrote the word “SHEEP” on the blackboard, saying that’s what the students were. The petition would have made things more difficult for the teacher.
Her point: a citizen’s signature and vote are all-important.
“I always had Mrs. Rutherford’s voice in the back of my mind,” says Mazzoni. “I refused to get out of the race.”
She won the primary by 900 votes and went on to defeat her Republican opponent.
Assembly Minority Leader Bill Campbell, who was vice chairman of Mazzoni’s Education Committee, says he liked how she required legislation to include a report on whether a proposed program really worked.
“I have a very high regard for Kerry Mazzoni,” says Campbell, R-Villa Park. “She was fair and knowledgeable.”
School groups also applaud Mazzoni’s selection.
Wayne Johnson, president of the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, also cites her experience in local and state education policy.
“She’s on the right side of the issues,” Johnson says. “So we’re really happy with the appointment.”