During her 14 years as a state lawmaker, Dede Alpert tried to tackle two of California’s most vexing problems – improving public education and legalizing ferret ownership.
California’s public schools are improving, in part thanks to landmark bills Alpert carried as an Assemblywoman to integrate phonics, spelling and math skills into school curriculum and improve assessment of academic performance.
But, alas, California still remains one of two states barring ferrets as pets.When she introduced her SB 89 in 2003 to grant amnesty to Californians who illegally owned ferrets, lawmakers had debated whether to legalize the furry Slinkies for nearly a decade. And Alpert was tired of it.
“I realize when we have a $21 billion budget problem this doesn’t seem terribly significant but it’s important to ferret owners and it’s an issue we should have final resolution on,” Alpert told the San Francisco Chronicle in a droll December 2002 article.
Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed Alpert’s bill in September 2004. The GOP governor admitted to a “love” of ferrets, noting he costarred with one in Kindergarten Cop. But he said Alpert’s approach was too bureaucratic and should have required an environmental impact report prior to legalization.
Catching up with Alpert at a coffee shop in Del Mar in December 2007 she said she continued to sleep peacefully, despite the defeat.
To get a sense of how versatile and successful a lawmaker Alpert was consider some of the other bills she convinced the governor to sign in 2004, her last year in the Legislature before being removed by term limits.
Measures on public education governance, pupil data, elementary school reading, teacher training, the state’s Healthy Families program and a $600 million library construction bond measure all became law.
She also spearheaded the four-year process of creating California’s Master Plan for Education, a long-term blueprint for improving the state’s education system.
This at a time when Alpert served as chair of Senate Appropriations and a top lieutenant of then President Pro Tem John Burton of San Francisco.
“When I was first elected to the Senate, I asked a couple of the more senior senators what’s the best way to work with John and they all told me the same thing – talk to Dede because John will always listen to Dede,” said Sen. Sheila Kuehl, a Santa Monica Democrat who said high on her WITO list (When I’m Termed Out) is a lunch with Alpert in San Diego.
Initially, it appears that after leaving the Legislature Alpert, 62, accepted appointments to every board in San Diego County.
She’s a member of the board of Gompers Charter Middle School, which was one of the worst performing schools in the state, Alpert said. It had made no academic progress in five years.
The University of California at San Diego professors who helped convert the middle school into a charter school wanted Alpert on the board in part because of her advocacy of charter schools as a lawmaker.
She is also on the board of Sharp Health Care, one of San Diego’s larger hospital systems.
“I know a little about health care policy but it’s really interesting to see how you deal with it at the hospital level, these policies you think of in the abstract and now see the reality.”
There’s also the board of the Girard Foundation, which gives money to local education causes.
And she’s a board member of the San Pasquale Foundation which helps raise money for a unique foster care academy in the northern part of San Diego County.
A former 7th Day Adventist school, whose property also includes 23 houses, was initially criticized as an orphanage rather than a group home. But the academy has been successful for the 130 foster kids who choose it, Alpert said, and offers them a temporary place to stay after being emancipated.
The academy is trying to raise $5 million to build another residence hall and increase the number of pupils to 230.
Alpert also serves on the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Education Excellence whose recommendations should be made public soon.
The state’s budget hole makes it hard to do some of the actions recommended by the commission, Alpert said. But the state should start.
“Education didn’t get into this shape in one year and it’s not going to get out of it one year,” she said.
“Rather than bemoan your fate that you don’t have any additional resources this year, eventually you will, so why don’t you begin with some of the smaller steps and begin to get some buy-in on the ideas so when you have money, instead of spending it stupidly, you have actually thought of a comprehensive plan.”
A relatively inexpensive improvement would be creating better collection of data on academic performance, Alpert suggests. More expensive is expansion of pre-school. Alpert favors universal pre-school but the commission recommends expanding it incrementally and making available first to poorer kids.
Despite the civic involvement she her husband Michael, a former trial lawyer and chair of the Little Hoover Commission, are taking a cruise this month through the Panama Canal.
She also spends time with her three daughters and her three – soon to be four – grandchildren. All boys.
“Grandchildren are such a different thing than children. You get mostly the fun part.” She asks if Burton is having fun with his two grandchildren.
Her oldest daughter, Lehn and her husband, own Café Coyote near Old Town, which initially served high-end Southwestern cuisine, which, in Alpert’s words, “sucked money.” They changed it to a touristier Mexican restaurant and “have become very wealthy people.”
While Alpert says she would have stayed in the Legislature if term limits didn’t prevent her, she doesn’t miss the back-and-forth travel each week.
“That was always was a pain in the neck.”
Being the somewhat windy titled “Special Advisor for Public Policy and Strategic Planning” for the Nielsen Merksamer law firm brings Alpert to Sacramento on occasion where she catches up with friends.
Term limits benefited her, allowing her to move up into powerful committees like Education and Appropriations in the Senate when the chairs were forced to leave. And she was elected in 1990 the year term limits took effect.
“I got the best of it I got to be there and learn from experienced people.”
She thinks limiting lawmakers to 14 years isn’t enough time, particularly so few years in the Assembly.
In 1992, she introduced a bill to give two six-year terms to state senators and three four-year terms to Assembly members. Every two years, half the Assembly would be elected and one-third of the senate.
“Which I thought was terribly clever but I never got it out committee.”
Passage of Proposition 93 would improve the Legislature’s operations, Alpert believes but she doesn’t know if the procrastination that leads to swollen pre-deadline committee agendas can be cured.
She says her husband favors a system similar to Congress where committees gather up ideas and create one large bill.
“It seems like nothing gets looked at as a whole. Competing bills get let out of committee. Maybe earlier in the year you could gather your committee and work through these things you might have a better process,” Alpert said.
“On the other hand, on these big bills in Congress they throw in little crap that they know they can sneak in because nobody knew what was in the bill.”
While Alpert worries that perhaps California has become so complex and diverse that solving its problems may be impossible she still thinks the key is education.
“Education in its broadest sense—to learn to be a good worker who can move on in life and be a good citizen – that’s the best hope for democracy. The American Dream is open to everybody if you take advantage of education.”
Catch up with Dede at firstname.lastname@example.org
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