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The San Diego Unified school board backtracked tonight on an explosively controversial plan to shift all of its federal money for disadvantaged students to its very poorest schools.

The decision reversed a plan that a new board set forth almost a year ago. Shifting the funds was one of their most disputed decisions because some schools would lose money at a time when they face other cuts. It would have been a dramatic change in the district strategy to combat its nagging achievement gap.

Parents and community activists who supported focusing on the poorest schools complained that the school board had dithered instead of making the dramatic change they committed to last year.

Dropping the plan was the latest in a string of recent school board vacillations on everything from school closures to busing cuts.

“You wasted a whole year and now you’re going to decide to go back,” lamented Lincoln High parent Michelle Bryant.

School board member John Lee Evans argued that they weren’t “flip-flopping.” He abstained when the board first voted on the plan, then voted to cancel it this year. “The issue is getting it right,” Evans said.

The federal money is meant to help poor children catch up academically to their better-off classmates. It comes out to roughly $21 million. Schools decide for themselves how to use it to help disadvantaged kids, buying everything from extra counselors to special supplies to try to help poor kids succeed.

For years, San Diego Unified has given the money to all schools where at least 40 percent of students are poor. Poorer schools get more money per student. School board member Shelia Jackson has long pushed to devote the money exclusively to schools where at least 75 percent of students live in poverty.

The plan would pull the federal money from dozens of schools with lower poverty rates. Most schools in the southeastern stretches of San Diego Unified that Jackson represents would gain; many schools farther north would lose out.

The idea bitterly divided principals and parents this year. It played on the sensitive issue of busing: Shifting the money would pour more funds into schools that many children now leave, at the expense of many of the schools they bus into. One parent who backed the shift repeatedly shouted “No busing!”

But principals and parents at the losing schools protested that poor students still need extra help, even if they go to school in an area where more people are well off. Some complained that people wrongly assumed there were no poor children in their area and that all of them were bused in.

“What happens to the economically disadvantaged kids who attend schools that don’t meet this threshold?” asked Duane Walker, a parent at Vista Grande Elementary in Tierrasanta.

When new school board members were elected last year, Jackson gained a seemingly unlikely ally in new board member Scott Barnett, who voted with Jackson and Richard Barrera to shift all the funding to the highest poverty schools. Evans abstained and Beiser was absent when the school board voted to make the change last year.

But the school board decided to phase in the change slowly. And by the time that change was about to become a reality, Barnett decided he had made a mistake. He argued earlier this month that without proof that the money was improving achievement, he couldn’t back a radical change in allocating it. Tonight Barnett, Beiser and Evans voted to reverse the plan; Barrera and Jackson opposed them.

However, Barnett introduced a new plan that would shift a smaller share of the funds to the poorest schools. The unexpected idea was a peace offering: Barnett suggested using $2 million of the federal funds to fund pilot programs to boost achievement in the highest poverty schools. Up to 20 schools could get the money. The school board unanimously voted to start designing the plan.

Half of the money — $1 million — would be pulled from schools where 40 to 75 percent of students are poor. That would reduce their funding but not eliminate it. Half would come from federal funds that are now used to pay for other, optional programs, including some positions that are unfilled in its race relations department. School district staffers are supposed to work out the exact details.

Under the plan, San Diego Unified would also have to measure whether those new reforms work. That addresses a persistent concern: Parents have repeatedly complained that schools do not do a good job of checking whether programs paid for with the federal funds are actually helping poor children achieve.

The school board has waffled on how to divide up this money before. Two years ago, Jackson pushed to shift the money to the poorest schools. Barrera and Evans, who had just been elected, backed the idea. But after schools that would lose the money turned out to protest, the school board changed its mind. It ended up opting for the status quo.

Emily Alpert is the education reporter for What should she write about next? Please contact her directly at

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Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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