School Beat: Tax Extension Postponement Not Good for Schools

by Lisa Schiff on March 24, 2011

School assignments were supposed to be the most dramatic event to take place in the world of San Francisco’s public schools this week. But on Tuesday Governor Jerry Brown trumped the yearly debate over school placement results with a devastating announcement that he will likely postpone putting the tax extension measure on the ballot until November of this year.

That news is devastating for schools, higher education, health and social services, the criminal justice system, the environment, the general operations of our state government and more. Options detailed by the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) at the request of State Senator Mark Leno will offer no solace to those hoping that this is all some kind of nightmare.

Among the most shocking of the proposed financial tactics described in this document are suspending the Proposition 98 minimum funding guarantee for education, which would reduce the amount provide to schools by just over $4 billion. Strategies suggested by the LAO for implementing including eliminating K-3 class size reduction, eliminating state support for school transportation, and general district budget cuts.

Note that all of this is happening not long after California made the costly decision to adopt the recently minted national Common Core standards. These new standards require new materials for teachers to use in the classroom, materials which they didn’t have even before these cuts were on the table. Bringing those resources into the classroom is a task that’s been left for a future day, though how teachers are supposed to meet the standards (and ensure that students can pass the related tests) is a looming question.

In a bitter irony, California only switched to these standards in order to be better positioned to receive more federal funding. Our state standards were tossed out not because they were weak (in fact they were recognized to be among the best in the country), but because adopting them was more a less a requirement for being considered for the federal Department of Education’s Race To The Top (RTTT) competitive grant program. We didn’t win Secretary Arne Duncan’s morally bankrupt and possibly rigged beauty pageant, and now we’re paying a big bill for even entering. And where is the federal government in the midst of this budget disaster? Proposing an expansion of the exclusionary RTTT as its creative new twist on No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Oh, and starting more wars overseas, which creates carnage in faraway places and redirects dollars and attention away from crises at home.

Despite the destructive efforts of those with policy and budgetary authority, school communities are committed to keeping the doors open to all children and making sure that the best they can provide is what will be provided. With that in mind, San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) school communities are in the thick of preparing proposed budgets for next year. We’ve been instructed to prepare two budgets, one with and one without the tax extensions. It looks like that second set of figures will be our reality. With all of the ambiguity still facing us around how much will be cut and how much direct decision making Sacramento will grant to districts and schools, it’s hard to know how this pain will be experienced at school sites.

The financial shock of this budget may in fact be most painful for elementary schools, since K-3 funding is the largest chunk of funding, at least according to the LAO’s report. Will large K-3 class sizes be a universal experience for elementary schools or will school sites have the “opportunity” to decide what to cut and how to shift funds? If the latter is true, we may see increasing inequity in our district if that approach varies from school to school. On the other hand, keeping decisions about cuts close to the ground where the community can weigh in on what it thinks is most important to its students is also a good strategy. The bottom line is that this is just a no-win situation; any scenario is bad for kids and bad for schools.

In the face of these financial issues, the sense of urgency around this year’s assignment process is lessened, despite the fact that the outcomes are extremely important especially to those incoming families. Letters with initial Round 1 placements were sent out this past Friday (March 17, 2011), and everyone remotely associated with the San Francisco Unified School District, but most especially families with incoming Kindergartners, was anxious to see if the new assignment system weighted towards preferences for both families living in assignment areas and for students from low-scoring census tracts, would make a difference in the schools families put on their applications and the assignments they received in turn.

Although there are many details to pore over, according to the district’s chock-full-of-statistics-report the two-second summary is that not a lot changed from last year to this year. About 24% of applicants listed the school closest to their residence as their first choice and 23% listed their attendance area school as their first choice. This is a pattern we’ve seen for years. The reality is that demand exceeds capacity for certain types of programs and structures (language immersion and K-8). Additionally, the quality of schools across the district is still uneven, which means that demand also exceeds capacity at schools that have been able to build reputations for themselves. Lost along the way are the lesser known schools that haven’t been able to break down preconceptions about what they offer. Further lost are the schools – and their students – that need even more attention and resources to build up the programs we want to ensure all children have access to.

What is new is that the number of African-American and Latino families submitting applications in Round 1 increased substantially. Families in these communities are among the most educationally disadvantaged in our district, and since choices and “tie-breakers” are meant to increase options for educationally disadvantaged children, this is a good thing.

While the student assignment system definitely needed updating, no change in that policy or procedure would ever be sufficient unto itself for making the biggest change we need – ensuring that all schools throughout the City provide an excellent, well-rounded education to all the children attending. The financial situation we’ve been in for the last several years has made that challenge all the harder and this newest blow regarding the likely failure of the tax extensions to be on the ballot in June means our options will be even further reduced.

Public school supporters were mobilized across the state to urge legislators to support the special election. As deflationary as this moment feels, we need to keep our momentum up and figure out where to point that energy.

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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