Oct. 8 2012 08:27 PM

San Diego Unified School District gets Race to the Top right

Aaryn Belfer

What with the tiresome budget fights, cutbacks and narrowly averted layoffs, there aren't many reasons to be happy with the San Diego Unified School District's Board of Education these days. Parents at my kid's school, for instance, are still seething about the recent handling—or non-handling—of the heat wave last week that, for two consecutive days, saw in-classroom temperatures clock in with triple-digits.

We have Promethean Boards! And iPads—for everyone!—are on the way. Meanwhile, only seven rooms on a campus of nearly 1,000 kids have air conditioning.

Despite repeated requests to be proactive (the National Weather Service predicted the heat) and declare the equivalent of a "snow day," the board members sat in their (presumably) air-conditioned offices and left kids at the mercy of the district's official five-page document titled "Operation of Schools During Hot Weather." Or, as I like to call it, the Keep- The-Kids-Calm-And-Give-Them-Water Policy. The joyous read is packed with insightful tips like "darken rooms" and "provide electrical fans" and "turn on sprinklers nearest classrooms for short periods of time." The author of this document obviously hasn't visited the concrete jungle that is my daughter's school.

As disappointing as this might be for parents at any overheated school in the district, the board deserves a solid back-patting for one important decision they made during the heat wave: SDUSD announced its decision not to apply for Race to the Top (RTTT) funds.

Had the district applied for and received the money—a long-shot given the number of districts applying and amount of funds being distributed—it would likely cost more to implement the necessary requirements than the award is worth. Because of this and other "limiting factors… the Superintendent concluded that there is too little potential benefit to warrant the time and resources required to submit an application," according to information provided by district staff to the board. This was the board making a responsible decision.

But if you're hearing a grinding noise over the echoes of my standing ovation, that would be the sound of teeth gnashing among the reform-y types. Astroturf groups (those that pretend to be grassroots but actually have corporate backing) like our local Parent-Trigger-happy Up For Ed, would like to French-kiss RTTT. In fact, they pushed this particular issue with the school board precisely because the punishment for failure to thrive under RTTT aligns with their organization's nefarious agenda. Though a small victory in the longer battle, it was fun to watch their effort fizzle.

If you know nothing about Race to the Top, you should know this: It's toxic. Perhaps more so than No Child Left Behind (NCLB) because, as education historian and activist Diane Ravitch puts it, "NCLB holds schools accountable; Race to the Top holds individual teachers accountable."

To get RTTT funds, Ravitch has pointed out, states must "promise to open more privately managed charter schools and to tie teacher evaluation to test scores," part of the reason Chicago teachers went on strike last month. (SDUSD teachers should take note, for value-added measures are coming to haunt them, too.) Furthermore, schools that continue to post low scores will have their entire staffs fired and be closed, turned into charters or turned over to private management.

RTTT will serve to make sure the lid of the coffin is nailed in tight atop public education, which is the jackpot to groups like Up For Ed, L.A.'s Parent Revolution and Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst.

Of course, I'm not naïve. This decision by the board is a finger in the dike, and I'm not talking about the lesbian kind, you dirty birds; that's spelled with a "y."

But on Nov. 6, we voters might drastically change the face of our school board if we're not careful. Current board President John Lee Evans of District A is being challenged by Mark Powell, a right-wing ideologue endorsed by the reputable U-T San Diego.

And District E is a race between one Bill Ponder and CityBeat-endorsed Marne Foster, who trounced Ponder in the primary election but who's been oddly silent in the run-up to the general. (Marne! Call me, maybe?)

As it happens, Ponder is a former Up For Ed board member, and, oddly enough, like Evans' ultra-conservative opponent, he's also endorsed by the esteemed U-T San Diego. In addition, according to a piece this past July by Matt Potter at The Reader, Ponder has the backing of one R.B. "Buzz" Wooley Jr.

Wooley is a charter-school advocate (i.e. privatizer) and the largest financial backer of the nonprofit online news website Voice of San Diego—which might explain the love affair going on between Voice and Up For Ed, the latter of which endorses Ponder. And we come full circle.

After reading Potter's story, the general contempt toward the school board and the teachers union that's come from Voice's imperious education reporter during the past year suddenly made total sense. Certainly, Voice is no U-T, but the two media outlets' support of education reform is about as dissimilar as Obama's and Romney's education policies. Oh, Emily Alpert, how we parents miss your balanced reporting!

Look. Our school board may not be perfect. In fact, it's super-far from perfect. And the problems it faces are not easy to solve. But if we turn seats over to extremists with agendas, we'll have a lot bigger issues to be pissed about than whether our children get a some goddamned air conditioning in their classrooms. We just might wish for the days when our problems were so basic.

Email Aaryn Belfer. Aaryn blogs at aarynbelfer.com and you can follow her on Twitter @aarynb.


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