An acquaintance of mine, who emigrated from Switzerland several years ago, recently read about the appointment of Rosemary Kamei to theSanta Clara County Office of Education's Board of Trustees. He asked me to help him understand the American system of education and schools, noting that he couldn’t make sense out of our system.
He asked me to explain in a few minutes the structure of school districts, their governance, and the charter/traditional public school competition. I gave it my best shot.
The overly complicated structure of our public education system has been made infinitely more difficult to understand by the burgeoning world of charter schools, which are also publicly funded. I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with Dr. Emmett Carson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. When he arrived from Minneapolis to Silicon Valley in 2006, he had a difficult time figuring out the structure of our public school system for his own children when purchasing a home.
He found it difficult to understand why there were 31 school districts in Santa Clara County, each with their own superintendent, and a total of 169 elected trustees. Dr. Carson convened a community conversation about the issue only to be rebuffed by those current superintendents, trustees and parent stakeholders, who believed the status quo was just fine. The SVCF underwrote a white paper on the subject titled, "How Did We End Up With 54 School Districts in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties?" It is an outstanding treatise on the subject and its local history.
Former SCCOE Trustee Leon Beauchman—Kamei’s predecessor—and I attempted to proactively discuss Civil Grand Jury reports from 2010 and 2011, which recommended a model for school district consolidation. I placed the item on a Board agenda for discussion and action in 2012. At that time, the Board voted unanimously to set aside $30,000 to have School Services of California study the issue. This revenue impact analysis model would allow any district or community group to study the issue further.
However, three years later we have not been able to coordinate the study due to the controversial nature of the topic. The public appears to be satisfied with the current structure. It seems school district consolidation/unification is dead with no revival in sight. But for anyone interested in the subject, the Committee on School District Organization meets regularly at the SCCOE offices. There are a series of laws that regulate the process going forward.
When I served as Board president, then-SCCOE Superintendent Chuck Weis told me that he believed charter schools would be the catalyst for change. Weis said in an interview with a local paper: "Within my lifetime, school districts will be a thing of the past. Parents will decide where to send their kids, rather than school attendance being dictated by families' addresses. Were going to be a consumer driven model."
I’m not sure if we are moving in the direction Dr. Weis suggested.
Silicon Valley prides itself on innovation, but our fragmented system is more akin to a sundial than an Apple Watch. Local leaders should look at the Denver Public Schools’ School Choice System for a path forward.
For the last three years, School Choice has streamlined the application process to traditional district, charter and magnet schools. As a universal enrollment system, School Choice is said to offer Denver's students more equitable access to high-performing schools. With any reform effort, increased student achievement for all must be the goal.
We can and should do better here in Santa Clara County. But right now, our system is geared more for adults than what’s best for the children we educate.