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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.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Council civility covers political divide

For Carlsbadistan.com
A week after Carlsbad’s City Council voted unanimously to amend a policy governing grants to agencies for special events of citywide interest, Oceanside’s council wrangled over what to do about rent control. Carlsbad’s council meeting was, as usual, polite. Quite a contrast to the shouting match that erupted on the dais in Oceanside, where one council member, after being repeatedly interrupted by another, demanded of the mayor, presiding over the verbal slugfest, “Will you shut her up?” A recess allowed the city leaders to retreat to their opposite corners.

The difference between the behaviors of the two groups reflects more than just the gravity of the issue being discussed. Yes, deciding how to spend $50,000 of earned interest on a $1 million savings account for city enrichment activities is a bit less contentious than deciding whether to end rent control for nearly 2,600 low-income residents of mobile-home parks. But a closer look at the civil discussion among Carlsbad’s council members offers clues about how more contentious issues may be debated in future meetings and what the talking points of new and incumbent city council candidates will be in the next election.

The council quickly agreed to limit the annual amount for special events to $50,000, no more than $10,000 for a single grant. At issue was whether to require a recipient organization to have “some skin in the game,” as Mayor Matt Hall put it. Options for matching the city’s contribution ranged from dollar for dollar up to 20 percent of the event’s budget. Although current policy does not require matching funds, as a general practice city staff has asked organizations to do so.

In an unusual move, but perhaps forgivable for a rookie mayor, Matt Hall spoke first, expressing his concern that if matching isn’t required, “we’re liable to get a lot of requests.”

Other council members weighed in with their own preferences. Anne Kulchin suggested “fluidity,” pointing out some organizations had more money than others to match city funding. Farrah Douglas agreed, reminding everyone that the grants have always been intended to help startup organizations on limited budgets. After Keith Blackurn was assured that it would not be a hardship for staff to handle grant requests fairly without specific matching amount requirements, he supported Kulchin’s position.

Mark Packard, preferred a 4 to 1 matching requirement, but his rationale bordered on the bizarre. He reminded the council they were dealing with taxpayer money. Do they ever deal with anyone else’s? He pointed out that in these hard times cities are cutting spending and that this would be an increase in charitable giving. That brought a chorus of “no’s” from his council colleagues, since the money has already been set aside for this purpose.

But Packard’s strangest comment was comparing the city council’s Policy 51, the one under discussion, with Area 51, the highly secretive Nevada military base that’s famous for spawning UFO conspiracy theories, calling the city’s policy “weird,” with no particular explanation.

Despite Packard’s misgivings, he voted with the others to pass unanimously Kulchin’s recommendation to deal with matching funds on a case-by-case basis.

Hall’s goal to guard the fund from more grant requests and Packard’s characterization of the fund as a charity, rather than promoting “enrichment programs to Carlsbad residents and visitors” as Policy 51 reads, makes you wonder how the vote would have gone had Bud Lewis been mayor, forming the same Lewis, Hall and Packard majority that blocked funding for the Alga Norte Park project.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Charter schools fail to measure up

For San Diego's North County Times

In the 1993 film "Groundhog Day," Bill Murray plays a jaded TV weatherman, condemned to relive the day of the rodent each day until he has a change of heart. I feel like that hapless misanthrope each day that California's school test scores are released.

Like the daily replay of the Sonny and Cher song awakening Murray's character each morning, the news of test scores is as predictable: a slight improvement over last year and no change in the achievement gap separating students by ethnicity and family income.

Schools are ranked by comparing their test scores with all other schools in the state and with those enrolling students with similar characteristics. A couple of weeks ago, we learned that more than half of North County's schools rank above average of similar schools, the same as last year. That says nothing more than that we're keeping up with the Joneses, implying the Joneses are to be envied.

I was struck by how schools with the highest statewide rankings often have unusually low similar-school rankings and that charter schools do no better than other public schools.

Take, for example, Torrey Pines, San Dieguito Academy, Carlsbad and LaCosta Canyon high schools. Ranking from the top 10 percent to the 80th percentile statewide, they drop to the 50th percentile down to the bottom 10 percent of similar schools.

Vista, Oceanside and El Camino high schools, on the other hand, range from the 80th to the 90th percentile of similar schools and from the 50th to 70th percentile statewide.

San Marcos and Mission Hills high schools have the most impressive rankings. With larger shares of low-income, nonwhite, and English-learner students than districts in wealthier communities, they rank in the top 10 percent of similar schools and at the 90th percentile statewide.

North County has 17 charter schools. They rank from the 90th percentile to the bottom 10 percent statewide and from the top 10 percent to the bottom 10 percent of similar schools. The two outliers are Escondido's Heritage, a site-based charter, which ranks in the top 10 percent of similar schools and at the 90th percentile statewide, and Vista's Mountain Peak, a home-school charter ranking in the bottom 10 percent in both statewide and similar school rankings.

The majority of local charters rely on home schooling. None of them rank in the top 10 percent of schools statewide.

With few exceptions, test scores show North County charters fall short of their mandate for measurable results for improved learning, especially for underserved populations. Most of them enroll children of relatively well-to-do families, dissatisfied with traditional public schools for reasons that go beyond academics.

And that won't lead to better public schools.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Echoes of Irrational Fear

For San Diego's North County Times
You'd think banning discrimination in school instruction would be a no-brainer. Respect for others who don't look, talk or act like you has always been an important value to pass on to our children.

But SB 48, prohibiting discriminatory content in school instruction, awaits action in the California Assembly, revealing a divide between those who think including a minority group in the curriculum will indoctrinate young children and those who believe exclusion breeds isolation, fear and contempt.

A song in the 1949 musical, "South Pacific," contained the lyrics, "You've got to be taught to be afraid of those whose eyes are oddly made and people whose skin is a different shade." Some claimed the song, by justifying interracial marriage, represented a Communist threat to the American way of life.

Echoes of that irrational fear can be heard in the organized resistance to SB 48. Headlines have unfortunately declared that the proposed bill would require "gay history" to be taught in public schools. That's misleading, since it implies a far more extensive change in the curriculum than is proposed.

You won't find the words "gay history" anywhere in the bill. What you will find is a requirement to choose instructional materials that "accurately portray the cultural and racial diversity of our society." It would add the contributions of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans to the current list, which includes ethnic groups, men, women, and persons with disabilities.

Driven by fear it will turn their kids gay, opponents of SB 38 are trumpeting a fictionalized account of what the new law would require.

FICTION: Teachers will be forced to promote gay "lifestyles."
FACT: Either promoting, or adversely reflecting upon, sexual orientation is prohibited.

FICTION: Kindergartners will be indoctrinated to admire homosexuality.
FACT: Schools will continue to decide what's taught and at what grade level.

FICTION: Schools will be forced to spend millions on new textbooks.
FACT: Current textbooks don't have to be tossed out; new ones must be more inclusive.

Those of us of a certain age know that textbooks evolve. Women and persons of color were largely absent in the white male history we studied in our social studies and literature classes.

North County's LGBT Coalition is currently seeking donations to create a Resource Center in Oceanside. Police and city officials have been cooperative. They recognize the city's obligation to serve all the people, just as schools must recognize their obligation to serve all students.

That's why passing SB 48 is important ---- not just to teach gay history, but to include the contributions of all who played a role in building our state and nation.