As a parent of two SFUSD students and as a self-styled observer and activist, I've been watching SFUSD for a decade now. A former teacher who turned stay-at-home dad for family reasons, I was involved in education before my first son entered kindergarten in 2004. That did not prepare me for the entity that is SFUSD, though it did give me some insight into the political and financial structure of the public schools and their unions. During these ten years I learned that, despite the hype to the contrary, SFUSD only changes when it is forced to do so, that is, when ordered by a court or State and Federal governments. In this district reform is all about talking and little action. What reform has taken place is confined to a small group of schools in the so-called Superintendent Zones while the other 90% languish, that is reform for a few at the expense of the rest - and very, very expensive reform to boot without much achievement gains to show for it.
In this district, unlike in San Diego or LA, the forces of reform are kept safely at bay from the Superintendent and by his subservient Board of Education, both of whom answer to their political compatriots, United Educators of San Francisco. The BOE and the administration constitute a union-driven machine designed to protect the status quo - themselves. So what else is new? This Board will never be a democratic forum where the larger issues of education are discussed, debated and dissected for the public's benefit. It is a place where agreement and unanimity are prized above all. It is a place where the alternative voices for student achievement and fiscal responsibility are squashed and where the phrase "all for one and one for all" gives new and ominous meaning to Dumas' jovial entreaty. This Board is not a place where the community's elected representatives test and review in the public's interest the appointed czar's programs, but where that czar and his minions on the Board reject such inquiry and scrutiny. Their idea of debate is disagreement over what salad dressing to serve at the annual retreat to Marin. When they do take issue with the union it is usually out of hubris - a need to assert their authority and seeming independence. What a sad little game!
Having dragged myself to several board meetings over the years, it didn't take long to realize that this BOE treats public comment like dog excrement - something to be picked up with a disposable plastic glove and nimbly discarded in the closest public trash can (for fear of stepping in it). But there's an old saying of admin insiders - "board members are like mushrooms, covered in manure and kept in the dark". This dyslexic board has forgotten that the Supe works for them, not the other way around. So , for example, when they jump up and down about what a great success are the Superintendent Zones, despite the incredibly tepid results to the tune of sixty-plus million dollars while, simultaneously, achievement stalls in an otherwise cash-strapped district, these abecedarian leaders resemble cheerleaders more than real leaders. Our students may be getting short shrift outside the Superintendent Zones, but hey, let's put on a happy face and jump for joyful learning! Now that's entertainment! On with the show!
This is what happens when sell-outs inhabit public office - profligate spending without due consideration for each dollar's maximum benefit. It's all in a day's work, everyone else's work, that is. These commissioners view student assignment and the education of our children as an experiment in social engineering and race relations, rather than a solemn fiduciary duty to each child in empowering them towards academic achievement. This is what happens when you have leaders whose main purpose is to keep the union calling the shots, create an appearance of success such that UESF will fund their next campaign for public office. When the new millions from the Governor's Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) starts to flow, do you think we'll see any strategic use for it or do you think it will go immediately to an across the board pay raise for teachers and central staff? That's a rhetorical question.
These commissioners are patsies whose sole purpose is to keep the current machine running without pesky interruption by the public. As one put it to me, "This is my district, not yours!" All the while they speak of how wonderfully well the district is doing and why they should get reelected. So unless you have been invited to speak on their behalf, the Board's main goal is to turn off your mike as soon as it is legally feasible and sometimes before. As a result I've often found myself speaking into the thin and rarified air of the boardroom, at odds with a district that does not take kindly to dissent. Finally I decided that I don't want to breathe that fetid air. So what's this Board good for? It excels at driving wedges in world that has made wedge-driving a political art form.
Has anyone noticed how little dissent there is in this district? It's almost as if we don't live in a democracy given the stranglehold of the union and bureaucratic establishment on public education in San Francisco. What we have are yes men or women in charge while parents run amok all over town with SFUSD's family-unfriendly style of public education and student assignment. Keeping up on events is more Car and Driver than Education Week.
In SFUSD there are no organized voices of opposition. Thus one is relegated to play a lonely game of revolt. During this time I've been involved in several major initiatives which included getting rid of ineffective principals, challenging SFUSD at the state level to make SFUSD site plans more transparent and putting a neighborhood school ballot measure to the voters, to name a few. I've had my successes and my failures, but there's nothing new under the sun. All the phony talk about education reform coming from this district only highlights the grim reality that SFUSD continues on little changed from before and in some ways worse.
And this is my point. In the last ten years I can't think of a single change from the district that has had an appreciable impact on the classroom if it hasn't been to increase class sizes and decrease funding, if you exclude the $45M Federally funded school improvement grant that helped drive the Superintendent Zone project in 9 schools. After all the hype from SFUSD about being the highest performing school district (it isn't), there's been virtually no major changes of consequence to the students sitting in the majority of classes at this moment. We still have some of the highest and lowest performing schools, the largest achievement gap, an entrenched union that offers up nothing except demands for more pay, an employment paradigm that encourages laziness, a system that virtually ignores the community and its parent voices, as well as the same kind of diversity-first assignment system that is singularly responsible for driving out tens of thousands of middle class families from the public schools over the years, much to San Francisco's detriment and disgrace as a good place to live.
Instead what we have is the same old-fashioned, industrial and insular education model driven by union protectionism rather than educational achievement, a system unchanged in perpetuity amidst a nation otherwise engaged in massive educational revolt and reform. Like horses with blinders or student's with desk caddies, we fail to look outwards. But we also fail to look inwards and discover that the politically correct course of equity and access first does nothing to drive student performance and indeed hinders it by depriving students funding that could be used for classrooms not bureaucracy.
Thus, we are never going to have honest leadership until people rise up against this Board and elect a majority of new members who are serious-minded, results-oriented reformers - new members who will not treat every board meeting as though it were their annual Marin County retreat for some mutual back-patting and glad-handing - fishbowls followed by lightly tossed $15 a pound endive and radicchio salads over even lighter banal banter. What I crave is a hearty mixed salad, with sliced rare beef and mozzarella balls, skip the dressing. Well, maybe just a little vinegar.