Gary K. Hart, former California Secretary of Education, dies


Gary K. Hart, who served as California Secretary of Education under the then governor. Gray Davis, who campaigned for the creation of charter schools while serving as a legislature, died Thursday at his home near Sacramento.

Hart was 78 years old. His family said he died of complications from pancreatic cancer.

“Gary was widely respected and admired,” Davis said Friday. “In fact, I can’t remember a single person in Sacramento who ever said a critical word about Gary.”

Although he compiled an extensive public service record on environmental protection and women’s rights, Hart’s distinctive political expertise was education. A former high school teacher, Hart’s interest in politics led him to run for seats in Congress and the Legislature – races he lost before eventually winning a seat in the Convention representing Santa Barbara in 1974.

In 1982 he was elected to the state Senate in a district stretching south along the coast from Santa Barbara to Ventura and Los Angeles counties. In 1994 he left Parliament.

Hart’s legislative career has seen a series of educational overhauls, including efforts to require teacher skill testing, graduation requirements for students, and caps on the size of K-12 classes. But few achievements are remembered longer than his 1992 bill establishing charter schools, campuses funded with taxpayers’ money but allowing greater flexibility in their operations than traditional neighborhood schools.

“I didn’t see it as something that would shake the earth or have the scale that it has,” Hart said of his push for charter schools in a 2018 interview with nonprofit EdSource.

The Democratic Legislature’s plan made California the second state in the nation to establish charter schools. The 1992 law limited the number of locations, a small change that Hart said in 2018 he hoped would mean “a lot more focus on quality” and innovation.

The original cap on the number of schools was lifted by state officials in 1996. A quarter century after this change, there are more than 1,300 charter schools across California, serving more than 1 in 10 schoolchildren in the state.

Hart skillfully navigated against the proposed formation of the California Teachers Assn. and took the bill through both houses and to the desk of the then governor. Pete Wilson, who signed the law.

While charter schools quickly grew in popularity, some sites were mired in controversy as criticism of quality control and inconsistent educational standards mounted. In a 2019 interview with The Times, Hart said it was probably a mistake to assume local school boards would provide adequate oversight.

“If I had to do it all over again, I’m not sure there’s much point in giving the school boards charter powers,” Hart said. “It was a bit of a pipe dream.”

Davis selected Hart as his secretary of education just weeks after winning the 1998 governorship race after running a campaign promising to make public school improvements a core part of his administration. The two men were roommates at Stanford University and served together in the congregation.

“Gary was my first and arguably most important appointment as governor,” Davis said. “Education was and remains my passion. We both believed that while only one student could be the best, every student could get better.”

The post of secretary of education was not well defined, a role that may have conflicted with that of a voter-elected superintendent for public instruction and the California State Board of Education. However, Hart was widely acclaimed for his work, helping Davis implement the first state final exam for high school seniors.

Hart left the job in 1999 after promising the governor only one year. He continued to work on education-related issues, including at the California State University Institute for Education Reform, which he co-founded after serving in the Legislature. He remained in Sacramento with his wife Cary and their three daughters. In recent years, Hart has served on the board of directors of the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California. Gary K. Hart, former California Secretary of Education, dies

Caroline Bleakley

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