School Beat: A Quiet Election Day for Schools

by Lisa Schiff on October 31, 2013

The past few elections have been extremely significant for public education, particularly due to local and state level issues promising tremendous impacts. By contrast, this coming Election Day, Tuesday November 5th, is locally scoped and has no issues of direct consequence for our schools. No major new funding threat or restructuring confronts us, and the positions candidates are vying for, while important, are several steps removed enough from schools.

This ballot respite provides some breathing room to look ahead to 2014 and begin to prepare for elections in June and November that will be anything but relaxed. In June 2014 party-based primaries will take place for a host of seats, including the Governor’s office, Nancy Pelosi and Jackie Speier’s congressional seats, and Tom Ammiano and Phil Ting’s State Assembly seats. These are all critical positions for public education, especially in a period where federal education law will hopefully be finally revamped and state public education funding and authority has been so dramatically changed. Since Tom Ammiano has termed out, this race will be especially important, with early indicators showing that both David Chiu and David Campos interested in the position. The new Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) means that strong connections between local education advocates and their state level elected officials are key; this race will be an opportunity to share with these candidates the concerns and ideas we at the school level have about how to make LCFF work best for our kids.

Outside of the primary thrashing is the position of Superintendent of Public Instruction, an office now held by Tom Torlakson. This position typically garners little attention, but dramatic changes in the world of public education mean that whoever holds this seat will be part of some important decision making processes. Most critical will be the implementation of LCFF, which along with increasing funding to school districts also distributes decision making and accountability in new ways. Although some accountability responsibilities have made their way down to the community level, the final version of the LCFF returned a significant amount to the Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education. Much of the accountability piece of LCFF was left and still remains unspecified. The State is apparently partnering with WestEd to develop the templates for the plans and accountability reviews, but those templates are not yet available. In such a transitional, high-stakes context, the values and vision of the next Superintendent of Public Instruction are critical. The statewide implementation of the Common Core State Standards will also be influenced by the Superintendent. Although it was a good sign that Governor Brown has given students a break in testing for this interim year until the curriculum can be implemented enough to have some meaningful assessments associated with it, the move to Common Core is still a huge change for our schools

Torlakson has been the Superintendent of Public Instruction for several years now, but what he aims to do in this new context is not clear. Assuming he runs again, this next period leading up to Election Day will be an important window into where he would like to take the state moving forward. Regardless, whatever he does between now and then, regardless of his ambitions for this particular office, will have a profound effect on our children since it will be shaping this first implementation of LCFF.

This November is also an off year for San Francisco’s Board of Education (BOE), but next year there will be three spots to vie for. Seats currently held by Hydra Mendoza, Emily Murase and Kim-Shree Maufas will be up for grabs. In theory, LCFF has extended significantly more authority to boards of education, so in addition to their existing responsibilities, commissioners will have substantially more work to do in developing plans and evaluating the outcomes of those plans. Under LCFF the community is also meant to be highly engaged in ensuring accountability. While San Francisco parents and students are by all accounts already quite active, this new governance and funding structure calls for an even deeper and broader level of participation, which quite likely will mean new types of interactions with the district. The goals and attitudes of each BOE member will significantly affect this evolving relationship.
So though the next week’s results at the ballot box will most likely be fairly unremarkable as far as public education is concerned, this is only a slight lull in the electoral storm that has been at a relatively high pitch for schools in recent years.

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.

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