Things Are Getting Worse

It’s incredible—I have been writing this weekly column for SJI for two years this week. I went back to my first-ever post after my election to the County School Board on Nov. 4, 2008. Here’s my lead: “ California spends a lot of money on education—more than $65 billion from all funding sources in 2007-08 for K-12 education. Yet nearly 40 percent of Latino and African-American youth drop out of school prior to high school graduation… How disdainful is this in the land of the wealthiest and most educated people on the planet?”

I wrote that while attending the December 2008 California School Boards Association conference in San Diego. Perhaps I underestimated our communal stupidity.

Last Thursday and Friday I attended the CSBA’s 2010 annual conference, this time in San Francisco. Tragically, I continue to be affronted by the facts that public funding for education is pathetically low. Termed-out Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell told the first plenary session that we are experiencing the largest disinvestment in public education in our history. In the coming budget K-12 education will receive $21 billion less than anticipated three years ago. But yet corporate profits are the highest in history, and the richest among us are becoming richer. What are we doing here?

In the Merc on Monday, Sharon Noguchi , in an article about how bad school funding will get in 2011-12, quotes David Plank, a professor of education at Stanford University: “Schools will become more and more like prisons and less and less like schools.” Is this really the best California can do?  We already have nearly the lowest funding per pupil, teachers per student, counselors per student, administrators per student, and nurses per student in the entire nation. Apparently not enough of us get it, for if we did we would be demonstrating in the streets.

I want my grandchildren (none yet, my son is 28 and yet to be married) to have the best teachers and to attend schools rich in the arts, music, service learning. I would want their classrooms to have the latest technology and be about critical thinking and problem solving. I would hope they could take world languages like Mandarin, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Italian and Arabic beginning in elementary school.

I get pummeled by those who are active posters on this site for my progressive and liberal views about education and its’ funding. Friends of mine implore me to stop taking the abuse and cease writing this column. I guess I have a hard head since I have lasted two years.

My debut column said that I wanted this blog-post to begin a critical dialogue about educational topics that affect the quality of our lives in Silicon Valley: “From my lens there is no more important issue than public education and equity for all children within its reaches.” The 600 pages of SJI’s chronicled columns and their posts from readers show a vast majority of posters as being unconcerned about this outrageous disinvestment in our most valuable resources: our children.

I have taken up issues like reforming tenure, seniority practices, pay for performance, charter schools and a myriad of issues that alienate my most teacher-union-friendly colleagues. However, I am haunted by those of you who take the time to respond (and I thank you for responding). I just wish my friends and colleagues would respond, too, so that we can legitimately have a more balanced dialogue on how to solve the vexing problem that affects our collective future. I am constantly branded here as an out-of-touch progressive/liberal.

I think we would all agree that what is best for children is best for us. Can’t we clearly see that in the education story we are writing today the children are losing big time?

In a recent Huffington Post article detailing a debate Times columnist David Brooks had with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) last week, Brooks is quoted as saying: “My problem with the Republican Party right now is that if you offered them 80-20, they would say no. If you offered them 90-10, they’d say no. If you offered them 99-1 they’d say no. And that’s because we’ve substituted governance for brokerism, for rigidity that Ronald Regan didn’t have…They [Democrats] want to have—if you read what they’ve written for the past 20 years—a more actively planned society which does a little more redistribution.”

Sen. Al Franken in a floor speech on Friday, when the Senate was debating the extension of the Bush tax cuts, said “You know, I’m Jewish. So I don’t know the New Testament all that well. But I know Matthew: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of my brethren, you did for me.’…Where are our values? What are we doing here?”

I think it is high time that both sides of the political aisle in Sacramento give the newly elected Governor the financial tools he will need to increase funding for K-12 education tied to increased accountability of results. The redistribution, as Brooks calls it, is essential for us to heal and build once again as a state and nation.

One of the NY Times front page stories Monday made me scream with rage. It told a story about the top five Wall Street firms that have put aside $90 billion for total pay this year, including hundreds of bonuses to top executives worth tens of millions of dollars, making this one of their best years for compensation ever. What are we doing here?

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. “California spends a lot of money on education—more than $65 billion from all funding sources in 2007-08 for K-12 education. Yet nearly 40 percent of Latino and African-American youth drop out of school prior to high school graduation… How disdainful is this in the land of the wealthiest and most educated people on the planet?”

    So, after 2 years, and countless words posted on SJI, you still have not learned that you can’t always solve a problem by throwing money at it?

  2. > I think it is high time that both sides of the political aisle in Sacramento give the newly elected Governor the financial tools he will need to increase funding for K-12 education tied to increased accountability of results. The redistribution, as Brooks calls it, is essential for us to heal and build once again as a state and nation.

    You want accountability of results?

    You want redistribution of power?

    Then support school vouchers.

    The perpetual mantra of “progressive educators” is “we need more funding” and the reason we are NOT delivering better results is because YOU CHEAP PEOPLE DIDN’T GIVE US ENOUGH MONEY!

    This is the polar opposite of “accountability”; this is bureaucratic excuse making and blame shifting.

    The REALITY of the economic world is that resources are limited.  The art of management is achieving maximum results from the AVAILABLE RESOURCES. 

    It is probably ALWAYS true that with minimally competent management, MORE RESOURCES produces increased results.  But you are paid to produce results with the resources provided.

    So, if you are going to come into my office and tell me you failed because I didn’t give you enough resources, my answer to you is YOU FAILED because you didn’t achieve the best results with the resources available.

    In spite of all the blather about “inclusiveness” and “parental involvement”, the “progressive education model” is a hierarchical system that concentrates power in a bureacratic elite.  If the decisions on where children are educated, who their teachers are, what the curriculum is, is reserved to the bureacracy, parents have no involvement, NO POWER, and no accountability.

    Giving education vouchers to parents EMPOWERS parents and makes them ACCOUNTABLE for education outcomes.

    Conversely, it disempowers the bureacratic elites, takes $300 million away from the County Office of Education, forces the COE’s 1800 employees to find honest work, AND IMPROVES EDUCATION OUTCOMES for the the actual consumers of education, the children.

    I suspect that the reason that Joe’s friends don’t rush to his defense and support his progessive education ideas is because the verdict is in and everyone already knows that the “progessive model” is a dead end and a failure.

    “Progressive education” is full employment for education bureaucrats; education of actual children —to the extent that it occurs—is an accidental consquence.

    • In a stunning recognition of reality by a Democrat, Mayor Villaraigosa of LA announced yesterday that the primary problem with education in CA is (drumroll, please) THE TEACHERS’ UNIONS!

  3. Keep up the good fight! Now that the Democrats control the Governor’s office and both houses of the legislature, your troubles should soon be over. Good luck! My prediction is that things will get worse, not better. I hope that I am wrong!

  4. Why should public who is struggling under high taxes ( #6 in US ) high food, housing, future retirement and other high costs give any more money to failed California public education?

    California’s allocated 55% of property taxes to education and much was wasted and schools have not on reformed tenure, seniority practices, pay for performance, and a myriad of issues that public wants but alienate teacher-unions who are supposed to work for public , students but seem to be mostly working for themselves

    San Jose has 19 school districts instead of 5 – 6 medium sized ( not large unmanageable ) unified districts with much wasted money for overlapping Boards, facilities and non classroom administrators

    Those of us who have grandchildren or will in future have already made decision to send them to private schools, charter schools or better public schools not failing public schools

    The time is past for more state school funding with billions state and local budget deficits, excessive government employee pensions, overcrowded prisons and Legislature that public doesn’t trust while continuing to drive California toward bankruptcy and businesses out of state

    Why throw good needed money after bad when schools are badly broken and there is not political will or any hope of meaningful change anytime soon with only solution more taxes which public will not support ?

  5. Nice spin Joe.

    Education funding is based on tax revenues.
    Tax revenues are based on Cali’s economic health.

    You should ask your fellow travelers in Sacramento to remove their taxation/regulatory jackboots from the throat of California businesses. 

    You might be pleasantly surprised at what happens to education funding.

  6. Joseph,

    I submit that the money<>graduation paridigm is simply non-existent.  Until and unless parents become interested and involved in their childrens’ lives, NO progress will be made.

    • > Until and unless parents become interested and involved in their childrens’ lives, NO progress will be made.

      If the education bureacracy decides which school a child goes to, what the curriculum is, and who the teachers are, what meaningful decisions are left to the parents?

      I know! Parents get to vote for teacher’s union candidate A or teacher’s union candidate B for school board.

      • Teachable,

        You may well be part of the problem.  How about parents taking responsibility for their children in terms of studying, doing homework, staying away from the losers, etc.?  Many parents simply don’t care a whit about their kids, ergo, the high dropout rates.

  7. Change is happening.  According to the WSJ, this morning 260 parents pulled the “parent trigger” in a bid to transform a failing school in southern California.

    Under a California law enacted in early 2010, 51% of parents of children at schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress (“AYP”) for four years in a row may petition to shut the school down, shake up its administration, or invite a charter school to take over.

    We have a middle school in Berryessa now on its third year of failure to make AYP.  One more year, and those parents will have an opportunity to take matters into their own hands.

  8. Joe, I fully agree that we are shortchanging our children.  That $65 billion from 4 years ago is down more than $10 billion.  That is unacceptable.  California now has the highest ratio of administrators, counselors, and librarians per student of any state in the nation.  I can’t imagine why people believe that school performance can be optimum under those conditions.

    Having said that, California schools are making amazing progress despite the funding handicap.  It is good once in a while to take pride in what our public school teachers and students are achieving. The LA Times article below points out that our schools aren’t as bad as the common wisdom suggests, and they were never as good as we nostalgically remember them.,0,4748196.column

  9. Ok Joe. I’ve got a couple of friends who are involved in the education system in one way or the other and they are really committed to providing the best education possible for their students. I asked them how they would go about reforming the education system and they gave me the following ideas (among others):

    1. Eliminate tenure.
    2. Have the state fund each individual school directly based on attendance with the amount funded per student increasing as each student progresses from K-12.
    3. Eliminate every mid-level organization between the state and the individual schools
    4. Establish a bonus system for rewarding teachers who either improve class performance or maintain it at a high level.
    5. Make it easier to put low-performing teachers on performance-improvement plans or to fire them when they fail to improve.
    6. Find a way to incentivize parental involvment
    7. Establish year-round instruction with, at most, a month-long break between sessions.

    Sadly, both of my friends agree that there’s virtually no chance of instituting any of these changes.

  10. 1) David – What is source for your statement ?

    ” California now has the highest ratio of administrators, counselors, and librarians per student of any state in the nation. “

    Anon1 – “how they would go about reforming the education system ” – “Eliminate every mid-level organization between the state and the individual schools “

    2) Does anyone know the number of California administrators and number of ” mid-level organizatio” that could be eliminated ?

    3) Why can school libraries and city / county libraries be merged or share facilities like MLK Library in San Jose ?

    Califoria Legislature, school districts and Teachers union has created our school problems and ” both of my friends agree that there’s virtually no chance of instituting any of these changes. ” 

    4) Where are voters going to help solve school problems ?

    • The entire county office of education could be eliminated as could every district superintendent’s office, just for starters. My friend, who’s an assistant principal has said that their main function is distributing money that comes from the state to individual schools. If money was distributed from the state directly to each school, the principles and assistant principles could handle the rest while taking on very little additional work load. So, while I can’t give you specific numbers right off, apparently around 1800 could be eliminated just out of the COE.

      • Those who believe that each school could manage without district level administration don’t really understand the amount of work that goes into running a school district (or any business). 

        There is an accounting department to keep the books, pay the taxes, manage purchasing, provide school lunches, handle transportation, etc.  A personnel department does recruiting, hiring, benefits, etc.  And there is more to running a school than receiving money.  There is professional development, standards, curriculum, etc.  The measures that everyone uses to judge the quality of schools need to be understood, tracked, and reported.  It would be way too much for a principal to manage, along with day to day activities at a school.  Of course, your friend is lucky.  Many districts have eliminated assistant principals.

        The functions of the county office of education, such running alternative schools, providing special ed services, providing financing and loans to districts, and making sure that district budgets meet certain standards, would have to be provided locally by each district if they weren’t provided centrally.  While there are likely to be some redundancies, the idea that California could cut 20% of their education budget simply by streamlining administration further is simply not true. 

        As I pointed out in other comments, California already runs more lean on administration than almost any other state in the nation.

      • The same principle applies to the massive US Department of Education.  That money should be placed into a fund and distributed directly to schools for education.

        As it is, we taxpayers are financing the likes of Arne Duncan, Ruslynn Ali, and hundreds of similar creatures who are completely out of touch with student needs at the local level.

        Sure, some federal oversight & reporting needs to remain, but perhaps at a 2% level of expenditure compared to the huge sums wasted at those levels today.

      • Anon1,

        I welcome an opportunity to show you the important work done by SCCOE including the teaching, caring and feeding of several thousand Early Head Start and Head Start children infants to age 4. We employ hundreds of teachers, aides, food service employees. family income must not exceed $22,000 for a family of 4. We employ teachers for all incarcerated youth in this county and many students on probation and/or expelled from districts in several community schools, Vocational Ed. Programs like ROP and CTE and the list of federally or state mandated services goes on and on, including financial oversight to all 32 districts and all credentials and fingerprinting for every teacher etc. Etc.

        if you are interested in learning more about the real facts please contact me through the SCCOE or SJI.

    • No matter how many times the facts are posted, people will still believe we are over-administered.  It’s just not true.  But the emotional belief is hard to overcome.  Here is a summary of the administration data:

      Note that the numbers are 2 years old, so I imagine they are even worse in California now.  The national average that year was 1 district-level administrator for every 831 students.  In California, the ratio is 1 for every 2,061.  Site level is slightly better, with California at 1/433 versus the national average of 1/312.

      While we are at it, what about academic ratios?  California exceeds the national average in student/teacher ratio by 35 percent.

      It is recommended that there by 1 counselor for every 250 students.  California ranks last in the nation in the number of counselors per student. 2008-2009.pdf

      • What is the definition of an administrator by these statistics cited by David?

        If I am to believe these statistics, I should expect to walk into the Berryessa Unified School District office (BUSD has 8,342 students) and find four people working there based on the 2,061 to 1 ratio.  I’m really doubting that’s the case, given the size of the office building. 

        Meanwhile I had the opportunity last month to visit the Education Office of the fourth largest school district in the county, the San Jose (Catholic) Diocese.  I saw 5 workers in there, including the Supe and her secretary.  Not bad for a school district with 16,500 students!

  11. In regards to Mr. Warner’s comment, I’m watching the situation at Morrill Middle School carefully.  My older kids would have gone there if it had been half decent.  Instead, we have forgone extended family vacations for the next decade while we put our kids through the local parochial school.  My kids get a better education in the faith and in academic subjects, at less spending per pupil than at the local public schools.

    • Mr. DiSalvo should pay VERY CLOSE ATTENTION to what the above poster has written.

      This individual has taken note of what is going on at his local middle school, and has taken action on his own behalf that has lowered his family’s standard of living, but which in turn has given his kids a better shot at success in high school.

      And, to top it off, the local parochial school (St. Victor’s, I presume) is able to do it for less money per pupil.

      So:  Better outcome.  Less money per pupil.  Parents taking an active role in childrens’ education.  Zero administrative bloat.

      Are you getting the message, Mr. DiSalvo?

      • SV Chargers it is!  My only regret was that it took additional circumstances to prompt us to enroll in the school, since we’re at the church every Sunday anyways.  The school is a refreshing change:  parental involvement, real accountability of teachers, high expectations of academic achievement and personal deportment, quality extracurriclar activities, no hiding of our faith and values, and it’s safe. 

        Now we’re watching developments at Piedmont Hill and Independence.  Seems like the attendance border changes from time to time and we’re in an area affected in the past.  Looking forward to my kids going to PH and we plan on being involved parents there, but who knows what will happen.  I know there is a certain amount of “address fraud” in the neighborhood to put kids into PH and avoid Independence.

  12. > The LA Times article below points out that our schools aren’t as bad as the common wisdom suggests, and they were never as good as we nostalgically remember them.


    It’s just the LA Times.  It’s not like it’s true or anything.

  13. Call me a Joe D fan. 

    I agree that the poor, the disadvantaged and the bottom half of the bell curve need to be uplifted.  However I can’t be the one-eye prophet predicting only doom and gloom. 

    On a fine Saturday morning, last month. I had the chance to give workshop of Deontology or Immanuel Kant’s Theory of Rights and Duties, to about 90 highschool students involved with the San Jose Youth Commission.  What impressed me with the students wasn’t the fact that they were involved in the community (which they all are by definition), or because they were all very smart and motivated (many are class officers, honor students and jocks).

    What impressed me with the students was the fact that they heard of Immanuel Kant their high school’s “Theory of Knowledge” class at Oak Grove High.  From someone who believes that philosophy is the highest form of thought, Kudos to the school district.

    I admit that the students I worked with that day were the best and brightest the city had to offer.  I found them full of hope, with a “we must change the world” attitude.  Some were openly worried about the future. What I didn’t see was cynicism, despair or selfishness.  If the “broken” school system can produce kids like this, then it must be doing something right.

    BTW I am sure that the school district(s) could get the SJSU philosophy department send people to help.

  14. Joseph,

    Even in Silicon Valley, only a small number of people regularly read blogs and even fewer write regular posts.  Just on this page one easily notes there are few moms participating.  There are few teachers chiming in.  There are few 20- and 30-somethings and there appear to be no college students.  This lack does not negatively reflect on your desire to deal with “issues like reforming tenure, seniority practices, pay for performance, charter schools and a myriad of issues that alienate (your) most teacher-union-friendly colleagues.”

    You are bringing up good issues.  Community organizing takes more than just good content.  I’ll jump in here more often to participate in the discussion.

    As a Community College Trustee and a dad of two elementary-aged boys, I know today’s working class parents are exhausted by Santa Clara County’s lifestyle.  If one owns property, one is desperately trying to hang onto one’s home.  If one doesn’t own property (nearly 60 percent of county residents), the path towards home ownership is mountainous.  I believe a majority of public school parents in San Jose live constantly on the edge – just a missed paycheck or two away from homelessness.

    So, what does this mean for local public education?  Teachers who make $20,000 or $30,000 a year inspire sympathy.  Teachers who make $40,000 or $50,000 a year inspire some sympathy, but also some shrugs from folks who say “not that bad.”  Teachers who make $60,000 or $70,000 a year have crossed the sympathy line.  Such teachers barely make enough money by themselves to pay a family’s bills, but, guess what… for ten months work a year, including comprehensive benefits, lengthy vacations and a generous holiday and training package, a $70,000 a year teacher has a good gig – compared to what the private sector offers people who do not hold advanced science, math or engineering degrees.  Once one is an $80,000 or $85,000 or $90,000 a year teacher, all financial sympathy is gone from the public.  An $80,000 a year teacher makes more than a full-time San Jose Councilmember.  That teacher takes home way more money than the vast majority of private sector workers.  And, they will have lifetime retirement checks.

    Get to the $100,000 or $120,000 or $140,000 a year mid-level education administrators, and sympathy has long turned to “what the heck” hostility.  Cross to the $160,000 or $180,000 or over $200,000 public education administrator and you’re now talking about someone who definitely is a property owner with a higher end vehicle, has discretionary money to enjoy and patronize the arts, can buy whatever clothes they wish, eat whatever they choose and can count on a lifelong pension to ensure a comfortable lifestyle for the rest of their lives.

    Are those administrators contributing 50 percent more value to the well-being of students than the teachers in the classroom?  No.  Are they contributing twice as much to the well-being of today’s families?  Hardly.  Do they speak multiple languages?  Are they academic whizzes?  Are they inspiring communities and neighborhoods more than classroom teachers to thrive and fight crime and do more homework and soar to the skies?  Are they energetic and zippy and really plugged into anticipating trends and reflecting Silicon Valley can-do-it-ness and keeping up with tomorrow’s go-go-go, fast-fast-fast buzz?  Sometimes, but not frequently enough.

    And, the real problem is too few of these privileged well-compensated administrators express a sincere “attitude of gratitude.”  They want more, more, more compensation from the public agency that employs them – regardless of objective performance.  You rarely find these folks on the ground hanging out in Santa Clara County’s grittier neighborhoods, making regular connections.  They aren’t personally invested in a day-to-day passion to close the achievement gap aggressively with a sincere empathy for the families who are struggling with real life issues.

    To whom much is given, much is expected.  Society has a lot of love for teachers at the lower end of the finance scale and a reasonable acceptance of teachers at the mid-range.  But, we’ve reached a point where many career teachers are in the $80,000 plus range – and can count on a solid pension paycheck for the rest of their lives.  That’s a solid compensation in this society.  And, when one gets to the cozy gooeyness of administrative salaries, well, you’re talking about the modern aristocracy, with plenty of discretionary coin.

    In the 2010 economy of the United States, those folks are rich.  In the 2010 economy of California, that’s top of the food chain.  Yeah, okay, it’s not multi-billion Whitmanesque crazy rich, it’s not hit-the-jackpot-stock-option-rich, but the mere concept of suburban security is rich in this generation of “America.”

    I’m not bashing teachers here.  Not by a long shot.  Many if not most teachers provide excellent service to the children of California. But, I am pointing out the enormous lack of empathy that way too many career education employees feel for the rest of society who have nothing long term on which to rely day-to-day.

    If one goes to college, studies diligently, earns a Bachelor’s Degree, then a teaching credential, then a “non-hard-science” Master’s Degree, that doesn’t mean one is entitled in this society to more than the opportunity to survive month-to-month, year-to-year.  Even a doctorate isn’t a guarantee.  It’s just the doggone way it is as the post-boomer generations inherit the legacy of boomer political decisions.

    Most folks are struggling.  Most folks are striving.  If we keep a blend of empathy and accountability at the center of the discussion, we can make measurable progress to eliminate the achievement gap.  And, we’ll probably have more passionate discussion about tenure, seniority and education issues overall.

    Best to you,
    – Chris

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