Monday, February 14, 2005 | Departing San Diego City Schools Superintendent Alan Bersin blasted the teachers’ union and spoke of the need for dramatic change in public education at an education forum on Feb. 9. “Unless we change fundamentally the way we structure the system, we will never meet expectations,” he said.

Although Bersin said he was taught in his youth to respect and value organized labor, he leveled harsh criticism at the teachers’ unions. “They have no relevance to the world in which we operate today,” he said. “Seniority counts above competence. This is anachronistic and makes no sense.”

Addressing an audience of about 25 at Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Carlos, Bersin was part of a panel of education leaders that included former San Diego Unified school board member Sue Braun, San Diego Community College District board president Marty Block, and Miyo Reff, former candidate for San Diego Unified school board who lost in Nov. to Mitz Lee.

Saying “this is not an occasion for union-bashing,” Bersin nevertheless challenged union policies in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles to effective school reform.

He said he is unable to offer incentives or pay higher wages for teachers to work in the toughest schools where they’re needed most. “We operate as though we’re in the 1950s,” he said.

Seniority may make sense on a case-by-case basis, Bersin said, “but systemically it’s a disaster.”

Sue Braun picked up on Bersin’s theme, saying that 90 percent of teachers at lower-performing schools are first- or second-year teachers, who move on to better-performing schools with more parent involvement once they achieve seniority, leaving the low-performing schools with the highest turnover and least experienced teachers.

“We need to look at this from an equity point of view,” said Miyo Reff. Students at schools with new teachers who earn starting salaries are not getting equal educational opportunities as students at schools with higher-paid teachers, such as Patrick Henry High School, she said.

Striking a more positive note, Marty Block said community colleges provide remediation for struggling high school graduates. “Ideally, we shouldn’t have to, but we do,” he said. “Community colleges get overlooked, but we are an answer to many kids who don’t succeed in K-12.”

Braun said that most kids are doing well, but Bersin was less optimistic, calling the glass half-empty. “We do a good job for 30 to 35 percent of the kids, but that leaves two-thirds to find their way into community colleges,” he said.

Reff plugged vocational instruction, saying the schools need to provide more, despite funding cutbacks by the Bush administration, to help make productive citizens of all students, not just the college-bound.

Braun attributed part of the problem in achieving proficiency to the higher academic standards demanded of students by the state. “We expect a lot,” she said.

Bersin agreed, saying, “There will be enormous political pressure to dumb them down.” An example of this was the school board’s Feb. 8 decision to lower standards for kindergartners, a move opposed by Bersin.

When asked why some schools have art and music while others don’t, Braun responded, “In an ideal world, everybody has some amount of art and music and physical education. But we’re not living in an ideal world.”

In some schools, reading levels are so low, Braun said, that teachers need to focus heavily and spend extra time on improving reading skills. “Our priority must be reading and math,” she said.

Panel members said the reason why many schools in San Diego Unified compared less favorably to Poway schools is because Poway’s larger percentage of more affluent families donates money and time to their schools.

“The socio-economic level is the difference,” Reff said. “You’re comparing apples and oranges.”

Reff said she considered living in Poway or Del Mar for the schools. “But we wanted the diversity offered by San Diego Unified,” she said.

“That diversity is worth a lot,” Block said. “In other places diversity is not celebrated.”

Bersin talked about the rise of the charter school movement, saying it was a big issue that provides freedom from union contracts. “You can bring on or let go [of teachers] based on performance and not seniority,” he said.

Specifically, Bersin applauded efforts of parents to re-organize three of the district’s lowest-performing schools – Gompers, Keiller, and King Chavez – into charters, and bemoaned the school board’s decision that day to remove Gompers principal Vince Riveroll from his post.

Vouchers, all agreed, were a danger to public education. “There would be no accountability to public authority,” said Bersin, calling vouchers a disaster for society.

Moderated by Donald Harrison, veteran journalist and former editor and co-publisher of the San Diego Jewish Press Heritage, the forum – titled “The Jewish Community and Public Education” – was co-sponsored by the synagogue’s Men’s Club and the San Diego Jewish Times.

Bersin said the essence of an open society is public education, and he encouraged people to not give up on the system, despite the obstacles. “Everything I have in life I owe to my father and mother and to public education,” he said. “This is an institution essential to American democracy.”

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