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High-School Honchos Ace Ingratitude

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

File this under: No good deed goes unpunished. In 2002, after now California Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner sold his startup business for $1 billion, he became a volunteer, then volunteer teacher, at San Jose's Mount Pleasant High School. He even wrote a book about it and plans on donating the profits from the sales of "Mount Pleasant" to the school.

So how does the system pay back Poizner? By going after his reputation. Poizner was set to make his annual visit to the school, which failed to meet federal and state academic performance goals last year. Principal Teresa Marquez canceled the appearance, she contends, to comply with the education code, which prohibits political appearances at schools. Poizner is running in the GOP primary for governor.

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Then Marquez did something not in the ed code. She showed up at a book signing last week to protest his book. As the Los Angeles Times reported, Marquez confronted Poizner, noting that his students "were some of the brightest," but "you made it seem like they were nothing."

On the phone, Marquez cited this quote from the book: "From an intellectual standpoint, I absolutely knew not to expect Silicon Valley-caliber ambition and smarts from East San Jose schoolkids."

Please. In noting a gap in motivation and results between children of privilege and children of struggling parents, Poizner wasn't saying anything that countless educators have not said before -- as a reason to get more funding.

Marquez also criticized Poizner for saying students were "ducking bullets." Actually, Poizner wrote that there had been shootings at the school -- a 15-year-old boy was murdered on campus in 1990. He wondered how he could relate to students, then wrote, "Were they all too busy ducking bullets to consider their careers? I felt out of step -- a privileged brainiac who didn't know how to teach and had little understanding of his students' sensibilities."

Poizner, 53, grew up with high expectations. When a high-school sophomore, he writes, his mother "pulled me aside and told me that she was suffering from a fatal disease" and asked him to graduate in three years instead of four. She died in 2001.

He had to adjust to motivate those students who wanted nothing more than a passing grade, and whose parents expected little more than that.

By the end of the year, he proudly notes, a colleague told him, "You've got the ambitious ones." He emerged with appreciation for successes achieved in the face of "limited resources" and convinced that teachers, parents and students all "deserved better."

One day, a liberal colleague challenged Poizner: "Are you doing it for the students?"

Good question. Poizner ran for the Assembly (and lost) after his semester teaching. It seems obvious that he was aiming at even higher office when he showed up at Mount Pleasant High.

Or as Marquez put it, "I think he exploited us."

I'd argue that Marquez and others exploited students by telling them that Poizner belittled them -- when he didn't.

Besides, if Marquez is right, all students should be so used. Waaah. Instead of just bashing public schools, a multimillionaire go-getter parachuted into a classroom to try to learn about the system and its problems by helping students.

Well, they showed him.

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