Beyond the False Promises and Premises – Analysis of the “Great Schools” Ballot Initiative

by on January 4, 2011 · 4 comments

in Civil Rights, Culture, Economy, Education, Labor, San Diego, The Chronicles of Edumacation

Last spring an education “reform” group emerged from behind closed doors after meeting in secret for several months. Working without input from many of the organizations that are actually engaged in local schools, they set about to implement a plan they developed to change the face of public schools in San Diego. In this article we’ll examine that actual language of the proposal that will most likely be presented to voters this spring.

Many have speculated as to their motives. The involvement of long-time supporters of Alan Bersin (former Superintendent of the San Diego Schools) and the Chamber of Commerce’s forays into school board races (busted for illegal contributions) leads many to assume that this group is a front for big business interests. Others, noting the group’s failure to involve teachers in its plans, think their efforts are a sub rosa stab at busting up the teachers’ union. When spokesman Scott Himelstein is pressed on the subject, he turns on the charm and insists that he’s in it “for the children”. Still others remember the nearly three quarters of a million dollars unsuccessfully spent in 2000 by business interests (some of whom are reportedly involved with this group) to defeat a school board member who opposed selling off district properties to land developers.

Centered at the University of San Diego, a private school affiliated with the Catholic church, this group hastily updated a several year old “study” of local schools that selectively utilized one set of test scores (NAEP) and ignored the fact that local results on that test —depressing as they were—were well-above average (and continuing to improve) as compared with other urban school districts around the United States.

The study—funded by the same people backing the nascent USD reform group–also ignored five years of steady test score gains made on the State-mandated California Standards Test. In fact, the most recent local test scores were only slightly behind than those achieved by the San Francisco school system, which led the state in results.

The USD group, which –after hiring a public relations company to advise them— became known as San Diegans for Great Schools, held a press conference in which they presented their study as shocking proof of the failures of the San Diego Unified School District. The only really shocking things about their results was their failure to place them in a national context (which would make the school district actually look okay) and their failure to include the test results used by the State of California. They then sent their spokespeople out to work public gatherings and meetings, claiming that they were seeking public input.

So, having manufactured a local “crisis” via omission and outdated research, they have taken the next step common to special interest groups seeking to influence California politics: they used a PR campaign as a springboard to get an innocuously worded initiative on the ballot that promises an easy solution to a tough problem. Now they have hired GOP political consultant Tom Shepard and retained a small army to gather signatures.

At the heart of this proposal is a provision that will add four appointed members to the school board. Everything else included in the initiative language has been incorporated as window-dressing to make it more palatable to voters. Of even more interest is the lack of any specifics that would actually help schools or improved student performance. So, let’s take a look at the specifics of their proposal.

False Premises and Snake Oil Solutions

On October 13th, Great Schools filed a notice of Intent to Circulate a Charter Amendment Petition with the Office of the City Clerk. A memo from the City Clerk’s office indicates that 90,856 signatures of San Diego voters must be submitted no later than April 26, 2011 in order to qualify the measure for ballot inclusion. Given the lead time required to verify voter signatures, it is considered highly likely that the petition will be filed in the next for weeks to qualify the initiative for consideration in a (probable) special election in June, 2011.

In the “Statement of District Voter’s Intent”, which sets out the premises upon which they are acting, the Great Schools group makes the following assertions (from which I have removed flowery language and repetitive content):

(a) “…As many as half of students in elementary and middle schools are not reading or computing math at grade level, with up to 80% of students of color, low-income and English-language learners failing to reach proficiency.”

The Accountability Progress Report (APR) Data from the state Department of Education, released back in April 2010, paints a vastly different picture. The scores, which are used to determine compliance with standards set under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), showed that overall district scores are exceeding Federal standards. There are, none-the-less, many individual schools that didn’t make the grade, although the vast majority of those showed ongoing improvement.

In 2009, 93% of SDUSD graduating students passed the California High School Exit Examination (CAHSEE), which, ensures that pupils who graduate from public high schools can demonstrate competency in reading, writing, and mathematics.

Even if the Great Schools’ numbers are accepted at face value (and they shouldn’t be) they fail to compare San Diego student achievement with other urban districts. Their failure to acknowledge the national environment is perhaps the strongest indicator of this group’s deceptive methodology.

The Numbers Do Lie

(b) “…these failures have continued over a period of time in which per student spending within the District has increased by 34%.”

Per student spending did rise during the first few years of the past decade, as did the cost of living (and doing business) in the region, driven by a nearly insane level of increases in real estate valuation. So, if you look back a dozen years, ignore all the State and federal programs and mandates, ignore inflation, and then divide the School District’s annual spending by the number of students, a case can be made that spending has increased. But this number —and no governmental or educational entity looks at things this way– has nothing to do with actual spending in the classroom, which has decreased substantially over the past four years.

In the last two fiscal years, the State of California has cut public education funding by $18 billion dollars. The number of SDUSD employees has declined by over two thousand since 2007; teachers have been asked to take furlough days over the past two years; class sizes have been increased, cut backs on learning materials have been put in place and make other significant program reductions have occurred.

(c) “…the District needs to adopt a plan to improve student performance at each school site and publicize progress in implementing these plans…”

Obviously, the folks at Great Schools must have missed the SDUSD portal into achievement at . Or the report to the public on student achievement data on pages 22-34 in their annual budget book . Or the district’s ongoing project to develop a model of school reform based on community involvement. And community control is the last thing that top down reformers like Bersin (and the minds behind Great Schools) want to see implemented.

More Equals Less, Right?

(d) “…the current Board is politicized and unstable… the District’s students (are) less able to compete in both higher education and the workplace.”

So the Great Schools idea is to increase the size of the Board to make it more stable? Adding four more opinions (not to mention salaries, support staff and office space) hardly seems like a formula increasing productivity, stability or financial responsibility. Note that the Board is deemed politicized only because the candidates that Great Schools backers have supported have generally been defeated by the voters. Since the megabucks backers of this group have been unable to buy a seat or two on the Board, they’re asking the public to opt out of the electoral process.

(e) “The district voters have determined that merely allocating additional resources to the district will not resolve the ongoing problems…”

Actually, that’s not true. A majority of voters in the fall 2010 election voted for a TAX INCREASE for additional school funding. Unfortunately, State law requires a super majority for such measures to pass.

If You Vote For This Measure, We’ll Give You A Free Pony!

(f) “ …each elected (School) Board member should be elected by, and subject to removal by, the electors in that Board member’s District…(snip)… limiting the terms of all Board members will enhance their responsiveness…”

Here are two ideas that are the essence of the window dressing built into this proposal to increase its appeal to voters. District only elections for School Board are a reform that has long been desired (even the teachers union likes the idea) And term limits, while widely popular, have largely failed to live up to their promise. By the way, in the last fifty years only two Board Members have served more than three terms: recently defeated gadfly John DeBeck and civil rights era leader George Walker Smith during the period when San Diego’s schools were being desegregated.

(g) “…adding School Board members who have relevant experience and expertise and are not beholden to special interests, is necessary to provide non-political leadership…(snip)…such Independent Board Members, if appointed by an Independent Nominating Commission composed of education experts, with result in a more stable and effective Board that can accomplish the District Voter’s goals for the District….”

Keeping It White, Right?

A recent Voice of San Diego article about this “Independent Nominating Commission” provided some interesting insights. The group, as it turns out, is mostly white (7 out of 9) and well-heeled, a fact that should give scant comfort to the minority groups that now collectively make up a majority of the City’s population. According to estimates by the San Diego Association of Governments, as of January 1, 2008, the population of San Diego was 45.3% non-Hispanic whites, 27.7% Hispanics, 15.6% Asians/Pacific Islanders, 7.1% blacks, 0.4% American Indians, and 3.9% from other races.

Unlike other cities that have opted for appointed or partially appointed school boards that have vested the responsibility for those appointments with elected officials, the proposal put forth by Great Schools entrusts this task to unelected citizens. Taxpayers and voters, therefore, have no recourse should the appointed school members pursue policies that fail to resonate with citizenry. Unlike Washington DC, which just sent its Mayor packing over perceived failures in public education, San Diegans will have an “Independent Commission” that, in addition to their appointive powers will also have the ability to raise unlimited funds to finance their activities.

Some of the “citizen appointers” are drawn from programs that are dependent on District funding and potentially candidates for future budget cuts. Who will replace the Chairperson of the GATE program if that program is eliminated? What happens if the Chancellor of the Community College District refuses to serve on this commission? Do San Diegans really want the President of a private college (USD) involved in the governance of public education?

Why Stop With the School Board?

Seemingly “common sense” reforms could very easily turn into long-term nightmares, as there are no checks or balances explicitly or implicitly mentioned in this proposed amendment to the City charter. Those concerned with democracy and civil liberties should, at a minimum, pause for a moment to ponder the implications of this proposed act in the light of assorted Supreme Court rulings over the past few decades with regard to the “one man, one vote doctrine”.

Interestingly enough, supporters of this initiative have recently been making the rounds arguing that their “common sense” proposals are being opposed by the “status quo”. I guess if supporting democratic elections for officials charged with spending taxpayer funds and creating public policy is now old hat, then perhaps the same procedures should be considered for all levels of government. Why stop at the School Board? With the “successes” of our fair City’s appointed City Pension Board over the past decade in mind, perhaps the voters can be persuaded to endorse privately selected City Council seats in the near future.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar JEC January 4, 2011 at 11:56 am

Sound analysis based on reliable facts. Perhaps schools are just the canary in the coal mine showing signs that our social health is in serious decline.


avatar doug porter January 4, 2011 at 1:59 pm

the voice of san diego runs a fact check on Great Schools signature gatherer’s claim: determination: misleading


avatar Andy Cohen January 4, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Beyond expanding the school board by adding four non-elected members (a proposal of dubious merit, despite the argument that “other major urban school districts have at least 9 school board members”), do they have any other proposals, anything else to offer that they say would improve our schools?

I was at a couple of meetings (covering them for the Rag) where Scott Himmelstein spoke (one was the OB Planning Board). I asked him a couple of things: What other proposals beyond expanding the school board did they have? He said at the time they didn’t have anything else to offer. I also asked how many teachers they had involved in their group? How many teachers and administrators were they consulting with? He boasted of over 120 business and local leaders who had signed up (via their website) to support their efforts, and I asked how many of them were teachers. He thought about it for a moment, and said “maybe two.” I asked how many school principals they had included, or other administrators they had spoken with. He said “none.”

They have no interest in working with the people who are actually “on the front lines” in our schools. They have no interest in hearing about the issues from their perspective. So it makes you wonder what their agenda really is?


avatar doug porter January 5, 2011 at 7:42 am

they’re running “mis-information ads” on local radio (I heard about this on a Latino station) along the lines of “save our schools”. Of course, with their spin on it, it all sounds so “reasonable”. And anybody who joins their list on the web site gets listed as a supporter. Meanwhile, the real group continues to meet in secret up at USD.


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