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2011 Could Be Year Of Change At City Schools

Audio

Aired 1/4/11

What are the education stories to watch in 2011? What impact might the new state schools superintendent and new governor have on California schools? Could change be coming to the San Diego Unified School board? We speak to Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis and Scott Himelstein, president of San Diegans 4 Great Schools.

What are the education stories to watch in 2011? What impact might the new state schools superintendent and new governor have on California schools? Could change be coming to the San Diego Unified School board? We speak to Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis and Scott Himelstein, president of San Diegans 4 Great Schools.

Guests

Ana Tintocalis, KPBS Education Reporter.

Scott Himelstein, president of San Diegans 4 Great Schools, and director of the Center for Education Policy and Law at USD.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The fact that San Diego Unified school district expects a devastating budget shortfall this year has been widely reported but as important as that story is, it's not the only big education issue looming in 2011, the state has a new governor who will be setting his own education priorities, and we have a new constitutional right superintendent of schools. Closer to home, that's a push for a new initiative to expand the number of San Diego Unified School Board members, and change the way they get on the School Board. I'd like to welcome my guests, KPBS education reporter, Ana Tintocalis. Good morning, Ana.

TINTOCALIS: Good morning, thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And later in the show, we'll hear from Scott Himmelstein, president of San Diegans for Good Schools. Scott, hello. Thanks for coming in.

HIMMELSTEIN: Good morning Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, we'd like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. What are your concerns about San Diego schools during the coming year? Do you believe reform is needed and if so, how much? Give us a call with your questions, why are comments, the number is 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. Ana, what do you think are the big education stories to watch in 2011.

TINTOCALIS: Well, there will be so many new, interesting education trends both locally and nationally. But I think what is going to steal the headlines once again is state cuts to public education. And it's something that I think at this point a lot of people kind of roll their eyes, they're either just frustrated or just so tired of hearing about it. But according to a lot of, you know, budget analysts, and people who watch this, they really truly believe this can be the breaking point this year. Because there's been round after round of budget cuts to education now, and the state is looking at a $28 billion budget deficit over the next 18 months. So the huge question now as we look forward, is how will that huge, massive deficit impact school districts that are already reeling from years of multibillion dollar budget cuts? That is the question. I mean, a lot of programs have already been scaled back, people have been laid off, many programs have been trimmed. But we're looking at a school year that's already shortened by five-day, they're looking to possibly shorten that yet again, maybe by a week. Layoffs of counselors, librarians, after school athletics, these are core people talking about even districts going into insolvency because they just can't make the bills anymore. So it's very much like I said, a breaking point. We have now, the lowest per pupil spending on education than in any other state in the country, almost. And all of this, you know, will be taking place. And then you have this new dynamic which is a new governor, governor Jerry Brown, and it will be very interesting in how he kind of deals with all that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Had, it sounds like he and the new state superintendent, Tom Torlakson, I mean, have this immense and terrible job in front of them to try to figure out how to cut stuff that can't really rationally be cut anymore. So tells about Tom Torlakson, how does he bring to his new office.

TINTOCALIS: Well, he's -- I mean, he's 61 years old, and he's a teacher turned politician. He's spent most of his years in political life. And as of late, he's been an assembly man in Sacramento. Of but he's always had this pension for education. He's watched education closely, he's authored after school program legislation that really expanded those programs that many school districts, he's been a big proponent of nutrition in schools and banning junk food. He's a huge fan of career technical education programs. And that's something on his website and his agenda, his talking points when he was campaigning, that he wanted to really expand career technical education. He also wants to extend the school day, which it's -- it's just a lot of empty promises right now, because you have this massive budget deficit, it's, like, okay, how are you going to extend after school programs? How are you going to lengthen the school year? I just wanted to play a little clip of what he has to say about the reason he wants to extend the school year.

NEW SPEAKER: Our 180-day school year which has been cut by one week during this budget crisis is one of the shortest school years in the world. The other reality is, we have a short school day. I believe we should have a seven-hour school day in many of our high schools around the State of California, particularly for the kids that need more time. Legislation I've written has allowed 4000 schools out of the roughly 9000 schools in California to have after school programs between 3 and 6 o'clock. A number of studies have shown that students who have that extra hour or two hours of studying do much better at gaining proficiency in the subject matters. So instead of feeling despair, or I won't fit or I won't succeed, that student will have the foundation for success. That student will not be a drop out.

TINTOCALIS: And that was taken from his website. But it all goes back to, well, how is he gonna do this? The state superintendent of public instruction, that post is largely an administrative job. Although it comes with it a very large soap office to either influence the governor or key lawmakers. So that's an important kind of component to all the bureaucratic responsibilities that he has. And he could really lift up schools and kind of get them out of their slump by spearheading new initiatives. But again, the question goes back to with what money and how is he gonna extend the school day when everyone's talking about we're gonna have to cut the school year yet again by about a week. It will all be interesting how this plays out and how Mr. Torlakson plays out with Jerry Brown. Jerry Brown has not had a huge history of education reform, he hasn't been this huge education guy. And I think he was kind of forced to deal with education issues as the mayor of Oakland because that district faced a state take over, and he was kind of forced to get in the middle of it. This resulted in him actually establishing some charter schools. And now he gets it a little bit more about the ideas of how to fix education. I think that, you know, everyone is just wondering will he kind of pull his mental energy and his creative ideas into really trying to fix education for the long-term? Not just kind of a Band-Aid fix. And that's what I think a lot of people are wondering.

CAVANAUGH: And as it comes to challenges for Torlakson in his first year of office, is it more just money, money, money? Or are there other things that also might stand in the way?

TINTOCALIS: Well, I mean, you have the persistent achievement gap in this state. And his predecessor, jack O'Connell, really tried to put the spotlight on it, and he actually called it a racial achievement gap because there was a feeling that a lot of the public school teachers and the school itself was just not having the same expectations for every student that they should. Of that black and Latino students were held to the same standards as white and Asian students and that's why he called it a racial achievement gap. But there's only been very incremental progress with this gap. And although over all test scores have been at a show and steady growth, you still have this drop out rate that's at about 22 percent of a lot of people say it's because all these cuts that are taking place. So he has those issues to contend with. Of he is looking for better training for school employees, he's really pushing early childhood education. He's -- you know, he questions federal reform movements that really kind of take a look at the teachers' union and their roll in whether or not you can hire and fire teachers of he's backed by the powerful teachers' union. So with Torlakson, you're not gonna have in big reformer. You're gonna have the status quo. I think he's gonna build on what his predecessor did, and in fact, he looks like jack O'Connell. He has the same stature, the same philosophy, the same hair style. So I think what you're gonna so is just more of the same, putting the spotlight on some key issues but not really gaining some traction, unfortunately.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I believe you have another clip from Tom Torlakson?

TINTOCALIS: No, this is jack O'Connell. I sat down with him, and he was basically kind of reflecting become on his time in the hot seat, and he did a lot request, really, backing the state's high school exit exam, which now every high schooler has to take to get a high school diploma. He did it a lot with state standardized tests. But the thing that always eluded him was just simply trying to get money to more schools and this is what he had to say.

NEW SPEAKER: I'm still very optimistic. We've seen incremental narrowing of the achievement gap. And we've seen more students eligible to attend college university. We need to see more support from Sacramento. Perhaps I should have tried to do more, you know, face time with the governor and with others, but that wasn't for lack of effort. But I'm hopeful that we'll see more support. You know, difficult economy, I certainly get that. But we need to make sure education is a priority. I mean, education should be the magnet to attract businesses here, to have businesses expand here.

TINTOCALIS: And it will be interesting, because another headliner that you might see in 2011 is this schism within the Democratic Party here both in the state and nationally over reform movements and how do you fund education. It seems that there is, you know, a split in democratic leaders saying we can't be so closely aligned with the teachers' union anymore. There is more pressure on the teachers' union because of the way they protect their teachers, you know? And there's a lot of talk about tying student test scores with teacher evaluations. And I think there is this split now where you see democratic lawmakers who are friends with the teachers' union now being more critical, and I think that will evolve over this year, and we'll really see it, and in the middle of all that will be Jerry Brown kind of trying to mediate these two camps.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're taking your calls about the major school issues coming up in the new year, 2011. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. Sally is on the line from San Diego. Good morning, Sally, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Yes, how can we help you?

NEW SPEAKER: Two of my concerns about the San Diego Unified school district are the course of study which needs to be reformed. . And secondly, the turn over of superintendents. And I wanted to ask Mr. Himmelstein how he expects that point would affect the much of the school district to achieve some stability with the superintendent position.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you for your call, Sally, and let me bring in, again, Scott Himmelstein, he's president of San Diegans for great schools and reforming the leadership at San Diego Unified is basically what your organization is all about.

HIMMELSTEIN: Right. So in the last five years or so, we have had four permanent superintendents in the district, and three interim superintendents. As Sally rightly points out, it's a terrible issue and leads to great instability in leadership. And for, I would say, the last ten years or so, we have had a dysfunctional relationship between our School Board, our superintendent, our employee unions. Of and it's led to this great turn over, when we sat down to look at everything, was the problem money? Was it curriculum? Was it whatever else? It came down to leadership and stability. So we're hoping that an expansion of the board from 5 to 9 members and appointing four of those members that are not beholden to any special interest group, whatever it might be, will create some more stability. It's a lot more difficult to get to five votes out of nine than it is to get to three votes out of five. And we're hoping that brings a lot more dialogue, a lot more debate, and a lot more compromise, and a lot more decisions more in the interests of students.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, I want to speak to you more, Scott, in just a few minutes about the specifics of this proposal and who would appoint these additional board members and so forth and so on. But Ana, I want to go back to the idea that there's this huge deficit looming, not only San Diego Unified, for most school districts around the county. Of and I'm wondering, what is the feeling that you get from speaking with administrators about making a major change in leadership like this in a time of such really, really deep budget cuts and concerns?

TINTOCALIS: Right. Well, I mean, critics of the plan will say it just kind of erodes the democratic process, at a time where people are just trying to put out the fires, so to say. And it erodes the democratic process in it their point of view because really, it's the voters who get School Board members on that panel. And to appoint folks from different parts of the city, it's kind of diluting that process. You know, other people say it's a form of union busting. Of the people on the School Board right now are largely backed by the teachers' union. And this is just a method of busting that up. But these are people who have rightly got their place in that seat because the voters said we want you in that seat. You know, and other things that I've heard is that it's a little bit elitist, again, undemocratic, and it's kind of an alternative way to get business interests on the board. So you know, this is some of the criticism that Scott is facing out there in the public, and among administrators.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take the break. Because I want to give you a chance to respond to some of the things that have been said about this movement to expand this San Diego Unified School Board, and I also want to get more people involved in our conversation. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. We're talking about some of the crucial issues coming up for schools in San Diego in 2011. Once again, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. You're listening to These Days to KPBS.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We're talking about the challenges facing schools in California and most specifically here in San Diego in 2011. My guests are KPBS education reporter, Ana Tintocalis, and Scott Himmelstein, president of San Diegans for great schools. And we're taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And we just got started talking about the reform, the initiative that is being lobbied and pressed by San Diegans for great schools. And it would expand the number of school on the San Diego Unified school district's board, and it would also change the way they are appointed. And Scott, there are already people gathering signatures for this initiative. I found some people outside my grocery store just yesterday. Tell us specifically about what this initiative would do, are and then if you would respond to some of the criticisms that Ana has heard about this.

HIMMELSTEIN: Yeah, so the initiative really looks to do four things. First, it will require the board of education to adopt and implement a plan to improve student achievement at each school, and to report that man, not only to itself, the board, but also the mayor and City Council, thereby shedding some more light and transparency and accountability. Two, it will change our elected member elections from city wide to district only, currently in the primary, candidates will run in their district, and then the top two will be elected from a city wide election. Of and that's where a lot of the big dollars, the special interest money comes in, because you need to raise a lot of money to run the city wide. We believe it will make the elections more competitive, and make those board members more accountability to their constituents and their schools. Three, it will establish term limits on both elected and appointed School Board members to 34-year terms, enough time to put some stability on the board. . But also a limit so that there are not board members who look at board service as a career. And fourth, and probably most personal, it will expand the board from 5 to 9 members. We have had five members on this board since 1931 when our city was 1 tenth of the population, and the school budget of 1 tenth of the population. These board members will be picked by a citizens' nominating commission, which will be established in the city charter, if the people vote for it, it will be composed of our four major university presidents and our community college chancellor, four parent leaders of our district advisory groups in San Diego Unified. And one representative of major employers, the compare of the education committee or the chair of the EDC. Members of the public eight apply to become a board member, those applications will be vetted, and then by a vote of 60 percent of this commission, six out of nine, they will appointed to a four-year term. Again, point being, they will not be beholden to any special interest groups, whether it will be a employee group, a downtown business group, whatever it may be. And we believe they'll be able to take a larger view of the district, and be able to act a lot more freely than boards of the past.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So some of the critiques that Ana was talking about, the idea that this is this -- a lot of it sounds, actually, like a method to decrease the influence of the teachers' union on the School Board. And the fact that it is elitist in some way. What do you say to those criticisms?

HIMMELSTEIN: Well, first of all, I would say this is not a group of elitists. This is a wide, diverse group of parents, educators, yes, some business people, some philanthropists. But people from all sides of the isle and all spectrums of life. And you can see who they are on our website. Secondly, this notion that this is undemocratic is just inaccurate. The ballot process is a vibrant, important, and permanent part of our democratic process, not only here in California but elsewhere. And none of these things will happen unless the people of San Diego vote to implement them. So I would say if you are satisfied with only about half of our kids reading and computing math at grade level, if you're satisfied with one in four of them dropping out, if you're satisfied with about only 40 percent of them graduating even eligible to attend a CSU or UC university, then you might consider voting for the status quo. If you're not, then you might consider, well, maybe we need to do something different now. And this is the opportunity to do so.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Kathy is on the line from San Diego. Good morning, Kathy, welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. I have a question for -- excuse me, I'm really nervous. I have a question for Scott. Considering his long-term interest in foundations and charters that go along with them, and downtown charter high school with the library connected to it, I would like to know what he expects from the meetings that he's going to be going to at Point Loma cluster on February 2nd where ben Austin from -- who has a history of green dot charters out of Los Angeles, and the founder of the parent revolution, and the parent trigger.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Kathy can I get a focus on what your question specifically is?

NEW SPEAKER: My focus is what does he expect to hear from ben Austin when he goes to on February 2nd.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. Let's find out. First of all, who is Mr. Austin?

HIMMELSTEIN: Well, ben Austin is a member of the state board of education. He also leads something called the parent revolution in Los Angeles. Otherwise known as the parent union. A large group of parents who have gotten together to try to push for change in the Los Angeles district. And recently has been successful in organizing parents to actually shut down a school that was failing. Regarding the Point Loma meeting, I was not a participant in that meeting. I do plan to attend. But I really don't know the details of what, you know, they're looking --

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: To your knowledge does this parent movement, is it in some way in opposition to what you're -- you're proposing?

HIMMELSTEIN: Oh, not at all. I certainly haven't been informed of that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay.

HIMMELSTEIN: And I think by wide reports, the parents in Point Loma are really looking to take some more control of their schools and have been active in negotiations with the School Board on that issue.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ana, you know, this is not the only type of reform that we're hearing about, involved with San Diego Unified recently. I mean the movement to get this initiative and possibly expand the number of School Board members, you know, San Diego Unified itself has a community based school reform measure going at this point. They -- tell us about this, are and what does it mean for the district?

TINTOCALIS: Well, they're calling it community based reform. And you're right. This kind of is happening while San Diegans for great schools is also pushing its initiative. But, you know, I call it the antireform movement. Because it really just -- it's about getting down to the basics. It's this idea of decentralizing the powers at the district headquarters and putting the power of reform into the hands of principals, parents, and leaders at a school site. And so it -- you know, in doing that, the School Board, many members of the School Board believe it really will emphasize critical knowing skills within a school, versus having these top down reforms, you'll have these little flourishing environments of critical thinking, learning classrooms. More parent involvement, schools using data the way they want to use data to understand student performance. And to be honest, San Diego Unified is one of the only large urban school districts in California who's really just steered clear of any type of national reform movement, anything that the Barack Obama administration is saying will work for schools, the Obama administration is saying when a school is failing, you have to shut it down, bring in new people, and open it up. You have to be tougher on teachers. And this School Board does not -- is not choosing to go that route. It's really an exception when you talk about school districts in putting the power of reform into local hands. What will be the test, though, because San Diego Unified, although there is a lot of problems in terms of performance, they are seeing some steady growth in many area it is. So it will really be up to the School Board. If they want to go forward with this community based model, they really have to show results. And if they're not gonna show results with this way of tackling education, they're gonna be in big trouble.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let's take another call. Ross is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Ross. Welcome to These Days. Of.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. My main concern at the school district is that -- I've asked this question before of your people who have attended, there's a hundred and 32000 students in San Diego Unified, and the last time the superintendent of schools was there, he said on your program there were 13000 teachers. Which would mean that there's one teacher for every ten students. Unless there's some new math that's involved. Which would mean if you want one teacher to 25, you only need 6000 teachers, which would mean that San Diego Unified has 7000 too many teachers. And they have never addressed this at the meetings, they never address it in the paper. And so it would appear that not only are there 7000 too many teachers, there are probably a dozen or more facilities that are too many also.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Ross, we have a couple of people here eager to respond. So thank you for your call. And Scott?

HIMMELSTEIN: Yeah, Ross, I think the superintendent was probably saying there's around 13000 employees total. Now, there's about seven, somewhere between 7 and 8000 teachers in the district. Although, you know, you're partially; correct in that recent media reports from the district itself is saying that they still are currently over staffed by about 300 teachers or so. I'd also go back to the point Ana was talking about raised to the upon to, here we have our district and everybody else screaming about lack of funds, but we totally bypassed an opportunity in this district to bring in somewhere between 20 and $25 million by participating in race to the top, which some of us feel are some simple, common sense reforms that could have been undertaken.

TINTOCALIS: Although the district will say that it would cost more to take on those type of reforms in the long run than kind of the cash money up front. Soap that's kind of their argument.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And also too, Scott, we've gotten a lot of phone calls about education and reducing the costs in education here on These Days, a lot of them having to do with reducing the number of people in administration. So how does that jibe with adding to the number of people on the School Board?

HIMMELSTEIN: Well, I mean this district has, you know, these School Board members issue it is a tough, tough job right now. Of and the district has cut its administration tremendously over the past couple of years. But I guess I would argue that this really all does come down to leadership. You're dealing with a $1.2 billion budget. And right now you need three votes to do anything to spend any of that $1.2 billion or the policy around it. With what we're going through now, I think we need a greater number of voices, we need more representation on the board, more representation from various parts of this community. Because what we are spending now is not providing us with the kind of results that we need for our students. So it's time to take some bold action. Let's do something different.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have time for one last call. Of heather is calling from San Diego. Good morning, heather and welcome to These Days.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. Of my question is, well, first of all, I'm a teacher and a parent from San Diego. My question is for Scott. Why is there -- are there no spots for teachers, administrators, other educators on the new proposed board?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you for that, heather.

HIMMELSTEIN: Well, there's nothing that I'm aware of that would preclude any of those folks from applying to be a School Board member. I think there are some state regulations vis-a-vis individual teachers being elected to a School Board, in other words you can't oversee yourself. But the ballot language speaks to, you know, all members of the community being able to apply to this commission. Teachers are tremendously important. We have some great teachers in San Diego Unified. This instability in leadership has made it incredibly hard for them to do their jobs.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask Ana one last question. And that is, you know, we were speculating on how another round of deep budget cuts for San Diego Unified and other districts around the county. When are we gonna know how bad it's gonna be?

TINTOCALIS: You know, I think we'll get to understand how bad it's gonna be after June. Now governor Jerry Brown has said he's interested in calling a special election to extend taxes to get more revenue into schools. But we won't find that out until some time this spring. And that again will alter the plans of educators because they actually have to turn in their own district school budgets before the state budget is due. And that's what causes so much the sky is falling type of thing. They basically have to go on estimates, schools do, and then in the end, there is a solid budget, and they have to rearrange their members. So I don't think you'll really find out what is gonna happen until June, but going back to the initiative --

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have about 30 seconds, Ana.

TINTOCALIS: -- schools. Okay. I think the question here is does San Diego Unified and the School Board need a serious make over for the schools to succeed. And should we put all our trust in nine people to appoint four people. These are the two questions people should really think about before they go ahead and sign off on a petition.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're gonna be talking a lot more about this year. I want to thank you both. Ana Tintocalis, Scott Himmelstein, than you so much for coming in and speaking with us.

HIMMELSTEIN: Thank you, Maureen.

TINTOCALIS: Thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: If you'd like to go online, it's KPBS.org/These Days.

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