San Jose’s 2014 mayoral race will be as crowded as an elevator going down to the parking garage at quitting time. I view this as a good thing, because the issues need to to be discussed in detail more than ever. I am certain there are some announced and unannounced candidates that get “it”—including councilmembers Madison Nguyen and Sam Liccardo.
The “it” is the results we get from our educational institutions. All other issues are either related or pale in comparison. Topics that score political points and attract votes in a race for mayor traditionally include positions on public safety (police and fire), libraries, economic development, affordable housing, roads, permitting processes, arenas and stadiums, water, utilities, trash, street cleaning, public transportation, downtown development, taxes, unions, pensions, etc. If public education gets mentioned in the campaign it is usually perceived as out of bounds or in another institution’s court. “It” gets mentioned far lower on the agenda than it should be.
With the launch of SJ 2020—an initiative to end the achievement gap by 2020—in the City Hall Rotunda in 2010, Mayor Chuck Reed and former county Superintendent Charles Weismchanged the course of campaign issues. On that autumn day the role of mayor became a change agent for better results in public education, albeit incrementally.
Mayor Reed deserves credit and thanks for expanding the role of San Jose’s mayor on this issue. It will be up to his successor to expand on the effort in ways that bring results for schools to the very top of the public agenda. The quality of our education system, birth to career, is inextricably related to public safety, crime, and economic development—issues that always rise to the top of an agenda in a mayor’s race. We cannot wait for the 2018 election for the mayor to get “it,” when “it” is so urgent.
In many of my conversations with community leaders, even with some of the current mayoral candidates, I have argued for a mayor that views the quality of our schools as the No. 1 issue of the times. In a recent email exchange with a board member of the San Jose/Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce, my position that a mayor in San Jose can do a lot to further the results of our schools ran into a disbelieving challenge. One of the replies I received: “But, what can a Mayor do?”
I wrote, “Menino in Boston, Bloomberg in New York, Emmanuel in Chicago are mayors with a strong city mayoral government system and more direct authority over schools. Each one is playing a major role to improve school results. In San Jose, with a weaker city charter and a mayor without any direct linkage in relationship to schools, it is harder for sure.”
But a new mayor can play a strategic role in using the position as a bully pulpit for all children and school results. This person can use data from the city’s 19 school districts—too many in my opinion—and sunshine their achievement data annually in a city education report card. The data can include: graduation rates; percentages of students meeting A-G requirements (UC/CSU minimum standards for admission); proficiency in math, science and English-language arts, broken up by demographic subgroups and gender. The mayor can use his or her positional power to convene community leaders and stakeholders to develop strategic plans for STEM results and students’ mastery of skills in innovation, entrepreneurship, and communication.
With 50 percent of all students in public schools in San Jose scoring below grade level proficiency in math and reading, and a high school dropout rate of 35 percent for Latinos, we have a problem that needs an urgent remedy. Education results are the key economic engine. The new mayor can be that key leader to bring about the urgent change needed. The candidate that demonstrates that they get “it” will have my full support.
Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native.