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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, March 23, 2012

Don't Blame Schools for Budget Cuts

For San Diego's North County Times

Carlsbad school officials are getting lots of advice lately about how to save money without hurting students. But it amounts mostly to blaming the victims of a budget crisis they didn't create: the teachers union for selfishness and protecting bad teachers from layoffs, administrators for wasting money on frills.

Those who think unions are "wicked," the word used by one community columnist, often praise teachers for their good work as individuals. But when they organize to improve their profession, they're accused of putting their own interests ahead of kids. Using that logic, you might say the same about parents who follow flight attendant instructions to put on their own oxygen masks before helping their kids with theirs.

Teachers face obstacles to their effectiveness when they work in overcrowded classrooms, have to buy their own teaching materials, and are given little time to collaborate on lesson plans. Union efforts to reduce those obstacles are truly in the best interests of students.

Common sense might suggest a "keep the best and fire the rest" layoff policy. But in this case common sense doesn't make good sense.

Here's why. The best and worst teachers often stand out. But it's much harder to rank those who fall in between. Evaluating teachers on test scores alone ignores learning that can't be measured by multiple choice. Congeniality and budget savings could become the primary criteria if administrators alone make the call. Most would agree that popularity isn't the best measure of teaching excellence.

Dismissing the value of seniority rests on the mistaken assumptions that teachers, unlike other professionals, don't improve with experience, and that good ones are born, not made. Speaking from experience, I was a far better high school English teacher in my fifth year than I was as a rookie.

I suspect the anti-seniority crowd is more interested in saving money than serving students. Not as many teachers would have to be laid off if the more experienced were not on the payroll.
The same local columnist who called unions "wicked" lists frills as transportation from home to school, free meals, after-school activities, preschool and continuation schools (such as the Carlsbad Village Academy). In other words, every program designed for students who need help outside the classroom for the opportunity to succeed inside the classroom. That's a survival of the fittest prescription for public schools.

The sad fact is that kids always suffer from school budget cuts. Not because of union selfishness, laying off the wrong teachers, or reckless spending, but because of our own upside-down priorities. While teachers are being laid off, deep-pocket donors will gladly spend an estimated $6 billion to $7 billion to influence this year's presidential election.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Prison reform at last


For San Diego's North County Times
It took a federal court ruling and a $28 billion budget deficit for California to finally do something about its obsolete prison system. San Diego County's chief probation officer, Mack Jenkins, told the Carlsbad City Council last month that implementing Assembly Bill 109, the Public Safety Realignment Act, will be "the most significant change in California's correctional system in at least 30 years."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last May that conditions caused by crowding 167,000 inmates into buildings built for 90,000 were in violation of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Now it's a question of how to reduce the prison population while protecting the public and reducing the deficit. San Diego County's community corrections plan is on track to do all three.

Contrary to a wealth of misinformation, no state prison inmates are being transferred to local jails. Those who've served their sentences, are at low risk for reoffending and are eligible for parole are being assigned to local probation officers who will engage in far more proactive follow-up than the state parole system. Jenkins said it will include both announced and unannounced visits and more careful tracking.

Only four of the 1,000 parolees shifted to San Diego County to this date reside in Carlsbad. Vista has 61, Escondido 55 and Oceanside 41. Carlsbad Police Chief Gary Morrison reported there's been no increase in the city's crime rate.

Future nonviolent and non-high-risk sex offenders who were previously sent to state prisons will now serve their sentences in county jails, as will parole violators who haven't committed another crime. Criminal reoffenders will return to prison.

The goals of the Community Corrections Partnership, which Jenkins chairs, are to provide more efficient use of jails by using electronic tracking and house arrest, in-custody re-entry programming, evidence-based supervision practices and asking judges to use evidence-based practices in sentencing. In other words, to spend less money on warehousing nonviolent, low-risk inmates and investing more in tracking and rehabilitating them.

An April 2011 report by the Pew Center on the States, "State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America's Prisons," revealed California has the country's largest prison population as well as its highest recidivism rate, at 58 percent reoffending within three years of release.
Oregon has the lowest at 23 percent. That's been attributed to the same careful risk management, transition planning, community-based probation and evidence-based design and delivery that San Diego County is pursuing.

In his report, Jenkins told Carlsbad officials it costs the state about $50,000 a year to house a prison inmate. According to the Pew report, California could save as much as $233 million in a single year if it reduces its recidivism rate by just 10 percent.