School Beat: “Pink Slips Are Not Sexy”

by Lisa Schiff on May 26, 2011

“Pink Slips Are Not Sexy.” So read one parent’s sign at the 24th Street BART station “Wake Up California” action this past Tuesday, May 24th. From San Diego to Sacrament, public education activists across the state were out and about, encouraging fellow Californian’s to recognize that we’re close to, if not already at, the breaking point for maintaining our schools system.

Organized by Educate Our State in coalition with other groups, Tuesday’s events followed on the heels of actions in the “State of Emergency” week earlier in May called for by a coalition led by the California Teachers’ Association. This set of actions was also designed to increase awareness and send a strong message to elected officials about funding needs, as well as to forge stronger links between parents and teachers.

Someone looking from the outside might think of these recent events as part of wave moving us towards the national “Save Our Schools” march and national call to action this summer. On July 30th there will be a march and rally in Washington D.C., coupled with various actions in communities across the nation, including in California.

While each state has its particular financial and systemic challenges, the federal burden that we’ve all been under for many years now is a shared misery. From the reign of George W. Bush through President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, standardized instruction and testing, continued corporate control, and expanded privatization and a market-place ethic now define our public education system.

The Save Our Schools event is an effort to give educators, parents and students in all states a platform from which to voice their critiques of this approach, as well as the alternatives that should be in place. How much impact these events will have is hard to tell, but getting the word out about the stresses on our schools in the current climate is an essential element for any effort to rebuild our educational system.

We know the struggles around public education are not just of a financial nature, as the challenges to the federal education programs can attest. Those challenges are local too and the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) has been grappling with them intensely this year. The most visible project has been the new student assignment policy that went into effect this year, at least the elementary school portion of it.

At first blush, the process seemed smooth, but there were errors once again in the placement of students into coveted language immersion programs. Generating an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu, faulty coding of language skill status once more cause the mis-assignment of multiple students, a mistake which has a rippling effect throughout the system, given the number of families interested in these spots.

The error was caught much more quickly, this time around, but this was an expensive mistake, and not just for the families directly affected. Given the degree of changes being made to the system, these errors don’t inspire the confidence of anyone, regardless of which program a family is interested in. The only viable response is more transparency — outside audits and reviewers, and public reports by those auditors and reviewers. The moral of the story should be familiar by now — it doesn’t matter what the assignment policy is if we can’t be sure it’s being properly implemented.

The SFUSD assignment system is already overburdened with demands to achieve policy objectives and family satisfaction levels that are impossible to meet on its own. Creating quality schools everywhere, and ensuring that every family s happy with their assignment is never going to be accomplished by continually adjusting just this one piece of the puzzle. Yet until all schools are meeting the expectations of families, assignment policies are crucial.

This painful dependency has locked us into a hyper focus on only one aspect of the complete situation. The insufficiency of that approach surfaced very clearly this year in the effort to revamp assignment to middle schools. Revisions to middle school assignment were in fact halted this year because of major problems identified in the relatively last minute proposed middle school feeder plan, which placed students in middle school based on the elementary school they attended.

The plan promised more certainty about which students would be attending which middle schools, but also relied heavily on elementary school assignment results to achieve equity, access and diversity at middle schools. Combined with the limited opportunity for community response, the process was paused while more analysis was conducted and the Parent Advisory Council (PAC) to the Board of Education (BOE) and Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco held a series of community forums about the plan.

The results and analysis of that work were presented to the BOE earlier this month. While the report reflected a variety of perspectives on the feeder plan (though leaning heavily against it), the main message from the report is that addressing the quality of all middle schools continues to be the most important problem for most parents. Assignment alone is not the solution to ensuring that all students have access to a great education.

The availability of programs, the experience and skill sets of teachers, the sufficiency of administrative resources, class sizes, the availability of core courses and electives, the quality and adequate supply of educational materials (from textbooks to computers and software) – all of these factors and more are essential ingredients for a middle school and we know that there is an unacceptable level of variety across our schools in all of these areas.

Assignment is important, but the quality of the schools students are being assigned to is paramount and can’t be left to be addressed later on. How we do this is not clear, especially as resources continue to slip away, but this has got to be the challenge we take on, now.

We begin the path to achievement of this goal as the school year closes and still in the midst of great financial and programmatic uncertainty. Resolution regarding the state budget is nowhere in sight. Revenues are higher than expected, but the gap is still huge and the proposed cuts in all social service sectors will be too great to make up without increased revenues that still seem so out of reach. Education policy at the federal level remains on the same, ill-conceived track with little hope for a new vision.

But what is different as the school year comes to a close is a new level of education activism in our state and across the country. Not only are educators, parents and students speaking out more often and more strongly, but we are finally beginning to bridge the distances between us, joining together to make the changes we know our children need.

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.

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