School Beat: The View of 2012 for SF Public Schools

by Lisa Schiff on January 5, 2012

2012 has the potential to bring relatively big changes to San Francisco’s public schools, due in most part to a November ballot that will be full of interesting and significant choices. We’ll be voting on four Board of Education seats, a variety of state-wide funding initiatives with huge impacts on schools, a US Senate seat, two House of Representative spots, and of course the presidency of the United States. In addition to the direct impact of our votes, the elections will no doubt affect the state of federal education policy, specifically the languishing though still corrosive No Child Left Behind (NCLB) fiasco.

The terms of four sitting Board of Education (BOE) Commissioners will expire January of next year. While Norman Yee has declared his intent to run for District 7 Supervisor, it seems likely that the three other BOE members will want to return to 555 Franklin Street. Jill Wynns, the longest serving member, has just been elected President of the California School Boards Association and appears dedicated to staying on the local board, as do Norman Yee, who has several terms behind him and Sandra Fewer and Rachel Norton who are both finishing their first terms. While BOE elections tend to attract a long line of candidates, it’s difficult to imagine these incumbents, should they all choose to run again, losing their positions.

If that is indeed the case, there will be no grace period for the BOE come 2013 and expectations will be all the higher to see more progress on some key issues that have moved slowly for some time. Not the least of these is the initiative to improve all middle schools, which to date has been largely entangled in the overhaul of the student assignment system. Many will be very curious to see what can be learned about the results of the new assignment policy that gives some preference to students who come from areas of the City with low-standardized test scores, as well as some preference to neighborhood, as elementary schools are now associated with attendance areas.

Specific to middle schools is the proposed feeder plan that, due to concern and criticism raised by parents during the Parent Advisory Council (PAC) and Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco (PPS-SF) community engagement process is being phased in slowly. In brief, the plan associates clusters of elementary schools with a specific middle school and will by default assign those elementary students to that middle school. It is also structured to facilitate building out language pathways, a need that has gone unmet for quite some time.

But while the more formalized extension and expansion of immersion programs is welcome and long overdue, that area covers only one, relatively targeted, component of the middle school picture. Ensuring that all middle schools provide a quality education to all students will require a more holistic, all-encompassing assessment and approach, one that parents will be eager to see and respond to. Recent debates over the value and equity of honors classes and the best way to challenge all students have made this even more apparent.

The ever receding level of funding for public education makes these discussions even more difficult. Many of the solutions to the challenges we face lie just out of reach. For instance, a dramatic reduction in class sizes, as opposed to the incremental increase that we’ve experienced, is an obvious requirement for ensuring that teachers can effectively engage students at all levels, but particularly in classes of students with mixed abilities. But, smaller classes require more teachers and hiring more teachers requires increased budgets at each school.

The litany of such basic needs is both long and well-known, so much so that it is inspiring multiple initiatives this fall that aim to increase public education funding in California. Three notable measures include Governor Jerry Brown’s own initiative, the Our Children Our Future initiative, and the Courage Campaign’s Millionaire’s Tax.

Of the three measures, the Courage Campaign initiative stands apart because it focuses solely on revenue generation from the wealthiest among us and seeks to fund not only public education, but other social service and safety areas that have been decimated but cuts, such as services for seniors and the disabled, and retracting cuts to emergency staff. The Our Children Our Future initiative has some appealing aspects (most notably an effort to create a statewide standardized school budget reporting template that is comprehensible to the public) and is backed by the California PTA, but it takes public education outside of the mix of other critical social services that have been cut, which is a mistake in the long run. We have been pitted against each other for too long, which is one reason why the Millionaire’s Tax makes more sense, and why it’s great to see it being supported by the California Federation of Teachers.

Such activity at the state level is reassuring, since at the federal level November’s elections will result in no good news, regardless of the outcome. President Obama has brought nothing new or positive to the project of education so far, nor is it likely he would in a second term, and of course, no challenger has anything meaningful to offer. Congress has been unable or unwilling to make a serious move either, leaving us stuck with NCLB by default. FairTest, the education advocacy group that has provided rigorous critiques of NCLB throughout its existence has just issued a “10th anniversary” evaluation of the policy, summing up the results in the report’s title, “NCLB’s Lost Decade.” We certainly can’t afford another wasted ten 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 and the PTA.

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