County Board: “Voters are lame”

disalvoRelax. Take a seat.

In today’s episode of “You Gotta be @#$%^& Kidding Me” we hear Member Joe Di Salvo discussing consolidating the 31 Santa Clara County public school districts and expressing his desire to work on a subcommittee organized for this purpose led by Member Leon Beauchman. Here’s a short audio clip from the February 20, 2013 meeting of the Santa Clara County Board of Education. Please listen.

Whether the source is national (Broad Foundation), state (Cal Charters) or local (Reed Hastings), there’s a lot of big time pro-charter money being poured into Santa Clara county to create a crucible for “education reform.” (More hereSometimes the influence of political funding can be shocking, like when elected SCCBOE Members say that democratic local control over public education is broken and voters are powerless to do anything about it.

Maybe I’m a little late arriving to the OMG party. The SCCBOE ‘education reform’ movement has been rolling for probably a decade but I’m just now starting to get a handle on it. It’s not that I never cared, but like most other people, I’m a busy parent contributing a little of my limited time and attention.

For people with big money and a name, securing a heaping portion of someone else’s limited time and attention is easy, especially if the ‘someone else’ is a politician. If said politician is looking to “change the game” in public policy and the right name approaches them bearing heaps of money and a “game changing” idea, that could be very exciting for them. (“Ooh, shiny!”) They’ll probably dedicate real effort to the idea if they believe it’s politically good them, even if it’s bad public policy.

Pardon the trite truism, but can’t special interest money steer a politico off the public policy ‘straight & narrow’? After all, sometimes even wealthy and smart people think and do dumb things. If money persuades a politico to pursue dumb policy ideas then we’re kinda in trouble. Not if, but when this happens, who’s left to do work on behalf of ordinary citizens?

Let’s share a moment of silent gratitude for the genius of Alexander Matthew Poniatoff, founder of Ampex, inventor of audio recording technology. From his pioneering work, today we can enjoy virtually lifelike reproductions of actual conversations in which public policies are deliberated and decided. It’s almost like being there.

Thanks to Poniatoff there’s absolutely no mystery about who’s whispering in the ears of SCCBOE Members like Joe Di Salvo (and supporting PACs for Members like Grace Mah):

“Reed Hastings, another one of those billionaires who is CEO of NetFlix, driving the charter school agenda in Silicon Valley and America, says that—when you hear him speak or you see him write about schools—that the real problem with schools are school boards. That without school boards, schools would be—and the product, student achievement, would be—better off. It’s this changing school boards every two years, changing Superintendents, that leads to a lack of success. Therefore, charter schools have these non-elected school boards that stay on for, could be for a long time, as in the case of a CMO like Rocketship. But he says we have 159 school board members in Santa Clara County. Who do you hold responsible? If the public wants to hold somebody responsible for the results of school districts, how do you do that with 159 elected members? Because the landscape of public education hasn’t changed in 30 or 40 years as far as student achievement and there’s still this huge gap that exists, 30 or 40 points, and it hasn’t budged much. Who do you hold accountable for that?”

“Huh. Did I actually just say that or was I only thinking it?”

There you have it, Di Salvo’s “We must do it for the children” justification for collapsing many districts into fewer, reducing the number of elected trustees and up-ending democratically-controlled public education in Santa Clara County.

  • Elected school boards are the real problem
  • Voters can’t hold elected Trustees accountable
  • Non-elected charter school boards do it better
  • There’s been no gain in student achievement in 30-40 years

How’s that for a “game changer”?!

Gahh, where do I start? I’m getting vertigo just writing this. I haven’t listened to very many of these recordings and I’ve attended even fewer meetings in person. I’m actually a little fearful of what I might hear if I listened to all the recordings and attended all the meetings, but maybe now we can agree that it’s really important that we keep closer tabs on what this board is doing! It particularly pains me to think that this meeting was almost a year ago. What’s been going on since then that we don’t even know about?!

So Di Salvo wants to work on the consolidation subcommittee and thinks he and Leon Beauchman think similarly about the issue. Be very afraid. In any event, since this was back in February, I suppose it’s probably already a done deal, but let’s marvel at Di Salvo’s train (wreck) of thought:

  • Voters can’t be trusted to choose good Trustees or get rid of bad ones
  • Larger school districts are better because they reduce the number of Trustees
  • Non-elected Trustees can be trusted more than elected Trustees

little_jimi_2“Hey Joe, where you going with that idea in your head?”

  • How would voters ever rid themselves of bad non-elected Trustees?
  • No voter has to deal with 159 Trustees, each district has but a handful.
  • Local boards don’t know what communities need but county boards do?
  • Have you seen recent student achievement data for Santa Clara County?

hover-smoot

I definitely encourage you to listen to all these recordings yourself. According to Members Di Salvo & Julia Hover-Smoot, here’s a list of “problems” with democratic public education they think could be “solved” thru district consolidation. (Plus, of course, my thoughts):

1. Too many districts, inefficient use of funds: (@ 01:45 Di Salvo) “I think 31 districts are probably too many in a county our size, and it’s not an efficient use of public funds.”

What is your ‘thinking’ based on, a hunch? We have a real variety of large and small districts, some wealthy, some of modest means, K-8, high school and unified districts. How do we judge them good vs bad and how do we know what’s the right number?

Well, student performance is what matters most, and it turns out we have a little data on that. CA public school students have been taking standardized tests for nearly 15 years and these test scores are how the Dept. of Education tallies success and failure. How are we doing? How do we stack up to the rest of CA? (Remember, every county and district Board is a “local agency” acting under authority and on behalf of the State Board of Education. Their metrics are our metrics.)

It appears that Santa Clara County overall is doing—and has been doing—just fine compared the rest of CA. If there was anything seriously, systemically, wrong with Santa Clara County districts, we probably wouldn’t turn in results like this. To be fair, every district is different and has it’s own strengths and weaknesses, but on the whole, the Santa Clara County public schools appear to be doing just fine. As for the charge of financial inefficiency, at least some of the consolidations recommended by the Civil Grand Jury were completely ill-conceived, as has been discussed previously on these pages.

So much for the criticism that Santa Clara County public schools are failures, and so much for the broad claim that they need consolidation to improve. 

2. No achievement gains in 30-40 years, achievement gap hasn’t budged:              (@ 04:15 Di Salvo) “The landscape of public education hasn’t changed in 30 or 40 years as far as student achievement and there’s still this huge gap that exists, 30 or 40 points, and it hasn’t budged much.”

This is just irresponsible. I don’t know where Di Salvo is getting his information, but based on district scores published by the CA Dept. of Education, this is simply untrue. If he doesn’t, Di Salvo should know this data, since the legitimacy of the whole “reform” agenda depends on it. (To me, this sounds like old alarmist “A Nation At Risk” baloney from 1983, publicized by the Reagan administration but later utterly discredited by the Sandia Report. Look it up.)

As you might imagine, it seems a little weird to share Santa Clara County’s own data with SCCBOE via a blog post like this, but it sorta crushes Di Salvo’s claim. This is only 10 years of achievement gains in district-level scores, but notice that the districts that improved the most tend also to be those with the lowest initial API scores.

These are ‘gains in student achievement,’ this is ‘closing the achievement gap.’

3. Voters can’t hold Trustees accountable, local control doesn’t work:                    (@ 03:49 Di Salvo) “We have 159 school board members in Santa Clara County. Who do you hold responsible? If the public wants to hold somebody responsible for the results of school districts, how do you do that with 159 elected members?” (@04:55 Hover-Smoot) “Governor Brown’s new proposal is to move a lot of state oversight to the local district level to allow the public to vote in or out the people who are doing the job for them, so they have more control over their local districts. It’s fraught with issues, the first of which is the public rarely knows how to hold their school boards accountable. Even when they’re involved they don’t know how to hold them accountable. It’s just another layer of how complicated the educational landscape is becoming.”

This is freakish thinking from democratically elected officials, don’t you think.? (Where do they come up with these crackpot ideas? Oh wait, I think I know…) California’s public school districts have been run by locally elected boards for more than a century, this is not an example of how the educational landscape is becoming more complicated. If anything, the “education reform” movement is what’s new and complicating, thank you very much. Local school board elections are some of the most closely watched of all political races. This is certainly true in Silicon Valley where education is a major cultural focus. Voters know very well how to elect Trustees that will work for their interests and how to get rid of Trustees who don’t. When 4-year school board seats come up every 2 years on a rotating basis, it provides a balance of frequent updates and continuity. (I guess the national debate over term limits went unnoticed by these blokes.)

OK, hypothetically, let’s say there are three adjacent school districts that each have boards of seven elected Trustees. Voters in each district, from time to time, will elect candidates to each of the seven seats. If a community want to hold their board accountable for something, they have only seven Trustees to whip into shape, recall or replace in the next election. Now imagine that the three districts get consolidated into one larger district, also run by a board of seven Trustees. Now it’s a less intimate, less cohesive district, but there’s zero difference from an accountability perspective. There’s still seven Trustees for voters to ‘hold accountable.’ The idea that consolidating districts like this to improve accountability is, well, it’s just kinda crazy.

Maybe because Di Salvo’s re-election to the “Area 4” SCCBOE seat was uncontested in the Nov 2012 election he thinks all school boards are similarly stale and static. HELLOOO… Area 4 voters and districts: Are you paying attention? You couldn’t find ANYBODY to run against Di Salvo? Leon Beauchman also ran uncontested in Nov 2012 for the SCCBOE Area 3 seat. Maybe it’s time voters in Santa Clara County showed  SCCBOE that they know exactly how to hold their elected officials accountable.

4. Elected school boards are a barrier to student achievement: (@ 03:03 Di Salvo) “Reed Hastings, another one of those billionaires who is CEO of NetFlix, driving the charter school agenda in Silicon Valley and America, says that—when you hear him speak or you see him write about schools—that the real problem with schools are school boards. That without school boards, schools would be—and the product, student achievement, would be—better off.”

This may not be Di Salvo’s original thinking, but because he trots it out in an official board meeting, in the context of potential district reorganization no less, now he kinda owns it. To me, it’s utterly ridiculous and sounds like propaganda from a charter schools convention where every keynote features a litany of examples of “how the status quo has it wrong,” and there’s no counterpoint or debate to contest such assertions.

Let’s look at this consolidation idea another way: If I’m in the business of funding PACs to influence school board races, as Rocketship Education board member Reed Hastings is, fewer boards means fewer elections I need to get involved in. What’s good for me isn’t necessarily what’s good for school districts and communities.

That Di Salvo would parrot such ideas and other SCCBOE Members would validate them should be a huge wake-up call for every public school board in Santa Clara County: Get ready, SCCBOE is coming after you. They believe they know better than you and they’re on a mission to disrupt your district. And they have big money backing them.

This is just apologetics: starting from the end point in your argument and working backward. The Members’ basic position is that charters do it better. They highlight differences between true public model and the quasi-private “reform” model, and then simply conclude that the reform model is better. What’s better about an unelected board with control over the expenditure of public tax dollars?

It’s crystal clear—big money pro-charter interests are driving the thinking at SCCBOE and their “reform” agenda is aggressive.

If you’re a citizen of Santa Clara County, here are some questions to consider:

  1. Who’s keeping an eye on the Santa Clara County Board of Education?
  2. Is SCCBOE working for, or against, the interests of your district and community?
  3. How do we keep these “reformers” from causing real damage to public education?

The Santa Clara County Board of Education is no longer a sleepy political backwater, folks. Wake up. With a lot of money and an excruciatingly liberal interpretation of charter law, Santa Clara County Board of Education is on the front lines of the “education reform” movement, and the people on this board today are politically ambitious and moving fast.

SCCBOE meetings are public and recordings of past meetings are online here.

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