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.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Charter School Flunks Twice in One Year

A San Bernardino County charter school failed for the second time this year to win approval to open a campus in North County. Carlsbad school district trustees voted unanimously last week to reject the Oxford Preparatory Academy’s charter proposal. In January the Oceanside school board took the same action on OPA’s bid for a school there.

Charter school supporters often claim school district opposition is driven more by union and administrative protectionism than what’s best for students. On December 6 the newly politicized version of the North County Times, for example, reported the charter school proposal had been turned down mostly because it contained overly-optimistic enrollment and budget projections and a lack of interest shown by local teachers.

But closer look at the facts shows how rejecting the school’s proposal was clearly in the best interests of Carlsbad students. It was not a matter of school district protectionism. In fact, a review of OPA’s curriculum and the students it already serves at its Chino and Capistrano campuses reveals how the school fails to live up to the legislative intent of California’s 1992 Charter School Act. Carlsbad and Oceanside school officials were right to give it a failing grade.

I’m no expert in school budgeting, but there’s little doubt OPA’s projection of an enrollment of 864 students on opening day next fall was wildly optimistic. Responses to a parent survey found just 53 of 685 surveyed saying “Yes” to their intent to enroll their child in the charter school.

But even more important than pie in the sky enrollment projections was the district’s finding that the school’s proposal meets only half of the 16 elements required of charter schools by California’s Education Code.

Here are some of the major deficiencies:
  1. School policies will “promote a disparate impact on the parents of minority students, low income students, students with disabilities, and English learners.”
  2. The students attracted to the school will not reflect the racial and ethnic balance of the Carlsbad School District. In the Capistrano school district, for example, 62 percent of students are white. But OPA’s Capistrano campus enrollment is 72 percent white. In Carlsbad it’s 58 percent.
  3. Enrollment data from existing campuses do not reflect the student population of the chartering districts. The Chino Unified School District’s enrollment includes 14 percent who are English Learners. It’s just 4 percent on the Chino OPA campus. It’s 9 percent in Carlsbad.
  4. The school does not plan to participate in the National School Lunch Program or to provide for daily breakfasts or lunches.
  5. The school’s plan is for a 170 day school year compared to Carlsbad’s a 177 day school year.
  6. The OPA Governing Board is in Chino, 80 miles away. It meets only quarterly and does not require a single board member to be a Carlsbad resident.
The legislative intent of California’s Charter School Act of 1992 calls for charter schools to “Increase learning opportunities for all pupils, with special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for pupils who are identified as academically low achieving.”

I am a supporter of charter schools that meet this intent. An excellent example is Vista’s North County Trade Tech High, which enrolls students who’ve had problems succeeding in a traditional public school because of unusually high absenteeism. In June the school graduated its first class of 20 students. Thirteen will enroll in local colleges, five have been hired as apprentices in local building and trade companies, and two have joined the military. It’s a school that changes lives.

I’m also a supporter of private education, proud of the excellent instruction I received from Dominican Sisters in grade school and Benedictine monks at a small liberal arts college.

But Oxford Preparatory Academy appears to be a place for the white and well-to-do to give their children a college prep private school education at taxpayer expense.

Good for the Carlsbad and Oceanside school officials for recognizing that.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Confessions of a Newspaper Junkie

My name is Richard and I'm a recovering newspaper junkie. After trying the more fat, less filling version of U-T San Diego's North County Times Lite, I canceled our subscription last month.

They didn't make it easy for me, continuing to deliver the ad-bloated pages of self promotion posing as a newspaper at our front door for two more weeks in hopes I'd fall off the wagon.

I now get my regional news fix from sources free of U-T San Diego's political agenda: San Diego NBC, ABC and CBS affiliates, Voice of San Diego and San Diego Reader; and neighborhood news from The Coast News, Carlsbadistan.com and Carlsbad Patch.

I've kept my withdrawal symptoms under control by succumbing to the sensual pleasure of what the New York Times calls "the tuck," "the delivery," and "the crinkle," with a subscription to the Sunday edition.

You'd think I'd finally be free of U-T San Diego. But you'd be wrong. Two Sunday mornings ago we found two packages wrapped in plastic at our front door: the Sunday Times and a "U-T SD Extra," a free copy of the Health section of U-T San Diego, wrapped around a packet of ads thicker than the old North County Times Sunday Edition.

Disgusted by the litter, I checked the Carlsbad City Municipal Code and discovered Section 040 of Chapter 8.32 PEDDLERS, SOLICITORS, VENDORS AND CANVASSERS: Entering private property for the purpose of sale without permission.

"No person shall go onto private property within the city for the purpose of selling, offering for sale or soliciting orders for the sale of any merchandise, product, service or thing whatsoever when the occupant of such property has given notice or warned such persons to keep away. A sign posted by the occupant of the property, with the words "no solicitors" or "no peddlers" or other similar words, at or near the front door or primary entrance to a residential structure on private property, shall constitute sufficient notice or warning pursuant to this section."

The promotional garbage left on our front porch contained a solicitation for subscribing to the daily edition. We don't have a "no solicitors" sign posted near our front door, but our condominium association has one at its entrance. So I sent an email to the U-T advertising director, Kimi Macias, citing the city code and informing her we don't want any more complimentary issues. I got no reply. The following Sunday another SD Extra lay on the sidewalk before our front door.

I'll try a "no peddlers" sign next Sunday, but I'm not hopeful it will work. There's a smell of desperation emerging from the U-T's corporate offices about their circulation numbers, after they dropped sharply last year. We've heard nothing but happy talk from the co-owners that the purchase of the North County Times and a new "multiplatform strategy" will turn that around.

At an Oceanside Rotary Club meeting last month, as reported in the club's November 16 Shorelines Newsletter, CEO John Lynch claimed the U-T is 10th in the country in circulation and that "their combined multimedia opportunities had the capacity to reach 96 percent of the households of the San Diego region each month."

He didn't bother with any evidence to prove his claims. In the interests of "keeping them honest," I checked the latest September 30 national rankings of newspapers by the Alliance for Audited Media. The Union Tribune does not make it into the top 25 of dailies in circulation, ranking 23rd in Sunday circulations. Over the last year the Sunday edition lost 17,000 readers.

As for the Union Tribune's "capacity to reach" 96 percent of households in the region, let's do the math. According to SANDAG there are 1.1 million occupied households in our region. The newspaper's average daily circulation is 300,000, on Sundays, 352,000. Lynch's undefined claim of "capacity to reach" could be made by just about every media outlet, assuming 96 percent of households have radios or TVs.

As long as we're making unsupported claims, here's my own conclusion from an out my car window conversation with a North County Times street corner hawker who told me, "Everybody hates the new NCT!" He'd sold only 5 newspapers in three hours at the intersection.

As consolation for our continuing receipt of free copies of Sunday U-T SD Extra's, our toy poodle Olivia is gonna love her new pooper scooper.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Pay Now or Pay Later for Schools

After comparing their school test scores with statewide results you’d probably agree Carlsbad’s 5th graders, like their Lake Wobegone classmates, are all above average

When No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2002 it was supposed to produce 100 percent grade level proficiency in English and math for all students by 2014. But to this date only 59 percent of California 5th graders have reached proficiency in English, only 63 percent in math. By comparison, 79 percent of Carlsbad’s 5th graders are proficient in English and 80 percent in math.

But the greater concern about these scores is the lingering achievement gap separating students by family income. Californian’s should care because 59 percent of the state’s 5th graders come from low income families. Only 47 percent of them are proficient in English, 55 percent in math. That doesn’t bode well for the state’s future workforce, which will need higher level skills than today’s workers.

Only 23 percent of Carlsbad 5th graders are economically disadvantaged. Although more are grade level proficient at 59 percent in English, 58 percent in math, the test score gap separating them from their more well-to-do classmates is greater than it is statewide. And the city’s abundance of high tech companies will demand an even better trained workforce.

The demand for school reform has amounted mostly to bad-mouthing teacher unions, abandoning our historic commitment to public education, and the rise of charter schools that, with a few notable exceptions, show no better learning results but are preferred by parents searching for socially compatible safe havens for their children.

I spoke last week with Valin Brown, CEO and President of the Board of The Carlsbad Educational Foundation. CEF helps raise private support to contribute about $500k each year for programs that help promote educational excellence for the 11,000 students in the Carlsbad School District. The foundation has a special interest in music education, “hands-on” science education, and educational innovation that takes learning out of the classroom and into the community.

While CEF gets about $350k of its in revenue annually from private donors and corporate grants, its primary source of revenue comes from tuition and fees generated by its Kids Care and Summer Academy programs. Both show potential for enhancing school reform and closing the family-income achievement gap. Unfortunately, neither has the funding to expand its reach to more families who might benefit from them.

Kids Care is a high-quality, licensed child care and educational enrichment program, providing safe, convenient, before and after school care for kindergarten through 5th grade students. It’s available in all 9 elementary schools. Tuition ranges from $120 to $495 per month, which puts it beyond the reach of many low income families.

Brown told me some financial aid is available and that 120 of the 700 currently enrolled students are funded entirely by California’s After School Enrichment and Safety (ASES) grant program. Research has shown before and after school programs can have a substantially positive effect on classroom success. Teachers often speak of their frustration trying to overcome in their limited classroom time the obstacles students face daily outside the classroom.

There are about 2,000 students in Carlsbad schools classified as economically disadvantaged. More access to CEF’s Kids Care could make a big difference in their learning.

The other CEF program that could be expanded to help this student population is the Carlsbad Summer Academy, which enables students in grades 9 through 12 to accelerate their high school progress, allowing them to complete graduation requirements early and prepare for college entrance tests. Brown explained its Summer Academy does not do “catch up” classes because remediation has always been the responsibility of public schools.

Unfortunately, budget cuts hurt low income students most. But I don’t blame CEF for its reluctance to move into remediation and let taxpayers off the hook.

So, where does that leave school reform in a city where all the kids are “above average?” Until we begin to care as much for the ones being left behind as we do for those at the head of the class, I don’t see much hope. Whether its willingness to pay higher taxes or to give to private foundations, that’s where you’ll find our priorities, as well as the future of our economy.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Is the Tea Party Finally Over?

You could hear a collective sigh of relief in school district offices throughout California after voters approved Prop 30 on Tuesday. Not that happy days are here again for school funding. The Carlsbad school district has already cut costs by $6.1 million this year. Teachers, managers and other school workers pitched in with $2 million of that amount in pay cuts.

If Prop 30 had failed to pass, another $4.8 million would have been slashed from city schools, amounting to a hit of nearly $11 million in a single year.

But the best news from Tuesday’s election results is that the air is beginning to leak from the anti-tax Tea Party balloon. Maybe it’s the irony voters are beginning to see in the public’s eagerness to contribute millions to political campaigns to support candidates who pledge not to raise their taxes by a dime and who hate government so much they’ll say or do anything to win a seat in it.

Here are the losers who were on Carlsbad ballots, endorsed by either the Tri-City Tea Party, representing Oceanside, Vista and Carlsbad or the San Diego Tea Party. They were all endorsed as well by the new publisher of U-T San Diego’s North County Times, “Big Daddy Doug” Manchester (I refuse to use his preferred nickname, “Papa,” in deference to the memory of Ernest Hemingway, who earned the title).

Mitt Romney
Elizabeth Emken (U.S. Senate)
Brian Bilbray (52nd Congressional District)
Carl Demaio, (SD Mayor)
Jerry Kern, (Oceanside Mayor)
Nick Popaditch (53rd Congressional District)
Steve Danon (3rd District County Supervisor)
Jim Miller (Superior Court Judge, Office 25)
Chip Dykes (Oceanside City Council)
Sherry Hodges (76th Assembly District)

Hodges was proud to be the “inaugural signer” of a pledge never to vote for tax increases designed by Gary Gonsalves, a local Grover Norquist wannabe and co-founder of Stop Taxing Us. The pledge was circulated to all local candidates, who were asked to sign, or refuse to sign it, on camera. Hodges was joined by eight true believers for a YouTube video of the event.

Two of her primary opponents, Farrah Douglas and Rocky Chavez, both Republicans, were not so eager. Douglas signed on camera. But her captive look, sitting at a table with Gonsalves standing behind her, flanked by his two grim lieutenants, is reminiscent of a hostage taking. Chavez agreed to sign the pledge, but declined to be videotaped doing it.

I asked Douglas and Chavez why they had pledged allegiance to Gonsalves and not to the best interests of their constituents. They explained the Tea Party had the power to destroy their campaigns. But I got the feeling neither of them would ask permission from anybody before voting on any bill.

Douglas paid the price for not showing enough love for her Tea Party bullies when Hodges prevailed at the polls after launching a last ditch personal attack on her fellow Republican.

In the general election, following a strong endorsement from Douglas, Chavez survived yet another Hodges character assassination attack, defeating her by 58 to 42 percent. That’s called a landslide in politics.

The forest of “No on AA, CC, EE” signs littering roadsides over the last month enabled the anti-tax crowd to defeat bond issues for San Dieguito High School, Del Mar School District, and Mira Costa College. But they were all approved by the majority of voters, with Del Mar’s getting 53 percent, San Dieguito 54, and Mira Costa 54. Unfortunately, they needed 55 percent to pass.

Prop 30 got only 45 percent approval in San Diego County, but it passed with 54 percent statewide. Had it required a super majority Carlsbad students would have been the losers.
Although the Tea Party may not be over yet, Tuesday’s election results show its days may be numbered.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How Carlsbad Fired its City Manager

HildabrandLast week Carlsbad City Manager Lisa Hildabrand unexpectedly announced her retirement, effective at year’s end. But inside information from reliable sources speaking off the record suggests the occasion won’t be marked by a gold watch and tearful goodbyes. In fact, if you listen closely, you may hear city worker bees humming a tune sung by Munchkins in the Land of Oz.

On Tuesday, October 16 Hildabrand met with city council members for her annual performance review. Following that meeting she began negotiating a separation agreement with City Attorney Ron Ball. It provides severance pay of $192,000, equaling 10 months of her current salary, to be paid in a lump sum no later than January 15, 2013.

Hildebrand will continue on leave, using up all her vacation time before officially retiring December 31.

The council has asked John Coates, current assistant city manager, to serve as city manager until an “extensive search” results in a permanent appointment. Coates will have equal consideration with outside applicants.

My sources say the city council had lost confidence in Hildabrand’s ability to take the city forward, pointing out “communication issues” with city employees and her leadership team of managers and directors of city departments.

Employees felt they couldn’t talk with her, nor could they talk to council members without being punished. The council felt they needed a city manager with more vision and leadership qualities.

I had my own communication issues with the “retiring” city manager. In a meeting with city employees a year and a half ago, she told the city’s lowest paid workers they should feel grateful for being able to live in such a beautiful city. That was the meeting she explained the one-year freeze in their wages, accompanied by a 7 percent cut in take-home pay because the city shifted its full share of pension fund contributions to employees.

Management employees didn't feel the pain. The city would continue its 7 percent pension fund contribution for them and might even give them a 2.5 percent pay increase. She told the group the city was also planning to consider outsourcing, furloughs, and moving employees around as additional cost-saving measures.

I reported on that meeting in my June 16, 2011 The Riehl World column for the North County Times (now dubbed Big Daddy Doug’s Daily Mail). Two independent sources present at the meeting had tipped me off. Hildabrand denied she’d made those remarks and demanded a retraction of my column by then NCT Editor Kent Davy (who was canned by Big Daddy Doug, but is now freelancing for him.)

The shadowy dismissal of Carlsbad’s CEO was characterized as a retirement announcement in a city press release, which was parroted in Big Daddy Doug’s Daily Mail. I have a feeling the old North County Times would have dug deep enough to reveal Hildabrand was summarily dismissed for poor performance by a gutsy city council.

But those were the good old days, when North County journalism was more about the search for truth than advancing the financial and political interests of a powerful man.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Incredible Shrinking Daily Newspaper

Yesterday afternoon I went to the North County Times online to ask for a vacation hold for a couple of days while we’re out of town. The website no longer recognized me as a subscriber, so I had to resubmit my street and email addresses.

This morning I got an email in reply, thanking me for “subscribing to U-T San Diego’s digital only edition. We know you have several options in how you receive your news and are glad you chose us.” It was signed “Papa Doug Manchester.”

That reply and the death of the only other choice of a daily newspaper in North County sealed my decision to extend that vacation hold request to forever.

The first three days of the North County Times under Manchester’s ownership reveals its new brand: just an added section to U-T San Diego, gratuitously carrying the familiar blue NCT masthead (adding “U-T” to it) dishonestly designed to reassure North Countians they haven’t lost their daily newspaper.

If it’s not dead, it’s been taken off life support. Don’t expect to see that blue masthead very much longer. The new North County Times has shrunk to sixteen pages, but only five to seven local stories (ads and public notices fill the rest). Those five to seven pages carry a laughably titled “Opinion” section, gossipy city crime reports, a half page of comics and a half page of sports.

Today’s Opinion section filled half a page. There’s no local editorial. In its place is an oversized Mallard Fillmore cartoon of a guy wearing a baseball cap wishing the president were unemployed like him.
There are three letters to the editor that made it to the Opinion section, two of which bash President Obama. Tuesday’s paper carried six letters, Monday’s ten.

Before the North County Times became a U-T San Diego insert, its editorial pages were alive with public discourse. Letters to the editor filled an entire page, a page and a half in election years. Liberals and conservatives, atheists and evangelicals waged lively daily debates. Doonesbury cartoons appeared next to Mallard Fillmore. Community columnists appeared daily on the Opinion Page, representing views ranging from conservative to progressive.

When asked in a KPBS interview after he bought the paper, Manchester said he couldn’t promise an independent editorial board for his version of the North County Times. That became clear this morning, when U-T San Diego’s Editorial appeared in the North County Times online edition, carrying the headline, “Debate: Romney shows he’s up to the job.”

The opinions of North County residents are apparently unwelcome in their new U-T San Diego insert.
Full disclosure: I enjoyed writing a bi-weekly column for the NCT for nine years. I’m certain my views did not always reflect the views of the paper’s editorial page editors. They’ve told me so. Other community columnists expressed views far apart from my own.

Those days are gone now. And it should come as no surprise. Manchester has not been hesitant to declare his goal as a newspaper owner is not to produce quality journalism as a service to the public. It’s to promote a conservative agenda and be a booster of business and pro sports in San Diego County.

One reason the budding media mogul may have taken a special interest in us northerners is that San Diego County is turning blue. But it gets redder as you head north. The County Registrar of Voters’ latest report shows there are now 3,881 more Democrats than Republicans registered to vote in San Diego County. In the City of San Diego alone 40 percent of voters are Democrats, compared to 28 percent Republicans.

But as you move north the cities turn red. In Carlsbad Republicans outnumber Demos by 43 percent to 28 percent. In Escondido it’s the same. In San Marcos Republicans are in the majority by 42 percent to 29 percent. In Poway it’s 47 percent to 25 percent. In Oceanside Republicans edge Demos, 39 percent to 32 percent.

So Manchester is likely to find friends up here. That’s important, not only to his ego, but to the pocketbook of a developer, disguised as a newspaper publisher, in search of political favors.

Former editor of the North County Times, Kent Davy, told a KPBS interviewer his mission for the NCT was to be a mirror of the community. Manchester’s mission for the U-T San Diego North County Insert is to be a mirror of himself.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Showdown at Sage Creek: How to Vote Against Schools

According to a local newspaper columnist, allowing Carlsbad’s new high school to sit empty for at least a year is the answer to the district’s financial woes. But T.K. Arnold’s argument for delaying the opening of Sage Creek High is about as watery as the school’s fictional namesake. A closer look reveals how his politics trumps his punditry.

Calling Prop 30 “Gov. Jerry Brown’s blackmail ballot” tells you all you need to know about Arnold’s political bias. But what’s equally troubling is his reasoning. In a facts-free claim, he says the district could “save hundreds of thousands of dollars each year (my italics) in operating costs that could be used to close a gaping budget hole as high as $11 million” if Proposition 30 fails. The mixed metaphor (I’m trying to picture a “high” hole) could make you chuckle if the subject weren’t so serious.

Arnold doesn’t bother to estimate the cost of letting a $104 million high school campus remain vacant for at least a year, as well as the loss of learning opportunities to students denied access to new facilities.In his quest for savings, Arnold reminds us that the old high school has been completely rebuilt and that the greatest projected increase in high school enrollment is in the low single digits. He doesn’t bother to cite actual numbers, so here are the official enrollment projections released by the district last month.

Carlsbad High School enrollment this fall is estimated to be 3,199. It is projected to rise to as high as 3,552 next fall. That’s an 11 percent increase, hardly a “low single digit.” If Sage Creek High won’t take them, CHS would have to squeeze another 353 students onto its campus. At what cost to kids?

According to enrollment projections, high school enrollment is expected to grow by as many 800 more students over the next five years, 24 percent higher than this year. And Arnold suggests opening Sage Creek High School next fall is no big deal?

When I wrote for the North County Times, community columnists were not allowed to endorse candidates for office. But it looks like “there’s a new sheriff in town,” with Arnold’s endorsement of Ray Pearson to replace either of the incumbents on the Carlsbad School Board.

He explains that declaring themselves “happy with the district’s direction” in opening Sage Creek next fall makes the incumbents unacceptable, and that Ray Pearson says he’d take the money being spent on the new high school and use it to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes.

But in San Diego County’s Sample Ballot and Information Pamphlet, Ray Pearson is not quite as forthcoming. He writes, “Now is the time to ask parents, community members and stakeholders would they prefer delaying the opening of a new high school or using the funds for classroom reduction.” Assuming he meant “and” instead of “or” it sounds like he wants to survey his constituents rather than persuade them.

But the largest assumption of all, by both Arnold and Pearson, is that delaying the opening of Sage Creek could produce the savings needed to produce the results they want.

Sounds to me like two guys who’ll be voting against tax increases and looking for justification to vote against schools.

As for me, I’ll be voting for Elisa Williamson and Kelli Moors as well as Prop 30. I agree with them that the district is heading in the right direction by opening Sage Creek High next fall.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Carlsbad City Council's Sweet Deal

Getting fan mail from elected officials is one of my pet peeves. They want “my opinion on the issues,” they say. But what they really want is the answer to a question not included in their questionnaires: “Do you still love me?”

To add insult to injury, I’m paying the postage for their reelection campaign. If politicians made decisions based on their deeper understanding of the issues, rather than their popularity, their newsletters would be more informative and voters could make better choices at the polls.

It’s doubtful the Civil Rights Act would have won the popular vote in the general election of 1964, the year Congress passed it into law. Our elected representatives had the courage to do what was right, at the risk of popular opinion. The Democrats lost the Solid South because of it.

Fast forward to this year’s Election Day in Carlsbad. By putting Proposition A on the ballot, the City Council found an easy way to shirk their responsibility for making tough decisions. What could be better for elected representatives than being allowed to decrease city employee benefits, but requiring a vote of the people to increase them?

It’s a politician’s dream.Section 502 of the City Charter, approved by voters in 2010, has a deceptive title, “Retention of Benefits.” It locks in a reduction of retirement benefits for police officers and firefighters hired after October 4, 2010. If Prop A passes, the same limit will apply for the rest of Carlsbad city employees hired after November 27, 2011.

Section 502 stipulates the city council continues to have the right to reduce benefits, but an increase will require a majority vote in a special or general election to amend the City Charter.

“Retention of Benefits” sounds more like, “Heads I win, tails you lose.”

Supporters of Prop A say it will save the city millions over the next decade, but that is simply not true. The reduced retirement benefits already negotiated, not Prop A, will create the savings. To claim otherwise is insulting to city workers, who agreed to the reduction in their negotiated contract with the city.

Prop A won’t save money, but it will create costs. The price of putting the previous city charter amendment on the 2010 general election ballot came to about $35,000. The estimated cost of special elections ranges from $450,000 to $500,000.

Although the failure of Prop A will have no effect on the city budget, it will require council members to summon up the courage to do the job they were elected to do.

This evasion of council responsibility and assault on collective bargaining should be re-titled, “The Incumbents Security Act of 2012.”

That’s why I’m voting no on Prop A.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Education in Romneyland

Posted in Carlsbadistan.com

Carlsbad school officials worry that if voters don’t agree to a tax increase on November 6, a midyear budget reduction could lead to cutting the school year by up to three weeks. But a greater threat to local schools in the long run hangs on the outcome of the Presidential election.

Mitt Romney has announced a plan to “restore the promise of American education” by promoting choice and innovation. Titled, “A Chance for Every Child,” it signals a retreat from the goal of No Child Left Behind. A chance is not a promise. Romney’s vow to use federal funds to support school choice, rather than school improvement, will produce winners and losers. That’s a far cry from the role of public education as a springboard of equal opportunity for upward mobility.

Romney also believes school reform can be done on the cheap, evidenced by his claim class size doesn’t matter. He’s fond of quoting a 2007 McKinsey report, “How the World’s best performing school systems come out on top.” The consultants claim studies show good teachers are more important than smaller classes. To that earth-shattering discovery my response can only be, “well…duh!”But that’s not the point.

The McKinsey report refers to evidence from a 1997 study in Tennessee showing reducing class sizes from 23 to 15 students improved the performance of an average student by only 8 percentile points, while good teachers showed an impact of up to 50 percentile points when the achievement of two 8 year-old students was compared.

Fast forward now to the Carlsbad School District’s 2012-13 budget that sets student-to-teacher ratios at 32 for elementary schools and 39 for the high school. To a former teacher who once complained about having to teach American Literature to as many as 35 in a class of high school juniors, Romney’s claim that class size doesn’t matter is as scary as his plan to bring a competitive free market to public education.

Although he doesn’t bother with details, here’s how Romney describes the plan. The $25 billion the feds currently give public schools to serve low-income families (Title 1) and students with disabilities (IDEA, the Individual with Disabilities Education Act), would be “portable,” allowing the student to choose from any district or public charter school or private school or to use the funds for hiring a tutor or provider of online instruction. It would require states to allow open enrollment, so students could choose schools outside of their local districts.

Here’s how Romney’s redistribution of federal funds might work in Carlsbad.
The district received $2.7 million from the feds in Title 1 and IDEA funding in 2011-12. The district reports it enrolls 1,133 students with disabilities. Based on the number of economically disadvantaged students taking STARS tests, I estimate there are about 2,500 low-income students who would qualify for Title 1 funding.

Assuming some overlap in students who have disabilities and are low income, a fair estimate is that the number eligible for “portability” under Romney’s plan would come to about 3,000 students.

If the $2.7 million of the district’s current federal dollars are divided by the 3,000 students eligible to take their share and shop for another school, it comes to $900 per student. The per-pupil expense in the Carlsbad School District budget is $7,000. The tuition for Carlsbad’s newest private school, Pacific Ridge School, is $24,600.

The bottom line for Romney’s plan is that it abandons our country’s commitment for all public schools to serve all students. The money transferred from school to school would be insufficient to serve the needs of those its intended for, and the schools they leave would be hit with budget cuts that hurt the students who remain.

It calls to mind a U.S. Army major’s sad justification for civilian deaths after the bombing of a North Vietnam village: “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.” Romney’s education plan is equally ironic. He justifies the abandonment of public schools to save public education.

And that’s why Carlsbad school officials should care about the Presidential election as much as the vote on state tax increases.

Censorship Comes to North San Diego

From Carlsbadistan.com

Beginning in October Carlsbadians will get only Papa Doug Manchester’s (right) slant on the daily news.
Who’s Papa Doug (his preferred first name) and why should we care? The hotelier-turned-media mogul bought the North County Times [for $11.95 million]. Added to his acquisition and name change to the San Diego Union Tribune two years ago, he’s hellbent on creating a Hearst-like media empire in San Diego County.

And why should we care? He’s declared an editorial war on government employees, unions, President Obama, writers who don’t help promote the community, and anyone who walks, talks or acts like a Democrat. My last North County Times column critical of the empty boosterism of Carlsbad’s latest State of the City video would not see the light of day in a Manchester newspaper.

I experienced Papa Doug’s reign of terror for journalists when I submitted what was intended to be my last The Riehl World column scheduled for publication tomorrow. Here’s the part that was deemed too hot to handle, followed by Editor Kent Davy’s explanation.

“After being able to rant on this page for nine years, often at odds with editorial board positions, my homework assignments for the NCT end with this, my last column. I made that decision after learning the newspaper had been sold. Not that the new owners would have welcomed my prickly presence on their opinion pages.

In a KPBS interview on September 11 Doug Manchester said he hadn’t yet decided on the “brand” of the North County Times. But he left little doubt it will be a virtual clone of UT San Diego, given his primary goal to “salute what’s right and good about San Diego,” with a special pro-military, pro-business, and pro-Padres and Chargers focus.

NCT Editor Kent Davy, on the same KPBS show, described the newspaper’s mission: “We don’t work for corporate masters. We work for readers and the notion of doing good work,” to “hold a mirror up to the community,” to “show the community its successes and failures” and to “right wrongs.”

Asked if the new NCT will keep its own editorial board, Manchester replied, “We will definitely get editorial input from the North County area.” He didn’t promise editorial independence. But he did promise that the NCT, like its big brother in San Diego, will carry front page editorials advancing his conservative political agenda.

I’ll be rooting from the sidelines for the survival of NCT’s journalistic integrity, but I’m not holding my breath.”

And here’s Davy’s explanation of why the column was rejected:

“Richard: I am not willing to let you tee off on Manchester this way. There are people here who will have to work for him even if you don’t.” — Kent R. Davy | Editor | North County Times

It’s a sad day, not only for journalists, but for Carlsbad residents who will need to find sources other than their daily newspaper to find a diversity of opinions about issues they care about.

Friday, September 7, 2012

What's Missing from City Report

From San Diego's North County Times

No Child Left Behind and the rise of charter schools have been the primary drivers of school reform in the past decade. But while NCLB promise…

Sinclair Lewis would have smiled at the unbridled boosterism of Carlsbad city officials featured in this year's State of the City video. He'd be reminded of the self-satisfied city fathers of Zenith, Babbit's fictional Midwestern hometown. But Carlsbad residents were shortchanged if they expected to get more than a virtual pep rally from their city's annual report.

Most of the video consists of city council members taking turns singing the praises of high profile companies that have made their homes in Carlsbad, stressing the importance of investing in business-friendliness to keep them here and attract others.

After congratulating themselves for keeping the budget balanced during the recession, city officials say they now must find more ways to cut city services expenses, pointing to the loss of state redevelopment funds and uncertainties about the state budget. A soothing voiceover explains, "The city is working to transform itself to a new model of government."

There's no explanation of what that means. But judging from the city council's decision to seek contractors to bid on outsourcing parks maintenance, the "new model" is apparently code for privatizing.

The problem with all this talk about business friendliness and city belt-tightening is the absence of measurable objectives. How many new businesses have opened in Carlsbad since last year? How many new jobs and how much additional tax revenue have they brought with them? What are the costs of investing in business-friendliness? Where's the cost-benefit analysis for outsourcing city services? To quote the 1980s hamburger commercial: "Where's the beef?"

Instead of hard data, we get generalities and dubious claims. Carlsbad is "one of the top 50 exporting cities in the U.S., yet we're not in the top 200 in population," says the city's economic development manager, Kathy Dodson. She doesn't cite her source.

Dodson continues, "Companies are bringing their manufacturing back from Asia and producing here in Carlsbad." We're left to guess the number and names of those companies.

When I asked her about those claims, Dodson corrected herself on the city's exporting rank. It's the San Diego metropolitan area, not Carlsbad, that ranks in the top 50. She promised to "get that updated." And she could name only one company, San Clemente's Lightsaver Technologies Inc., that has shifted its production from China to Carlsbad.

Here's a small sample of what else was missing from this year's video: 1. The city's cultural and ethnic diversity. 2. The arts. 3. Any concern about the two-year, $7 million budget cut to schools. 4. Updates on the financial viability of the golf course, open space acquisition, desalination, and the city's opposition to a second ocean-view power plant.

Carlsbad has a lot to brag about, but not this glossy 10-minute infomercial posing as the city's

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Of Budget Cuts and School Reform

Published in San Diego's North County Times.

About 11,000 students are expected to head back to Carlsbad schools Wednesday, the same number as two years ago. But this year they'll be greeted by nearly 60 fewer teachers and a school year shortened by three days. High schoolers will find their classrooms bulging with an average of 39 classmates ("School Trustees adopt $77M budget" NCT, June 28).

The school district was forced to cut spending by $7 million over the past two years. It will only get worse if Gov. Jerry Brown's tax initiative fails to pass. If that happens, school officials say, the school year may shrink by as much as three weeks.

It's a lose-lose proposition for students: larger classes and less learning time. The ones hurt most will be those who need more individual attention. The test score achievement gap shows they'll be from low-income families, the ones already being left behind.

While schools struggle to make ends meet, the demand for reform remains. The Department of Education's Race to the Top program, like No Child Left Behind, relies on high-stakes tests as the measure of success.

But Diane Ravitch, a research professor of education at New York University, believes elevating the teaching profession, rather than standardized testing, is the essential ingredient for better schools ("How, and How Not, to Improve the Schools," New York Review of Books, March 22).

Ravitch points to Finland, which has no standardized tests, but whose 15-year-olds lead the world in international surveys of knowledge and skills. Teachers are no more highly paid than in the U.S., but they command much higher esteem as professionals. Only top university students are permitted to enter teacher training, and they must earn master's degrees before they begin teaching.

Teachers are given learning goals and held accountable for results. As professionals, they design and develop their own materials, teaching methods, and tests. Classes are limited to 20 students. In-service training and collaboration, as in other professions, assure quality control.

Ravitch criticizes school reform in the U.S. for using a "model that seeks to emulate the free market, by treating parents as consumers and students as products, with teachers as compliant workers." "Children need better schools," she concludes, but "they also need health clinics, high-quality early childhood education ... and basic economic security. To the extent that we reduce poverty, we will improve student achievement."

Finland has the second-lowest child poverty rate of the world's wealthiest nations, according to the 2012 UNICEF annual report. Just 5 percent of its children live in poverty. It's 23 percent in the U.S., ranking 34th, just above Romania.

That's what's so sad about Carlsbad's school budget cuts. Low-income families will be the biggest losers.