About Me

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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The trouble with charter schools

California's 1992 Charter Schools Act, according to legislative intent, was supposed to improve learning, especially for students underserved by public schools; encourage innovative teaching methods; expand parental choice; and hold schools accountable for measurable pupil outcomes.

Unfortunately, the law has had little effect on public education. More than 900 charter schools now operate in California. Despite their growing numbers, there's been only glacial yearly improvement in statewide student test scores. The achievement gap separating students of color or low-income from white or wealthier classmates remains virtually unchanged.

The 17 charters in Escondido, San Marcos, Oceanside and Vista enroll 6,000 students, 9 percent of the area's public school enrollment. Half are enrolled at the three Classical Academies or at Guajome Park Academy.

Seventy-four percent of Classical Academy students and 40 percent of Guajome Park students are white, compared with 26 percent of the total enrollment in regular public schools in the four cities.

While 60 percent of the area's traditional public school students are economically disadvantaged, 13 to 21 percent of Classical Academies students are from low-income families, 42 percent of students attending Guajome Park.

The Charter Schools Act allows parents a choice of public schools at no extra cost. So why don't more low-income families choose charters?

Maybe it's because of the home schooling requirement of most North County charters. Low-income families are more likely to be single-parent homes or dependent on both parents working full time. Many parents also may lack the formal education or English language fluency required to home school their children.

Do North County's charter schools provide a measurably better education? Not when it comes to mathematics, particularly in algebra, the gateway course for preparing students for college and jobs that pay well.

The number of eighth-graders testing proficient in Algebra I on 2010 California Standards Tests ranges from 15 to 31 percent in the Classical Academies. It's just 27 percent at Guajome Park.
By comparison, in the San Marcos Unified School District it's 68 percent. In Vista, Escondido and Oceanside it's 60 percent, 52 percent and 41 percent respectively.

Only Escondido's Heritage Charter, at 75 percent, and Charter High School, at 55 percent, have higher algebra proficiency rates than the area's other public schools. Neither requires home schooling.

A 2009 Stanford University study found that reading and math gains of California charter school students were either mixed or no different from their peers in traditional public schools.

Which North County schools live up to the lofty goals of the Charter Schools Act? You’ll find the answer by comparing their student test scores by family income and ethnicity with those of similar students attending your local district’s other public schools.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

For San Diego's North County Times

Carlsbad City Council members nearly broke their arms patting themselves on the back after hearing a report on the results of the city's annual public opinion survey at its Feb. 8 meeting. The only council member to give credit where it was due ---- to city employees ---- was Ann Kulchin, who gushed, "This is your report card. As a parent I feel like I'd like to take you all out for an ice cream cone."

Councilman Packard confessed to having been one of the 1,000 residents whose opinions were sampled by telephone. After assuring the council he had identified himself to the caller, he crowed, "I did my very best to skew the numbers as high as I could."

The only slight sprinkle on the evening's parade of self-congratulations came from resident Diane Nygaard, representing the Preserve Calavera group, who reminded the council of the vote on Proposition C nine years ago to use city funds to acquire more open space. No additional natural lands have been acquired since the measure was passed.

Freshman council member Farrah Douglas made open-space acquisition a key part of her successful campaign last year. So it was disappointing to hear her only comment on the public opinion survey. She said it proved Carlsbad was another Lake Wobegon, an imaginary city where all the men are strong, all the women good looking and all the children above average.

Mayor Matt Hall promised to use the survey results to help Carlsbad continue to improve. It's hard to see room for improvement when 92 percent of those surveyed say they're already satisfied.

But if the council is serious about using survey results for city planning, it must look beyond the impressive overall approval rate. Survey responses by ZIP code reveal a tale of two cities, rather than a North County Lake Wobegon.

The lowest median household income of city residents, $59,000, as well as half the city's Latino population, can be found in the 92008 northwest quadrant. The highest median income, $84,000, and only 20 percent of Latinos, live in the 92009 southeast quadrant.

Why are fewer 92008 residents of the Village/downtown (83%) satisfied with city services than those in Calavera/Calavera Hills, Aviara and La Costa/La Costa Canyon/La Costa Oaks (93 to 97 percent)?

Why do residents living in both 92008 and 92009 lead the other ZIP codes in giving the city's "sense of community" a "low" rating (92008: 13 percent; 92009: 16 percent; 92010: 6 percent; 92011: 9 percent)?

Carlsbad can take pride in its remarkable public satisfaction rate overall. But only when the approval rate and sense of community are more equally shared across all neighborhoods, regardless of income and ethnicity, will city officials really have something to crow about.