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Rhee Hears San Diegans’ Concerns About Public Schools

Aired 12/15/11 on KPBS News.

Michelle Rhee, education reformer and former Washington, D.C. pubic schools chancellor, visited San Diego Wednesday.

— Hundreds of San Diegans turned out last night to share their ideas about improving city schools with former Washington DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and Mayor Jerry Sanders.

Michelle Rhee's national education reform organization StudentsFirst has successfully pushed for sweeping legislative changes in seven states including Florida and Indiana. The group has backed initiatives to increase access to charter schools, use student test scores to evaluate teachers and principals and draw city leaders into school governance.

The group's California efforts will be shaped by what they hear in San Diego and four other cities, Rhee said. But she already knows another issue Students First has worked on exists in California.

“When layoffs come because of budget crunches in this state it is part of state law that those layoffs must happen by seniority. And we know when you have ‘last in, first out’ policies, it’s incredibly detrimental to kids,” she said.

Audience members had plenty of other ideas about changes needed in city schools

“The number of college admissions counselors available to public students is very poor, California is last in the United States," said Marjorie Shaevitz, a college admissions counselor who lives in La Jolla.

Scott Wild works at Westview High School in Poway. He said he is frustrated by school leadership that won't look for proactive solutions to public education's problems.

"I was really, really impressed with Michelle Rhee three years ago when she went into D.C. public schools and said, you’re not performing and so we’re going to get rid of you," he said.

Rick Bregman is a San Diego banker. He knows Rhee's 'house cleaning' approach to reforming the capital's schools didn't win her many friends, but he thinks it was the right approach. "I know there’s a lot of inefficiencies in the system, a lot of that is tied up in labor costs," he said.

Rhee also heard from parents frustrated by city schools' bureaucracy, award-winning teachers who were laid off because they lacked seniority and a school administrator worried about how infrequently and informally teachers are evaluated in the district.

The StudentsFirst event comes on the heals of City Council President Tony Young and Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher calling for a more active role in city schools for San Diego's city council and future mayor.

Mayor Jerry Sanders welcomed attendees at the beginning of the evening, he said he thinks city leaders should step up to improve public schools.

"I think most people in San Diego simply don't understand what the school system's doing, how school boards are elected, they're pretty overlooked things," he said. "I think putting more of a focus on them would certainly help the process and there might be new ideas on how to comprise boards."

StudentsFirst reports it has more than 100,000 members in California, 12,000 of them in San Diego. Rhee's listening tour will continue in Los Angeles, Fresno, Sacramento and San Jose.

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