The Learning Curve is a weekly column that answers questions about schools using plain language. Have a question about how your local schools work? Write me at


Schools in San Diego Unified are staring down a looming $124 million budget shortfall, wondering what cuts would have the least impact on their classrooms.

One principal wrote in a message to parents that all elementary schools with fewer than 1,000 students are set to lose their vice principals. She also advised parents to brace for reduced library hours and fewer staff members to monitor lunch and recess.

Since our story that included the principal’s missive, parents have written me asking what else will be cut. That question is up in the air. A San Diego Unified spokesperson said decisions for next year are still preliminary, but should be sorted out within two weeks.

This is where education tends to get personal. It’s easy to miss school board meetings or informational sessions. But even parents who otherwise don’t pay attention to education news get involved when their child’s favorite teacher or principal gets sent away.

In a message Superintendent Cindy Marten posted to Facebook earlier this week, she assured parents that the district will cut from the Central Office before it asks schools to do more, and that it’d protect small class-sizes.

There a couple problems with those claims, though. Marten posted that note on Tuesday. She didn’t specify how the Central Office will be impacted, or what positions will be cut. But all principals had to turn in their budgets had to turn in their budgets for the 2017-2018 school year by 5 p.m. on Monday.

That means that schools already had to make tough budget decisions by the time Marten posted that note.
Furthermore, protecting class sizes is a noble goal, but it’s something that’s hammered out in bargaining sessions with the teachers union. That is, maintaining class sizes is something Marten is contractually obligated to do.

At this point, the relevant question for parents is what they can do to avoid losing funding or staff members.

First, it helps to know which decisions are made by individual schools and which come from the Central Office. Decisions like library hours or paying staff to monitor lunch or recess are actually made by principals. Sure, they may have less money next year to spend on those things, but they still have some control over which to prioritize.

If your concerns fall here, speak with your principal, other parents or your school site council. Unfortunately, because principals already turned in their budgets for next year, they may be limited on what changes they can make.

For other concerns, like, say losing a vice principal or having less money to spend, you’ll need to take this up with Marten and the school board. Calling or sending emails can help. Be the squeaky wheel. Parents might question whether they have the power to actually influence board members, but remember, board members are politicians. They work for you. They want people to like and re-elect them. If you want to improve your chances of being heard, show up to a board meeting and speak your concerns in public.

Amy Redding, a parent and chair of a committee that supports schools in the Kearny cluster, said that in her nine years of advocating for budget transparency in San Diego Unified, she’s seen parents have the most impact when they speak at board meetings.

“Marten and school board members really don’t like it when people do that. They don’t want their dirty laundry aired in public,” she said.

Here are San Diego Unified school board members’ email addresses, if you want to drop them a line:

Cindy Marten, superintendent:

John Lee Evans, trustee:

Kevin Beiser, board vice president:

Michael McQuary, trustee:

Richard Barrera, board president:

Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, trustee:

Ed Reads of the Week

Trying to Solve a Bigger Math Problem (New York Times)

Last month, we brought you a story about a disastrous turn for the Middle College at Lincoln High, a program that allows high school students to take courses at City College.

Until recently, the program had positive results. But just before the start of last semester, all students who signed up for the program were routed into a single remedial math class. The results were dismal. Out of 66 students, 49 failed the course.

In a follow-up story that aired last week, Trustee Sharon Whitehurst-Payne told NBC San Diego that there’s a silver lining for the students who failed: Now they’ll have had some college math experience and will likely do better next time.

Whitehurst-Payne told NBC that mistakes were made with the Middle College at every level. Lincoln staff members will do more to monitor and support students in college courses, she said.

But there could be reason for the dismal pass rate that goes beyond Lincoln High School.

A story this week in the New York Times points out that nearly 60 percent of community college students wind up in remedial math. When researchers looked at data, they found that students are more likely to graduate college if they avoid remedial math and jump right to college-level classes.

Researchers aren’t sure why, but they guess that students in remedial classes, which cost money but don’t count for credits, often get frustrated and simply give up. One additional challenge that the story doesn’t mention is that high school students now learn math through Common Core strategies, an approach that doesn’t match the way college professors are teaching.

Both are good reasons for San Diego Unified officials to question whether remedial math is the best course of action for high school students.

San Diego Educators Working To Make Math Friendlier For English Learners (KPBS)

Speaking of Common Core math – which requires students not just to get the right answer, but to explain and justify the work – it can pose additional obstacles for students who are still learning English.

Researchers and teachers are brainstorming ways to help English-learners overcome the language barrier and access rigorous math content.

Eli Broad’s opposition to DeVos reveals fault lines in charter school movement (EdSource)

After weeks of protest, an all-night session on the Senate floor and an unprecedented tie-breaking vote by the vice president, billionaire Republican philanthropist Betsy DeVos was confirmed earlier this week as secretary of education.

If DeVos’ politics give you pause, you might want to read this NPR story about the limits of her role.

“Perhaps her opponents should take a deep breath. The federal role in education policy is limited. Less than 10 percent of funding for K-12 schools comes from the feds, for example,” writes Anya Kamenetz.

But one story that will be interesting to watch moving forward is the degree to which DeVos sews discord within “education reformer” circles. More specifically, whether charter school supporters will pull away from DeVos in an effort to distance themselves from the school vouchers that she’s espoused.

We’re already seeing rifts. Last week, before she was confirmed, criticism came from Eli Broad, another billionaire philanthropist with a long history of backing charter schools.

Vouchers, which Californians have twice denied at the ballot box, are likely a non-starter in the Golden State. But on the issue, Broad finds himself in unlikely company and in line with teachers unions. Each believes that vouchers would be a disaster for California’s students and public schools.

VOSD staff writer Mario Koran is also a fellow at New America California.

Mario Koran

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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