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San Diego is hostile to education reform because city leaders avoid school issues and “the teachers’ union wields considerable influence” in San Diego Unified School District, a think tank is arguing in a new report.

The Fordham Institute, a right-of-center think tank that favors charter schools and alternative ways to train teachers, ranked San Diego 22 out of 26 cities in a study on how friendly cities are to reform.

The group did not examine test scores or graduation rates. Instead, Fordham tried to gauge how open school districts are to innovative ideas from outside the system, weighing factors such as how well school districts recruit talent, how they use data, how friendly they are to charter schools and how they seek out new funding.

San Diego did, however, get points for being a supportive environment for charter schools.

“The way we’re doing things now doesn’t work,” said Stafford Palmieri, one of the authors of the report, said of the national education picture. “We need to look for out-of-the-box solutions.”

The think tank rankings come just as San Diego Unified leaders are unveiling their own plan for fixing schools, which involves allowing each school to create their own reforms through teacher collaboration and data analysis. Its philosophy is that change can emerge from schools themselves, instead of being planted from outside as Fordham suggests.

“They look at reform as, ‘How open are we to the next new trend?’” said Nellie Meyer, the deputy superintendent who oversees academics. “What we’re doing is good educational practice.”

Three Fordham Institute analysts ranked urban districts by surveying national organizations and local experts on charter schools, staffing and philanthropy. They gathered their information last fall.

School district leaders say that the Fordham analysis is dated and irrelevant, pointing out that San Diego Unified outperforms other school districts that Fordham ranked more highly on its reform scale.

“Reform should be measured by how you’re doing — not by whether you’re anti- or pro-union or how many grants you get,” said Bernie Rhinerson, chief district relations officer.

This isn’t the first time that Fordham has criticized San Diego Unified. Two years ago the same group gave the school system low marks for labor agreements that it said tied principals’ hands.

San Diego Unified has scheduled a press conference on its reform plans today, the same morning that the Fordham rankings are released. I’ll be interested to see if Superintendent Bill Kowba mentions it. Check back later for more on dueling definitions of school reform.

— EMILY ALPERT

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