Respondents to this weekly column sometimes refer to my writings and beliefs as socialistic due to my general support of teacher unions, targeted use of additional money, and progressive education precepts. Is Rush Limbaugh a socialist? Have we all succumbed to the opinion of Jonathan Mahler in his recent New York Times article, “The Deadlocked Debate Over Education Reform,” that “false dichotomies have replaced fruitful conversations?” I truly hope not.
As president of the county board of education, I was facilitating a discussion on priorities for the calendar year. I had tabled this discussion since February due to the lateness of the hour at previous public meetings. Board Priorities was the last item for our discussion on April 6. Each board member thoughtfully presented their one or two priorities for the year. There was considerable agreement and overlap among the members, particularly relative to continuing the strategic planning around continuous improvement for the alternative education program.
After my colleagues presented I went last. I said two of my priorities are being addressed by the reduction of bullying commission and the Office of Education’s good work on alternative education improvement. One additional high priority for me while president is to kick-start a local conversation around Race To The Top reform priorities. Remember, California did not receive $1 of the $4.3 billion federal dollars available due to our lack of key reform indicators for which the feds were looking.
I said during our discussion I would hope to invite to our San Jose office education leaders such as Joel Klein, former Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, MaryEllen Elia, Superintendent of Hillsborough District in Florida, Randi Weingartner, President of the American Federation of Teachers, Michelle Rhee, former Chancellor of the D.C. School System, Dr. Michael Kirst, President of the State Board of Education and Wendy Kopp of Teach For America, as well as other reform leaders to kick start a productive local conversation.
This convening of education leaders and a bold and courageous conversation would take several months in my model with one three- hour presentation and Q & A each month. My expectation would be that the dialogue would lead to new prisms from which to view education reform in Silicon Valley.
Sitting to my left during this discussion was schools Superintendent Dr. Chuck Weis. He debated with me the efficacy of bringing national reform leaders to Silicon Valley. He said at one point that I sounded like Rush Limbaugh.
Weis said he believes that many of the reform topics are public talking points and have little relevance to student achievement. Perhaps that is true. I still think the conversation would be beneficial.
I know the data are scary. Our dropout rate is increasing in this county, the achievement gap is not closing quickly enough, charter schools are growing in number and prestige, and there is a dynamic tension between teacher unions and charters at the expense of the children.
I also know traditional public schools like Anderson Village Elementary in San Jose’s Moreland school district, recognized nationally in April by the National School Boards Association, and Rocketship Mateo Sheedy charter school are ensuring a high-quality education for all children while closing the achievement gap and maintaining high Academic Performance Index (API) scores—Anderson with collective bargaining and Rocketship Mateo Sheedy without collective bargaining.
The reform issues that continue to surface on SJI and in public discourse on public education’s path forward include tenure, seniority, longer school days, performance pay, charter schools, teacher evaluations, No Child Left Behind accountability and teacher pre-service education. My vision was for the Santa Clara Ccounty Office of Education, as a regional leader, to invite teams from each of our 31 districts and charter school organizations to the table to listen and ask relevant questions of the expert invited guests from across the political and education spectrum. The district teams ideally would consist of the district superintendent, board members, teacher union leaders and parent leaders. Teachers must be at the table at the beginning of reform conversations otherwise they will all be efforts in futility.
I am neither a socialist nor Rush Limbaugh. I am life-long educator with a passion to ensure that all children benefit from a rich, quality education. One thing for certain, I want a productive, high-level debate on all education reform issues. As Jonathan Mahler said so much better than I: “The deadlock will eventually be broken, and a ‘winner’ will emerge. Either the education reformers will manage to take control of a critical mass of school districts, or they won’t. Before that happens, perhaps the various narratives and counter-narratives will decalcify and some actual debate will take place.”
I long for the fruitful conversation.