Sen. Kamala Harris takes part in a hearing. / Photo courtesy of Sen. Kamala Harris

Sen. Kamala Harris has a bold $315 billion plan to raise teacher pay and student outcomes in the neediest schools. Back in 2008, then-Sen. Barack Obama had a radical, multibillion-dollar plan for America’s neediest schools, too.

Besides a coast-to-coast raise of $10,000 a year, Harris’ plan would also provide an additional pay boost for teachers in struggling schools. That could decrease teacher turnover, which, research has shown, can lead to better student outcomes. On the whole, her plan is designed to raise the prestige of the teaching profession to help attract more qualified candidates, which could also help student outcomes.

Obama’s plan was very different, but no less sweeping. He wanted to replicate the success of Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone in poor areas all across the country. In Harlem, Canada had created a pipeline of cradle-to-college services that was doing a shockingly good job getting kids who might not have otherwise had the chance into college. The program offered more counselors, more health services, more food services and more parent coaching than traditional public schools. It also pushed teachers extremely hard, and led to burnout.

But to make his program work, Canada had to bring in hundreds of million of dollars in philanthropic investment.

Obama got it: “How much will this cost? I’ll be honest with you: It can’t be done on the cheap. It will cost a few billion dollars a year,” he said at a rally in August 2008.

That money, as you may have guessed, never turned up. Obama did create the Promise Neighborhoods program, but it was never funded to an extent that made replicating the success of Canada’s poverty-ending program even remotely possible.

In 2015, I interviewed Canada when I was working on a three-part series about the Hayward Promise Neighborhood in the East Bay. At the time, he told me the budget for Harlem Children’s Zone – just above $100 million per year – was more than the entire Promise Neighborhood budget. At the time, 12 different communities were receiving anywhere from $4 million to $6 million per year.

“My fear is that in the end folks will have underfunded a program, haven’t given it the time and say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t work. Fighting poverty doesn’t work. There’s nothing you can do about that.’ And that’s absolutely not the case,” Canada said.

The program still hobbles along today, but Canada’s fear seems to have come to pass in a de-facto kind of way: Some promise neighborhoods have made meaningful progress, plenty haven’t and any urgent effort to truly replicate his program has dropped off the map.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to hate on bold ideas. Bold ideas are exactly what’s needed if America wants to truly use education to fight poverty. But the Promise Neighborhoods story reminds me that bold ideas have a point of diminishing returns. Once they’ve been whittled down far enough, they become mediocre Band-Aids.

It’s exciting that Harris has introduced her plan, unlike Obama, during the primary. That means the party, the public and the rest of the Democratic field will have time to respond to it, develop it and decide if it can hold up as a serious priority into the future.

The most important detail I’ll be watching: Will Harris’ provision for battle pay in the neediest schools survive? California teacher’s unions have historically been in favor of raises. They have not been in favor of providing extra pay to keep teachers in the most underserved schools.

California Aims for Crackdown on For-Profit Colleges

Salespeople made a thousand cold calls a week. Every time they got a new client, a cowbell rang or plastic hands clapped. It was a “boiler-room atmosphere” straight out of the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street,” said one worker.

Only these weren’t really salespeople, they were admissions counselors at Ashford University in San Diego, according to a lawsuit filed by California’s attorney general in 2017.

One supervisor even kept the key cards of terminated employees on a ring and dangled it in front of admissions counselors to let them know the price of not hitting their sales targets, according to the suit.

Ashford serves a significant portion of veterans and receives millions of dollars in federal student aid money and GI Bill benefits.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has rolled back Obama-era regulations that attempted to force for-profit universities to prove they were providing a worthwhile education. Now California is looking to step in with new regulations of its own.

A flurry of bills working their way through the Legislature would seek to do several things: reintroduce gainful employment rules, like those previously issued under Obama, that would measure student debt against the salaries of graduates; require the attorney general to approve the sale of any non-profit college to a for-profit college; attempt to close loopholes that allow for recruiting quotas; and give students more rights to compensation in the event an institution closes.

Federal law requires for-profits to have at least 10 percent of their student body pay for their education privately. This is supposed to ensure their tuitions are competitively priced and not just set to take advantage of government aid rates. But a loophole allows for-profits to not count GI Bill benefits in the pool of government money or private money, which makes hitting the 10 percent target much easier. Another new bill would close that loophole and raise the threshold to 15 percent in California.

The bills are set to come before the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee on April 9.

VOSD Report Pushes Poway Unified to New Social Media Policy

Poway Unified School District now has a new policy that will govern how its teachers communicate with students over social media and texting, following reporting from VOSD’s Kayla Jimenez about a teacher-student texting case at Westview High School that is still stirring anger in the district.

Poway was among many districts that did not have a clear policy, Jimenez found. The new guidelines say educators should limit the content of their communications to education and school activities and never contact students on social media for personal reasons.

What I’m Reading

  • A question about slavery on a Massachusetts test prompted so much hand-wringing that state officials threw it out, the Boston Globe reported. Hat-tip to world-class education reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Least surprising thing: We are as terrible at teaching about racism and racial inequality as we are in discussing and dealing with it.

— Ida Bae Wells (@nhannahjones) April 4, 2019

  • The Daily on why only seven students made it into New York’s most selective public high school. In The Daily’s telling, Stuyvesant High School can be a “golden ticket” toward a better life. But, according to Chalkbeat, attending an elite high school doesn’t matter as much as you might think.
  • Betsy Devos recently told Congress that students might be better served better by larger class sizes. A common understanding has taken root in education policy wonk circles that class size doesn’t matter that much. But there is plenty of research that shows it does, according to a brief from the National Education Policy Center.

What We’re Writing

  • I wrote about a San Diego Unified School District principal who sexually harassed an employee and created a hostile work environment, according to a district report. Here’s the strange thing: After the district’s findings, officials kept him on as principal as Serra High School for another year, then transferred him to central office and finally paid him roughly $110,000 for 17 months, during which time he was not “required to perform any work.”
  • Add this to our “passing the trash” files: Kayla Jimenez wrote about a $2 million settlement agreement in a case where a teacher abruptly left Coronado Unified School District after being accused of sexual misconduct and then got a job in Sweetwater Union High School District. The Navy Junior ROTC instructor was convicted of statutory rape for having a relationship with a 17-year-old in Sweetwater. She settled a lawsuit against the district for $2 million, arguing officials should have known about the ongoing harassment and abuse.

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego. He can be reached by email or phone at or 619-693-6249.

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