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Recently in the Union-Tribune there was an article by John Eger that included findings from a 53-page report made by the privately subsidized Center for Education Policy and Law at USD which accurately portrays some disturbing student achievement conditions in San Diego Unified. These data also concern the elected school board. Besides its obvious disdain for a democratic election process, the group San Diegans 4 Kids, and the author John Eger, propose that mayors are the best way to run schools.
First let me say, that in the mayor-run districts that Eger mentions but never provides performance data for, there are none equivalent to San Diego that have solved the student achievement gap which he then uses as justification for mayoral control.
In addition, data comparing San Diego City schools performance with equivalent urban school districts show our local schools keeping pace or exceeding comparable communities. Every single San Diego board member is telling the district — with its 2020 vision statement — that we expect our staff to do better.
But using the trite strategies used by opponents of local and democratic school control, Mr. Eger points out comparisons between the nation’s educational achievements and others, and he then uses California’s high standards as a club to beat over its head as he compares us with Alabama and Alaska.
So, if you follow the rhetoric it is better strategy to set low standards and meet them than to set higher standards and miss the mark. Of course, those who want to get people nervous will cite the 27-year-old document with the scary title of “A Nation at Risk.” Of course, San Diego is not the state or nation and the school board has little control over how these political entities compare with others.
It is true that public education is at a crossroads, and in many ways one can compare the problems of educational achievement with the problems we faced during the last generation when overseas firms devastated our manufacturing sector. Foreigners competed then with low cost and quality manufacturing and caused American manufacturers to rethink processes. They did, and now with the restructuring our manufacturing sector is competing again. Interestingly enough, it was not changing the corporate structure and having appointed board members that made Ford, and General Motors improve.
What did restore our industrial strength was a collaborative understanding between labor and management that their best interest required concessions on both sides. That wasn’t forced on the workers, and it wasn’t done by diluting the governance of the companies or the unions. It just made sense for both parties to change.
That condition may be something that public schools will need to consider. There now is local competition for students throughout our country. The charter schools that Arne Duncan and President Obama are touting have made encroachments into public school enrollment. They are not the panacea, but the public view is that they are better schools. While data doesn’t support that view, the perception is much like the marketing strategy that large retailers employ. Gaining market share is not always done through changes in quality, but in perception. That trend cannot be overcome except by competing with higher quality.
So public school quality must change. Students must be motivated by success, and find the attention they get and the progress they make rewarded by personal satisfaction and accelerated graduation. The professionals that teach and run our public schools must use their skills to modify the educational process in creative ways to inspire our kids to learn and grow to productive lives. That isn’t the function of governance. An appointed board, an elected board or mayoral control won’t change that. The fight for control of our local public schools is not going to raise achievement. There are non-union school districts that are worse than San Diego’s, there are also unionized school districts that do better.
The districts that do better have more public interest in those they elect to school boards, and have more real community involvement in their school system. These effective school systems are not run by Mayors; not run by special interests, and they are not holding anyone accountable but themselves.
Why delegate accountability to a Mayor? It may be easy and you can then have only one person to accuse of not taking care of OUR civic business. I can see the mayor asking herself: “Do we have sales taxes … or better schools?”
Eger stresses accountability as the reason for mayoral school control. So with his scenario if one wants accountability they can just change mayors in four years! You can do that with an elected school board every two years.
The plan Eger is reporting seems like an easy, simplistic, and irresponsible way to improve schools. If this is what people donate to tax exempt private college think tanks for, then maybe the colleges should not have tax exempt status … when you engage in political activities the Feds don’t permit tax exemptions … even for donors! We are supposed to teach our kids critical thinking. So follow the money! It isn’t coming from the Mayor.
John de Beck taught for 36 years in San Diego schools and served for 20 years on the San Diego Board of Education. He lives in Bay Park.