The Ignominious Ignorance Behind Bonnie Dumanis’ Education Plan for San Diego

by on January 7, 2012 · 19 comments

in Education, Popular, San Diego, The Chronicles of Edumacation

In a move that qualifies as one of the most ignorant and opportunist positions ever taken by a local politician; the Dumanis Mayoral Campaign announced its “Bold” educational initiative this past Thursday at a press conference.  The details of the effort—expanding the school board, creating oversight committees and establishing a bureaucracy within the City government to oversee “liaison” efforts were widely reported in the local news media.  Candidate Dumanis got lots of face time on local tv news as her plan was uncritically rolled out to the electorate.

The local press failed to notice that Carmel Valley, where the Dumanis presser was held isn’t even in the San Diego Unified School District. The Mayoral candidate appeared blissfully unaware that schools in that area are part of the San Dieguito district as she prattled on about “Leadership, vision and experience are needed to put our schools on a new path because it’s clear the path we are on today is the wrong one.”

Asked about who she worked with in drafting her plan, Dumanis would only say that she’d consulted with an unnamed group of teachers, parents, students and others interested in reform.  It’s clear though, that if you look at her list of campaign contributors, the “Bold” plan is largely drawn from the wreckage of the failed San Diegans for Great Schools ballot initiative that, despite receiving over $1 million in donations from a few well heeled “philanthropists”, couldn’t gather enough signatures to be placed in front of the voters.

Although it’s possible that she’s quietly slipped in and not been noticed, the fact is that many observers believe she’s never actually attended a meeting of the San Diego Unified School Board.  Certainly her ‘plan’ reflects a lack of understanding of the concerns of parents and other groups that are actually involved with their children’s educational challenges.  If she’s ever been to School Board meeting, she’d know about the heady mix of parents, students and teachers who make the effort each week to express their concerns about all the details small and large of what goes on in the local schools. If she’d bothered to listen, she’d know that the challenges that educators face does not come from a lack of concern on the part of the citizenry. San Diego Unified School Board meetings are a wonder of small “d” democracy in action.

A Little History

The Dumanis plan does, however, reflect the concerns of a collection of politicians, pundits and prosperous donors that have sought to change the landscape of education in the United States over the past thirty years.  Dating back to the 1980’s with the “A Nation at Risk” report that shocked the public with its conclusion that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people”, these “education reformers” actions have consistently attacked the very concept of public education using fear tactics based on very little provable evidence.

The factual basis that was used for the original report, for instance, consisted of statistics that purported to show that SAT scores had suffered serious declines in the years prior to 1983. When researchers later challenged –”To our surprise, on nearly every measure, we found steady or slightly improving trends.” –the data, they were told   by David Kearns, Deputy Secretary of Education at the time, “You bury this [report] or I’ll bury you”.

“A Nation at Risk” (1983)

What the report claimed:

  • American students are never first and frequently last academically compared to students in other industrialized nations.
  • American student achievement declined dramatically after Russia launched Sputnik, and hit bottom in the early 1980s.
  • SAT scores fell markedly between 1960 and 1980.
  • Student achievement levels in science were declining steadily.
  • Business and the military were spending millions on remedial education for new hires and recruits.

The Sandia Report (1990)

What was actually happening:

  • Between 1975 and 1988, average SAT scores went up or held steady for every student subgroup.
  • Between 1977 and 1988, math proficiency among seventeen-year-olds improved slightly for whites, notably for minorities.
  • Between 1971 and 1988, reading skills among all student subgroups held steady or improved.
  • Between 1977 and 1988, in science, the number of seventeen-year-olds at or above basic competency levels stayed the same or improved slightly.
  • Between 1970 and 1988, the number of twenty-two-year-old Americans with bachelor degrees increased every year; the United States led all developed nations in 1988

“A Nation At Risk” was a shrewd political move by Republicans.  Polls taken during the early years of the Reagan administration indicated that women still tilted toward the Democrats, who owned such close-to-home issues as housing, health, and education.  By portraying the educational system in such a negative light its analysis lent color to the charge that, under liberals, American education had dissolved into a mush of self-esteem classes.  In his memoir, Reagan’s Secretary of Education wrote that the… “high political payoff, stole the education issue from Walter Mondale — and it cost us nothing.”

It’s doubtful that the Gipper ever actually read the report. Reagan thanked the commissioners at a White House ceremony for endorsing school prayer, vouchers, and the elimination of the Department of Education. In fact the report never mentioned any of these issues.

“At Risk” morphed into “No Child Left Behind” which was modified by the Obama administration into “Race To The Top”. All these programs have supported rigorous testing, a back-to-basics curriculum, higher standards, more homework, more science and math, “accountability”, and a gaggle of other often daunting initiatives.  All these programs included charter schools, standardized testing, a variety of punitive measures for those that failed to measure up and the promise that things would get better real soon if those obstructionists clinging to a failed status quo (like teachers) would just get out of the way.

What we have achieved over past thirty years of educational reform is that, as “At Risk” commission member James Harvey now posits, “educational decisions have been moved as far as possible from the classroom. Federal officials are now in a position to make decisions that would have been unimaginable even two years ago. They’ve established the criteria for disciplining schools, removing principals and teachers, and even defining appropriate curriculum for American classrooms.”

Power to the Bonnie Bureaucrats

The Dumanis plan will further remove educational decisions from the classroom by injecting Mayoral political concerns and creating yet another governmental agency to monitor the School District.  None of the money used to fund Dumanis’ overseers will go towards books, computers, school nurses, librarians or even arts programs.  The kids won’t see a cent.

None of these measures bandied about by Dumanis and her new-found reformer friends have a track record of success, but the actual facts get obscured by Hollywood films (Waiting for Superman) and connected corporate groups looking to earn a quick profit. It’s hard to get into the conversation when the corporate side of education reform uses the term as a bludgeon against anyone who questions its agenda — even when the concerns are supported by research.

The fact is that students in well-funded American schools from high-income families outscore nearly all other countries on standardized tests.  The problem with our aggregate scores being low is that most students do not come from well-funded schools with high-income families. The reality is that the U.S. has the highest level of child poverty in the industrialized world and children living in poverty are achieving far below their affluent peers. Nothing in the grand Dumanis plan even stops to consider that this might just be a factor.  It’s all about post the curricula, test all students, and punish those who fail.

Her plan does, however, facilitate the further bureaucratization of education and enables politicians, not educators, to control schools more effectively. This may look all fine and good on paper if you’re convinced that the current method of governance—electing school board members– has failed. But what happens when some “future” politician—assuming Bonnie’s motives are as pure as the driven snow—wants evolution theory yanked from Biology classes or certain books banned from the School Library?  Like it or not, there are perfectly good reasons why Schools and City politicians shouldn’t mix too often.

Occupy Education

A critical part of the “Education Reform” movement has been the enabling and creation of various groups purporting to speak out on behalf of parents outraged that their children are being short changed by the system.  To be sure, there is and always has been, a very vocal group of real parents fighting for what they hope will be the best education possible. A plethora of organizations like Michelle Rhee’s “Students First” or the locally based “Up With Ed” have arisen in recent months and the kind of reform they’re looking for sounds suspiciously like the same stuff that’s been going around for the past thirty years.  And the same kind of ideas that Bonnie Dumanis claims to have received from her anonymous concerned citizens.

The links in the previous sentence point to excellent coverage by CityBeat writer Aaryn Belfer, who’s done a great job of smokin’these folks out. I should also call out her coverage on Opting Out of Manditory Testing, parts one and two.  It’s good stuff and I encourage you to check her out.

After thirty years of plans, revisions, and rhetoric some parents are saying “enough!”.  Who doesn’t want the best possible education for their kids? And why is it always “my way or the highway” for these well funded (and often shadowy) ‘reform’ groups?  Why have a large chunk of their past “bold initiatives” failed so spectacularly?

Of particular interest to those who are committed to real educational experiences for our kids—as opposed to the ‘teach to the test’ mentality that is ascendant—should look towards Washington DC come the end of March.  United Opt Out, a coalition seeking to end high stakes testing in public education has joined with the Occupy movement in planning a four day long occupation of the Department of Education in Washington DC.

Using the slogan “It’s time to put the public back in public education” the DC actions will also be mirrored in cities throughout the country with teach-ins and rallies.

Candidate Bonnie Dumanis has pulled a publicity stunt designed to raise the profile of her thus far listless campaign for Mayor.  Once you look beyond the blue smoke and mirrors, realize just how clueless she is and understand how this “bold” plan is merely a reflection of a national agenda promoted by people that put profits before children, then it’s bankruptcy  becomes obvious.

Post script: To adequately cover all the points that I’ve raised in this post would require about another 10,000 words. I encourage you to visit the links I placed throughout the article for more background.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Jack January 7, 2012 at 1:24 pm

Thank you Doug!

When I read the UT article yesterday, I almost fell out of my chair…I remained perturbed all day despite exercises in mindfulness.

Arrogance comes to mind. Royalty was another.

As a teacher, and I am sure a few of the OB Raggers can back me on this, the administration of education by those who have never taught, never understood the reality of teaching and merely assume they can run things better is absurd. That jackass Bersin is a prime example.

Regardless of what corporate America and its puppets believe, education is not a business. It is a specialized endeavor which must be a dynamic process to address the needs of students as the needs of society change. It is cross-cultural in its application and will never be a one-size-fits-all enterprise. As such it will never fit into a proscribed business model. To understand this is beyond the comprehension of someone who has been proven as ill-equipped as Dumanis to run an agency such as the District Attorney’s Office from a stand point of creating an equilibrium between the spirit of the law and the letter of the law.

There has been a suggestion, Dumanis is playing at this game to be able to appoint, not elect, four new positions to the school board. This would give the development oriented power structure the needed votes to begin selling off parcels of school district land to their cronies…never mind the students, faculty and staff, just make money and put in the pockets of the wealthy.

San Diego does not need a Queen of all things. And it surely does not need an Arrogant Queen of all things.

Like you, I have to stop here or this will turn in a volume or two.

Peace, Jack

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avatar doug porter January 7, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Bingo. Love it when people make the connections.

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avatar Jim Horn January 7, 2012 at 1:49 pm

thanks, Jack for this terrific piece in the best tradition of muckraking journalism. The Sandia story is unknown to many people, so thanks for making it figural here in your concise puncturing of the Dumanis bubble.

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avatar Jack January 8, 2012 at 6:09 am

Thank you Jim, but credit where is credit is due…it is Doug’s article.

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avatar Kelly Johnson January 7, 2012 at 2:42 pm

Thank you for proving, once again, that the Union Tribune isn’t even worthy to be used as cat litter.

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avatar Dig Doug January 7, 2012 at 2:53 pm

I just happen to think Doug is the most literate, interesting, well-versed, perfectly-verbal writer in all of OB. (Frank is good too.) Both of these freedom fighters have not one bit of fear in them regarding exposing the machinations of Bonnie. I agree that this new “bold” education plan is just something Bonnie and her campaign thugs cooked up over the cauldron one night to get her some more air time on KUSI. It brings me great joy to see the clumsy, graceless efforts the Dirty D.A. has to go to for some cheap publicity; only to have gentlemen of the highest caliber & intellect like Doug & Frank only shoot her down mercilessly. I may not have much in this world, but I do so enjoy the free amusement obtained when Doug (& Frank) go after the Despicable D.A. with their double-edged pens of justice!

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avatar John Galt January 7, 2012 at 4:14 pm

I can solve all of these educational problems in the blink of an eye! Privatize education and provide for educational Federal/State tax credits by fully reimbursing the individuals cost for education, including the cost of anyone an individual chooses to provide an education for. The other alternative is to support Bonnie and help bring the system to its knees faster so that all will see Bonnie’s ideas are a failure. Then the real work of reforming education can take place! Let the free market handle education, and see true change for the better!

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avatar blaw0013 January 10, 2012 at 3:03 pm

This solution is what many people see as a very reasonable solution, and I too am very tempted to be drawn to it–when I see, from the inside, how terribly rotten public education has become. However, what keeps me for clamoring aboard this simply obvious agenda, is that I am not willing to settle for a differential education–based on what a child’s family can afford. The privatization of education, I am fully convinced, will lead directly to a more structurally stratified society.

Consider Finland’s valuation of public education: http://bit.ly/yKKnRs and http://nyti.ms/zM3e8Y

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avatar RB January 10, 2012 at 5:04 pm

I enjoyed the articles. Finland’s teachers have degrees in the subjects they teach not a water down education degree. If you teach math, you have a degree in math. If you teach science or English, you have a degree in science or English. This is were we should start.

The greatest predictor of school performance is parent education not income.

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avatar OB Mercy January 7, 2012 at 4:53 pm

She makes me sick. I tell everyone I know not to vote for her. But this town is decidedly conservative and it scares the living hell out of me.

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avatar Sharon January 7, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Excellent writing. It would appear Ms. Dumanis is looking for a platform in an issue where she has no background and thus no history of cronyism. I have no idea if the school board members in the Sweetwater District or guilty or innocent, but it seems pretty obvious that charges lodged against them were part of Dumanis’ roll out for her new platform. No doubt, guilty or innocent, these people will be found guilty if that is what’s best for Bonnie’s campaign.

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avatar califather January 8, 2012 at 5:21 am

Brilliant! Thank you!

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avatar RB January 8, 2012 at 8:26 pm

Yes, lets keep up the great work in math which finds more than 60% below proficient.
http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2011/08/us_math_reading_achievement_fa.html
And how about the science results were only 70-80% are failing.
http://www.cnn.com/2011/US/01/25/science.student.assessment/index.html
And lets not forget the 15% of scholars of history this educational system is producing.
http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/06/14/national/main20071097.shtml

It is good to know that school system is still producing plenty of people to cut our grass, clean our houses, pick our veggies, and flip our burgers.

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avatar mr fresh January 9, 2012 at 7:58 am

our system is also producing plenty of hardworking people who are going to college (or not) and becoming productive members of society. test scores are: a) easily manipulated b) an incentive to cheat c) not reflective of a person’s true worth.
how much does it matter if a kid does poorly in math but can compensate for that in other areas? our kids deserve better than being quantified by tests administered by bureaucrats.

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avatar RB January 9, 2012 at 11:14 am

Your right, there will always be a place for a few individuals who do poorly in math and can’t produce on the SATs for college. But when half of the high school graduates don’t have any of the skills for college and are below proficient at a high school level, when a third of Hispanics drop out of high school after years of social promotion, and when half of the top producers in our high schools need to take remedial classes before they start their studies at the Cal State schools, we have education problem not a testing problem.

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avatar mark January 9, 2012 at 11:31 pm

I hate that b*tch

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avatar Felipe January 10, 2012 at 1:21 pm

Thank you Bonnie for a big first step to fixing our schools!!

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avatar Frank Gormlie January 10, 2012 at 1:30 pm

HOpe you’re saying that in either jest or in being sarcastic.

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avatar Felipe January 10, 2012 at 8:48 pm

The school board needs more representation. It clearly has been hustled by the special interests so far to this point. More diversified representation will hopefully bring some sanity in our schools. It can’t get much worse.

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