School Beat: Elections, No Child Left Behind, and Occupy Everywhere

by Lisa Schiff on November 3, 2011

Next week’s elections are barely grabbing headlines, given all of the energy and consternation generated by Occupy movements at home and across the world. Conversations over mayoral candidates are giving way to debates over how various Occupy efforts in San Francisco and Oakland are being handled by sitting mayors and how far these new energetic forces can take us in making concrete changes.

While understandably caught up in these exciting new actions, hopefully San Francisco voters will still remember to participate in a more staid political event next Tuesday – Election Day. Of particular concern is Proposition A, the bond measure to upgrade the last of our city’s school facilities. Sound structures and functioning windows may not be glamorous, but being sure that San Francisco’s kids and the adults who are teaching and supporting them are safe is definitely a concern of the 99%.

Voters should say “Yes” to Proposition A, but “No” to Proposition H – the advisory measure that argues for using neighborhood as the primary metric for assigning students to schools. From housing segregation patterns, to variances in program offerings at all levels within the K-12 system, to the basic fact that it has no policy implications since the school district is not governed by the City, there are a myriad of reasons to oppose Proposition H. These are described exceptionally well by School Board Commissioner Rachel Norton in a recent posting on her blog. Proposition H, even in its limited advisory mode, would do nothing productive to increase the access of high quality educational opportunities for all students in San Francisco, which is the most significant challenge and task facing us.

Unfortunately, while at the local level we can sometimes stop a bad policy before it becomes reality, federally our abilities are much more restricted. We can’t vote down flawed bills, only the legislators who sponsor and/or vote to pass them themselves. This is the situation we’ve been in with No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for years now, beginning with the Bush Administration and continuing in full force with the Obama Administration. NCLB, the current version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Reauthorization Act (ESEA) that is our national federal education policy, has needed to be reauthorized for awhile now, but no one has wanted to touch it because it’s such a political disaster and there is no will in Washington to create something truly transformative.

The latest version of ESEA is out of committee and headed to the Senate. There are mild changes, but nothing that dramatically alters the course of education in this country. The folks at Parents Across America have responded with a useful assessment of this legislation, as well as more complete proposal about what an education law for this country should look like.

Highlights include:

• Sufficient and equitable resources in all public schools, so that every child receives a high quality education.

• Improving schools rather than closing them, by means of evidence-based solutions backed by parents and other stakeholders.

• Less standardized testing and more reliable accountability and assessment practices.

• Programs that encourage the retention of professional, experienced teachers.

• A full range of parent involvement opportunities including a stronger parent voice in decision making at the school, district, state, and national levels.

• The right of parents to opt their children out of standardized tests.

As these documents make clear, we need a federal education law that sets some basic conditions and criteria for schools. Performance benchmarks, however they are derived, that exist outside of solid school environments are cruel hoaxes. We need a commitment of resources and intentions that will ensure that all schools have skilled teachers, sufficient support staff, small classes, excellent materials, libraries and librarians, nurses, counselors, wellness centers, physical education, arts, sports, language arts, world languages, history, science and more.

That takes a commitment of resources on par with the initial creation of the ESEA and especially Title I that sought to ensure more equitable distribution of education funds and programs. In all of this it’s crucial to remember that money is a necessary but insufficient ingredient. A fully funded NCLB, for instance, would have been just as much a nightmare as the current situation. The other ingredient, which apparently is in short supply at leadership levels, is to actually want all children to develop into engaged, thoughtful adults.

In sum, what parent and education activists are calling for is a radical change that breaks down all of the current elements and refashions school environments and educational practices to be attentive to the varied and changing needs of our heterogeneous student population. This desire clearly resonates with the calls of Occupy movements around the world. We know too well that the education of our children has been gambled with in the service of various corporate interests. Some are saying we need an Occupy effort focused on education itself – and Occupy the DOE – that goes directly to the doors of the Department of Education itself.

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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