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Doug Porter is a regular blogger for OBRag.org and a San Diego Unified parent. He is guest blogging about why he opposes a campaign to change how the San Diego Unified school board is selected.
These are his views, not mine, so if you have comments, questions or counterarguments, please post them directly to the blog or email Doug himself at firstname.lastname@example.org. He’ll be posting responses and updates later in the day. You can also check out our earlier blog by Scott Himelstein, who backs the initiative. — EMILY ALPERT
I find it quite curious that any mention of gun control anywhere leads to a chorus of cries that our freedoms are in grave danger. Yet when a private group openly espouses encroaching on our right to vote…[crickets].
We hear a lot these days about the failings of our education system. Everywhere you look, fingers are pointed at the supposed culprits behind this crisis: lack of funding, the unions, the special interests, television, the internet, poverty, parents, teachers, immigration and, perhaps, the meddling federal government.
Education reform has become a fashionable forum for philanthropists who are so sure they can transfer their success in business to education that they are willing to bet your children’s lives on it. Diane Ravitch calls them the “Billionaire Boys Club” in her best-selling book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.
Now there is a move afoot, inspired by these well-meaning types asking the citizens of San Diego, via an upcoming initiative, to sacrifice your right to vote for school board members in the name of reform. Perhaps you’ve seen their (paid) signature collectors recently, asking for your support to “save our schools.”
By 2020 just about one-half of students nationwide will be attending public schools clustered in 20 large urban districts. The research into large city school districts reveals widespread poverty, chronic academic underachievement, dropouts, crime, unstable school boards, reform policy churn, and high superintendent turnover. The typical tenure of a superintendent in the largest large city districts is two to three years. In San Diego, we’ve had four superintendents since 1996.
Reliance on test scores, charter schools and an ever increasing expectation for school system employees to do more with less are all parts of the currently fashionable “reform” picture. At the root of all this local push is the notion that such reforms can only be accomplished by a strong leader, one like Alan Bersin, who directed San Diego’s system from 1998-2005.
Bersin’s tenure ended here once the majority that backed him on the school board was defeated at the ballet box. Despite, for example, spending $720,000 to defeat Board member Frances Zimmerman in 2000, the pro-Bersin, pro-business interests were unable to persuade the public to buy into their approach.
Now these same groups are back in the game, hailing a self-financed study of San Diego schools that selectively uses data purporting to show that a “crisis” is at hand. Calling themselves San Diegans 4 Great Schools, their solution to this “emergency” is to appoint an additional four members to the school board.
Other major urban areas have tried this route, either going with hybrid appointed/elected school boards, or by having the mayor take control of the schools. Like charter schools, these attempts at governance reform have produced mixed results, and certainly nothing that would qualify as a game changer or a silver bullet for school performance.
There is no simple cure for the ills that plague our schools. But if the problem is worst in our largest districts, then one understandable policy proposal would be to divide them into smaller districts, as Harvard University economist Caroline M. Hoxby has pointed out. Her research indicates that smaller districts foster more choice for parents, with the resulting competition leading to significantly improved school performance. Given that parents greatly value neighborhood schools, smaller districts would seem to be a better choice. San Diego Unified is already taking steps in this direction on the administrative level by breaking local schools into eight clusters.
We’ve tried the “we need some appointed experts” approach in the not-so-distant past right here in San Diego with the city’s employee pension plans. And I don’t think that process has worked out too well for the taxpayer. We certainly need to question the motives of any group that claims to have “the” solution to a problem this complex. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
As Winston Churchill said on the eve of the cold war, “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect… Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Faced with the choice of giving up my right to vote or more local control, I’ll take local control every time.
Doug Porter is a 1968 graduate from Point Loma High School and has a daughter that attends the San Diego School for Creative and Performing Arts. He blogs regularly for OBRag.org. You can contact Doug directly at email@example.com.