Five years ago, I ran for the Santa Barbara Unified School Board. I never thought I would want to do anything like that. However, the more I learned about the dysfunction of public schools in California, generally, and the Santa Barbara School District, specifically, I felt that I had to run if only to inform the voters about the failure of our schools to meet even a minimally adequate level of performance for many of their kids.
The first thing I learned is that it is very hard to get elected if the Democratic Party doesn't endorse you. I was immediately told by another school board member not to waste my time if I couldn't get the powers that be in the Democratic hierarchy in Santa Barbara to endorse me. The problem was that as a critic of the teacher unions, any endorsement from the Democratic Party was highly unlikely. I quickly learned that the unions and the Democratic Party were joined at the hip, and one didn't act independently of the other.
One of my first insights from running for school board was noticing how miserably most of our students performed on achievement tests. In several grades at the elementary level, two-thirds or more of the students weren't proficient in English or math. The situation was hardly better in the secondary grades. Approximately 75 percent or more of the students from our high schools who attended Santa Barbara City College needed to take remedial courses in English and math.
The superintendent at the time had a saying that he repeated ad nauseam to anyone within earshot: "every child, every chance, every day." It became clear to me this feel-good empty rhetoric was more to assuage his ego than a reflection of what was really going on in our schools.
As an owner of a business, I knew the importance of evaluation/assessment and accountability in running a company, so I asked how many kids were performing at grade level in writing. To my astonishment, I was told they didn't know. It wasn't clear to the school administrators if our high school graduates were capable of writing a coherent sentence.
Accountability was a foreign word to the bureaucracy in charge of our schools. The superintendent, principals and teachers were not routinely evaluated using quantifiable or subjective measures to determine how well they were doing. In addition, I doubt any of the school board members could point to specific evaluative criteria to assess the job performance of the superintendent. A private company run in this manner wouldn't stay in business for long.
Much of what I learned didn't surprise me too much because of the inane rules under which the schools have to operate. The unions have inordinate influence with our legislators in Sacramento and have helped to create an educational code that is a disgrace. Tenure, seniority-based layoffs and other job-protection rules often reward mediocrity and incompetence. Even a teacher of the year winner was let go in the county because of lack of seniority.
Uniform pay scales don't reward performance, but instead protect undistinguished teachers from the consequences of poor performance. Although the unions would like you to believe they are working for the benefit of schoolchildren, their true aim is to protect the status quo, creating a work environment that offers no incentives for excellence in the classroom.
Finally, the most disturbing thing I learned is how many educators in our schools blamed the poor academic performance of their students on the parents and their socio-economic environment. If this is true, how is it possible that the Kipp Raices Academy, a 535-student K-4 charter school in Los Angeles, has close to 90 percent of its students meet or exceed the math and English standards, when 96 percent of its students are considered minority and economically disadvantaged?
It doesn't reflect well on our schools to avoid responsibility or scapegoat others for the dismal execution of its most important mission, to graduate students with the academic or vocational skills necessary for success after high school. Excuses and rationalizations only serve to delay the day when we can take pride in our schools and truly say with conviction: "every child, every chance, every day" for all our students — and really mean it.
The author lives in Santa Barbara.
Produced for Lou Segal 2020 - All Rights Reserved.