School & District Management

San Diego Reforms’ Future Depends on Board

By Jeff Archer — December 07, 2004 3 min read
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As a new school board takes office in San Diego early this week, local and national observers are eyeing the transition to see what’s in store for Superintendent Alan D. Bersin and the district’s closely watched strategies for school improvement.

An election there last month erased the 3-2 majority supporting Mr. Bersin that has persisted on the five-person board since he was hired in 1998. In its place is a new majority that is critical of his leadership, but not yet in full agreement on how to proceed.

Mitz Lee, a new board member and parent activist, said during her campaign that she would propose buying out the superintendent’s contract, which expires in July 2006. The other two new members, Shelia Jackson, a former teacher, and Luis Acle, a former substitute teacher, said they wanted to give Mr. Bersin a chance to make what they see as needed course corrections.

“I think anybody who claims to know precisely how this will unfold is speaking out of turn,” said Frederick M. Hess, an education expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington who has led a major research project on the district’s efforts under Mr. Bersin. (“Review Probes Successes, Challenges of San Diego Reforms,” Oct. 6, 2004.)

A former U.S. attorney in San Diego with no prior work experience in K-12 education, Mr. Bersin has waged an aggressive campaign to improve instruction throughout the 140,000-student system. Teachers and principals have received heavy doses of training in specific teaching methods, and schools have been required to spend more time on basic skills.

Those initiatives, which remain largely intact after six years, have made San Diego one of the most-studied urban districts in the country. But Mr. Bersin also has earned the wrath of critics, who say his top-down approach has demoralized educators and failed to raise student achievement enough.

Mr. Bersin’s biggest detractor is the San Diego Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. In previous board races, the teachers’ union promoted candidates who attacked the superintendent, while pro-Bersin candidates were backed by business leaders. Nonetheless, the 3-2 split on the board continued unchanged.

More Independence?

The fault lines were less clear in this year’s race, in which two of the superintendent’s most ardent supporters did not run for re-election. Ms. Jackson won against an opponent who was supported by both the union and by business groups.

“People want this board to be independent,” said board member Katherine Nakamura, who was not up for re-election and is considered a Bersin supporter. “They’re tired of it being beholden to either the business community or the teachers’ union.”

Ms. Jackson said a quick exit for Mr. Bersin might be a mistake. While praising the superintendent’s emphasis on staff training in recent years, however, she said he must give educators a greater say in how they teach.

“I think the superintendent is a very intelligent man, and he fully understands what the public just said,” said Ms. Jackson, who served as a U.S. Navy medical corpsman before becoming a teacher in San Diego eight years ago. “I am sure that he knows what he needs to do, and he can choose to do so, or he can choose to let the board do it.”

Mr. Bersin said he doesn’t expect to leave soon, though he recently surfaced as a candidate to head the Motion Picture Association of America—a position he did not get. After meeting with the new board for the first time as a group at an orientation session last week, he said in an interview that he was optimistic the board would be less polarized than in the past.

“I think the new school board has made it clear that it does not want any dramatic departure or abrupt changes,” Mr. Bersin said. “And I’m very eager to continue working with them.”

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