School Beat: 2011 — Time for a New Agenda for Public Education

by Lisa Schiff on January 6, 2011

2010 was a tumultuous year for public education, in keeping with the last several years and setting the stage for 2011 and beyond. From high profile but woefully inaccurate critiques in movie theaters (e.g. the film “Waiting for Superman”) to unexpected new heroes (e.g. former high-stakes testing champion Diane Ravitch) extremes seem to be the new condition of education.

Economic turbulence remained a familiar, scary state of affairs with already strapped schools getting closer and closer to losing any kind of safety margin. According to the Sacramento Bee, schools may just scrape by in newly inaugurated Jerry Brown’s budget, but only if voters maintain current tax levels in the upcoming special election. This is welcome news, though given the overall poor fiscal health of the state and the continued pact among state Republicans not to raise taxes, it’s definitely not something anyone can count on.

The political environment at the state and federal levels is just as challenging. The contradictory debate around public goods and services – including education – continues to frame these essentials as wasteful excesses we can’t afford while at the same time justifying the funneling of public money and tax breaks to corporations and the wealthiest among us. Mid-term elections and the history of concessions by Democrats offer little signs of hope.

At the state level, the choice of Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond to lead State Superintendant Tom Torlakson’s transition team is a modest positive sign, but as with Obama’s limited use of such an incredible mind, this limited role is also a disappointment. A better use of Professor Darling-Hammond’s tremendous skills would have been an appointment to the state Board of Education, but the list of new appointees indicates that politics as usual will likely remain in that body.

Change is afoot locally too. Our new student assignment policy goes into action this year, using attendance areas for entering kindergarten students but still drawing on elements of preference and choice for placement. Applications are due February 18th and can be found online. Other changes on the horizon include modifications to the transportation system that are intended to support the goals of expanded access and equity that also are the goals of the new assignment system.

Three Board of Education (BOE) members will be sworn in January 7th – two incumbents, Kim-Shree Maufas and Hydra Mendoza, and newcomer and SFUSD parent Emily Murase. This only slightly modified BOE configuration is likely to have less of an impact on our schools than the major transformation underway in the City’s political leadership. With departing school board member Jane Kim moving to the Board of Supervisors and joining Eric Mar and David Campos (a former board of education commissioner and school district attorney, respectively), we now have three voices in the Supervisor’s chamber with intimate knowledge of the needs and struggles of our City’s schools. At the very least this provides an opening for local school advocates to make the case for an expanded City role in supporting its schools.

An early step in this direction is legislation proposed by Supervisor and November mayoral candidate Bevan Dufty and co-sponsored by Supervisors David Campos, John Avalos, David Chiu, and Eric Mar. This change to the City charter would transform BOE positions from $500 per month stipended volunteer efforst to actual salaried jobs (tied to the pay scale of new teachers), thus opening up the pool of people who could consider being on the BOE as a viable option. Despite arguments that these are and should remain volunteer activities, the amount of knowledge, expertise and time required to make good decisions and oversee such a complex system with such a large budget is far greater than can be accomplished on volunteer time.

More wild cards are to be found in the Mayor’s office, with the as yet unknown interim mayor, who should appear on the scene shortly, followed by the winner of the November mayoral elections, for which the candidates are still lining up. A change at the top of the City will be most welcome, giving a possibility that there will be a mayor willing to take his or her City’s schools as a top priority as opposed to simply making empty gestures to that effect.

At the state level, in addition to Governor Brown’s qualified promise of a stay of financial execution for schools, efforts to revise Proposition 13 are still being discussed in multiple quarters, from Tom Ammiano’s legislative moves to Phil Ting’s educational work. This would bring much needed general revenue into the state, a pre-requisite to ensuring adequate funding for our public education system. At the same time, there is beginning legislation aimed towards rationalizing and simplifying our public school finance system. The promise and potential in any of these areas will require attention and energy on the part of education advocates, a role that parents are just now getting better at filling in a more organized way through relatively new groups such as Educate Our State.

At the federal level, a bitter pill to swallow is that the change in the balance of power will mean absolutely no change for the prospects of public education nationally. The leaders who are shaping that debate now, from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama to pundits and limelight seekers have absolutely no personal stake in this system, and so are crafting legislation and other programmatic efforts that are not grounded in what’s best for kids.

The focus on competition, standardized test scores, teacher bashing, and privatization are at the core of the Whitehouse’s approach to public schools and will no doubt be a part of any legislative activity regarding reauthorizing federal education law, known popularly as No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Coupled with the willful blindness to the centrality of anemic school funding levels and the tremendous role of child poverty on student performance, our expectations of Washington D.C. must continue to be low and skeptical as was predicted in this column from Duncan’s original appointment.

In so many ways, then, 2011 is poised to be a repeat of 2010, with all of its frustrations and extremes and politics as usual, but it’s also possible that we may have just gone past our ability to tolerate those politics. As families with children in the schools, we have no choice but to remain deeply engaged in the day to day struggles in classrooms and district board rooms to maintain, demand, and work for the best for our kids,. Yet we know that that work is made so much harder and more necessary by the relentless assault on the very notion of public education.

It’s time that we look up from the work we’re doing together to defend our schools and transform the debate about the purpose of public schools and what they need to work well. As parents and educators, we know first-hand what our schools need to support our children in fulfilling their intellectual, social, psychological and creative potentials. From the increased and more fairly distributed resources in schools to the paramount requirement to reduce levels of child poverty, we know what our schools and our children require.

We also know that our public schools should give our children so much more than the ability to take standardized tests and master corporate-generated textbook pablum. Our children should leave our public school systems with the ability to effectively think, explore, communicate and engage in the world around them. Our schools should prepare our kids to be involved citizens, not just good workers.

As public education supporters and activists, we’ve been responding for far too long to the various powers that be; it’s time to put forward our own agenda. 2011 could be one more year just like the last one, and the one before and the one before. Or it could be an entirely different kind of year altogether.

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 and is a board member at the national level of Parents for Public Schools.

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