Category Archives: politics

Why I support the sugary beverage tax

Last week, you might have read that Supervisor Scott Wiener introduced a proposal to tax sugary beverages (defined as drinks with 25 or more calories that have added sugary sweeteners and are less than 50 percent fruit or vegetable juice) sold in the City and County of San Francisco.  If approved by a majority of Supervisors, the proposal will go to the voters in November 2014, and since it is a new tax, it will require a two-thirds vote to pass.

Supervisors Eric Mar, Malia Cohen and John Avalos have also been working on similar measures, and they are working with Supervisor Wiener to craft a joint proposal that all of their colleagues will support. Because the stakes are so high — both in terms of the support needed and because of the public health crisis represented by over-consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages –I’ve decided it’s important to pledge my personal support for their efforts NOW, even before a final proposal is approved for the ballot. Two other California cities, Richmond and El Monte, have tried and failed to enact similar measures — amid an onslaught of money spent by beverage manufacturers to defeat them. And New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt at an outright ban on the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages larger than 16 ounces has been blocked in the courts.

Consider these facts:

  • Since 1980, obesity among children and adolescents has tripled nationwide. As recently as 2010, nearly a third of children and adolescents in San Francisco were obese or overweight.
  • Sugary foods are bad enough for health, but sugary beverages are even more extreme in their health effects when consumed regularly. These beverages, though they can contain hundreds of calories in a serving, do not signal “fullness” to the brain. Studies show that they flood the liver with high amounts of sugar in a short amount of time. This “sugar rush” over time leads to fat deposits that cause diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other serious health problems.
  • Sugary beverages represent, on average, 11 percent of daily calories consumed by children in the U.S. A recent survey found that California teenagers are consuming more sugary beverages
  • One in three children born today will develop Type II diabetes in their lifetime if sugary beverage consumption does not decline.
  • Diseases connected to sugary beverages disproportionately impact minorities and low-income communities. According to Head Start of San Francisco, 18 percent of 3-4 year olds enrolled in its programs are obese.
  • UCSF researcher Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo has calculated that even a one-cent per ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages could cut sugary beverage consumption by 10 percent — with corresponding reductions in future cases of diabetes , obesity and heart disease, as well as the cost of treating them. Other research has established that spending $1 on nutrition education saves $10 in future health care costs.

I have two teens, and I know how hard it is to control teenage eating habits once they have a little independence and spending money. Eating habits and tastes are formed at a young age, and I’m forever grateful to my mother for setting a nutrition-conscious example I’ve been able to (more or less) follow with my own children. I also know, as a school board member, how important it is for kids to have enough healthy food so that they can learn at their highest potential.

Supervisor Scott Wiener’s proposal for the November 2014 ballot would create a two-penny per ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, with the proceeds dedicated to nutrition, physical activity, and health programs in public schools, parks, and elsewhere.

I fully support the tax as an effective strategy to drive down consumption of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, increase access to and expand physical activity programs, and expand health nutrition education.  Much like cigarette taxes did to drive down rates of smoking and increase public awareness of the dire health consequences, a soda tax will help reduce consumption and increase the growing public awareness of the negative health impact sodas have on growing and adult bodies.

We will be reading and hearing much more about the sugary beverage tax in the months to come. I hope I can count on other parents and child advocates to support this measure — it’s time for San Francisco to take a strong stand and create disincentives to purchasing and consuming a product that represents a serious health challenge for our children.

P.S. I know it’s been quite a while since I blogged — working full time has really cut into the amount of time I have available late at night to write and post updates from the Board meetings. After tomorrow’s Board meeting I will have some breathing room to catch up. As always, there has been a lot happening! 

Dec 11 meeting recap: Has it really been a month?

UPDATE: The Board will take up the Revolution Foods meal service contract at a Special Meeting on Monday evening, Dec. 17. The Special Meeting will start directly following the previously-agendized Buildings & Grounds Committee, scheduled for 6 p.m.  that evening. 

As I noted in last month’s meeting recap, SFUSD routinely cancels the second Board meeting in November and the second Board meeting in December. So we haven’t had a meeting in a month, and it’ll be another month before we meet again. So you’d think there would be a lot of business on the agenda, right? Not really, as it turned out. It was Norman’s last regular meeting before he is  sworn in as Supervisor for District 7 — Commissioners expressed appreciation for his work on the Board and all of us feel sure we will be seeing lots of Norman after he moves to City Hall.  At the end of the meeting, staff, Commissioners and one Commissioner-elect posed for a family photo:

Normans last meeting cropped

Unfortunately, all the news that was going to happen at last night’s meeting got canceled, so while I have every expectation that the proposed school meal contract with Revolution Foods will pass the Board, we’ll have to wait a bit longer (looks like Dec. 17, but not sure yet). In the meantime, here’s the Invitation for Bid from the school district (wonk alert) which tells you the terms the successful bidder had to meet. Good stuff (for super wonks there is even more info here — scroll down to “Student Nutrition Meal Services”).

And if you are really motivated, here are some more things to study up on for next month:

  • Commissioner Fewer and outgoing Commissioner (Supervisor-elect) Yee introduced a local hire resolution that has many worthy provisions but is sure to ignite some sparks with our Building Trades unions — stay tuned for that to come up for a Board vote and lots of debate in January. 
  • Charter school annual space requests have been submitted and the district’s response is due in early February. Prop 39 requires school districts to offer charters “reasonably equivalent” space to similarly situated district-managed schools.
  • The state budget is still very much at issue for 2013-14 even though Prop 30 passed. The district expects to start its own budget process early next year and we expect to have to cut.  Even though the state will eventually have more money, it will be slow to materialize and make a difference for local school districts.
  • City support for credit recovery and additional support for the Classes of 2014 and 2015 will remain a hot topic. In recent weeks, this issue has been very much in the news because the school district has acknowledged that many students in the current sophomore and junior classes are behind on the credits and/or course requirements they need to graduate under the new A-G graduation policy. Last Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors passed, by a vote of 7-4, a supplemental $2.2 million budget allocation requested by Supervisor Kim to support the district’s action plan for addressing the problem of large students who are short on credits. However, there are a few more hoops this request has to go through (with a possibility that Mayor Lee will veto it) so stay tuned for future developments.

I’m also excited to announce that the Board members elected in November will be sworn in at a ceremony on January 4, 2013 at Tenderloin Community Elementary School (627 Turk St. at Van Ness) at 6 p.m. The public is invited — please come to see me, Sandra Lee Fewer, Jill Wynns and Matt Haney sworn in on that date. The first meeting of the new Board and our annual leadership elections will occur on Tuesday, January 8 at 6 p.m. in the Board Room at 555 Franklin Street. 

In the meantime, have a very happy and healthy holiday season. The blog will be on hiatus until January 3.

Meeting recap: January 24, 2012

On tonight’s agenda:

  • A resolution commemorating the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco Unified School District’s PTA (the organization’s celebration of that anniversary will be held February 10 at Patio Espanol — more details here - PDF);
  • Highlights of the school district’s (and its partners’) celebration of Black History month this February  – events include the African American Read In,  the African American Honor Roll celebration honoring 1,200 African-American SFUSD students with a GPA of 3.0 or better (February 29 at St. Mary’s Cathedral, 6 p.m. $10 donation requested), as well as the annual oratory contest sponsored by the San Francisco Alliance of Black School Educators (Feb. 25 at Thurgood Marshall High School, 8 a.m. to 12 noon);
  • “Sunshining” of proposals and counter-proposals for contract negotiations with United Administrators of San Francisco and United Educators of San Francisco;
  • Approval of the annual spending plan for the Public Education Enrichment Fund (PEEF) — Commissioners reviewed the plan at last week’s Committee of the Whole meeting, and heard testimony from members of the PEEF Comunity Advisory Committee suggesting that three activities (teacher recruitment, custodial services for early education centers and funding for the district’s new formative assessments) should be funded with other monies (district staff wrote a response to that report here). For more information and lots more documents, visit the  PEEF web site, which asks for a password but seems to let you in if you just click cancel. In the end, the Board appreciated the input but supported the original spending plan suggested by staff.;
  • Review and approval of the district’s annual independent financial audit — there were two minor findings related to attendance accounting in the district’s early education and afterschool programs, but the independent auditor expressed confidence that the findings were being addressed, and commended staff for a growing string of clean audit reports;
  • An overview of the Governor’s budget proposal released earlier this month – probably the only good thing I can say about this proposal is that it is very much not a done deal. For reasons I can’t quite explain, even the “rosy” scenario — where the Governor’s proposed tax increases passes — results in significant additional cuts;
  • Public comment from parents and community members at Alice Fong Yu and Paul Revere,  and introduction by UESF leadership of the union’s bargaining team for upcoming negotiations. A commenter last week asked me why I haven’t devoted much time in the blog to the competing statements of Paul Revere parents, and the reason is:  I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to muse publicly on personnel issues. This whole episode has been ugly and disruptive for everyone involved and I don’t see how it helps for me to “report” allegations from one side or another.  I did feel momentarily shamed by the comment from one Revere parent who noted the district’s swift response to an outcry from Alice Fong Yu parents when they protested changes to their immersion program (after a meeting with the Curriculum Committee and district leadership last week, a deal for a pilot program was struck that will increase the population of English Learners at the school but maintain its essentially “one-way” immersion model — and tonight the community came to thank us for our swift reaction).  Why weren’t we able to resolve the Paul Revere situation in as swift a manner? the Revere parent asked.  The answer is complex — personnel issues usually can’t be resolved in one meeting and certainly not in public; and there is not the same unified perspective in the Paul Revere community  – teachers and parents have  been vocal about their divided opinions on which direction the school should go. Still, he’s right that struggling schools can’t easily summon 100 parents in matching shirts to attend a Board meeting, but their concerns are just as pressing.

November 2012 ballot looks crowded with initiatives

Last week I was in San Diego for the California School Boards Association annual conference — and I’m working on a series of blog posts about issues I dug into there. Most pressing, however, is the number of initiatives that are being discussed to fix California’s revenue and/or spending, reform its educational and/or governance systems, or some combination thereof.

Qualifying an initiative for the ballot is not easy, so some of the measures we’ve read about will not actually make it to the ballot, but there are enough proposals in the works that political and education policy wonks are beginning to worry that the voters’ clear desire for a solution to our current problems will get lost in a confusing jumble of competing campaigns.

In the conference’s closing “State of the State” roundtable discussion on Saturday, CSBA’s legislative advocate Rick Pratt (soon to be the lead consultant for the Assembly Education Committee) didn’t mince words: “If all four [tax] initiatives make it to the ballot, none will pass.” And where would that lead us? Right back to where we are now, but a year later.

Here are proposals that received a lot of discussion at the conference:

  • “Think Long Blueprint for California”:  Billionnaire Nicholas Berggruen has assembled a committee of former legislators and heavy-hitters, including former Governor Gray Davis and former Assembly Speaker and SF Mayor Willie Brown. Its not-yet-public initiative would lower the overall tax rate but vastly expand taxation to services, raising at least $10 billion annually. It would form a somewhat scary-sounding Citizens Oversight Committee (appointed by the Legislature), with powers to unilaterally place initiatives on the ballot. Additional revenues would go to schools, but for specific, constrained purposes.
  • “2012 Kids Education Plan” : Ted Lempert, the director of the advocacy organization Children Now, has been working with stakeholders up and down the state to build a coalition of support for four principles that would form the backbone of an as-yet unseen initiative. These are: “a student-centered finance system”; “true transparency”; “significant workforce reforms”, and “new investments in education.” It sounds good, but the devil will be in the details.
  • “Our Children, Our Future: Local Schools and Early Education Investment Act”: The California State PTA and the civil rights organization The Advancement Project filed this initiative on November 30 and are beginning the push to collect the hundreds of thousands of signatures necessary to qualify it. The law would raise $10 billion in new tax revenue for Pre-K-12 education, and require those funds to be spent “at the local school sites, where kids are, not district administration.” It would prohibit the Legislature from directing how monies were spent, placing the new revenues in a  trust fund. The initiative would require re-approval by voters after 12 years.
  • Other miscellaneous tax proposals include an oil and gas extraction tax, and a “split roll” which would suspend Prop. 13 for commercial properties, allowing them to be re-assessed every year.

Update: Just this afternoon, Governor Brown announced he has filed his own initiative. From the Governor’s initiative announcing his action:

My proposal is straightforward and fair.  It proposes a temporary tax increase on the wealthy, a modest and temporary increase in the sales tax, and guarantees that the new revenues be spent only on education.  Here are the details:

  • Millionaires and high-income earners will pay up to 2% higher income taxes for five years. No family making less than $500,000 a year will see their income taxes rise. In fact, fewer than 2% of California taxpayers will be affected by this increase.
  • There will be a temporary ½ cent increase in the sales tax.  Even with this temporary increase, sales taxes will still be lower than what they were less than six months ago.

More details on Brown’s initiative is here.

Why I oppose the school assignment policy statement

Among other measures on the November 2011 ballot is an advisory measure that would ask the San Francisco Unified School district to assign every child to the school closest to where they live. Called “Neighborhood Schools for All,” (or Proposition H), the measure was put on the ballot by parent advocates and Republican party activists.

There is a lot of genuine anger and frustration around the City about our school assignment system. I’ve talked to hundreds of parents about this issue, first as a parent of young children trying to figure out my options, then as a Parents for Public Schools enrollment coach, next as a candidate for public office, and finally as an elected official. This issue is one that constituents want to talk about more than probably any other educational issue in San Francisco.

Proponents of the neighborhood schools  initiative say it “will bring quality neighborhood schools to all students,” and guarantee that all students will (assuming they want to) be able to attend schools closest to their homes. They argue that their initiative is a solution to the problem of family flight and will bring back the many affluent families who currently choose private schools.  I disagree, and I’ll discuss the reasons why in a moment. First, however, it’s important to remember that the school district has just completed a two-year process of redesigning the school assignment system (a process that was not yet complete when efforts to put this initiative on the ballot began), and the current policy balances the desire of many parents to choose which school is best for their children with the feedback from some parents who want to be guaranteed schools closer to home (as long as those schools are high-performing).  The current elementary school assignment process places a much higher priority on proximity to schools than we have had in over a decade.

This initiative is not the solution to the longstanding issue of too many families wanting to attend too few schools, and it’s not the solution to a persistent achievement gap.  Here’s why:

  • The neighborhood schools policy statement will not appreciably impact the number of affluent families who currently choose private schools; nor will it address the longstanding problem of too many students requesting too few schools:  Over the last two decades, we have seen that parents are choosing from a limited, though growing, pool of schools. Prior to 2001, when the district first allowed families to choose from any school in the district, families were allowed to either attend their “attendance area” school OR participate in a choice process for a handful of so-called alternative schools. What we saw under that process was a high number of requests for a handful of high-performing attendance area schools, as well as a high number of requests for a handful of alternative schools. The number of requests for the rest of the district’s 100+ schools? Anemic.  Over the past decade, after the district began implementing a full choice system, the pattern has held, but we have seen improvement in the number of requests for some previously scorned attendance area schools (Miraloma, Sherman and Alvarado are examples — each of these schools was shunned by residents of its attendance area prior to 2001, and each is now on the short list of the most-requested elementary schools in San Francisco). In other words, the district’s experience with allowing parents to submit school choices, even with less certainty of eventual assignment to those choices, has broadened the field of schools that parents are choosing. In recent years, we have seen a modest increase in the number of K applicants as well as an increase in the number of K students eventually enrolling in our schools. Today, there are routinely more requests than seats at roughly half the district’s 73 elementary schools, which is still a problem but a significant improvement over the situation a decade ago.
  • The neighborhood schools policy statement will not, by itself, improve schools that are not being chosen by parents. It will have no impact on the achievement gap:  San Francisco has had for many years, and continues to have, a very wide gap between the level of achievement of White and Asian students compared to the level of achievement of African-American, Latino, and Samoan students. Over the past two years, the Board of Education reviewed student achievement data from a variety of nationwide, regional and local sources, with the objective of determining how school composition influences achievement. We found that two principles held true: that schools with higher (40% +) concentrations of African-American, Latino and Samoan students tended to show the lowest achievement levels, and that Caucasian and Asian-American students do not evidence lower levels of achievement when placed in classrooms with lower-achieving students of other races.  Furthermore, we found that *all* students performed better in classrooms where there was no majority race.  In other words, student assignment policies that encourage racial integration do not hinder any student’s achievement and may in fact enhance many students’ achievement levels.  If every student were assigned to the closest school, some schools would be less segregated, while others would be more segregated. In considering these two facts,  the Board’s current assignment policy balances the desire of parents to choose which school is best for their children, as well as the evidence that integrated schools are better, on average, for all children.
  • The neighborhood schools policy statement will not significantly address the problem of declining middle-class enrollment in San Francisco public schools, nor the overall problem of family flight from San Francisco:  It’s not news that San Francisco has one of the lowest percentages of children under 18 of any major U.S. city.  It’s also no secret that four out of five households earning over $100,000 per year send their children to private schools.  School assignment has played a role in each of these trends, but it isn’t the only — nor even the defining– factor. For years, the high cost of housing has been frequently cited as a contributing factor to family flight. More recently, the faltering economy and lack of jobs has also been cited as a factor.  Even though families cite the perceived quality of public schools as a factor in the decision to leave San Francisco , this doesn’t mean access to the nearest school is a part of that decision to leave. No one that I know of has conducted an analysis of whether parents who live near high-performing schools are more likely to leave, or if those parents are more likely to cite the lack of certainty in school enrollment in their decision to move elsewhere. If anything, I suspect that families who live furthest from high-performing schools are the most likely to leave the city . But as I said, I haven’t seen such a study. Affluent San Franciscans clearly believe that our public schools won’t do as good a job serving their childrens’ educational needs;  based on our choice patterns I can name several schools in affluent areas that would be a “sure thing” if neighborhood residents actually requested them (Dr. William Cobb ES is one; Glen Park ES is another). Most importantly, the newest revision of the student assignment system has improved the odds of K applicants being offered space in their attendance area schools (if that is indeed what they want above all — most evidence collected by the Parent Advisory Council, Parents for Public Schools and SFUSD staff indicates that parents want schools that work for their children — proximity is a secondary consideration). Consider that in the first round of the new assignment system this past spring, just 23 percent of Kindergarten applicants listed their attendance area school as a first choice. Just 24 percent of Kindergarten applicants listed the school closest to their homes as a first choice (in some cases the attendance area school is not the closest). In fact, just 14 of our 73 elementary schools received 50 percent of first choice Kindergarten requests for 2011-12.

Finally, the policy statement is poorly written and would carry with it a number of unintended consequences. For one thing, the policy statement assumes that it is possible for families to have both the certainty of attending the closest school, while also having the opportunity of attending a specialized program like language immersion if they would rather. It would be nice to offer families both certainty and choices, but the two are inversely related as long as all schools in the district are perceived to be of unequal quality.  That’s why the number of families not receiving a choice in the school lottery — about 20 percent — has stayed the same even after the new system was implemented; there are just too many requests for some schools and not enough for others, because some schools are perceived to be of higher quality than others.  Only the slow but steady work of improving instruction, administration and classroom supports will change that perception — student assignment schemes of any stripe cannot. Another (perhaps more minor) flaw with the policy is that it calls for a neighborhood-based assignment system to be implemented in the current 2011-12 school year. Does a yes vote really mean the voter is advocating for students  be re-assigned during the current year? Perhaps not, but there’s no way to know.  In any event, such an undertaking would be chaotic and disruptive, not to mention expensive.  

Anyway, all a student assignment policy can do is set rules and make sure that they are fairly applied to everyone. In our district, the policy the Board and staff spent two years developing also attempts to give everyone equitable access to disparate program offerings across the district, even while acknowledging that it’s a hardship for some families not to attend a school that is accessible to work, home or a reasonable commute on public transit. Our process was transparent and extremely public, including televised monthly committee meetings and meetings held in alternate locations — not just the board room.  When we finally voted to formally adopt the policy in March 2010, there was applause and very little public comment – a far cry from some of the other controversial issues the Board has taken up. 

The current system is not perfect, but it is flexible, and the Board has set up objectives and metrics to determine whether it is working as intended for families. We’ll receive our first monitoring report tonight,  and after that report we’ll begin to evaluate what, if any, adjustments should be made.   We’re facing some real budget challenges again this year, and in the judgment of all the board members, we’ve spent enough time on student assignment policy — it’s time to refocus on other initiatives that will improve schools across the district.  Prop. H is a distraction on an issue we’ve already exhaustively examined and it comes at a time when we can least afford distractions. Please vote NO on Proposition H. 

Brodkin, Mendoza and Murase for Board of Education

Labor Day traditionally marks the start of campaign season, and a headlong rush towards November. This year, three seats on the Board of Education are up, with two incumbents seeking re-election and one open seat (Jane Kim is running for Supervisor in District 6).  I would like to introduce the three candidates I am endorsing for these seats– Margaret Brodkin, Hydra Mendoza and Emily Murase:

Margaret Brodkin

Margaret has over 30 years experience advocating for children’s issues in San Francisco. She is nationally-known for creating the Children’s Fund, which has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for programs serving children and families.  Margaret is relentless in her advocacy and progressive in her politics; even though we may differ on some issues, I know I will always respect her point of view. She is a keen, strategic thinker who relishes debate and asks great questions. Her presence will improve the quality of the Board’s discussions and the stringency of our oversight. To learn more, visit www.brodkinforschoolboard.org

Hydra Mendoza

Hydra has served on the school board for the past four years with distinction, and I’m pleased she has decided to seek a second term. She has provided a valuable link between the City (by day she works as Mayor Newsom’s Education Advisor) and the school district. She has forged good working relationships with each of the Board members, and as a Commissioner has shown herself to be someone who asks good questions and listens to varied points of view; I have enjoyed serving with her since I arrived on the Board in early 2009.  For more information, visit www.hydramendoza.com

Emily Murase

I got to know Emily when she and I ran together during the 2008 election cycle. While her first campaign was not successful, she has shown great perseverance and dedication in her decision to run again this time around. Emily grew up in San Francisco and her family was instrumental in starting the Japanese Bilingual Bicultural Program that now resides at Rosa Parks Elementary in the Western Addition (both of Emily’s young daughters attend this program). She is active in the Lowell High School alumni association and has served with distinction on the Parent Advisory Council. I know she will be a thoughtful and grounded member of the Board, and bring a welcome on-the-ground perspective as an involved parent in the district.  For more information, visit www.emilymurase.com

I am intentionally disabling comments on this post, as I don’t want to host a debate about the relative merits of candidates. These are my personal choices, which I am broadcasting as a way of helping to inform voters and supporters who have not yet made up their minds or studied the race.  You can always send me your thoughts at comments “at” rachelnorton.com

A “pickle” in Sacramento

So you’re forgiven if you missed this, since the news broke late Friday, but the committee charged with evaluating applications for School Improvement Grants (SIGs) issued its recommendations late Friday afternoon. Districts that had schools landing on the “persistent underperformers” list were eligible to apply for SIGs to help pay for the reform work already required under state law — SF Unified has 10 schools on the list and applied for $48 million in SIGs.  (I wrote about our application here).

It turns out that the decision to lay out a reform plan for all 10 schools in the application was key. San Francisco’s application was rated 95.5 out of a possible 100.0 points, and recommended for full funding under the rules approved by the State Board of Education (SBE) when it laid out the SIG process and evaluation rubric last spring.  By contrast, applications from Los Angeles Unified, Sacramento City Unified, San Diego Unified and Oakland Unified, among others, were disqualified by readers for receiving any funding because they did not agree to take on reforms at all of their persistently-underperforming schools in the grant application.

And perhaps you’ll be shocked, but people in those politically-connected districts weren’t very happy when they got the news, and suddenly, the SBE is getting some heat. So things got very interesting when the SBE began discussing the SIG recommendations at a special meeting today, since the SBE must approve the recommendations before districts can begin receiving money. “A pickle” is how one Commissioner described the situation, and a pickle it is.  There are lots of people in Los Angeles, San Diego and other places complaining that the recommendations aren’t fair. But assuming the reviewers followed the SBE-approved rubric, it’s also not fair to change the rules in the middle and award money according to criteria that were not originally spelled out in the original grant application. Complicating matters is that all of this has to be done within a certain amount of time (not sure how much, but not enough for a complete do-over).

In the end, the SBE did what politicians are wont to do and kicked the can down the road for a week or two, hoping that a way out of the pickle will magically present itself. But expect San Francisco Unified and other districts whose applications were highly-rated to cry foul if the SBE tries to shift money around or otherwise change the rules that they themselves wrote.

Charter extension denied to low-scoring Stanford school

What a sad story, which I somehow missed when it came out almost two weeks ago.  The Ravenswood City School District apparently denied a five-year extension to a charter school created by Stanford’s School of Education after the school landed on the state’s “persistently low-achieving” list. The Board will consider a two-year extension but the prospects are not clear.

For those of us in education who are fighting the current narrative that traditional public schools are irrevocably flawed and failing, this news incites a strong urge to say, I told you so! Diane Ravitch says it more diplomatically in the article:

“Maybe this demonstrates that schools alone cannot solve the very deep problems kids bring to school,” said Diane Ravitch, the education scholar and historian. “You cannot assume that schools alone can raise achievement scores without addressing the issues of poverty, of homelessness and shattered families.”

The news probably also demonstrates that the state’s “persistently low-achieving” list is fundamentally flawed and unfair. Linda Darling-Hammond, the widely-respected Stanford professor who helped start the school, said as much:

Ms. Darling-Hammond — who told the board that the school “takes all kids” and changes their “trajectory” — was angered by the state’s categorization of the charter as a persistently worst-performing school. “It is not the most accurate measure of student achievement,” she said, “particularly if you have new English language learners.”

I’m sure Stanford created and has overseen the school with the best of intentions, and in the end it’s very sad to me that the idealism, academic pedigree and resources the university brought to the Stanford New School have not been able to boost the academic outcomes of underprivileged children.

And the winners are . . .

Delaware and Tennessee win the first round of Race to the Top — $600 million total ($100 million going to tiny Delaware and $500 million going to Tennessee).  Education Week’s analysis finds that these two states really stood out when it came to stakeholder support, especially union support.  But the magazine’s Politics K-12 blog also speculates that politics could have had something to do with the selection because two key Republican moderates hail from those states:

 Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del . . . are the ranking minority members in the subcommittees in their respective chambers dealing with K-12 policy, and both are considered leading moderate voices on education who have worked well with Democrats in the past. In fact, in an interview with the Washington Post’s David Broder, Secretary Duncan singled out Alexander and Castle as the two Republicans who had offered ideas that were incorporated into the administration’s ESEA blueprint.Of course, the Obama administration has stressed repeatedly that politics would play absolutely no part in Race to the Top and set up a process intended to keep just these sort of considerations out. But the fact that Tennessee and Delaware apparently submitted such stellar applications might be a lucky break for the administration as its works to get GOP support for its ESEA ideas.

Update: the Dept. of Education has posted all the score sheets and reviewer comments for each state’s application. California came in 27th out of 40 states and did particularly poorly on its discussion of data systems to support instruction.

Skips, bumps and seniority: how layoffs work

My commenters from El Dorado Elementary have angrily alleged that the district chose to focus the brunt of layoffs on hard-to-staff schools, pointing to a legal precedent in the case of Bledsoe v Biggs Unified School District (2008) 170 Cal. App. 4th 127 (skip to page 8 for the discussion of the case).

The teachers say this precedent gives our district the right to skip certain teachers without respect to seniority, and say that the fact that 60 percent of the staff  at El Dorado (or 67 percent of the teachers, depending on what you use as the base of your percentages) received pink slips shows that the district has abandoned the ideals of “Beyond the Talk.”

Strong words. I haven’t appreciated some of the accusations that have been leveled at me (for example, that I was spreading “misinformation” because I used the 60 percent figure), but whatever. They’re angry, they’re facing the loss of their jobs, and they’re mourning the likely breakup of a dedicated and idealistic staff team– so I guess I can take it. I did, however, ask the district’s legal counsel for an opinion on how Bledsoe v. Biggs applies to our current situation. Are the El Dorado elementary teachers correct that we have ignored a legal precedent that would save teachers currently working at hard-to-staff schools?
In a word, according to our general counsel, no. Here’s why:

  • In the Bledsoe v Biggs case, the district “skipped” teachers at its community day school (a school for students expelled from other sites). A more senior teacher asserted the right to bump. Notably, the court found that the senior teacher was both credentialed and competent to hold the position. However, the district successfully avoided the bump by showing that the more junior, skipped teacher possessed unique training and experience for teaching in that environment that the more senior teacher did not possess.  At our hard-to-staff schools, we do not currently require that teachers have special training or credentials to take a position. They do receive additional professional development and stipends after they begin teaching at a hard-to-staff school, but we do not require that professional development as a condition for beginning employment at the school.
  • We have instituted “skips” for particular kinds of “hard-to-fill” subjects or credential areas:  BCLAD (bilingual), special education, and single-subject math or science credentials, for example. But even within those skipped areas, more senior teachers have bumping rights. As an illustration, last week I was contacted by a special education teacher who could not understand why he received a pink slip. After the Human Resources department investigated, we were told that because there are administrators who received pink slips that also hold a special education credential, those employees could conceivably have the right to “bump” into special education classroom jobs to avoid a layoff. Hence, a handful of special education teachers still received pink slips despite the skip (the teacher who contacted me was senior enough that after the investigation, HR rescinded his layoff even though they concluded he was properly noticed in the first place). The bottom line: a job at one of our hard-to-staff schools is not the same–in the eyes of the law–as a job in a hard-to-fill area, in terms of the specific training and credential required. In addition, more senior teachers who hold the same credential as the “skipped” employee are still able to “bump” into his or her position in a layoff. Since teachers at hard-to-staff schools hold the same credential as their colleagues at other schools, they would not be protected from being skipped in a layoff because they could still be bumped by more senior teachers who received layoff notices.
  • As noted above, teachers are only permitted to bump into position that they are credentialed and competent to fill, and the district does have broad authority to decide what “competency” is for its teachers. Recently, for example, we decreed that all teachers employed by the district must have the CLAD credential (now required by the state for any teacher who works with English Language Learners). As a result, teachers who earned a credential before the CLAD was required (and did not go back and get the CLAD certification later) are no longer “competent” to teach in our district. However, competency criteria must apply equally to all staff. A competency requirement that would protect staff at hard-to-staff schools (such as requiring experience teaching in a hard-to-staff school) would result in finding the majority of the District’s staff to be not competent. Such a requirement would probably not survive a legal challenge.

The fact that I think the counsel’s analysis is sound does not mean I like it, or that I think it’s fair that 67% of El Dorado’s teachers received pink slips.  I think we should work on a side agreement with UESF that would enable us to go as a team to the legislature and request a legislative solution that saves teachers who choose to work at hard-to-staff schools.   I am also following the national conversation on alternative ways of conducting layoffs, and I hope there is a way that our labor unions will feel they can eventually participate in such a conversation (probably now is not the best time, since we are in the midst of a very difficult negotiation). Seniority is a major pillar of the labor movement, and it’s not the cause of all the ills in our schools –it’s not helpful to to blame our labor contracts for disproportionate layoffs at hard-to-staff schools,  just as it isn’t helpful to blame the district for the sad situation we’re in.