Steve Poizner’s Speech at the WLB Breakfast Club

STEVE POIZNER: Thank you very much Mr. Speaker, good morning everybody. I do get to travel up and down the state quite a bit now, Mr. Speaker, giving speeches as I run for governor, also as Insurance Commissioner. Sometimes the introductions don’t go quite so well. I was at a high school recently not so far from here. Student stands up to introduce me, she has this incredibly bored look on her face. Her introduction of me was short and sweet. She said, this is Mr. Poizner, he’s been an engineering geek in Silicon Valley for 20 years. Now he’s into insurance. Sat down, that was the whole introduction. When I got home that evening I couldn’t resist going to talk to my 18-year old daughter Rebecca. I had to ask her, why did you introduce me that way? Sad but true. I’ve just got to say for the record, now that my daughter is out on the road driving, I lose sleep every night as your Insurance Commissioner with my daughter out there.

Now I haven’t been in politics very long. Most of my career here in California, starting and running high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. My last company was called SnapTrack, maybe you’ve heard of it. It was a company where we figured out a way to put Global Positioning Satellite Receivers, GPS Receivers into cell phone chips so that when you dial 9-1-1 from the cell phone, the emergency operators will know where you’re calling from. Now that turned out to be an important feature. About 700 million cell phones have this feature now, we’ve saved hundreds of lives, and I’m really quite proud of it. So I was really surprised when I was describing my last feat to Speaker Brown one day and he expressed some concerns. He said, you mean you can track my exact location when I’m carrying a cell phone? So I’m pleased to announce a new feature today, the company is rolling out for an additional $5 a month, the location technology will always show you at the library. I call it the Willie Brown feature. So I sold this company to Qualcomm a few years ago. Qualcomm, the big cell phone company in San Diego.

And after running companies for 20 years, I decided I just can’t sit on the sidelines any longer. I could see that California was going off of a cliff, that we were going through a meltdown. So I decided to put the private sector behind me and get involved in public sector service, helping to get this great state back on track. Now my first foray into public sector service was not to run for office, but actually be a school teacher. Now, we will never fix this broken state, we will never get California back on track ever until we repair our broken public school system. Do you know that 50% of the fourth graders, 50% of the fourth graders that go to California public schools cannot pass basic reading proficiency tests? 50%. So I couldn’t resist. I decided to plunge into the trenches, immerse myself in the details with other teachers to get a first-hand view of what happens in the public school system. Now little did I know how difficult it would be to get into the classroom. I thought they would embrace me with open arms. Well it didn’t work out exactly that way.

Now I live in Los Gatos with my wife and daughter, and there’s a school district near Los Gatos, about 30 minutes from my home, the East Side Union High School District. That’s in East San Jose maybe you’ve been there. It’s got 25,000 high school kids, 12 high schools in this particular district. So one day a few years ago I decided just to drive to the district office and volunteer. No appointment made, just drove there, walked into this massive building, this district office. Went up to the receptionist, introduced myself, I’m Steve Poizner, I’d like to volunteer and teach. I’m not looking to be compensated, I just want to learn as much as I can, I want to help as much as I can. And the receptionist looked at me, kind of tilted her head, what? Never heard that one before. Hang on a second. So she goes to the back to get the head of personnel who hires teachers for the East Side Union High School District.

I’m never going to forget this, it was during lunch, she comes out, she has this kind of irritated look on her face because I disrupted her lunch. She had a little mustard on her lip, and she asked me, what can I do for you? And I said, well I’d like to teach, not looking to be paid, I want to help, I want to learn. And she says, well what qualifies you to be in the classroom? Now I had to think about that for a second. Okay, well I have an electrical engineering degree from the University of Texas, graduated number one in my class. Then I came out to Stanford Business School, got an MBA from Stanford with Honors, and then I spent 20 years starting and running high-tech companies in Silicon Valley very successfully, and then last year I was in the White House in the National Security Council in the counterterrorism group. I got there one week before the 9-11 Crisis, I had a security clearance well above top secret. I helped build the new homeland security plan for the whole country. Without missing a beat she looks at me, she says, nothing you just said qualifies you to be in the classroom. Now, I don’t have a very big ego, but it shrank in size as she sent me packing that day.

I wasn’t going to take no for an answer, so I went home, got on the phone, called the 12 high school principals directly, left them voicemails, I want to teach at your high school. None of them called me back, except one. Art Darren from Mount Pleasant High School got me on the phone and said — you want to do what? Well I want to teach at your school. Have you been here? It’s hard. I said, yes I’d like to teach at your school. Why don’t you sign me up. So he went to the superintendent and got guest teacher status for me from the district. I taught 12th grade American Government at Mount Pleasant High School for a year a few years ago. I’ve got to tell you, gang members and all, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Ever, by far. And the most rewarding. And I’ll be back to the classroom some day, but I’ve got to tell you, what an eye-opener being in the classroom with other teachers for an extended period of time.

I’ll never forget my first day, it rained in San Jose that day. And my classroom leaked. I had to position the trash can in the right spot to collect the rain water. Now, hang on a second, this is a public high school in wealthy San Jose with a leaky roof. That’s shameful. Really. Who runs the school at Mount Pleasant High School? How come they cannot fix the roof at Mount Pleasant High School? Well as it turns out, I can tell you for sure, the teachers, the principals, they don’t run the schools. Who does? Well as it turns out in the last several decades, the Legislature has just ripped control of the public schools out of the hands of local folks and they’ve moved it to Sacramento.

Now how many here went to California public schools? Well you all know. In the 1960s and ’70s, we had the best public education system in the country, bar none. We know how to educate kids. What’s changed over the last 20 or 30 years? Well, the education code for one. Now the education code are these mandates the Legislature applies uniformly to all 5,000 schools at the same time. That’s kind of nonsense on the face of it. Now, in the 1960s when we had the best education system in the country, the size of the education code was about this size, now the education code is this size, 2,000 pages long and growing rapidly.

Clearly, one of the key solutions to our problems, one of the reasons why I’m running for governor is I’m going to rip control of the public schools out of the hands of Sacramento politicians and I’m going to move it down to the local level where it belongs and where it used to be. Now, I’m so convinced that local control, I’m so passionate about local control that I’m one of the pioneers of the California charter school movement. Now I don’t know if you’ve been watching the charter school movement in California very closely or not. It is the most improved public education reform activity going on right now, in my opinion, in California. When I got involved 10 years ago with Reed Hastings and others, there was just a handful of charter schools. There’s now 800 of them in California. 800 charter schools, 5% of all public school kids now go to charter schools. Charter schools are public schools but the state education code is waived for charter schools. They have the kind of local control that they need in order to customize programs to meet the needs of local kids.

As governor, I’m just telling you, I’m going to take the same type of freedom and flexibility that charter schools have, we’re going to apply them to all schools. And in addition, we’re going to drive more money back down into the classroom. It is an incredibly bureaucratic massive organization that runs our California public school system. And this is what I learned from the other California school teachers that I taught with. 5,0000 schools report to 1,000 school districts. Well hang on a second, some of these school districts have just one school. In fact, hundreds of these school districts have just one school. No matter the size of the school district, you have a staff and a superintendent and a lot of expenses. These staffs and school districts report to the 58 county boards of education. Each county board has a staff and a superintendent and a board an all. These 58 county boards of education report to – well, it’s not clear.

There’s the elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, there’s the Secretary of Education, there’s the State Board of Education, and there’s the Department of Education. Incredibly fragmented. And then overlay the 2,000 pages of the state education code and you have one dysfunctional system. Now, there’s 600,000 people who work in K-12 in California, 600,000. And over half of them are not in the classroom.

Now, how do we fix these things? Well the fact is, teachers are very angry right now that it’s no longer a profession. They’re set up for failure. Now I’m an engineer. I’m an entrepreneur. I’m a problem solver. And I want to get together with teachers and educators and business folks, folks from across the political spectrum. California is in a huge crisis right now and it’s time for all of us to get together and implement some common sense solutions like I’m describing here so we can get not only the public schools  back on track, so that we can get California back on track. Thank you all very much for the invitation to be here. Thank you, appreciate it.