This is Part One of series on ballot choices in San Diego that relate to our schools.
There are two contests for seats on the San Diego Unified School Board and they’re both important. Politicians (of all stripes) are prone to saying “it’s about the children” whenever they talk about education, but the fact is there are many other issues at play. Candidates for our local top spot all have preened before the cameras touting their education platforms, when the reality is that the School District is financially and politically independent of the City Government.
The Mayor and the City Council can’t actually do squat about what’s going on with schools. Change, when and if it comes to local schools, is through the Board of Trustees, popularly known as the school board.
Now there are some big money donors who have invested large sums of money trying to change the make up of the school board. By amending the city charter in such a way that other elected officials could have more influence over the school board, they’d also have the opportunity to pursue other items on their political agenda, not the least of which is privatizing education or access to SDUSD’s vast real estate holdings. There’s ‘Gold in Them Thar Hills’, and these guys will do just whatever it takes for a shot at it.
But those pesky San Diego voters have just refused to play along with their game. A decade ago these fat cats pooled almost three quarters of a million dollars to unseat a school board trustee (the job pays $18,000 a year, by the way) who refused to be compliant with their ideas of reform. They failed.
This was also the era of Alan Bersin, the Superintendent of Schools for San Diego whose ‘reform policies’ continue to divide the community to this day. A 2005 San Diego Reader article written by Scott Barnett (the same one who sits on the school board these days) describes how tensions around the Bersin administration led to the downfall of columnist Les “Topper” Birdsall at the then-fledgling Voice of San Diego. (Small world,isn’t it?)
Les “Topper” Birdsall, described by the Voice as “an education expert who has been involved in federal, state and local (district and school) improvement initiatives for 40 years,” was informed on October 26 that his weekly education columns were no longer desired…
Birdsall says he suspects that he rubbed the Voice’s wealthy underwriter the wrong way. Woolley has long had an interest in education, donating, through his Girard Foundation, several hundred thousand dollars annually to reform-based education programs. Woolley confirms that he wanted Birdsall out, saying his columns demonstrated a “lack of understanding of education issues.”
“There is too much woolly-headed thinking at the Voice of San Diego,” quips Steve Erie, professor of political science and director of the Urban Studies and Planning Program at UC San Diego. Erie has known Birdsall for almost four decades and calls him “one of the top educational consultants and advisors in California.” Erie and Birdsall went to graduate school together. “Les’s writing ratcheted up the quality of the education debate in San Diego,” says Erie. Woolley’s role in axing Birdsall demonstrates that “San Diego‘s disease is small-town, small-minded hypocrisy.”
Two years ago, a well oiled public relations effort launched an initiative campaign to add appointed school board members to the current lineup of trustees. They couldn’t even get enough public support to qualify for the ballot, despite having paid signature collectors who’d say anything (truth was never an issue) to get people to sign up.
For the last few years we citizens have been subjected to a relentless campaign mostly through the daily newspaper designed to soften us up, make us think things in our schools are worse than they are, blame unions for everything but the weather (if it would just snow in San Diego!) and portray the school board as a bunch of bumbling idiots. Only one of those things is true; the bumbling part.
Ten years of ‘reform’ policies and a City takeover of the school board in Chicago have yielded some of the worst student outcomes in the country. Most of what the recently striking teachers in the Windy City were demanding had to do with the education process, as opposed to media portrayals that would have you believe the job action was solely about personal economic issues.
And there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that a change in faces at our school board will change that; people who engage with the electoral process at this level just are naturally going to be not-so-slick. My experiences at school board meetings over the past four years convinced me that what voters really want for this position is somebody who will listen, act like they care and acknowledge public input. That’s a good thing because most of what the Board does is the educational equivalent of re-arraigning the deck chairs on a cruise ship.
Up the money chain from them you have the State and Federal Bureaucracies whose dictates about how money gets spend have as much to do with policy as anything. Think some of that construction bond money floating around ought to be spent on teachers (or fill-in-the-blank) ? Sorry, bubba, they’ve got rules against that sort of thing. The Mayor can’t touch that money and the School Board can only spend it like they’re told to.
Back here in San Diego, former trustee John DeBeck doomed himself to being unseated because of the simple fact that he couldn’t take his eyes off his laptop while meetings were in progress. It wasn’t that he didn’t hear what people were saying—nobody was quicker to respond to an email inquiry or opinion article than DeBeck—it was all a matter of perception. After many years on the School Board he knew much of what people expected of them was out of his control; ‘saving’ one beloved program endangered by Sacramento’s budget cuts just meant cutting somebody else’s beloved program.
The other thing that you need to know about the School Board (and School Boards in general) is that education policy is a very, very emotional subject. I’ve come across people in my explorations of this subject who should, by any logical measure, be allies, yet they intensely dislike each other.
Dirty Little Secrets About San Diego Schools and the Evil Teachers Union
Here’s the real dirty little secret that our local reform advocates and their millionaire friends would like voters to overlook: most parents of school aged children in San Diego are actually happy about what’s going on with their kid’s school. That’s not to say there aren’t angry parents or crummy teachers or indifferent administrators. There’s plenty of that to go around at San Diego Unified, along with too much poverty and not enough resources.
While I’m exposing secrets, I’ll let you in on another biggie. The Evil Teachers Union (SDEA) is a house divided. That’s right, folks, teachers are people, too. Many more than you would expect are actually (gasp!) Republicans; some of them (even officials) loath the current school board (which is nearly always portrayed as a bunch of union toadies), and a bunch of teacher’s union types have big-time differences in style and substance with their leadership. There is even an effort underway from within the SDEA to unseat the current leadership for being too compliant with the school board.
As far as the right-wing noise machine is concerned, teachers and their unions (yes, there is more than one) are one big monolithic entity irrationally standing in the way of progress. It’s just not true. And then there are the supposed ‘moderates’ who puff up and say crap like, ‘well I think that unions have served their purpose’.
Obviously those folks haven’t attended a PTA meeting where a parent with personal problems completely derails the evening with their ‘issues’ and seeks to turn the assembled parents into a (usually) figurative lynch mob. Alcoholics and other substance abusers are especially ‘entertaining’.
Last year, one unhappy parent at my kids’ school managed to get actual TV news coverage with a completely factually challenged story aimed at getting a popular instructor tossed out. It didn’t work because other parents, faculty and the administration stood up for this teacher and the actual facts were easily provable.
A small group of parents up in Encinitas are up in arms because their kids were asked to take yoga classes as a form of P.E. Did you know that yoga is actually a plot by the Hindu religion? And when the school district removed the kids from the yoga classes as the parents requested, they then hired a lawyer and threatened to sue because their children we’re being discriminated against, just like (and I’m not making this up) what happened in Nazi Germany.
This kind of stuff happens all the time. This is what I’m talking about when I say that education is an “emotional’ subject. And then there is the kind of ‘instruction’ some theocrats have in mind for science and history.
Yes, folks, other issues may come and go but the fact that teachers need protection is a constant. So, unless you’re willing to deal teachers a seat at the table when it comes to discussing the subject, don’t bother me talking about improving education. Anybody running for School Board who can’t grasp this is either ignorant of history or a tool for those who would destroy public education. And this whole “it’s us parent vs. the teachers thing” has got to go.
The fastest way to just about any potential adversary’s loyalty/heart/wallet is to talk with them. Strutting about blovating about the people who have direct responsibility for educating our kids as if they were some invisible monolith is about as productive as pissing into the wind. Unless your real goal is something else.
The contests at hand
So this year for our local reactionaries it’s back to square one. The b/millionaire boys club and their toadies are shooting to get some nice pliable candidates to represent their interests on the school board. In District A (which encompasses the North central part of the city) and in District E (Southeast San Diego) there are contests that could have a long term impact on local schools.
District A pits incumbent Dr. John Evans against Mark Powell a Republican-backed businessman, who is a fan of school ‘reform’. This is tough territory for school board incumbents. District A has already seen three school board members in just eight years.
Powell’s campaign slogan is “No Hollow Promises…Just Common-Sense Results!” Either he is completely unfamiliar with recent history and the leanings of other school board members, or he’s just completely full of it.
Check this out. In his first year he’s promising to rid the school system of ineffective teachers, renegotiate teacher contracts, implement a teacher assistants program, launch a comprehensive internship program, end bullying/school violence, end “teaching to the test” and implement a new report card system. Note that no free ponies were offered.
Even with a completely new school board (and they are not all up for re-election this year) that was in agreement with Mr. Powell those things wouldn’t and couldn’t happen. It ain’t that simple. And, oh yeah, his experience as school administrator (Vice Principal) ended with his forced return to the classroom. The bottom line here is that he’s an ideologue, despite trying to paint himself as a moderate..
Dr. John Evans (he’s a Psychologist) is the incumbent in District A. His arguments for being re-elected include: fighting to keep class sizes small, a (mostly successful) effort over the past few years to cut back the size of SDUSD’s central administration, increased parental involvement in neighborhood schools and that he’s a supporter of support parental choice for charter schools. Again, no free ponies are being offered, but at least he’s honest about the fact that they’re not likely to be.
Evans does have a track record to run on, a record that’s been vilified frequently in right-wing circles and especially by the daily paper. The fact is that, despite an ongoing budget crisis, test scores in the district have steadily been going up. The schools’ music and art programs have been largely preserved and, despite the howling about how it was financed, SDUSD is recognized as a national leader in classroom technology.
In District E incumbent Sheila Jackson is not running for re-election. Candidate Marne Foster is an ESL teacher at the Mid-City/City Heights Adult Education Center. She’s had four children in district schools and is generally supportive of the work trustee Jackson has done in the district.
Running against her is Bill Ponder, a retired university administrator. You don’t have to wonder about his ideological leanings. Opposition to teachers’ unions is at the center of his program, which is why folks like the Lincoln Club are just wild about him.
When asked during the candidates debate at Central Elementary School if he thought that teachers should have a voice in the decision-making process at school sites, in particular, about whether a public school should go charter or not; his answer was: “Teachers just collect their pay checks.” That’s not a position that’s likely to get anybody to negotiate with you as a School Board member.
Both Ponder and Powell have been endorsed by the UT-San Diego editorial board, and that alone should be reason enough to oppose them. It’s easy for the blowhards in this city to strut around and talk about how they could/would have done things differently, but dealing with political realities at SDUSD is an entirely different matter.
None of these critics has ever suggested a path of action that would have not negatively impacted classrooms over the past four years. They just wouldn’t do whatever it was that the current board was doing. The fact is they just don’t care. The reality here is that San Diego’s right wingers would gladly sacrifice educational progress for ideological victory.
You have to dig a little deeper to grasp the implications of their ideological stance. Ask the Chris Reeds (UT-SD Editorial Board) and the Buzz Wooleys (Voice of San Diego Chairman) if they support public education and they’ll say “yes” as they smile and cross their fingers behind their backs. And while they may differ in the way they couch their ‘reforms’, the end result will always be the same.
Look to the their mentors and ideological forefathers and you’ll find their positions deeply rooted in a philosophy that eschews the lofty ambitions of the people that fought for universal education in favor of a system that bestows intellectual development on the elites while dispensing vocational training to the masses.
If you endorse a minimum wage world service economy where job insecurity and class divisions allow the gross inequalities of wealth distribution that have characterized the past thirty years to continue unabated, then the ideological path being forged by these rightists is just the ticket you’ve been looking for.
On the other hand, if you believe that a robust public education is the pathway to a healthy democracy and economic advancement for the less-than-privileged, then staying the present course of our school board is the thoughtful alternative. Democracy is a messy business. It’s certainly easy enough to poke fun at the ups and downs that the local schools have been through over the past few years. These folks on the board may not be rocket scientists, but I cannot fault the progress that has been made.
So the right thing to do on Election Day is to vote for Dr. John Evans and Marne Foster. The alternatives are just too scary.