The battle for the hearts and minds of young people in San Diego’s public schools continues unabated as yet another year draws to a close. The shadowy group, San Diegans for Great Schools, a spin-off of the USD private think tank Center for Education Policy and Law (CEPAL) is now paying a company to gather 135,000 signatures on petitions around the city to place an initiative on the ballot (exactly when has yet to be determined) that will “reform” our local schools.
The uncertainty about the “when” of this ballot measure is due to reports that Gov.-elect Jerry Brown is already planning on calling a special election aimed at giving California voters a say in negotiations regarding the state’s on-going and ever-worsening budget woes. The Great Schools strategy involves getting their measure on the ballot for a low-turnout election, where voters tend to skew in a more conservative direction. A state-wide measure with long-term budget cuts or tax increases at stake would increase voter turnout as interest groups fight to retain funding or oppose taxes.
At the heart of their school “reform” proposal, sandwiched in between items that are likely to strike a positive chord with voters (district-only elections, term limits) is a measure calling for expansion of the San Diego Board of Trustees through the appointment of four additional members to be selected by a “commission” of “experts”.
The secretive “Great Schools” group originally hoped to call for trustees to be appointed by the Mayor, as has happened in Washington DC, but gave up on the idea after the current Mayor (Sanders) and many other elected officials declined to support the idea. Afraid that higher voter interest might increase public scrutiny on their plans, the Great Schools group is maneuvering, hoping to have their measure up before the voters in a lower profile election.
Spinning A Crisis
The public rationale behind their plan to hybridize the local school board is dressed up with “concerned citizen” rhetoric designed to mislead the public into believing that this ballot measure will somehow improve public education in San Diego. The Great Schools arsenal of information includes statements like:
The bottom line is the San Diego’s students remain mired in a system that consistently has failed to make significant progress despite empirical evidence in other large urban districts such as Boston, New York and Chicago that such progress is, indeed, possible. All three of those districts operate with appointed boards.
Indeed, all three districts they mention have shown (modest) progress on test results, although there are critics who claim that these improved scores are the result of lowering the bar and other manipulations. And when you consider that more students in Mississippi (traditionally considered one of the backwaters of public education) are (according to the Federal Government) “proficient” readers than their allegedly high-flying New York City counterparts, one has to wonder if the “improvements” supposedly inherent in appointed school boards are worth striving for.
In Washington DC, the home of both an appointed school board AND a ball-busting Superintendent of Schools (who fired hundreds of teachers and dozens of principals), the test scores released this summer gave them nothing to be happy about: fifty six percent of local students cannot read and perform basic math. DC’s public schools, including charters, saw English and Math scores decline by 4 and 5 points respectively. And the Super quit when the incumbent Mayor lost in the recent election. I guess that’s why “Great Schools” doesn’t mention Washington DC.
Interestingly enough, San Diego’s schools, with an elected school board, have shown test score growth, as pointed out in a recent Voice of San Diego article:
San Diego Unified state test scores surged this year, even as its budget was slashed. Its English and science scores rank highly among California urban districts, marking another year of steady growth on state tests. San Diego Unified also outscored the average for urban school districts across the country on a sample national exam given to fourth and eighth graders.
Elected and appointed school boards have both succeeded and failed in various cities, and how they are picked seem to be not connected with student achievement. A multi-year study, published in 2007 by the University of Alabama, which focused on student achievement in school districts with elected vs. appointed school boards, found no discernible difference in academic achievement. And, indeed, that seems to be the conclusion of most independent observers. However, the Alabama study did note one obvious difference: resources were more equitably distributed in communities with elected school boards. And that observation opens the door to exploring what’s really going on with San Diegan’s for Great Schools’ proposal.
In 1992, Virginia became the last state in the nation to allow elected school boards, after years of lawsuits and prodding from the ACLU. Within a few years, voters in more than 80% of Virginia’s school districts decided to trade their old appointed school boards for elected ones.
Appointed school boards were part of the legacy of the post-Reconstruction period, culminating in the 1901 Virginia Constitutional Convention, which was devoted to codifying Jim Crow practices. Voter literacy tests, poll taxes and appointed school boards were among the primary accomplishments at that gathering.
Carter Glass, the Convention’s de facto leader, summed up the general purpose of the gathering, by saying:
“Discrimination! Why that is exactly what we propose; that exactly, is why this Convention was elected — to discriminate to the very extremity of permissible action under the limitations of the Federal Constitution with the view to the elimination of every [N]egro who can be gotten rid of, legally, without materially impairing the strength of the white electorate.”
In 1947 the Virginia General Assembly, bowing to the wishes of Arlington County, passed a law permitting that one jurisdiction to elect its school board members. In 1956, after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, Arlington’s school board voted to integrate the school system. The General Assembly reacted immediately by repealing the law allowing elected school boards in Arlington.
The Great Schools Agenda
There is absolutely no evidence that San Diegan’s for Great Schools have an overtly racist agenda. The point in citing Virginia as an example was to illustrate that appointing school boards is a quick ticket to implementing a political agenda, which this group has in abundance. I should point out, however, that it’s extremely doubtful that minority representation on the local school board will increase with four members appointed by an elitist commission.
Academic achievement (or the lack thereof) is an issue that is of concern to parents, employers and politicians. It’s not unique to San Diego. The shortcomings of our education system are a nationwide problem. The answers to this dilemma aren’t as easy as many pundits would have you believe. And, despite the “crisis” atmosphere that critics are so quick to bandy about, the fact is that surveys show that a super-majority of parents are happy with their own children’s schools. (See my coverage on education reform here, here, here and here .)
So, what the “Great Schools” group has done thus far is to “spin” the nation-wide crisis into a local “emergency” using a single (half-baked ) study. They have the “solution” to this crisis, because the problem is, according to their analysis, “governance”. It’s a time-honored, well-tested formula: fool the citizenry into going along with your agenda and giving up their rights by scaring them with carefully manufactured facts.
“Great Schools” wants a top down, military/corporate system of “governance” for local schools. The current school board has elected to address reform issues by committing to a “community-based” model that sees parent engagement and active involvement in schools as a critical element to increase overall student achievement. Ultimately, though, the agenda of the Great Schools group is more about what they (and their minions) can get away with less public scrutiny than it is about school reform: it’s about future political power for politicos who’ve been spurned at the ballot box and money-making opportunities for the developers who are funding them.
To understand the underlying motives of the “Great Schools” group it’s necessary to look back to the 1990’s. Back then the Chamber of Commerce had an “Education Committee” (they still do, but it’s not so active anymore) that decided that buying a seat or two on the SD School Board was a good idea. To make a long story short, they got busted for illegal campaign contributions.
Fast forward to 2000 when a coalition of business groups poured $720,000 into a campaign attacking incumbent school board member Francis Zimmerman and her opposition to the policies of San Diego Unified School District superintendent Alan Bersin. (Remember, the job pays a whopping $18,000 a year.)
Zimmerman was also very publicly in opposing schemes for selling off the district’s real estate for commercial development and had raised lots questions about district purchasing agreements. Then, during the campaign, it was revealed that her well financed opponent worked for a law firm that was lobbying hard for sweetheart district property deals.
At the heart of all this chicanery are–surprise! surprise!– many of the same individuals who have been identified as the moving forces behind the “Great Schools” group. While group has been quick to list its “supporters” on their website, the actual governance mechanisms of the group and composition of the leadership are secret.
It’s important to note here that you can close a school with three Board of Education votes, but it takes four Board votes to rid the district of a school site via sale, development or long-term lease. Throughout the last decade the business interests that are backing this latest initiative were never able to get more than three votes on the Board. And things really broke bad for them in 2008 when Richard Barrera was elected. (For those of you who follow such things, this was about the time that the Union-Tribune began a series of editorial attacks on San Diego Unified that continues unabated. The paper may have a new editor and logo, but their slavish devotion to downtown business interests remains unchanged.) This ballot measure is simply ruse by developers to get the necessary votes on the board so they can snatch district property, preferably at discount prices.
It’s pretty much standard operating procedure for the companies that gather voter signatures for ballot initiatives to misrepresent the true aims of the petitions that people are asked to sign. If you are asked to sign a petition relating in any way to education over the next few months, chances are your being asked to give up your right to vote for a school board. There are no other measures relating to education seeking to make the ballot next year. So, do the Nancy Reagan thing, and just say no. San Diegans should remember our City’s budget woes can be directly traced to a similarly appointed board of experts that were allowed to make decisions about employee pensions.
Historically, democracies deteriorate because, when government plans fail, there’s always someone who suggests “Let’s put someone in charge who has a plan that works”. Giving up your right to vote is a one way ticket. Freedom, once lost, is lost forever. The minute you give “committees” the power to govern, they’ll plan you out of their decision making process. An appointed government doesn’t lead to excellence; it leads to elitism and more failure for all.