School Beat: We May Have A New Superintendent

by Lisa Schiff on May 31, 2007

San Francisco’s Board of Education (BOE) has identified the finalist whom they hope will be our district’s next Superintendent. Assuming that the formalities of reference checks and final offer negotiations pan out, Carlos Garcia will take over from Interim Superintendent Gwen Chan as head of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD).

Garcia comes to the SFUSD with a potentially powerful perspective. He has been a superintendent of large districts in and out of California, most notably Fresno Unified School District (CA), one of the largest in the state, and Clark County Unified School District (NV), encompassing the Las Vegas schools. Previous to these posts, Garcia had been principal at Horace Mann Middle School in San Francisco, which at that point was a thriving, sought after school.

These experiences put Garcia in a strong position to understand the difficulties and possibilities of the SFUSD as both an insider and an outsider. As a principal in San Francisco, he had to become familiar with the administrative and bureaucratic realities of our district, the political culture of our City and the challenges and strengths that our students bring to school. As a superintendent of large districts and an urban district, he will be no stranger to many items on the list of problems waiting to be faced head-on, the budget and the achievement gap being the first two that come to mind, both issues he has discussed in other settings.

Garcia’s actions around public school finance are particularly encouraging. As a superintendent in Nevada, he did not shy away from exposing the need to raise up abysmal funding levels if educational levels were to be improved. More importantly, he went beyond rhetoric and organized the rest of the state’s superintendents to support a new public school funding plan and then lobby the legislature for it.

Despite this concerted effort, Nevada’s elected officials took the low-road and provided less than half of what the educators were calling for, causing Garcia to openly call into question the sincerity of their support for education. This kind of leadership is exactly what is required for our district (or any district, really) at this time when public education is at best being used as a political stepping stone and more frequently just being abandoned.

While this kind of champion behavior is extremely appealing when so few high-level informed education proponents are taking up similar challenges, Mr. Garcia’s most recent job experience is extremely unsettling. His current position is as part of McGraw-Hill’s Urban Advisory Resource Team, which professes to be “…dedicated to serving the unique needs of large school districts. Our experts have extensive experience in managing large districts with limited resources. The team includes two former superintendents and a former school board chairman.” (

Urban districts need a lot of things, but hyper-targeted marketing and sales services from a profit-first company is not one of them. McGraw-Hall is one of the largest commercial publishers of education materials and one of the greatest beneficiaries of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). As discussed in a previous School Beat column, the company has experienced fantastic profits due to the focus on low-production-cost standardized tests and related curricula.

“Legitimately” enjoying the boondoggle of NCLB is bad enough, but McGraw-Hill is also at the center of one of the messiest scandals surrounding the federal education law—the Reading First scandal. An earlier School Beat discussed how the preferences shown towards the Reading First program produced by McGraw-Hill have been extensive and undeniable. They were so egregious that even major NCLB champions (the Dept. of Education’s own Office of the Inspector General, for one) have called for controls based on these experiences.

Garcia’s position as an advisor and entrée into urban districts is troubling because it reflects a blurring of priorities. McGraw-Hill’s materials sell because they conform to the law, they can be produced for commodity prices and because the company has the sales, marketing and political reach that allows them to insert themselves everywhere, successful. It is disappointing to see a professional educator, someone who has dealt first-hand in many settings with the disparities in our educational system, help in extending the influence of a corporation whose first interest is not in the kids Garcia wants to see supported. The optimistic reading of this is that Garcia felt he could shape the kind of programs and investments McGraw-Hill made; hopefully that’s the case.

This kind of contradiction is realistically what we should expect from any candidate interested in taking on any urban school district, and especially perhaps one as intense as San Francisco’s. Someone with sufficient passion and self-confidence to be at the head of a complex, under-funded institution that is meant to concurrently fulfill impossible and essential expectations has got to believe that he or she can be the master of any situation. The pitfalls of such a conception are familiar, and it will be the task of public school supporters to be attentive to them. But the constructive side of such bold confidence is absolutely what we need right now to help shape and implement solutions to the many challenges our district faces.

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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