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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, September 23, 2011

Direct democracy at its best

For San Diego's North County Times


As the campaign season heats up for the 2012 elections, we hear candidates singing the same old song, "What the American people want is ..." Candidates seem confident we want our elected officials to follow, rather than lead us.

If Californians don't like what politicians do after they're elected, they can take matters into their own hands by recalls, initiatives and referendums. Ours is one of 24 states that allow votes by the people to throw the rascals out, overturn unpopular laws and create new ones. It's called "direct democracy."

California adopted it by constitutional amendment exactly one hundred years ago in an attempt to eliminate the bribery and corruption that ruled state politics at the time. On Oct. 8, 1911, two days before the measure was passed by the legislature, a New York Times editorial warned of its potential negative effects:

"The number, complexity, and minuteness of the propositions submitted to the popular vote make it physically impossible that the ordinary voter shall understand their nature and effect or the actual consequences of his own act."

Peter Schrag, a former editorial page writer for the Sacramento Bee, recently praised the prescience of that editorial. In the recent edition of BOOM: A Journal of California, Schrag wrote, "What was designed to be an exceptional remedy has come close to overwhelming representative democracy."

Citing several examples of how direct democracy doesn't work as promised, Schrag gave three important reasons for its failure:

1. It costs only $200 to file an initiative proposal, but volunteers alone can't bring it to the ballot. You need about $3 million to pay signature collectors, direct mail firms, consultants, pollsters and lawyers. The process is driven more by big money than by little guys with big ideas.

2. Rather than being subjected to the scrutiny of elected representatives, a proposition's fate is vulnerable to the rampant rumors of the blogosphere.

3. Successful propositions that don't allow for their own amendments can only be changed by another cumbersome and costly initiative process, even if serious problems turn up.

Direct democracy at its best comes to Oceanside in June, when residents will vote on whether to overturn the city council's decision to phase out rent control in the city's mobile-home parks. The referendum drive, conducted entirely by volunteers, produced 15,000 signatures, twice as many as required for the ballot and nearly four times the number of mobile-home park residents.

If rent control is phased out, the winners will be out-of-town park owners and the well-to-do. The losers will be Oceanside's most vulnerable residents: the elderly, retired military veterans and the disabled.

The city's values hang in the balance.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Schools only part of the problem

For San Diego's North County Times

After 10 years of relying on student test scores to promote a competitive free market approach to school reform, what do we have to show for it?

Schools in wealthier districts continue to prosper. Those serving low-income populations face sanctions or closure. Charter schools, most of which enroll students who've never been left behind, flourish despite producing few measurable results of improved learning.

While we can argue about whether all that prepping for English and math tests has been worth taking so much time away from other important subjects, like science, history, literature, the arts and vocational training, most would agree it's good to track evidence of student learning.

The latest student tracking news came from last month's release of a report by the California Department of Education on high school dropout rates. It tracked the progress of the 2006 statewide cohort of ninth-graders. We learned 18 percent dropped out before earning a high school diploma. It was 16 percent in San Diego County and substantially lower in North County, according to a report in this newspaper ("Local schools have fewer dropouts compared with state, county," Aug. 11).

But before we rest on our laurels, consider this small sample of dropouts by student population. La Costa Canyon High School, with the lowest numbers of low-income and English-learner students, had a total dropout rate of 2.8 percent ---- but 16 percent of low-income students and 22 percent of English-language learners left school without a high school diploma.

Oceanside High School, with the largest number of economically disadvantaged and English learners, had a 14 percent total dropout rate. Fifteen percent of low-income and 25 percent of English learners dropped out.

The CDE released another report last month, "A Blueprint for Great Schools," issued by a 59-member committee consisting of parents, educators, business and union leaders appointed last January. Two of the committee's recommendations caught my eye.

The first was the call for a coordinated early learning system, beginning at birth, to assure that all children thrive in preschool. The second was the creation of wraparound support services in "community schools," incorporating school staff and their partners (local government, community agencies) working together to identify and address the various needs beyond the classroom of children and their families.

According to the report, "current education reform strategies often ignore the very real needs of children for secure housing, regular health care, supportive out-of-school environments, and educational assistance."

Maybe it's not schools that are most in need of reform. We may have to abandon the belief that schools alone can repair the damage done to kids outside the classroom before and after they get there.