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Uncategorized Politics on Tuesday: Forget school assignment; the real issue...

Politics on Tuesday: Forget school assignment; the real issue in the Board of Ed race is a looming teacher strike

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Stevon Cook and Shamann Walton are the only candidates endorsed by the teachers' union
Stevon Cook and Shamann Walton are the only candidates endorsed by the teachers’ union

By Tim Redmond

SEPTEMBER 2, 2014 — The San Francisco School Board race is something of a sleeper this year; not much in the way of new stories, not much of the sort of high-profile news that’s kept the Community College Board race in the headlines.

But that could change very fast if the board can’t come to terms with the teachers’ union, which has overwhelming membership support for a strike that could happen before Election Day.

There will be at least one newcomer on the board – Kim-Shree Maufas has decided not to seek re-election. There was talk for a while that Hydra Mendoza would also decline to seek another term, which would be fine with me: Mendoza has always been a problem. Not that she’s always a bad board member, but she’s worked for years as the mayor’s education advisor – and that creates an immediate, unavoidable conflict of interest. Is she representing the mayor and his wishes, as she has to do all day to earn a living – or what’s best for the schools? At times, those are in conflict.

But she decided to run again, and it’s hard to oust an incumbent unless the person has done something pretty bad, and the voters don’t seem to agree with me that Mendoza can’t serve two masters. So that the odds are that she and incumbent Emily Murase will retain their seats — unless the teachers walk. Then it’s anyone’s race.

Maufas is strongly supporting Stevon Cook – although Cook didn’t get the Democratic County Central Committee nod, which went to Trevor McNeil (a DCCC member), incumbent Emily Murase, and Shamann Walton, who also ran last time. Cook did get the Milk Club, along with Jaime Rafaela Wolfe.

And, significantly, Cook and Walton are the only two candidates who have the support of the teachers’ union. That’s because negotiations are tense: “Given that we’re in the middle of a contract fight, we can’t possible endorse any of the incumbent board members,” Ken Tray, political director for the United Educators of San Francisco, told me.

There’s always a bit of saber-rattling in labor negotiations, but in this case, more than 2,000 members showed up and 99 percent voted to authorize a strike. It’s all about the cost of living in San Francisco: “Teachers can’t afford to live here,” Tray said. “We think there’s a value to having educators living in the community that they serve.”

Here we have another example of the predictable, but overlooked impacts of igniting a tech boom in San Francisco. The mayor loves the tech jobs, but the housing crisis (which was created by the tech boom, not by a lack of supply) has spilled over into all sorts of other realms. City workers need more money to afford the rent. Teachers need more money to afford housing costs. That means SFUSD has to find more money – not because the teachers are greedy but because Mayor Lee was happy to support tech jobs without thinking about the consequences.

End of speech. Until next time.

Meanwhile, what intrigues me – although it probably won’t mean that much unless there’s unexpected money involved – is the push by the Plan-C-type moderates to “shake up the School Board” – not because of labor issues but over, of course, the long-fought issue of how to assign students to local public schools.

The real shake-up would be a strike: Teachers are popular in San Francisco, and if the district can’t reach a deal that the United Educators of San Francisco accepts, the anger from parents will be focused on the superintendent and the board.

(Oh, and wouldn’t that leave Mendoza in a bad spot? The mayor couldn’t possible avoid taking some role in a teachers’ strike, even though it’s not in his jurisdiction. Would she be representing the mayor or the board in those negotiations?)

But instead, according to the moderates, it’s about school-assignment politics, which we’ve been over and over and over in this city for decades now.

Let me take a step back here and put this in some context. San Francisco schools have improved profoundly in the past decade, that we have the best big-city school district in California, and that most of my friends in middle-class professional families (the ones everyone seems to say have abandoned the local schools) send their kids to SFUSD and are quite pleased.

This is not a failing district. SFUSD is a solid operation that keeps getting better.

Yeah, there are problems, most of them stemming from Prop. 13 and a lack of state money for education. Throwing money at government problems doesn’t always work, but when it comes to schools, the evidence is pretty clear: Spend more, you get better results.

There are inequities. Black student achievement is inexcusably low. Some schools are much better than others, and a few are really in trouble.

But we have come a long, long way, and everyone associated with the district deserves credit for that.

And with the economic inequality in San Francisco today, you’re not going to solve the school assignment issue by giving people more preference for neighborhood schools.

I love the idea of neighborhood schools, where kids can walk to the classroom and home again, and everyone in the area gets involved. Nice concept. Not real. Not when we have such vast economic differences between different parts of town.

See, the secret that never gets talked about is the way the schools really work in SF is parent fundraising.

In all of the “better” schools, the parents raise money to supplement the inadequate amount the state gives us. Schools with wealthier families that have not only the resources but the contacts and skill sets to raise large sums every year get smaller classes, improved facilities, and more educational options. Schools with low-income families where everyone is working two jobs just to pay the rent get nothing.

We’re talking funding differences of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Shift more toward “neighborhood schools” and schools in richer neighborhoods with richer parents will get even richer, and schools with poorer parents will get even poorer. And unless you tax the parent contributions to the higher end schools and send that money to the more needy schools (anyone want to take that one on? Didn’t think so) neighborhood schools are going to increase inequality.

The assignment system we have is imperfect. Not all families get their first-choice schools, and some don’t get their second or third. Some wind up with schools pretty far across town, which is particularly bad in K-5, when kids can’t really take Muni alone. But in a lot of cases, those families are sending their kids far away because they want a better school than the one nearby. And by high school? Even middle school? Gimme a break. It’s a small city. Kids can ride the bus. Mine do.

The notion that we could have “a great school in every neighborhood” sounds lovely, but: money. The reality is that a lot of San Francisco parents want a choice in where they send their kids to school (especially with special programs like language immersion). The ones who want their neighborhood schools are, overwhelmingly, the ones who live in better-off neighborhoods – and if they and their neighbors can fund and improve a local school, and everyone who lives nearby gets to go, it hikes property values.

Yes: The SF schools remain too segregated, and low-income students of color wind up in some of the poorest schools. One reason – less fundraising (see above). Another, bigger reason: Lower-income families have a much lower rate of responding to the school-selection program.

You want to desegregate the schools more? Send language and culturally sensitive advisors to every home with a low-income school-age kid and help the parents fill out the forms and file appeals if they need to. Open satellite placement-counseling offices in all of the low-scoring zip codes, with evening and weekend hours. How about we fundraise for that program?

In the meantime, the imperfect lottery system isn’t really that bad. And I have yet to hear anyone come up with a better one.

“It’s a distraction,” Tray said.

So let’s talk about how we’re going to pay the teachers a living wage in this hyper-inflated housing market and how to improve educational opportunities for the kids who fall behind. (Hey, just for fun, let’s talk about parents raising money for SFUSD in general, and distributing that by need to all schools.)

Because I’m done with the assignment debate. I really am.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

14 COMMENTS

  1. My reference to “mooching” was specifically addressing Tim’s idea that the voluntary donations of parents to their child’s school should somehow be requisitioned and then spent on other schools.

    His idea would mean that parents who do not donate any funds to the public schools would be subsidized by those who do.

    I think that most parents would not donate money to their kid’s school if they knew it would be go into some generic pot and then be diverted to other schools.

    Tim’s broader point here is that the public school system isn’t really free because any parent will tend you that there are a lot of out-of-pocket costs to having a child attend a “free” school. He’s correct about that.

  2. Sam, You said, “What incentive does that give the kind of parents who just mooch on the current system?”

    What part of free public education don’t you get? Every citizen is entitled to a free public education from K-12. No one is mooching here.

  3. Sam, I have to agree with Son of, that you are dominating this discussion section by volume and vehemence, but not by persuasive argument. You are entitled to your passionate beliefs, but to be truly effective in discussion means communicating in a less argumentative way, eliciting others’ views, and seeming open to others. One of my dearest friends believes all that you have stated but is probably more right wing than you. We have many great political exchanges, and I have learned a lot from them. I hope 48 Hills can host those kind of discussions, and that you will be an active part of them. In these types of forums, it is possible to exchange views, but not “win” an argument.

  4. So, again, not one fact or argument to counter my assertions. Just a personal attack.

    Why do you make it so easy for me to win debates?

  5. “While it is well known that even a couple of disruptive kids in a classroom can significantly affect how all the other kids learn.”

    That sentence reads better as “While it is well know that even a couple of disruptive commenters (in this case one, Sam/John/Guest/Anon) can significantly affect how all the other commenters communicate.”

    What a sorry existence you live, Sam. Save some oxygen for the rest of us.

  6. Or we could just stop using schools as a laboratory for interventionist race-based social engineering and instead have community schools where kids are not bused out to an alien environment just to satisfy some bureaucrat’s quotas.

    Kids are individuals, not commodities, and parents’ wishes must be the highest priorities. Otherwise parents will continue to move out of the city or choose private schools to sidestep all this pervasive political correctness.

  7. The fact that it might take 100,000 new homes to reduce housing costs is not a reason to not build anything. The problem is that NIMBY’ism is directly opposed to housing affordability, but somehow people like you refuse to see that, and think that we can all be NIMBY’s and still have affordable housing. Not true, you can have one or the other, but not both.

    Not that it necessarily matters because SF teachers do not have to live in SF anyway.

    And while you can try and reallocate funds between SF schools, you cannot take parent’s voluntary funds and spend them differently than what those parents wish for. That is ridiculous and confiscatory.

    Finally, SF’s school allocation is better than it used to be, but is still grossly unfair, and leads to thousands of un-necessary commutes every day. While it is well known that even a couple of disruptive kids in a classroom can significantly affect how all the other kids learn.

    We should be aiming for excellence, and not merely for every kid to be identical cookie-cutter versions of each other. Dumding down the smart kids to give an artificial leg up for the dumbest kids is not going to win you any friends among the parents with the most influence.

  8. I’ve written a whole lot about the housing supply issue. The city’s own (hardly liberal) economist says it would take 100,000 new units to have an impact on market prices. There’s loads more here
    https://48hills.org/2014/04/14/private-market-can-never-solve-sfs-housing-crisis/

    and here

    https://48hills.org/2014/07/15/building-market-rate-housing-cant-possible-solve-citys-crisis/

    I don’t know the precise answer to the fundraising issue. I threw out the idea of redistributing some of the money as one solution; I like Brad Paul’s suggestion, too. I also understand how unappealing that is; you want to raise money for your own kid’s school and see where it goes.

    In a way, it’s the argument over philanthropy v. taxes; the wealthy would often prefer that they get to designate where their wealth goes instead of paying high taxes and allowing elected representatives to decide. But philanthropy doesn’t solve all social problems; to do that you need government and taxation.

  9. Hi Becky, Could you elaborate on about how much schools ask parents to donate, which schools you think are very good vs still bad, and most importantly, why evenly distributing poor — usually black and hispanic — children amongst all the schools would not promote better learning for those children, and perhaps just the same level of learning for everyone else?

    I ask, because I have had trouble finding research that pinpoints whether certain tipping points (25%, perhaps?) exist within the classroom, such that if one has a room full of disadvantaged kids, classroom instruction and learning for all bogs down, unless truly extraordinary programs are employed. (Geoffrey Canada has successfully implemented such all-of-life school/home program in a section of Harlem.) I have come across research that found that schools with 60% or greater poor, black children had poorer outcomes for all of those black children, regardless of other socioeconomic or family cohesion factors. The author postulated that even middle class black students in those situations were feeling social pressure from their black peers not to excel academically.

    Anyway, that is all to say that racial diversity may have a variety of benefits, perhaps most salutary for black students, helpful to Hispanic students with English as a second language, but also at least benign for white students learning to thrive in situations while not being the default majority. Lastly, Asian friends have told me they greatly preferred not being in nearly all-Asian classrooms, in part because in the all-Asian environment there was too narrow a conception of excellence and value.

  10. I’m a middle class SF parent. Send my kid to a terrific public school. They ask for a huge donation at the start of each year. We can’t give as much as they ask so we give what we can afford – it’s not easy but we see the benefits in the classroom and in our child’s experiences. I would not contribute that money if it were taxed or reallocated to another school; I just don’t have that kind of extra money to spread around. This isn’t some conceptual issue, we’re talking about my child’s education and she’s my priority.

    This is the biggest load of bs on this page and has been repeatedly proven to not be the case in SF. You are fooling yourself.
    “Distributing poor students equally throughout the system through their parents’ active, informed choices in the lottery, would mean that nearly all students would do better. ”

    I like my kid’s teacher but I’m also aware that she take a lot of vacation time and I would give her a B grade for instruction. It’s expensive for all of us to live here. If teachers walk, they will have to make a very strong case for their action and, frankly, the teachers union does a piss poor job of it. Ken Tray and Dennis Kelly often adopt almost militant positions that put teachers on one side and the rest of us on the other.

    I also have to say that Tim generates a lot of discussion and stays true to his stripes, which I respect even when disagreeing, but it’s absolutely ridiculous to assert that SF’s housing crisis isn’t largely due to a lack of supply. C’mon Tim, you’re better than that, more intellectually honest than that. We wouldn’t have seen the dramatic prices spikes if supply wasn’t so short citywide. Perhaps you should venture a little further from the city’s epicenter to get some perspective. The housing crisis isn’t just about aging immigrant populations being evicted from rent controlled units and hipster resigning themselves to Oakland. It’s impacting the whole city, families and seniors, recent college grads, trade school apprentices, immigrant students, college kids.

  11. 1) If teachers do strike, it is unclear whom parents will blame. A lot depends on what the teachers’ contract demands are, and if their salary demands exceed the incomes of many parents. Right or wrong, most people compare their own salaries and rent/mortgage expenses with those of their peers and ask why so and so is making more than they are with the same or less education. This is especially true when strike suffering parents look at public workers’ salaries, benefits, and relatively good job security without job performance related student outcomes or some sort of profit visible as it is in private business. So, it will be interesting to see if parents sympathize greatly with the teachers who are struggling as all middle class people in San Francisco are, or if they feel that they themselves are in an even worse situation than the teachers. Perhaps onlookers will believe that teachers should simply 1) get a transportation supplement that acknowledges the hardships and costs of commuting from outside the city to far-flung schools throughout the city; 2) receive priority in application to below-market housing units whether rental or owned, private or public.

    2) Tim’s proposals for redistributing a portion of PTO-raised monies to disadvantaged SF schools and getting poor students connected, really connected to the lottery so that they DO attend the good and great schools are actually the most interesting aspects of his piece. The school assignment system would work nearly perfectly if literally all the schools were at least good, and some were great. As it is, there is a significant minority of poorly performing schools, and these are mostly filled with low-income students, mostly black and hispanic students with parents who are not involved in fundraising or educational enrichment programs at the schools. Not blaming anyone here, just stating a fact of many working class and immigrant family lives. Engaged, middle class parents desperately try to avoid these schools, not out of racism but out of genuine concern for their children’s education amongst a plurality of lower-performing, more needy students. Distributing poor students equally throughout the system through their parents’ active, informed choices in the lottery, would mean that nearly all students would do better. No school would be a dog. And I suspect most students would not need to travel clear across town to find a number of schools that worked for them. San Francisco’s segregated classrooms with unequal outcomes would be a thing of the past, and no student of any race would suffer in poorly performing schools.

  12. Why should parents be punished for trying to help their kids’ school?

    What incentive does that give the kind of parents who just mooch on the current system?

    Sounds like moral hazard to me i.e. reward parents who don’t give a crap.

  13. So much wrong with your narrative, Tim:

    1) You claim the housing problem isn’t “lack of supply”. Of course it is. Rent control, NIMBY land use and zoning rules imply inadequate supply, hence higher housing costs.

    2) SF housing costs only impact the ability of SFUSD to attract teacher IF it is essential that all SFUSD teacher live in the city, and that isn’t true. They can live elsewhere in the Bay Area, as 90% of workers in the Bay Area choose to do.

    3) SF maintains what is essentially a school busing system because of a small but vocal minority who claim that black kids should have a top-class education even though those kids are the most truant, the most criminal, and the parents (or parent, or aunt) re not willing to fund anything. Thousands of kids take long and inconvenient bus trips into alien environments just so some bureaucrat somewhere can claim he is advocating for “diversity” (whatever that means).

    Busing is racist.

    4) Teachers may be popular but if they strike and put their own selfish interests before that of our children, they will discover that our sympathy for them only goes so far. Many parents would probably support a wholesale firing of any and all teachers who strike, and replace the whole damn lot of them.

    5) Prop13 is irrelevant. Property taxes in CA have increased by 7% a year since 1978, when Prop 13 started. That is way ahead of inflation. And CA sales and income taxes are the highest in the nation. We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.

  14. What if, as the price for “neighborhood” schools, the city gave all schools in lower income neighborhoods a 15% bonus in per student funding to make up for the fact that they can’t raise much from low income parents AND the city charged ‘parent’ associations in higher income neighborhoods a 30% tax on all money they raised for their kids school (to be sent to schools with lower income students/parents). I bet you could get the ‘Plan C-type moderates’ to sign off on that if it were the ONLY way to get their “neighborhood schools”. Schools with lower income students and parents would get a big increase in funding and we’d stop talking about “neighborhood schools”.

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