A Two-Tiered Education System

‘Surge of Charter Schools Coming to Silicon Valley, whether districts like it or not,’ was the title of the April 8, 2009 editorial in the San Jose Mercury News. Are we preparing ourselves for the aftermath of the destruction the surge wave can cause our public school system?

Last month the Santa Clara County Board of Education on a 5-2 vote (Di Salvo and Song dissented) approved three Magnolia Charter Schools, emphasizing math, science, and technology, that will take up to 1,800 students away from their sister public schools in the next 2-3 years. Good chance that the students who will enroll for a lottery pick for Magnolia will be some of the best and brightest.

A brain drain from public schools is not a good thing for our democracy, nor was it the intent of the original charter school legislation. This brain drain is analogous to a crack in the dike wall during a tsunami surge.

Using a per-student allocation of $7,500 for Magnolia, the total amount of public dollars taken from their sister public school districts, when all three Magnolia Charters are opened, equates to $13.5 million. In addition, these schools will be competing with the public middle and high schools for math and science teachers that are already in short supply in Silicon Valley.

Yet, the dollar and brain drain is perilous for those students who remain in the non-charter public schools.  Another crack in the wall…

Reed Hastings (NetFlix CEO), speaking at a Rotary luncheon on April 15, told Rotarians that the typical private school’s tuition in our valley is near $15,000, which should give members of the audience, he said, an idea on how much it really costs to educate, with quality, one child in Silicon Valley.  No, I am not asking for more money, rather I am asking for a critical conversation with key government and education leaders on how we can be serious and strategic about eliminating the achievement gap, increasing graduation rates, moving 95 percent of all students to grade level or above grade level performance when we are creating before our very eyes a two-tiered system of publicly funded education.

I must admit I am chagrined at the districts that do not come to our County Board meeting to tell us why they are not authorizing the charters themselves. Although in the case of Magnolia they came directly to the County first, yet hearing from the districts would have been helpful in our deliberative process. Actually, East Side High School District had a few high level representatives in attendance.

Perhaps issues we need to put on the table for discussion include tenure laws, pay for performance options in the public school sector, longer school days and year, just to name a few.  Actually Rocketship Mateo Sheedy Charter in San Jose Unified offers significant performance pay incentives and a 10 hour instructional day for their students.

Public schools must learn from successful charters like Rocketship, yet there is no mechanism yet for sharing the success stories. Why, I ask?

Does anyone out there want to join this essential conversation? The surge wave is a few hundred miles away from our shore, but its approaching with catastrophic potential and there is nothing that can get in its way to to slow it down.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. Joseph,

    Being politically correct will get us nowhere.  C’mon, face it – filling our schools with students who can’t speak a word of English is the cause of the demise of public education in California.

    Dancing around this issue, as we have for so many years, will only perpetuate the flight towards charter and private schools.

  2. Mr. DiSalvo,

    We already have a two tiered education system in this valley.  Take a look at the per pupil spending in Palo Alto versus Gilroy. 

    Parents who care about their childrens’ future will try to find the best education available.  You need to answer the question of why the “best and the brightest” would consider a charter school.  Are they not challenged in our public schools?

  3. Mr. DiSalvo predicts there is a: “Good chance that the students who will enroll for a lottery pick for Magnolia will be some of the best and brightest.” From this we can assume one of two things: either the parents of the “best and brightest” have better luck in lotteries, or they are more likely to recognize, and take advantage, of opportunities that pay off in the long term. The former we know cannot be true according to the rules of chance (as well as what we’ve seen from the California State Lottery), so the answer must be the latter. But what does it mean? What is this ability to recognize and seize long term opportunities? It’s intelligence, of course, of the innate or learned variety. So, what does that say about the parents unlikely to recognize and take advantage of the charter school lottery? It says that they weren’t born very smart or haven’t learned much about what it takes to succeed in this society.

    I ask you, what are the odds that the offspring of such parents were born smart or are gifted learners? I say slim to none, something I have no doubt Mr. DiSalvo will dispute, but something that his own words (“a brain drain”) speak to directly. How is it that the same person who embraces the unreachable goal of elevating “95 percent of all students to grade level or above grade level performance” can believe in any such thing as “a brain drain,” or be convinced that the loss of the best students will spell doom to those who remain in the public school system? The evidence is clear: Mr DiSalvo knows full well that the achievement gap is, in reality, a talent gap, one that cannot be circumvented by education and one that cannot be made palatable to a politically-correct and confused public.

    The real question before us is this: In their quest to deny Nature and “eliminate the achievement gap,” how far will our professional educators go in the only real direction available to them, the one that undermines the education of the best and brightest? Subjecting the education of the best and the brightest to a lottery draw? To chance? Who does that? Is that the way law or medical schools determine acceptance? Does Lawrence Livermore use a lottery to select physicists?

    Show me one damn school that uses a lottery to select its starting quarterback and I’ll shut the hell up. A school system that demands no holds barred competition in the selection of its athletes but relies on chance for educating its best students is a school system that has lost its way and deserves to be put out of its misery.

    For anyone interested in understanding the truly miserable state of our public school system and the professionals running it, I suggest reading, “Real Education,” by Charles Murray.

  4. Brain drain?  So be it.

    The best and the brightest do not exist solely for the purpose of helping out the public schools.

    They are people.  They go to school for *THEIR* education, not to improve the averages.

    Until Mr. DiSalvo can tell me what he’s done to improve educational opportunities for bright kids, please don’t tell me that the best students should stay in public schools which ignore their needs.

  5. There is fascinating reading in the last few chapters of Gladwell’s best seller “Outliers”.  I recommend it. We can and must do better in public education. A 180 school year for 5-6 hours per day is not enough time for most students that are behind to reach grade level performance.

    Increasing teacher quality is key to improving student performance… one way to attract and retain quality teachers is to pay for their performance on the results.  Not meaning only fill in the bubble test scores, but rather achievement based on real world performance on real world tasks.

    By learning from successful public and charter-public schools we can build the P-12 system second to none, putting California back on top.

  6. Mr. DiSalvo tells us that public schools are good for democracy. Then he turns around and lambasts the fundamental element of democracy—people *choosing* freely between options—as unacceptable. Huh?  People jump over all the obstacles to create and attend charter schools—or end up paying twice to send their kids to private schools—mostly because they think their kids will get a better education. If Mr. DiSalvo wants to keep ‘em in the public schools, he should make the public schools more attractive and better, not make then harder to leave. Tip for Mr. DiSalvo: if you want to stop the brain drain, how about trying to implement the programs and approaches from your competition that your customers find so attractive.

  7. Joe,

    What are you doing to address the needs of bright kids? 

    I don’t need phrases like “second to none” and “back on top”.  They are not particularly illustrative.

    I want to know what, if anything, you are doing to improve education for bright kids.

    If the answer is nothing, don’t be surprised that their parents avoid your schools.

  8. #5 Good luck.  Many public schools have operated on “the ship convoy model”  for decades—proceed at the rate of the slowest ship/student.  The bright kids—most of whom will grow up, get jobs, and pay the taxes that support the dropouts, teen Moms, stoners, MediCal and welfare recipients—many times get left in the lurch.  Another generation of “victims” gets more attention than those who follow the rules and try to do the best job they can.

    And people wonder why the new slogan for many parents in regard to many public schools is Sal si puedes!

  9. Mr Di Salvo writes: “We can and must do better in public education. A 180 school year for 5-6 hours per day is not enough time for most students that are behind to reach grade level performance.”

    Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that “grade level” is, by definition, a measure of academic achievement (based on agreed upon averages), and the assumption built into such a measure is that some students will exceed the standard, some will meet it, and others will fall behind. Where, in relation to grade level, a particular student falls has always been largely the result of his/her learning ability (intelligence plus effort). But in reading Mr Di Salvo it appears the responsibility for students falling behind grade level expectations will be transfered from the student to the school system, thus creating a situation in which the farther behind a student falls, the harder the school district will pledge to work.

    Under such a backward system, the underperforming student’s learning ability becomes a measure of the school system, not his/her intelligence and effort. This is exactly what education professionals want: an approach that not only justifies never ending budget increases, but one that also deflects the public’s gaze from the abject failure of four decades of egalitarianism (the denial of difference).

    This is not about helping students: sparing the dull and disinterested from the sting of measure during their school years will not protect them from its harsh realities in adulthood. Better that they maximize their own efforts (after school study and summer school) and come to grips with their limits. Any disproportionate effort to elevate the mediocre is all but sure to negatively impact the average and the gifted, two groups that have suffered enough. This latest scheme will help students to the same degree that lowering grade level standards has: not at all.

    How long before community college bookstores begin stocking picture books?

  10. First, let’s be clear – charter schools are public schools. They can be chartered by local districts, the County, or even other organizations, like universities. Describing charter schools as taking funding from districts or stealing teachers is disingenuous since charter schools and existing districts are both public schools. They are both supported by our taxes and they are both equally open to all interested students.

    Perhaps it’s time to take a broader view and reassess the concept of what defines a school district. What exactly are school districts who oppose charters fighting to maintain and why can’t charter schools, also public schools, be effectively integrated into a revised structural system?  Why is one district in the County small while the next is relatively large? Why does one district have somewhat logical boundaries while the next can sprawl across many miles and cross City boundaries and widely divergent socio-economic populations? The point is that charter schools may be the catalyst to force reexamination of something that is often consider a given – the definition of a public school district.

    Second, administrators and school board members need to stop thinking of charter schools vs. existing schools as a “two tiered” system and more like an opportunity to provide choices for their customers – the parents and students. Recognize the demand for school choice options, and work with charter schools to move forward collaboratively. Continuing to perpetuate the notion of a “two tiered” system is not helping anyone and sounds like an argument for maintaining the status-quo.

  11. I know all the purveyors of the victimization mantra out there who decry every minority failure as caused by middle aged white guys will vilify finfan for his remarks @ 12; but he GETS IT, and he expresses it cogently.

    The school system Mr. DiSalvo advocates punishes the average, and punishes the gifted even more so, by concentrating the efforts and dollars on those whose chances of academic success as a group(for whatever reason, which really is unimportant) are slim and none.  It rewards failure and stifles success.  Well, that’s also true of the teacher’s unions, but that’s the subject of another rant.

    Let’s see.  We have one very large group of people who come here and don’t speak our language, they work hard, but after 30 years here they often still haven’t learned our language to any significant extent, and some barely at all.  Not surprisingly, many of their kids do poorly in school, they have a disproportionate drop out rate and a disproportionate teen pregnancy rate, when compared to the general population.

    We have another group, who crossed a big ocean in flight to come here, who didn’t know our language, who work hard, who did learn our language.  Their kids do very well in school, for the most part. 

    We have yet another group that’s been here for four hundred years, has known our language for at least 375 of those years, some work hard, but many have been on the dole for generations.  Some do well in school, others don’t.  They make up a disproportionate percentage of the prison population and the population that lives in “the projects”, as compared to the general population.

    Whose fault is that disparity?  They all have one thing in common—they ALL have been unjustly discriminated against due to their ethnicity.  Yet, the group that came here en masse most recently has done much better than the other two groups.  Why do you suppose that is?

  12. The real brain drain will be the teachers who move from public schools to teach there. They will not be chosen ‘by lottery’ but by interview process, and they will probably be the best and brightest.

  13. Fin Fan wrote:

    “Any disproportionate effort to elevate the mediocre is all but sure to negatively impact the average and the gifted,”

    That’s only true if the same person is asked to serve all three groups.  One teacher can’t put 50% of their effort toward remediation and 50% toward the middle and 50% toward the top.

    If different teachers teach each group, it’s not a big problem.  The remedial teacher *can* put 100% of his effort toward remediation without negatively impacting the education of other groups.

    To be fair, and to be effective, you have to reassess the tracks every 6 to 12 months.  It makes no sense to put someone in a 5th grade class based on their 1st grade performance. 

    But it also makes no sense to put someone in a 5th grade class with total disregard for their performance in any year.

  14. Kathleen #14 wrote:” think the reality of the situation you are writing about is more about politics and money, not education, the kids, and intelligence.”

    So true, K.  Schools are funded based on average daily attendance.  The kids who want to learn are guaranteed to attend.  So, there is an incetive to work hard to keep the slackers attending so the $$ keeps flowing.

  15. Joseph,
    I have several friends whose teenagers are angry because they get bored in class, and get angry because teachers spend more time with students who have difficulty with the English language, and work with the, shall we say, less motivated students than with them. Another complaint I hear is that troublemakers get more of the teacher’s attention than kids who actually want to learn.

    When I was in school, I had teachers who made me want to learn, challenged my mind, and actually expected something great from me. They encouraged me to work harder and do better. My parents did too. So what is all this about brain drain? If good students want to leave crappy schools, then they should be allowed to. That Joseph is what “democracy” is all about!

    I think the reality of the situation you are writing about is more about politics and money, not education, the kids, and intelligence.

  16. Where is Mr. DiSalvo in all this? 

    He invites us to “join this essential conversation”, and then bails when people start bringing up their concerns.

  17. Di Salvo here…actually I agree with some of what has been said in the stream above.  First, I believe the Gifted and Talented student is underserved by the traditional pedagogy whereby the teacher teaches to the middle, and many times neglects to differentiate a lesson for the gifted students among the others.

    Teacher pre-service institutions must do a better job in equipping teachers with the pedagogical skills necessary to differentiate lessons. This subject should be part of the essential conversation I was hoping to generate with the contents of my column.

    The public school system’s funding is archaic. Palo Alto Unified spends nearly double what Gilroy Unified can spend per student. Why do the wealthiest communities get the most money to spend? Why do we still have Basic Aid funded districts?

    I also agree with competition for the public school system, if it is on an equal playing field. My concern solely rest with a Charter system that is able to be more exclusive, not take its fair share of special education students, not have to deal with union contracts, can be smaller, can pay for performance, have a longer school day, not have to abide by stiffling education code regulations and so on and so forth.

    What I am asking for is a conversation about how the public schools can learn from what successful charter schools are doing as in the Rocketship Mateo Sheedy example I used in my column. I supported South Bay Prep’s project based charter application to the County Board in a column I wrote for the Silicon Valley Community Newspapers. I know the public school system can learn from a successful project based charter.

    I think if we attempted to put all the facts on the table we can have an intelligent discussion, without hostility, about how Santa Clara County could work toward a vision of public education, including charters, where all students are served at the highest of levels and teachers who are the best at what they do make a salary of $150,000 per a 210 or 220 day working year.

    I also agree with you who have written about a system with too many districts, big and small, that have too many redundant services. I think the system can be leaner in many respects.

    Many of you who have written a response accuse me of many things, yet I fervently believe we agree on the essentials. I am glad you have joined the conversation.

    I think we need to continue the dialogue with all stakeholders, leaders, and interested citizens.  We also should include student voices whenever possible in the discussion, for they might have some answers or perspectives that are new and different than ours.

  18. Mr Di Salvo opined:“Teacher pre-service institutions must do a better job in equipping teachers with the pedagogical skills necessary to differentiate lessons.”

    “Teacher pre-service institutions”??? Who makes up these ridiculous bureaucratic phrases?  Do you mean colleges, Joe?

  19. The Magnolia schools are Gulen schools.

    From the STRATFOR Global Intelligence report “Islam, Secularism and the Battle for Turkey’s Future” (August 23, 2010): http://www.brighteningglance.org/on-turkey.html

    1. “…the movement runs more than 90 charter public schools in at least 20 [U.S.] states.” (p. 7) [my emphasis]
    2. The schools import Gulenist teachers to work at their schools who “live far away from home in foreign lands for what thy see as the greater mission of the Gulenist cause.” (p. 7)
    3. “The curriculum at these schools includes math, science, and Turkish-and English-language instruction, but there is a deeper agenda involved than pedagogy.” (p. 7)

    The Gulen Movement works secretively, that’s why so few Americans have heard about it. SCHOOL BOARD MEMBERS MUST INFORM THEMSELVES ABOUT THE GULEN MOVEMENT AND REFUSE TO AUTHORIZE ANY MORE OF THESE SCHOOLS!!!


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