A Trojan Horse Measure Posing as School Reform

by on November 29, 2010 · 26 comments

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

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.

A Little History Lesson

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.

Don’t Let Them Steal Your Right to Vote!

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.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

RB November 29, 2010 at 12:48 pm

I am against elitism and those who think they know how and were my children should be educated. I am against school failure and forcing students to attend these failing schools. I am for freedom. I am for making my own decisions. I am for the power of parents and students over committees or boards, who are bribed with campaign contributions.

I am for parent choice.
I am for vouchers.


mr fresh November 29, 2010 at 1:48 pm

They were at San Diego City College today gathering signatures with a table lined with nice little hand lettered signs that said “Save Our Schools”.


ray hoobler November 29, 2010 at 1:49 pm

i dunno, i think OB Elementary would be a nice place to put a Target Store.


annagrace November 29, 2010 at 4:36 pm

I support public education and I want public elections of all school board members. I consider both essential to maintaining a democracy.


dave rice November 29, 2010 at 9:54 pm

I was raised by pro-Perot, pro-voucher fanatics (since reformed). What I can say is that if my daughter, raised by a convict mother and a worthless drunk of a stepdad, can easily lay claim to being the highest achiever in her class filled with the children of high-income overachievers, something’s wrong. And the problem lies much more with apathetic parents than failures of the system, though there are countless examples of the latter. I’ve got plenty of experience with what the district considers one of its showcases, as well as with some of its struggling schools through opportunities my former employer gave me to volunteer at lower-performing schools.

Given my kid’s exposure to the real world of grown-ups, our unwillingness as parents to lie to her about how the system works (or, more often, fails to), and our reward/consequence system based more on results than following the method taught (she’s learned how to add about eight times, but we stopped making her try new techniques once she was able to eloquently explain why the third method worked for her), I’ve got to say that there’s something wrong. I’m willing to give staff the benefit of the doubt, though her teacher last year ducked not one, not two or three or four but five, count ’em, five, attempts by us to make contact with her a single time during the school year. Ms. Johnson, the overworked and under-credited principal that holds OB Elementary together, eventually contacted us to clarify the SD Unified policy that families of proficient or better students are essentially ignored in order to reach out to those that are struggling.

I’m sorry, but in an age where class sizes are considerably smaller than the ones I grew up in while attending the at-the-time considerably sub-par Cajon Valley schools in East County I expected a bit more by consciously removing my child from the redneck-ian environment of our hometown to what I thought would be a superior, multicultural urban setting in which I hoped we’d all thrive. That said, even given all the hardships we’ve encountered by being part of SD Unified, I’m still happy with the choice we made, and I believe the challenges we face today will one day create a stronger woman who will have better opportunities than her parents someday.


lifeslittlefolly December 1, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Chicago(Arne Duncan) New York(michelle Rhee) Houston(Terry Grier)San Diego(Alan Bersin) Los Angeles(Steve Barr) and now Himelstein/Spathas/Cramer school reform movement Point Loma and USD style.
Is this reform movement the death knell of public education as we know it? The very affluent with their Foundations(tax exemption) have set their eyes on teachers and unions as the enemy and children of color , ethnicity, and working poor their victims so the foundations are going to fix the problem.
Below is an example of what can happen when we don’t pay attention-
The larger scandal is that Chicago has basically a two-tiered education system, with a handful of these selective enrollment magnet schools, or boutique schools, that have been set up under Renaissance 2010 in gentrifying and affluent neighborhoods, and then many disinvested neighborhood schools. So parents across the city are scrambling to try to get their kids into a few of these schools. So instead of creating quality schools in every neighborhood, what CPS has done is created this two-tier system and actually is closing down, as you said, neighborhood schools under Renaissance 2010 and replacing them with charter schools and a privatized education system, firing or laying off, I should say, certified teachers, dismantling locally elected school councils, and creating a market of public education in Chicago, turning schools over to private turnaround operators. And this is, in the bigger, bigger scandal, this is now the national agenda under the Obama administration for education.
google: Diane Ravitch
p.s. Schwartzenegger
16 billion dollars cut in funding in 2 years and 23,000 teachers laid off has created a “perfect storm” for the charter school movement and the profiteers are drooling!


RB December 1, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Very interesting. So the good schools being created in Chicago are charter schools and the bad schools are the public schools with union employees that the poor have in their neighborhoods. Given this, the solution is to convert all schools to charters so the poor can have good school too.

You know it is the union not the District or the local superintendent that prevents experienced, high quality teachers from being assigned by the District to low income, poor performing schools.


lifeslittlefolly December 1, 2010 at 9:33 pm

You spoke for vouchers, here is a bit of history:in Southern states during the 1960s, school vouchers were used as a method of perpetuating segregation. In a few instances, public schools were closed outright and vouchers were issued to parents. The vouchers, in many cases, were only good at privately segregated schools, known as segregation academies and the academies were church based.
San Diego has open enrollment allowing parents to choose which public school their child attends instead of being assigned one (provided the school has not reached its maximum capacity number for students.
Could you provide documentation for the following statement—-“You know it is the union not the District or the local superintendent that prevents experienced, high quality teachers from being assigned by the District to low income, poor performing schools” —-I couldn’t find any.


RB December 1, 2010 at 11:10 pm

The union contract require teaching assignment be made based upon seniority and an individual teacher’s selection, not free selection by the school principles or assignment based on District’s needs in disadvantaged school.
It is has been proposed by many reformers and rejected by the unions that higher pay could be used to encourage better and more experienced teachers to select assignments in the disadvantaged schools and communities.

As for your review of school history and vouchers, it should also be noted that California had the best schools in the country before the teachers unionized and is now ranked 47th. Perhaps, vouchers are not responsible for segregation and unionization is not responsible for the dismal state of our public schools but both correlations should be studied.


annagrace December 2, 2010 at 10:31 am

It should be noted that California schools were the best in the nation until Prop 13 was passed- a corporate windfall in the guise of a populist outrage at property taxes.


RB December 2, 2010 at 11:15 am

It should be noted that California has the second highest paid teachers in the nation and I believe is the only state with a law like Prop 98 which requires at least 40% of the state budget be spent upon schools. Usually, California spends 45% of the budget on schools.


mr fresh December 2, 2010 at 11:42 am

it should also be noted that California has one of the highest costs of living in the US. in san diego, i think it’s 138% of the national average.
Until such time as they can find a way to beam the teachers in from Arkansas or South Dakota where they have lower costs, I would assume that it’s a smart thing to pay teachers something comparable to what the cost of living is.


RB December 2, 2010 at 12:04 pm

I think it is the smart thing pay teachers in part based upon results.
And I would love for our educational results to climb to the levels of South Dakota or Arkansas. I would have no problem paying teachers the highest amount in the country if the student results were in the top ten of states, but 2nd in pay and 47th in results seems to be a bit of a disconnect.


annagrace December 2, 2010 at 1:43 pm

RB-South Dakota? Arkansas? Demographic information provides some insight into the unique educational challenges faced in California . South Dakota lacks the diversity and immigration patterns we have here. In CA, 39.5% of the homes speak a language other than English, compared to 6% in SD. In CA, 26.2% of our population is foreign born, compared to 1.8% in SD. The whole STATE of South Dakota has a population of 812,00. The CITY of San Diego has a population of 1.25M.

In what way is it useful to compare oranges and snowballs? :)


RB December 3, 2010 at 6:36 am

I agree current immigration patterns are a tremendous drag on the California schools. Academic results, teacher student ratios, and spending per pupil are negatively impacted by demographics and migration.

mr fresh December 2, 2010 at 6:00 pm

arkansas ratio of students/teachers 12.9
s. dakota ratio students/teachers 13.7
calif ratio of students/teachers 20.8
source: us dept of education

cost of housing (100=us average)
arkansas 81.87
s. dakota 98.42
calif 185.91


RB December 3, 2010 at 8:01 am

Using housing cost only, distorts the data.
You offered up Arkansas and S. Dakota but Connecticut would be the correct state for cost and result comparisons, IMO.

Every occupation not just teachers suffers when comparing salaries to housing cost…It is usually called the cost of living in San Diego.

annagrace December 2, 2010 at 11:21 am

Here’s yet another side story about education budgets. I was reading about the huge new master plan development which has been given the green light in Mission Valley. It will have close to 5,000 housing units. There is already a need for a school or schools in Mission Valley. It doesn’t sound as though the details have been worked out on this particular development, but there will be impacts on the education budget.

“Unlike much of the rest of Mission Valley, residents in Civita will eventually be able to walk to their own small commercial center, play in a public park that they will maintain through an assessment district and PERHAPS SEND THEIR KIDS TO A CHARTER OR PRIVATE SCHOOL.” (emphasis mine)

Development continues with too many vague details about the infrastructure investments which I assume someone paying $400,000 on up for a home would expect. Municipalities and the school district will have to absorb the the ongoing maintenance and operation of facilities. This of course puts more strains on existing budgets which can’t adequately cover what we already have. It is equally dismaying to consider the possibility of master-plan enclaves with their very own private schools.


lifeslittlefolly December 2, 2010 at 3:14 pm

I liked this!!!! Recently in early childhood teacher pay Category
September 20, 2010
14915 R-E-$-P-E-C-T for Early-Childhood Educators
Last week, the Massachusetts-based Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children released a white paper outlining four strategies to improve pay for child-care workers, Head Start teachers, and others who work with young children outside pre-K in public schools. These early educators average $11.77 per hour, or $24,480 a year as full-time workers. Even in states with stronger career ladders, early-educators may only earn an hourly raise of 50 cents for obtaining a bachelor’s degree.

To improve pay and opportunities for professional growth, the report recommends:
• Developing a career ladder with clearly defined job titles and duties;
• Wage increases as educators increase their responsibilities;
• Bonuses to reward training and higher degrees, and
• Building an early-education endowment fund to support the program.


RB December 3, 2010 at 9:36 am

Since you have a passion for early childhood education, you should open up a center with high standards, high academic requirements for the teachers, and high pay for your employees. There is a market for a high end child care center in Point Loma. However, for parents who want a lower cost system to raise educated children, turn off the TV (cancel your paid system), read to your children, and make regular trips to the library. There is a strong correlation between reading level and success in school.


Sarah December 3, 2010 at 10:14 am

I don’t usually agree with you, RB, but on this comment you get my whole-hearted approval on the second half of this comment.

Too much screen time = undereducated drones.


annagrace December 3, 2010 at 11:05 am

RB- I can still remember my parents reading to me, complete with funny sound effects and silly facial expressions. Uncle Wiggly. Going downtown with Daddy. Three Billy Goats Gruff. I remember the books I received every Christmas and still have many of them. I was a lucky child. Being able to read, loving to read, has made all the difference in my life. I suspect you feel the same way.


lifeslittlefolly December 5, 2010 at 1:00 am

With all you want could you afford me !!!!


lifeslittlefolly December 2, 2010 at 3:20 pm

Meanwhile, on the private-sector side, nannies scored a victory in New York in late August, when Gov. David Patterson signed the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. The new law guarantees nannies, housekeepers, elder-care workers, and other domestic employees minimum wage, overtime, one day off per week and disability protection. Interestingly, it’s hard to find a straight news story on this, but it was fodder for a column and some blogging at the New York Daily News, including Erin Einhorn’s blog post. The bill came after six years of organizing by Domestic Workers United.
Most nannies are paid off the book.
Because these are the people who really are young children’s first teachers. The white paper and the organizing drive appear to be early stirrings of the same kind of discussion we see in the K-12 world about whether higher pay will attract better-qualified candidates to the profession. And I’m going to take one minute to make the point that the more teaching looks like mothering, the less our society is willing to pay for it.


Henrico Potgieter June 17, 2011 at 12:01 am

I’m using this trojan Horse Picture to recreate in My Minecraft Server. So far so good. :)


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