I know it has been a shamefully long time since The Learning Curve graced your inbox. If you’ve been waiting patiently for months to get the excellent writing you know and love delivered once again, I have good news and bad news.
First, the bad: Mario Koran — tenacious reporter and former writer of this newsletter — took a new job. I know, I get it, you’re disappointed. But I hope you can take heart in this: The Learning Curve, as of this very moment, lives again. And every two weeks it will be back with your fix of important and insightful stories in the world of education.
Reading the daily news can feel like standing in a hailstorm. And I hope this newsletter will be the opposite. Think of it as a dip in a cool mountain stream — something to leave you invigorated instead of battered. Before I get even more swept up in my hopes and metaphors and what appear to be the makings of a grand mission statement, I should probably introduce myself. I’m Will, and I’m Voice’s new education reporter.
I started covering education at a non-profit news site in Raleigh, North Carolina, almost 10 years ago. Since then I’ve covered schools in New York City and the East Bay, as well as for NPR’s ed team. (If you want to hear something very cute and slightly surreal, you should listen to this story I did that went inside the world of test prep boot camps for 4-year-olds.) Each state and school district has its own strange quirks and acronyms, so for the past two weeks I’ve been cramming all the knowledge I can about K-12 education in San Diego County.
None of this may be news to y’all Southern California experts, but let me hit you with just a couple of things I’ve learned:
Prior to reading about San Diego Unified’s upcoming $3.5 billion measure, I thought of bonds as fairly uncontroversial and, dare I say, boring. San Diego Unified has already passed two bonds, totaling $4.9 billion, in the past 10 years. District officials still have $2 billion they could cash in on from those past measures. When you count a failed 2010 parcel tax for schools, the district has put more school measures on the ballot than any other district in the county since 2008, except for Cajon Valley Union. And as Ashly McGlone has reported, San Diego Unified has now argued three times that it needs money for some of the exact same construction projects. Bonds can be important or controversial for all sorts of reasons, I’ve discovered. Some schools in states with extremely austere budgets have had to close when their district didn’t pass a bond.
Bonus: What is a bond, you ask? I wasn’t quite sure myself, so I did a little digging. Turns out a school district will basically write an IOU for, say, $1 million. It will then sell that IOU and get a cash infusion, which it will have to pay back, with interest, over many years.
County vs. City School Districts
Another semi-new phenomenon for me. Last time I covered an entire county — Wake County, North Carolina, which has nearly 160,000 students — it was only one school district. As a way to help facilitate integration, Wake consolidated its many small districts into an entire countywide district in the 1970s. Ironically, schools in parts of the country that weren’t forced to integrate — which are often considered more “liberal” — maintained highly segregated city and neighborhood schools through small districts with arbitrary lines that might stop right at the black part of town. Here’s what’s fascinating to me: San Diego Unified has roughly 126,000 students; the rest of the county combined has about 380,000!
I don’t want to short those other students in my reporting, but I certainly won’t be able to make it to all the board meetings for those other 41 districts in this county. And that’s where I need your help. Maybe you live in Borrego Springs and want to go to a meeting there? Do it. Please. Tell me about everything that happens. Maybe I’ll even share your hard work in this newsletter. I have a strong intuition that lots of greatness and corruption go unseen in these small districts, and I hope we can uncover as much of it as possible.
I could go on about what I’ve learned, but instead I just had a great thought for the mission statement: Newsletters shouldn’t be more than a thousand words. So let me try to begin my wrap-up here by saying that I truly hope this newsletter can be a place of community. Reply to me. Let me know what’s working and what’s not. I’m not exactly sure how each letter is going to shape up in the future. Obviously, I’ll let you know the important news and how it applies to our districts. But beyond that I want to include your questions, comments and criticisms somehow. If you have an especially big and interesting question, I may try to answer it for everyone.
OK, I’ve really rambled on, so for this issue, here are three things I’m reading:
Channel One News is dead. The morning news show that aired across thousands of schools in the United States went off the air recently. This has been highly underrated news, if you ask me. I don’t know if you remember Channel One, but it was definitely a big part of my middle and high school life in Johnston County, North Carolina. We got Lisa Ling — now of CNN fame — beamed straight into our classrooms every morning. (And I had no idea Anderson Cooper started at Channel One?! I think this makes Channel One basically The Mickey Mouse Club for wannabe newscasters.) I can’t say it made us thoughtful teens, but we paid enough attention to at least make fun of adults trying to get on our level. It was a bright spot. Until reading about its demise, I never realized it was controversial. Many groups opposed it right from the start because of the commercials being flashed before of our captive eyes.
Education may be the driving issue in the race for Wisconsin governor, according to the New Yorker. That would really be something, given how little education seems to drive races for higher office. But maybe it makes sense. The state has, until this year, cut education funding every year since 2011 under Gov. Scott Walker. This is the figure on which Dan Kaufman makes his case: “In June, Marquette University released a poll that showed fifty-nine per cent of respondents in Wisconsin prefer increasing spending on schools to reducing property taxes. (Five years earlier, only forty-six per cent did.)”
The Teacher Wars. Yes, I am way behind on this. Dana Goldstein’s book “The Teacher Wars” came out in 2014, but I’m stoked to finally be reading it. I’m not far in yet, but the book starts well. The preface notes that since the inception of public schools, policy-makers in the United States have advocated for education as a way to flatten out inequality. But ulterior motives are never far from the surface. Horace Mann, Massachusetts’ first secretary of education and a U.S. congressman, was friendly with big business. Focusing on education as an equalizer meant he didn’t need to worry about reining in unfair labor practices. Mann also argued for replacing the mostly male teacher workforce with women. Publicly, he said that women’s beatific and nurturing personalities made them the obvious choice to shape young minds. To his policy-making colleagues, he highlighted the significant cost savings that came with hiring a much cheaper workforce.
So much for that thousand-word limit. Hope to hear from y’all soon!