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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.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Congressman's phony school reform bills

Halloween has come early this year for local Congressman Duncan D. Hunter, R-El Cajon. He's already picked out his school reformer costume ("Now is the time to fix education," North County Times, July 17). Next month he'll embark on a trick or treating campaign among friendly Tea Partiers in Congress, carrying his bag of bills to fix education.

Hunter concedes No Child Left Behind has failed to close the academic achievement gap, but his proposed solution would only widen the divide between the haves and have nots.

A closer look at the two bills he's authored, HR 1891 and HR 2218, reveals a plan to improve education by "giving local stakeholders the flexibility to do their jobs."

HR 1891 is simply a warmed over attempt to cut federal funding for schools. It's taken almost word for word from a section on education cuts in HR 408, the Spending Reduction Act of 2011, which would slash $2.5 trillion from the federal budget and is dying a slow death in committee since its introduction in the House in January.

While Hunter's name is missing from the list of HR 408 co-sponsors, his HR 1891 doubles down on the number of federal grants to schools he wants to eliminate. The bill's long title is ironic: "To repeal ineffective or unnecessary education programs in order to restore the focus of federal programs on quality elementary and secondary education programs for disadvantaged students." Rather than keeping that promise, it eliminates the very programs designed to help disadvantaged students.

Here are just three of the 42 programs Hunter calls "ineffective or unnecessary."

Early Reading First, $113 million for early childhood centers of excellence focusing on pre-reading skills for children from low-income families.

Even Start Family Literacy Program, $66 million for local family literacy projects integrating early childhood education, adult literacy, and parenting education for low-income families.

Improving Literacy Through Libraries, $19 million for buying books, up-to-date school library media resources, advanced technology, and access to school libraries during non-school hours, weekends, and summer vacations.

According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, HR 1891 would stop the $413 million spent on programs Hunter targets for elimination. His HR 2218 would allocate more than $1 billion over the next seven years to build charter schools that have produced no better measurable results than traditional public schools, while serving fewer low income families and students of color.

For a glimpse of Congressman Hunter's vision of the future of school reform, check out the mediocre test scores and relatively few disadvantaged students being served by North County's 18 charter schools, most of which amount to nothing more than certifying home schooling.

Friday, July 15, 2011

College Bound Students Still Fail the Grade

Reports of school test scores have been depressingly predictable.

No Child Left Behind has long been left behind. All students will not be grade-level proficient in English and math by 2014. That's unlikely to happen before 2030, given the glacial rate of improvement.

And despite all the hand-wringing, finger-pointing, and high hopes for charter schools, the achievement gap dividing students by wealth and skin color remains unchanged.

One of the few local success stories can be found at Cal State San Marcos, where dramatic improvement has been made in helping entering students who were unprepared for college-level English and math courses. The sad side of the story is that so many college bound students need remediation.

In 1997 the California State University Board of Trustees set a goal for 90 percent of its entering students to be fully prepared in English and math by 2007. At the time, only about half the freshman class was ready for college-level instruction in both subjects.

The CSU launched an effort to improve student preparedness by requiring applicants with low SAT scores to take English and math proficiency tests before enrolling. If they fail to get passing scores, they're not denied admission, but test results are used to identify those who need remediation to gain college-level proficiency in the two subjects by the end of their first year. If they don't make the grade in both subjects by the end of the year, they face disenrollment.

Unfortunately, there's been very little improvement over the last 10 years in the number of college-bound high school graduates who are fully proficient in both subjects before applying for admission to the CSU. That imposes an additional financial burden on families and on campuses that must offer unprepared students a series of high school level courses in their freshman year.

Over the last decade the percent of CSU entering freshmen unprepared in either English or math, or both, has declined only slightly from 62 to 58 percent. The percent of that group successfully remediated in the first year has risen from 81 to 83 percent. At Cal State San Marcos the number of entering students needing remediation fell from 71 to 66 percent, while the number of those reaching proficiency in one year jumped from 60 to 84 percent.

The CSU is required by law to offer admission to the top third of California's high school graduates who've completed, with grades of "C" or higher, four years of English and three years of math, including two years of algebra.

You'd think more than half of those headed off to California's largest university would be college ready in both subjects.

But you'd be wrong.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Vista school scandal? You decide

For San Diego's North County Times

It's time to set the record straight on what a Vista school board member called taxpayer robbery, an Escondido charter school chief declared a student rip-off, and the local FOX channel ballooned into an expose.

The target for the overblown rhetoric was the $80,000 settlement of a $128,000 lawsuit filed by VUSD to recover several years of union underpayments for the union president's release time from teaching duties.
Board member Jim Gibson, an outspoken union critic, pushed initially for repayment of the entire $500,000 estimated shortfall over 15 years. He said he cast his lone vote against the compromise settlement because he thought it was an "absolute robbery."

But the depiction of a greedy union stealing from taxpayers is grossly distorted. Board president Steve Lilly separated fact from fiction in his Dec. 24, 2009, Community Forum in this newspaper.

In their 1995 contract with the district, the union agreed to reimburse 60 percent of the president's salary while on full-time leave from teaching duties. In response to several challenges in recent years, the district's attorneys repeatedly assured the board the arrangement was legal. It was also considered mutually beneficial, since both parties recognized the value of having union leaders work with administrators to head off costly litigation by mediating grievances before they wind up in court.

But a 2008 California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) ruling in a Berkeley School District case held the union responsible for full salary reimbursement to the district when the union president is on leave of absence. What had become common practice throughout California was for the first time ruled not in compliance with state law.

The PERB ruling led the district to discontinue the policy beginning in January 2010, and to ask the union for reimbursement of the district's portion of salary costs over the past three years, the statute of limitations in such cases.

If the district had launched a legal battle to collect another $48,000, as Gibson demanded, it would have cost taxpayers far more than that in legal fees. Fortunately, the adults in the room prevailed with a 4-1 vote, which included a guarantee of full reimbursement of the union president's salary in future years.

Gibson's opinion was shared by the executive director of Escondido's Classical Academies.
In a June 22 letter to the editor, Cameron Curry claimed that Vista students were being "ripped off" by the settlement. It's hard to understand his interest in the matter, unless it has something to do with VUSD's recent refusal to sponsor a Vista branch of his home-schooling charter school.

Was the local FOX channel's oversimplified expose of a complicated legal case a fair and balanced report?

You decide.