School Beat: Familiar Struggles in Education This Year

by Lisa Schiff on January 7, 2010

It’s the start of a new year, but optimism is already running low. Federal stimulus and recovery monies from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) momentarily staved off cataclysmic disasters, but were not sufficient to make up for the epic budget gaps facing states, local governments and school districts. California has been among the hardest states hit and all of our social services, including education, bear the marks.

The grim reality of 2009 continues into 2010. It says a lot that one of the bright spots this year will be the much awaited appearance of a new student assignment policy for the San Francisco Unified School District, which has been undergoing an intensive redesign process. The next Board of Education (BOE) meeting to hear the results of simulations of the different student assignment options will be on January 25th, but before then town hall meetings are being held on continuing on January 7 from 6-8pm at Drew Elementary School (50 Pomona Avenue) and January 14 from 6-8pm at Francisco Middle School (2190 Powell Street) and Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco is holding a focus group January 13 from 6-8pm at Booker T. Washington Community Center (800 Presidio Avenue). Findings from these types of meetings will be presented to the BOE on February 2nd. The recommendation for an assignment policy will be presented February 9th.

But the real news of 2010 is that our familiar budget insufficiencies and insecurities have not lessened. Just this week the bad news was announced that San Francisco’s wildly popular and useful summer resource fair, where families found out about summer camps and jobs for youth, has been cancelled as a cost saving measure. In the reality-is-harder-to believe-than-fiction department, Governor Schwarzenegger announced today that he will supposedly spare education in the next round of budget cuts, turning to the privatization of prisons instead. Given the Governor’s past record of using public education to absorb the cost of maintaining tax breaks for California’s corporations and wealthy citizens, the cynics among us can only assume that this is merely one parry in yet another protracted budget battle in which education will lose out.

But San Franciscans, and most definitely San Francisco parents, are never ones to hold back from fighting for what they believe is right. Indeed our only really choice when there seems to be no choice is to do just that. Anyone who is interested in jumping into this effort can do so at a town hall meeting being held on Thursday, February 25th at Marina Middle School (3500 Fillmore St. @ Chestnut St.) A collection of community groups are co-sponsoring this panel discussion focusing on “looking for solutions to the SFUSD funding crisis and ways to bring about real long-term change.” More information, including child care and interpretation information can be found online:

One of the factors that has shielded San Francisco schools from some of the worst pain of the budget crisis has been the tremendous financial support San Franciscans have shown their public schools. The Public Education Enrichment Fund (commonly known as “Prop H”), is one of the most dramatic examples of this. Prop H allocates monies from the City’s General Fund to support increased access to preschool and expanded sports, library, music, and art programs at the K-12 levels.

Any public school family or educator can attest to the huge positive impact this has had on schools, and can speak to why it makes so much sense for it to be reauthorized. The future of Prop H is an agenda item at a special Board of Education (BOE) meeting on January 7th, at 5pm at 555 Franklin St.

At that same meeting the BOE will also discuss a proposal for the district to partner with the state to compete for federal Race To The Top (RTTT) funds. These are the competitive grants that Arne Duncan’s Department of Education is throwing out to see which states will scramble over each other to pick up large chunks of change by most “creatively” meeting and advancing the latest version of No Child Left Behind.

Despite resisting for awhile, California has backed down and just this week passed 2 pieces of legislation putting our state in compliance with the standardized testing contortions required to be even eligible to compete for RTTT funds. Desperate for money, we are now able to play the game.

There are so many frustrating aspects to RTTT, starting with the very premise that competition among states is an effective way of devising sound educational practices. As unbelievable as it is that we’re holding a nation-wide contest to think about how to teach our children, it is all too believable that RTTT, like so many other policies at the federal and state level, does nothing to address the underlying conditions affecting schools. There is an essential fact that must be addressed before there is a chance to successfully address any other issues — schools need more money to do what they need to do.

Instead of making states and districts “race” to get what they all need, the tables should be turned around. Arne Duncan and his staff should be required to serve as principals for a significant period of time, having to make do with little, choosing which necessary services to eliminate, and wading through endless bureaucratic requirements that do little to advance the needs of the students.

One of my daughters once proposed that lawmakers who vote for war should have to be among the first to fight on the battlefield. The same should be true for all services such as education and health care; elected officials who set the conditions of those services should have to live with the realities of their decisions. Politicians and their advisors in Sacramento and Washington uninformed by the personal experience of having children in public schools have been toying with publication education for decades while at the same time sending their own children to the private schools that reflect their true ideas for what educational institutions should be like. The discrepancy and hypocrisy is painfully clear. When the sons and daughters of representatives, senators, governors and presidents are uniformly among those attending public schools, those officials will then have both a stake in the game and a true understanding of the challenges, needs and possibilities of our schools.

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.

Filed under: Archive