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Jerry Brown has come a long way

| Sunday, June 16, 2002

OAKLAND, Calif. - Long ago — long before he served two terms as California's governor and made three runs for the Democrats' presidential nomination — Jerry Brown, who has won a second term as mayor of this city, was a Jesuit seminarian and, one suspects, a test of the Christian patience of his religious superiors. He recalls that while doing his chores he was prone to flights of philosophizing, to which his supervisors would respond, " Brown, age quod agis ."

Translation: Do what you are doing. Meaning: Concentrate.

Now Brown is concentrating on reviving Oakland, and Age Quod Agis is the school motto of one of Mayor Brown's proudest and most unlikely creations, the Oakland Military Institute — OMI, a name deliberately evocative of VMI, the Virginia Military Institute. Oakland's school board refused to create OMI; the board president, a veteran of Berkeley's sandbox "revolutions," said it would be akin to putting a Ronald Reagan museum in Berkeley. The county school board unanimously rejected it.

But the state supported the idea for this novel charter school — Gov. Gray Davis attended a military school — and the first class, about 160 seventh-graders, boys and girls, just finished its first year at what Brown calls "a pre-Vatican II Jesuit school in the form of a military academy. I am applying the truth I was brought up on." The truth of the Jesuits' founder, Ignatius Loyola, whose principles, says Brown, have "worked for 400 years."

Meaning: The school day runs from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. No social promotions. Everyone is in uniform. High expectations — everyone is aiming for college. AP — advanced placement — courses will begin in the ninth grade. It is, says Brown, a "cram school" that "unabashedly" teaches to the pertinent tests. Part of the application process is a 10-day encampment at the National Guard facility in San Luis Obispo, from which, Brown says, "a bus will leave every day with those who can't make it." During the school year there is a National Guard sergeant as well as a teacher in every class.

‘CHANGE ELEMENTS'

Brown has disdain for "the resistance to change" on the part of people and factions that fancy themselves "change elements." So he is encouraging parents to prod the public education bureaucracy by organizing charter schools. That is, he thinks, one way to improve the abysmal performance of Oakland's public schools, where only about 1,600 of 4,000 ninth-graders will graduate from high school, and only 400 of the 4,000 will even take the courses required for applying to the University of California system. "If I could make it residential, I would," says Brown, whose next project, coming in September, is a similarly elite school for the arts.

At a neighborhood meeting shortly after he became mayor in 1998, having said in his campaign that he wanted to lure 10,000 people back into urban residences, someone asked a racially charged question about whether "gentrification" would threaten "diversity" downtown. Brown tartly replied:

"There is no diversity there now. You have a concentrated, homogenous population — the elderly, parolees, people in drug rehab, from mental hospitals, transients. This is not the vibrant civic culture some might have in mind."

What he has in mind gets him denounced as an "environmental racist," meaning he has advocated some things that affect a neighborhood of minorities in ways that some who purport to speak for the minorities do not like. One such minority was ducks.

A developer wanted to build a 20-story condominium on little Lake Merritt. Ferocious opponents said the building's shadow would disturb the Lake Merritt ducks. "It's built," says Brown, who has won from the state some exemptions from environmental-impact restrictions. In terms of development, "dumb cows trump smart people," he says, meaning it is much easier to build housing in a cow pasture than in an urban block adjacent to litigious people adept at producing interminable delays.

Brown has come a long way from his days as a vaguely — and vague — leftist-cum-populist politician and then radio talk show host. What he likes about city governance is "the level of concreteness." "A governor talks about 'education.' I'm talking about a particular high school. A governor talks about 'crime.' I'm worried about six murders in a four-block area. I've got to translate ideas into reality."

Ronald Reagan once said that an economist is someone who sees something working in practice and wonders if it will work in theory. Brown, who entered California's governorship when Reagan left it, has shed a lot of theory en route to his current happy immersion in urban practicalities.

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