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It’s the start of another school year. Autumn leaves are going up on bulletin boards and will be followed by snowflakes for winter and flowers for spring. As a Californian growing up in urban districts all over the southland, I realized one day as I was putting up bulletin boards of my own, that they certainly didn’t reflect my own experience. Autumn leaves, snowflakes and flowers. Except that in Southern California, we have hardly any deciduous autumn leaves, I never saw a snowflake fall out of the sky until I was in my 20s and, although we might carefully nurture a few scraggly flowers in the backyard, you see them in more glory and abundance at the grocery store all year round. Yet every year, we tell our children that these represent the passing of the seasons and ignore the reality of our own climate.

A dear colleague recently shared an old Chinese proverb, “The beginning of wisdom is to call something by its proper name.” After six years on the Board of Education, sometimes I feel that we don’t do that very well. We put set ideas up on our collective bulletin board, even when that is not our own experience, or at least not all of the time.

So. Teachers are always kind. Administrators are always expendable. Bureaucrats are always indifferent. Education is under-funded. Education won’t balance its budget. Teenagers are always self-absorbed. Elementary school children are always adorable. Algebra is impossible. All parents want their children to succeed. Taxes are an anathema. Proposition 13 is responsible for all of our problems. Business has no place in education. Schools are mismanaged. Boys only think about sex. Girls only think about boys. Public education is the bulwark of democracy. Public schools are a disgrace.

Really?

On our bulletin board, exceptions and rules seem to be equally interchangeable. In my experience, I have found contradictions to every statement above. San Diego City Schools sends students to MIT, Harvard, Stanford and other high achieving schools every year, so somebody must be learning algebra. Between homework, volunteer hours at community organizations, band practice, part-time jobs and being with their friends, I don’t know if our teenagers have time to be completely self-absorbed. People will support schools with taxes, if you make your argument and show that you are going to spend the money responsibly, therefore business practices do have a place in education. San Diego Unified did devise a balanced curriculum within a balanced budget and did so on time, even with a $53 million budget deficit. It’s the state legislature that is lagging behind. Okay, the elementary school children are universally adorable, but also exhausting. Recent research shows that boys do not think about sex as much as we have thought that they do, and our girls are outnumbering boys in colleges and universities, so clearly they think about something other than boys a good portion of the time. Public education is the bulwark of democracy when people don’t abandon it. A public school district that offers so many opportunities with 130,000 students from every walk of life actually has a lot to offer if you participate and put in the effort.

I hate to invoke “China Rising,” but having visited there in June, I can tell you that the title is no joke. Somehow they have, on many levels, broken out of their most essential paradigm. These days you see more references to achieving success through capitalism and the Analects of Confucius than you do to the Long March of Chairman Mao. They are putting different ideas up on their bulletin board. In still-Communist China, their students get tested, but their best schools rival corporate headquarters in their amenities and their best students are treated as national treasures. Based on their Olympic performance and the drive of their economic engine, I would say in some measure, it seems to be working.

As a Californian of four generations, I regret even further taking advice from the Governor of Texas, but I must admit he caught my attention. One morning last month over breakfast with about eight others at General Salinas’ home, Rick Perry carefully explained how Texas climbed out of the oil and gas crisis of the 1980s. There were four legs on the stool. Diversify the economy. Rebuild infrastructure using toll roads. Invest in schools and build accountability. Lower taxes. He made no bones about it, schools are an integral part of Texas rising. Good schools attract quality employees and quality corporations. Schools also build community pride, not to mention a workforce that can contribute to the common good. (The governor was in San Diego, by the way, poaching on our territory in order to woo some of our best biotechnology people over to Texas, something he was quite candid about and successful in doing.) I wonder how Texas would have done if they had only continued to pin oil wells, longhorns and football on their bulletin board?

I do not want to be China or Texas. California is unique. San Diego is unique. And regardless of Governor Perry’s advice, we place among the ten largest economies in the world, thank you very much. Yet our education system, while making gains, is a work in progress. As we think of other icons to pin to our bulletin board, let’s ensure that the innovation, cooperation and work ethic that have always been California are represented. We will always want our children to know the crunch of autumn leaves, and that the snowflakes that fall in our mountains are as different from one another as they are anywhere else, and that yellow mustard, purple lupin and California poppies will continue to cover the hills of the Golden State this spring. Nonetheless, we need to seek answers, solutions, ideas that will help us work together, not drive us apart or lead us to believe that all of the fullness and richness our society has to offer can be simply reduced to themes on a bulletin board.

—KATHERINE NAKAMURA

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