School Beat: What the Next School Year Holds in Store

by Lisa Schiff on May 24, 2012

Another school year is rolling to an end this week, without, unfortunately, closing the chapter on some fundamental challenges that continue to dog our public schools. While we should not lose track of the inspiring successes at many schools and for many students, the significant problems public education supporters need to tackle must remain in our sights, front and center.

Budgetary woes are perhaps the most well-known and easy to understand. In the midst of a continued recession felt very severely in California, no fairy tale powers will let us spin straw into gold and overcome the many decades of financial drain our schools have experienced. Certainly Governor Brown’s latest budget forecast and proposal offer very little in the way of hope. The California Budget Project recently released a report detailing the decline in state level general purpose funding since the 2007, finding a decrease of $530 per student. According to the latest national comparison, we’re now almost at the bottom of spending, coming in at number 47.

This never-ending budget problem is felt keenly at school sites by students, parents and educators. Class sizes have been increased, pink slips to teachers have been sent out, school site councils are making impossible choices between key positions and resources, and furlough days are still a reality. All of this sets a terrible background for current contract negotiations with the teachers’ union, United Educators of San Francisco. UESF members have authorized a second strike vote and a state appointed mediator will be meeting the district and the union at the end of the month to hopefully move things forward.

Addressing this funding nightmare is no easy matter given California’s broken budget and revenue processes. Lawsuits have been filed against the state for equitable and sufficient funding, but there are a few more things that individuals can do. Making your opinion known to elected officials directly or through organizations like Educate Our State is one important step. Taking a serious look at the tax initiatives on the table is another important one.

Sadly, we have lost our best option, The Millionaires Tax, which, despite leading the pack, ultimately merged with Governor Brown’s significantly less ambitious proposal. That option luckily retains a heavy emphasis on taxing the wealthy, but unfortunately also keeps Brown’s sales tax (though at a lower rate) and is now called the Schools and Local Public Safety Protection Act. Despite its many flaws, it is still preferable to the Munger Our Children, Our Future inititiative, which is too narrowly construed (isolating education apart from other fundamental social service needs) and imposes an expanded income tax on even very poor families.

Although financial concerns seep into all areas of education, there are other important matters that we will want to pay attention to this fall, one of which is the Board of Education (BOE) elections. Four seats on the BOE are up for grabs. The terms of Sandra Fewer, Rachel Norton, Jill Wynns, and Norman Yee are all ending January 2013. Norman Yee will be running for Board of Supervisor, which throws his position wide open. Of the other three incumbents, only Rachel Norton is currently on the Department of Election’s list of potential candidates, numbering seven people as of May 22nd.

The BOE, both the current members and any new individuals who will become commissioners, will have a long list of significant issues to work through during the next school year. For a district that has themes of equity and social justice threaded through all of its rhetorical fabric, there are some serious weaknesses to address. For instance, within the past few months, the district was found to have violated a significant number of special education regulations, and in addition California parents of students receiving special education services – including SFSUD parents – have filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Education for failure to provide proper services to their children. Recent changes in SFUSD administration will hopefully bode well for improvement here, but this is a major area of concern that will need watching.

Another significant equity issue that has slipped off the radar but which needs to be put back in front of everyone is the Quality Middle School initiative. This effort was intended to take a rigorous look at middle schools across the city in order to ensure that all students have equal access to programs, challenging courses, and extra-curricular options during that period of education. Somehow that conversation has morphed into the discussion around student assignment and feeder patterns from elementary schools to middle schools. These are very different issues, and it’s unfortunate that student assignment has overshadowed fundamental gaps between schools that need to be rectified. Hopefully this too will be an issue that parents and the BOE can look at afresh in the fall.

Though our struggles at the local level to do the best we can for our kids feels like more than enough to handle, the national scene can’t be ignored. Federal elections should have a big impact on education, but to date all we have seen is a further entrenchment of fatally flawed education policies. Eventually No Child Left Behind will be revised and renamed and that may happen after the November elections, but since public education is not a hot topic on the campaign trail or in any of the candidates’ minds, it’s hard to imagine we’ll see much of a shift.

That will most definitely be true if we continue to work for reform within our existing systems and with our existing leadership. True transformation of the education we provide to our children may only be possible if we call into question everything that we’re doing to date and go back to our fundamental goal–supporting the development of our children into informed, critically engaged and happy adults.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco and the PTA.

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