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Mission Bay High School / Photo by Dustin Michelson

Earlier this week, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher floated an interesting idea on Twitter: What would happen if we ended school choice in San Diego and kept all kids in their assigned schools?

I wonder if we enforced neighborhood school boundaries in CA if traffic and greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced. Not making a legislative suggestion, just a real question.

— Lorena (@LorenaSGonzalez) November 27, 2017

Because ending school choice – the program that allows kids to attend schools other than the one closest to home, space permitting – would ostensibly mean more kids attend neighborhood schools, fewer parents would drive kids across town, which could cut down on vehicle emissions, Gonzalez Fletcher suggested. It would also cut down on the money school districts spend on buses to take kids to school and back – something I’ve been writing a lot about lately.

In another tweet, Gonzalez Fletcher suggested ending school choice might improve outcomes for students overall, as schools would hang onto high-performing or motivated students who transfer out of neighborhood schools in search of more rigorous or prestigious programs.

School choice became more politically charged with last year’s appointment of Betsy DeVos, who has a long history of supporting private school vouchers and charters schools, as U.S. secretary of education.

But San Diego also has long history with school choice in ways that have nothing to do with school vouchers, which don’t exist in California. For decades, parents have sent kids to schools outside their neighborhoods. If parents can figure out transportation on their own, they can pretty much send kids to any age-appropriate school in the district, space permitting. Ending that program would have major implications for San Diego Unified as a whole.

Because there’s so much wrapped up in this idea, I spoke with Gonzalez Fletcher to flesh it out.

To be clear, Gonzalez Fletcher told me her tweet was simply a free-form idea – not a policy proposal or an agenda item. But, as Gonzalez Fletcher said, conversations like these are also where legislation starts.

“I just think it’s valuable to review this practice,” Gonzalez Fletcher said. “This is historic – for generations, parents have made decisions to send their kids to schools outside of their neighborhoods. Whether or not those decisions are rational, we like to have the personal choice. … Maybe the way we have been doing things with school choice is the wrong way to deal with issues of inequity. Maybe injecting substantial amounts of money into low-income schools would be a better option.”

Gonzalez Fletcher is an interesting figure to spark this conversation. Before she arrived at the Assembly in 2013, she served as secretary-treasurer and CEO of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council – a union of unions. And many teachers unions, including those in California, have advocated for an end to charter schools, most of which are non-union schools.

Charter schools, teachers unions contend, draw motivated students and the state attendance dollars that go with them, chipping away at the money school districts have to educate students across the district.

But charter schools are only one piece of the school choice picture in San Diego. Traditional neighborhood schools in some areas of town, like Mission Bay, rely on students from outside the neighborhood to keep their enrollment numbers up. Ending school choice abruptly could send those schools into disarray. And it would officially abandon the district’s attempt to create diverse and integrated schools, a plan the district was forced to create in the 1970s.

In some ways, San Diego Unified officials have made a series of decisions over the past 10 years that have deprioritized school choice. Around the time the district began slashing its transportation department, school leaders launched their Vision 2020 plan, an effort to create quality schools in every neighborhood filled with students from the surrounding area.

Still, it’s unlikely the district would (or could) end school choice any time soon.

As political as the conversation has become, some high-profile school leaders choose charter schools for their own kids. San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten, for example, sent her son to High Tech High, a well-regarded charter school in San Diego.

Gonzalez Fletcher is upfront about the fact her own family has benefited from school choice. Her kids went to schools outside of the neighborhood and attended High Tech High. That dynamic, she said, has led to some awkward conversations with labor leaders and school reformers. But the us-versus-them mentality, she said, isn’t necessary.

“I support school choice. I support charter schools. There are some shining examples and innovative practices I think school districts could learn from,” she said.  “I also believe deeply in labor and in workers’ right to organize and have a collective voice. So I have some awkward conversations with both sides. That being said, I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive.”

She said when school reformers approach her they often want to talk about ending teacher unions. Labor advocates want to talk about ending charter schools. Neither idea is helpful or necessary, Gonzalez Fletcher said.

“I don’t think it has to be so black and white. We shouldn’t have to choose between basic rights for teachers having options for students. We can do this, and if we say we can’t it’s a lack of imagination on our part,” she said.

An End to Bus Collections?

Several weeks ago, we reported that San Diego Unified engages in a surprising practice to collect bus fees from parents: It sends parents who are late to pay to a collections agency.

The story generated a lot of discussion, in no small part because some people were surprised to learn school districts in California charge parents fees for their kids to ride the school bus at all. In San Diego Unified, bus rides to school cost parents $500 a year – if school buses are available at all.

Sending parents to a collections agency takes it up another notch. Parents could be subjected to phone calls or letters from collections agents or have their credit impacted.

This is happening at a time when California is reconsidering practices that keep low-income families in poverty. And last month, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to ensure students aren’t refused school lunches because their parents are late to pay the lunch bill.

Meanwhile, the district has no plans to end this practice. Just this month, in fact, San Diego Unified renewed its contract with the collections agency it’s used to recoup bus fees.

Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and Policy, which supported the school lunch bill, told me she was “horrified to hear that a school district is bilking parents for school bus fees.”

She also said Western Center on Law and Policy now has this issue on its radar.

Gonzalez Fletcher has concerns, too. She said she’s considering a bill to put an end to the use of collections agencies to recoup bus fees. San Diego Unified, you’ve been warned.

Graduation Rate Shenanigans

Graduation rates are the most visible sign of a school or district’s performance. A high graduation rate signals that schools are preparing students for life after high school.

But some schools and school districts appear to be taking shortcuts to raise those rates. This week, WAMU and NPR took a look at one school in Washington D.C. where 100 percent of students graduated and got accepted to college. When journalists dug in, they discovered the graduation rate may not have been all it was cracked up to be.

Among the problems reporters found: “Documents showed that half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school.”

Local reporters, too, have found some interesting trends when they dug into graduation rates. In May, inewsource dug into the numbers at Gompers Preparatory Academy, where each year a high number of students graduate and go onto college. But standardized test scores don’t match the graduation numbers, and some teachers told the outlet they faced pressure from school officials to inflate grades.

We’ve devoted a lot time to understanding what’s behind San Diego Unified’s record-setting 2016 graduation rate. The district graduated 91 percent of students in the district, but we also found some school officials had been referring low-performing students to charter schools, where they don’t count against the district’s graduation rate if they fail to graduate.

In Other News

  • Read how one parent and reporter responded to a child who called her kid the N-word. (Houston Chronicle)
  • After one teenager was caught attempting to leave the United States to join ISIS in battle, prosecutors took an interesting approach: They helped rehabilitate him instead of simply punishing him. (NPR)
  • Want to raise an empowered girl? Then let her be funny. (Washington Post)
  • Finally, parents, make sure to monitor that screen time. YouTube may be like catnip to kids and parents, but some of the videos children might stumble across are disturbing and downright creepy — and that’s apparently the intention. (NPR)

Correction: We’ve updated the quote from Gonzalez Fletcher to better reflect that she was proposing perhaps more investment in schools in poorer areas.

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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