Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2007 | In recent years, members of the San Diego Unified School District board have been divided over the fundamental question of how the school system should spend money intended to be set aside for its most needy students.

The debate came to a head again last month when a narrow majority of the five-person board voted to use at least $1.5 million of special state funds to expand a district program for its gifted and talented students. Though the money was originally intended to pay for school desegregation, including transportation to allow students to attend schools outside of their neighborhood, and special help for the district’s lowest-performing students, the board instead voted to spend the money on keeping classes small for its most gifted kids.

Funding the Neediest

  • The Issue: In recent years, the San Diego Unified School District has used millions of dollars intended for its lowest-achieving students to instead educate some of the district’s most gifted.
  • What It Means: Last month’s debate over funding for the district’s Seminar program represented only the latest battle in the long-running debate over how to spend money set aside by law for the school system’s most needy students.
  • The Bigger Picture: The issue has forced the school board to confront a question that has been around as long as politics: Given the existence of scarcity, should public resources be divided equally among all, or should they go to those most in need of the state’s helping hand? Not surprisingly, it has divided the school board.

Over the past several years, the district has redirected millions in state grant dollars to pay for its specialized gifted and talented program.

The decision over the structure of the school system’s Seminar classes, which are limited to 20 students each and are designed to provide instruction for San Diego’s most intelligent students, is not the first time debate over the equitable division of money has split two factions of the board. Though nominally nonpartisan, the school board has continued struggled with a question that has vexed politicians for as long as there has been politics: Given the existence of scarcity, should public resources be divided equally among all, or should they go to those most in need of the state’s helping hand?

The answer to that question has driven a wedge among the board members along socioeconomic lines, pitting the two trustees who represent the communities south of Interstate 8 against those representing the northern parts of the district.

“I was not very happy when the board of trustees defined the debate as us-versus-them,” said board member Mitz Lee, one of the three trustees who voted to continue limiting the Seminar classes to 20 students. “Because that’s not good for the system, because we’re all supporting the system as taxpayers, and we cannot show inequity.”

In July, Lee and fellow board members John de Beck and Katherine Nakamura rejected a recommendation from the district’s staff that called for increasing the student-to-teacher ratio for the Seminar program to 25 in a bid to reduce the cost of the popular program. In 2006, the three also rejected calls to concentrate federal money, set aside by law to help poor students, in the district’s most impoverished schools.

“I feel very strongly that we need to serve our underserved populations,” Nakamura said. “But that doesn’t mean we give them everything.”

The other board members, Shelia Jackson and board President Luis Acle, have long argued that money the district gets to educate low-achieving or low-income students should be spent exclusively on them.

How Smart Is Too Smart?

To date, say district staff, San Diego remains the only school district that offers a specialized instructional pathway geared toward its most highly gifted students. Designed for students that score in the 99.9th percentile on a pattern-matching test, the Seminar program began decades ago as a subset of special education targeting students whose intelligence may have left them socially unsuitable for the traditional classroom environment.

The impetus for the program was an observation by district staff that many of its school system’s smartest students were dropping out before graduation, citing a lack of intellectual stimulation in the classroom and failure to relate to their classmates.

After the courts ordered San Diego Unified to achieve racial balance in its schools in the late 1970s, the Seminar program became an integration tool, bringing in gifted kids from one part of the city to special classes set up in another. In recent years, it has also become popular among parents who are attracted to its small class sizes and view the program as an advanced alternative to regular classes.

As its popularity has grown, so too has the price tag: Last year, the district used more than $2.3 million in funds from a special state grant that was originally designed to help districts pay for the cost of desegregation programs and for improving instructions for their “lowest achieving pupils.” The staff estimates that another $1.7 million from the grant will be used to expand the program to more schools next fall while keeping the student-to-teacher ratio at 20-to-1.

Two years ago, the state grant was consolidated with other state funds directed toward gifted and talented programs, and the wall between the pots of money was removed, a change that allowed the district to redirect part of the grant money to the Seminar classes.

Former state Sen. Dede Alpert, a Democrat who was the primary architect of the consolidation, said she never intended for the school districts to shift the focus away from their lowest-scoring students. Instead, Alpert said she hoped that California could cut down on the red tape in administering the grants.

Allowing the grant money to be used for gifted and talented programs was an “unintended consequence” of the changes, she said.

Critics of spending the state dollars on Seminar, who include Jackson and Acle, say the district has perverted the original aim of the funding: to support students who have the hardest time succeeding in school. Though the district’s minorities continue to struggle the most, they are also underrepresented in the Seminar program.

“If we’re going to fund the education for our smartest children off the backs of our neediest children,” Jackson said at a meeting last month, “then we have a problem”

In an interview, Jackson said she worried that a majority of the board was leaving the district’s most underachieving communities behind.

Even supporters of Seminar, like Nakamura, admit that the program’s increasing popularity has made it grow beyond its original intent. Nearly 2 percent of the district’s students now qualify for the classes, many times the predicted statistical outcome. However, they say that raising the class size for the highly gifted students will mean that they’ll get too little individual time to remain engaged in their work and to succeed at school, defeating the entire purpose of the program.

“What is public education for? Are we going to say in this country that public education is only for the lowest-performing students, only for the poorest students?” Nakamura said.

Despite the cost of the Seminar program, there is little indication that it actually improves the academic performance of those who take part in it. The district has yet to carry out a single comprehensive evaluation, though one is planned for next year.

A preliminary analysis by the district’s instructional staff, comparing Seminar-eligible students who choose to opt out of the program to those who enroll, found only negligibly better test scores for the latter group.

But for every statistic cited by district staff, who would like to use some of the money that currently funds Seminar on other instructional alternatives that can help close the achievement gap at San Diego schools, supporters of the program have anecdotes of their own.

Nakamura points to the doctor that helped her survive 40 hours of labor during her pregnancy, a former Seminar student at San Diego Unified. Without the special attention she received in the program, Nakamura said the doctor told her, she might have never completed her education.

“That woman saved my life, don’t you think that’s worth something?” she said.

A Matter of Percent

A year before the vote over the future of the Seminar program, the school board was at odds about how to spend about $45 million in federal dollars earmarked for San Diego’s poorest students, who tend to have a harder time succeeding in school.

Under federal law, part of the money must go to schools where at least 75 percent of the students receive a free lunch, a proxy for poverty. Districts may decide themselves how to spend the rest, as long as the funds go to schools where at least 40 percent of students are poor.

Until 1999, San Diego Unified concentrated the money in its poorest schools, where at least 60 percent of the kids received a free lunch, Jackson said. But the school board decided to lower the threshold to 40 percent out of concerns that poor kids in wealthier neighborhoods were losing out.

In 2006, the board revisited the formula once again, giving more money per student to the most impoverished schools. However, the board rejected a push by Acle and Jackson, who argued that keeping more of the federal funds at the poor schools would allow them to achieve greater economies of scale, to raise the threshold back to 60 percent.

“Certainly, if you concentrate it, you’re going to get a bigger bang for your buck,” Jackson said. “It will help move the student forward.”

Instead, Jackson said some of the federal money has gone to otherwise wealthy schools, which did not use it to help their low-income students.

“Some of the principals saw it as discretionary money,” she said.

However, Lee, a board member who represents the district’s mostly northern neighborhoods like Mira Mesa and Claremont, said the focus on the dollars has distracted attention from other efforts to raise achievement for all students.

“I don’t like the fact that this debate is being focused on the racial divide and the economic disadvantage, because you divide the system when you do that,” she said.

Instead of looking at the money, Lee argues the school district should be looking at curriculum to find how changing what its lowest-performing students learn can help raise their grades and scores.

Though Jackson and Acle have turned their attention on the federal dollars, which make up about 5 percent of San Diego Unified’s general fund, the district’s staff and board “just doesn’t know how they spend the other 95 percent of the money,” Lee said.

The Case of Two Saints

The politics of redistribution has proven so salient for San Diego’s school board partly because it presents the leaders of an otherwise tightly regulated school system with actual discretion.

Unlike most of the district’s money, which is tied up in employee contracts, long-term construction projects or otherwise designated for specific programs, the board retains much of the control over how it spends the money set aside for its most impoverished and most underachieving students.

As the debate over the Seminar program has demonstrated, that discretion has opened an ideological rift on the board, between those who believe the money should be spent to benefit the most students and those who argue it should be spent on those who need it the most. It has also made for strange bedfellows: The issue has split both the Republicans and the Democrats on the board.

At the end, Acle said last month, the question is about who deserves the benefits of the money, and who should pay the resulting price.

“This is a little bit like dressing one saint by undressing the other,” he said.

What has complicated the answer is that the saint getting dressed has better clothes than the one shedding them.

Please contact Vladimir Kogan directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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