The New Year marks the half-way point of the academic year for students in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). With a dramatic election finally over, January finds us without the threat of immediate financial catastrophe (thank you voters, for passing Proposition 30), a postponement of the federal funding cliff-hanger until March, three returning incumbent school board members (Rachel Norton, Sandra Fewer and Jill Wynns) and one new commissioner (Matt Haney), and a re-elected President Obama who has committed to staying the course with the existing pernicious federal education programs.

None of this spells disaster in capital letters, but it doesn’t spell success either, at least not in terms of educating our children. With a few exceptions we are headed down a well-trod path filled with the familiar challenges and the same likely results. One of the exceptions, and a rather dramatic one at that, is the potential first reform of Proposition 13 with a closure of the corporate loophole championed by San Francisco legislators such as Tom Ammiano and Phil Ting. This would be an enormous accomplishment should it happen, and certainly anyone remotely involved with public education would welcome any significant change regarding the financing of our schools.

Education advocates have been working for years, some for decades, to bring quality educational opportunities to all children. That battle has met with mixed success across the country and within communities. The hemorrhaging of resources since Proposition 13 has certainly contributed greatly to the difficulties of achieving that goal in California, but other daunting challenges have also been in our way, not the least of which have been the divides of income, race and ethnicity. The inability to straddle those gaps continues trouble San Francisco’s educational system too, as we have seen with the differences of program availability from community to community, various abilities to raise funding, the uneven distribution of experienced teachers, large class-sizes and the continued drive towards a factory model of education.

We are in a maddening, Sisyphean position relative to our ultimate goal of providing engaging schools that bring all children to their full potential. This goal is discouragingly in opposition to that implicit in current policies, namely to use as few resources as possible to churn out a given set of “diploma’d” youth who must slog through standardized tests and associated curricula developed at great profit by the private sector. Legislation (and its implementation) and funding conspire to put at risk, if not roll back, the successful schools and programs that have developed in the face of this impoverished approach to our schools. But even those successes together would not add up to the wholesale change that is required. Parents, educators and students know that this industrial approach is wrong--children are not units of output and teaching and learning processes are not production lines that can be made more efficient through time-and-motion studies. No amount of adjustments can address such a system’s fundamental flaws, especially in this era of competitive, profit-and-private-based approaches to education.

The harsh reality is that the majority of the children cycling through our public school system are not served well by this ever-expanding factory model and fully funding that machine will not bring us where we want to be, nor will it erase the significant cultural gaps that appear throughout our school system. Though it may be hard to spit these words out at such a cash-starved time, money is a necessary but woefully insufficient part of the equation. We need a radically transformed system of education, one that is not just a modification of our existing approach, but rather one that is focused anew on our children--all of our children, with all of their variety and complexity.

To take hold and be viable that transformation must have at its core three essential components: 1) full-funding now and into the future; 2) an honest, sober look at every aspect of our existing schools in order to begin to make the radical changes required if we are to successfully nurture all of our children into adulthood; and 3) a new politics based on the securing of human rights for all, won through the forming of new broad-based alliances with others seeking to ensure those basic human rights. Progress in each of these areas is essential to transition from the schools of today to the schools our children deserve and require, but it is the move towards a new politics that is the most critical step. Without relocating education in this larger context, education will remain isolated from the vast community it serves and continue to be vulnerable to political manipulation.

Redirecting the energies of the public education community will be no small task, of course. One signpost for how to move in this direction--and the great benefits to be gained by such a journey--is Michelle Alexander’s tremendous work, The New Jim Crow, a book that should be read by everyone involved with schools. The majority of Alexander’s work focuses on providing devastating evidence of how the “War on Drugs” serves as the vehicle for the latest formulation of racial discrimination in the U.S. However, one of her additional primary points is that challenging this new reality requires the formation of a new social justice effort situated on a platform of human rights for all people, that doesn’t focus on single issues and doesn’t choose among members, but includes “all of us or none.” Alexander’s argument, inspired by the previous efforts of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is that these essential rights, from freedom from discrimination to education, can only be won by a broad-based movement that embraces all of us, with all of our differences. We are different, but we are all important and we all count. In Alexander’s reprise of King’s vision, a human rights approach:

“…would offer a positive vision of what we can strive for--a society in which all human beings of all races are treated with dignity, and have the right to food, shelter, health care, education and security. This expansive vision could open the door to meaningful alliances between poor and working-class people of all colors, who could begin to see their interests as aligned, rather than in conflict--no longer in competition for scarce resources in a zero-sum game.”


It cannot be said enough--education is a human right, along with access to health care, food, freedom from racism, and more. Placing public education within this framework ties it to those other essential needs where it naturally belongs, if indeed we are serious about ensuring that all children, and not just some, receive an excellent education.

While continuing to discuss topical educational issues as they arise, School Beat columns over the coming months will explore the issues touched on above more deeply, posing questions and offering ideas and suggestions for how to build a different and better educational system that is connected to a larger human rights movement. Everything needs to be reconsidered, starting from what the overall goals of our educational system should be and how to connect with other movements, but also looking deeply into every nook and cranny, from how students are viewed in schools, to how schools are organized, to what happens in the classroom, to how parents are involved and the impact of that involvement. In other words, we need to be willing to let everything go in order to make something much better.

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.