The start of school is an exciting time, full of the possibilities promised by new beginnings. Hopefully the inspiration created by fresh opportunities will be there for our students, from the littlest kindergartener going to school for the first time to the senior already imagining life on his or her own. But for the adults behind those students – the family members, the teachers and the other supporters – the picture is much more contradictory. We will need to find sufficient energy and motivation in the dreams of all of the children in our lives to dive into what promises to be an exceptionally challenging year.
So much is going on this fall, it’s hard to know where to look, though elections, as always, have a painfully magnetic attraction. The biggest ballot box event for California’s public education system rests with the two tax initiatives that voters will have in front of them – Proposition 30, Governor Brown’s compromise measure known as the “Schools & Local Public Safety Protection Act
,” and Proposition 38, the “Our Children Our Future
” initiative financed by wealthy California attorney Molly Munger. Proposition 30 has the support of the two California teachers organizations, school districts and many significant community organizations. Proposition 38 is also backed by various school districts, the California Superintendent of Education Tom Torlakson, and the California PTA.
A big fear of some education advocates is that neither measure will pass, which will in turn trigger the outrageous automatic cuts Brown put in to the budget and that Sacramento elected officials agreed to. Concern about this devastating outcome is leading many to support both measures, with a worst case scenario that the courts will have to decide which of the two measures actually prevails. For some of us, the decision isn’t quite so clear cut, as there are important differences between the two propositions. Stay tuned for more on this in the coming weeks.
Voters’ feelings about Propositions 30 and 38 will have the most immediate effect on California’s schools, but not the sole one. The presidential election holds the possibility, however slight, of a new direction for federal education policy. The addition of Paul Ryan and his drastic budget
to the Republican ticket has not revealed any specific proposals on either side, though given Ryan’s interest in reducing federal spending it’s not hard to imagine that cutting the education budget would be considered. Just as scary is his support for Utah Representative Bishop’s “A-PLUS-Act
,” which rides the legitimate frustration states are feeling with No Child Left Behind’s (NLCB) bankrupt requirements and questionable opt-out approaches. However the A-PLUS-Act does nothing to really address this problem and instead seems to be a sleight of hand not only to make the opting out easier, but to allow federal education dollars to be spent with much less specific oversight. Expanded privatization of public schools could easily be financed this way. This act will be important to watch regardless of who ends up in the White House.
Within the boundaries of San Francisco, we also have important decisions to make, specifically regarding who will be sitting on the Board of Education (BOE) in January. With 12 total qualified candidates
, four available seats, three incumbents (Sandra Fewer, Rachel Norton and Jill Wynns), and many divided opinions, the BOE race will be unusually unpredictable. The teachers’ union, United Educators of San Francisco (UESF), has refused to endorse any incumbents
because of last year’s BOE vote to override seniority for layoffs
at “Superintendent Zone” schools – lower performing schools that have had extra resources devoted to them. While that vote eventually was overturned, UESF is apparently seeing it as a litmus test, which it may not be for everyone else.
Endorsements are useful, but evaluating the candidates for oneself is always the best thing to do. The first BOE forum to be announced will be held Thursday September 13th at 6pm
at the University of San Francisco. No doubt more will be springing up in the weeks to come. Attending at least one of these events is really the best way to get a sense of the candidates, how they approach the issues, and their attitudes towards students, parents and the community. Not every major concern will be addressed, and any given response or discussion will by definition be limited if only because of time, but what you do get is a much closer, authentic look then what is represented on a candidate’s web page or in an endorsement statement. Look for future School Beat columns about issues to consider when evaluating these candidates.
Until returns are counted, the elections will be consuming most of our attention. But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t other significant issues to watch and get involved with this year. School assignment is a perpetual issue of concern, both for those starting their search for a school and those evaluating how it unfolded last year and what that means for this year. However, school assignment is only a part of the picture of ensuring that all kids receive a quality education. Some very basic things that shape a child’s opportunities are getting much harder, for instance, the ability to get from home to a given school. Budget cuts over the years have resulted in transportation cuts, which are being gradually phased in. The 2012-2013 bussing situation
is detailed on the District website, but the real challenge will come in not just understanding the particulars of the new approach, but in determining how it’s affecting our students.
The list of issues like transportation that require some thoughtful scrutiny and advocacy is long. Where is the Middle School Quality initiative for instance? A plan for ensuring that academic and extracurricular options at the middle school level are equally available to all students has faded into the background. Until we have some parity across our schools, matters that get more attention, like student assignment and even the achievement gap, will persist in being as difficult as ever to address.
The issue of GATE/Honors programs, the maintenance or ending of which erupted as a major concern at the end of last year raises similar concerns. There are strong voices on two opposing sides of the issue, but a good starting point would be some serious analysis as to the impact GATE/Honors programs are actually having. Armed with that data, the next step would be to reframe the discussion so that we’re focused on making sure that every student is challenged and engaged.
Other programs need analytical care and feeding as well. The excellent policy of establishing UC A-G requirements for high school students was much applauded, but do we know how well it’s been implemented? Can we have confidence in the classes that are being designated as meeting A-G standards? Are students benefitting from this change and do we know why, regardless of the answer? On another topic, what is happening with the Superintendent Zone schools? Are the enormous resources that are being poured into them going towards meaningful changes or are the “turnaround” models from Washington simply creating more churn?
Finally, our new superintendent, Richard Carranza, took over this year from Carlos Garcia and promised to “stay the course.” Is that course really what we want though? With so many unanswered questions on the table, it’s hard to feel confident about that answer. One thing is certain though – this year, perhaps even more than any other year, community voices are going to have a huge impact on our schools. We’ll be using that voice when we fill out our ballots, but there are many more areas where we are needed to chime in. Welcome back to school.
Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA.