School Beat: The Waiting Game of Politics and Policies

by Lisa Schiff on November 8, 2007

Election Day came and went this past Tuesday with no particular effect on public education in San Francisco. The low profile at the ballot box is in keeping with somewhat stalled efforts at all levels.

Though the votes will not be confirmed for weeks, San Francisco’s Mayoral election will hardly be a surprise. With an embarrassing lack of serious challengers, Newsom is in for another four years. On the school front, this could be worse, but it could also be a lot better. Newsom is positioned for success for almost anything he puts some attention to. Ratcheting up his public support of San Francisco’s schools would be an easy win for him, and could only help increase general confidence in the school system, particularly with families of young children.

A more challenging but integrally related problem is in housing. San Francisco’s declining school population could be dramatically addressed by a serious increase in truly affordable family housing, as opposed to the high-end housing that continues to sprout up all around us. Reasonable, feasible plans to achieve this have been on the table for years—it truly is a matter of political will and courage at this point, and a second term Mayor with incredibly high positive ratings seems like just the person to put this in motion.

The biggest non-news of the week is not San Francisco’s unsurprising elections but the stalling out of the reauthorization vote for No Child Left Behind (NCLB). NCLB’s Senatorial champion Ted Kennedy announced that there was insufficient time to get a new version through this year, so discussions will begin again next year, leaving the law in all of its flawed dependence on standardized tests in place for at least another year.

Whether the lack of movement is due to lobbying efforts by those of us opposing NCLB for entirely different and better education policies or is simply the natural by-product of the bizarre alliance between the Bush and Kennedy camps is a bit unclear at the moment. In either case, neither side can claim any sort of victory. Opponents will still have to keep the pressure on to push legislators to create something decent (see the Forum on Educational Accountability for information and ways to get involved), and Bush, Kennedy, Miller and Spellings will no doubt come back after the recess and try again to line up enough numbers behind efforts to expand this legislation.

By contrast, a policy effort that is hopefully in its gearing up stages is the work coming out of the “Getting Down to Facts” report, a Stanford based research project conducted at the request of the Governor and finalized earlier this year. The goal of this project was to assess the existing governance and finance structures, to explore how current resource levels could be used more effectively, and to determine if those resource levels were sufficient for meeting the educational goals established in our state’s curriculum.

The resounding answer was that there are insufficient resources and that the governance structures in place inhibit the efficient use of current and potentially expanded resources. For those involved with public education on the ground level, these findings confirmed with great precision what we already knew, but hopefully provided a solid foundation from which policy makers could begin to take immediate action.

Unfortunately, not many concrete actions have come to public attention thus far. One exception is the EdSource gathering that occurred in mid October for the “…presentation and sharing of education policy options based upon nonpartisan analysis, study and research. These policy alternatives were offered by a broad and diverse range of top-level K–12 opinion leaders in California.” EdSource created a synthesis of the different policy recommendations that were presented, more than half of which focused on the “Getting Down to Facts” core topics of finance and governance.

Hopefully this event is just the beginning of more concerted efforts to generate policy changes based on the Stanford report findings. At this point, it really seems time to be crafting solutions and the implementation and evaluation plans that can turn those solutions into realities.

Ironically, although the changes with the greatest impact have to come from the highest levels (meaning at the state and federal levels), it may once again be at the local level where it all starts. Schools, by requirement and because of their overall mission, are trying to do better by all of their students and when there are problems, there are usually educators, parents and community members trying to make changes. A recent example of this that state leaders could take a lesson from was reported recently in a policy report from the Center for Latino Policy Research at UC Berkeley. The report discusses how the population of Latino students is growing in California, but that those same students are falling behind other students in terms of college preparedness, as defined by rates of taking the SAT and completing the A-G courses required to be considered for acceptance into both the University of California and California State University systems.

The biggest barrier in the latter case is that over half of all high schools do not offer a sufficient number of the A-G required courses. And of course these are high schools which tend to have a greater percentage of Latino students. While legislators are working on modifying the mismatch between high school offerings and college requirements, the CLPR report highlights two districts—Los Angeles Unified and San Jose Unified—that didn’t wait for Sacramento’s slow pace and addressed the problem on their own by aligning their graduation requirements with the college entrance requirements. This effort produced dramatic results: for the 2002 graduating class in San Jose, 65 percent of graduates completed the required courses with adequate grades as opposed to 37 percent the year before.

The San Jose example proves that much can be done right now. We know a great deal about the problems we face; we know a great deal about where we want to go; we even have successes that should give us sufficient inspiration to move forward. What else do we need?

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School 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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