College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Will San Diego’s Public Schools Survive?

By Diane Ravitch — November 01, 2011 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Dear Deborah,

As I travel the country, I am frequently asked to identify an urban district where public education is working. My first impulse is to say that public schools everywhere have been hemmed in and harmed by the mandates of No Child Left Behind; one has to look far and wide for an urban district that has managed to sustain a vision of good education, untainted by the federal law’s pressure to produce higher test scores every year.

But then I remember San Diego. When I first visited there in early 2007, I found a district recovering from a contentious era of top-down reform that started in 1998, when the business community won control of the school board. For nearly seven years, from 1998 to 2005, the school board was bitterly divided, the district leadership was at war with the teachers’ union, and the fate of the district hinged on the school board election every two years. I devoted a chapter to that era in my recent book, because many other districts experienced similar upheavals.

It was a different story when I returned to San Diego in 2010. The leadership of the district—both the school board and the superintendent—was working harmoniously with the teachers’ union. All had coalesced around an approach they called “community-based school reform,” where the central themes were collaboration and mutual respect. Instead of behaving as adversaries, the leaders, teachers, and parents joined to decide what should happen to improve education in every community.

Adhering to this model, the district leadership refused to apply for Race to the Top funding. It rejected the U.S. Department of Education’s demands for competition and accountability, preferring to implement its own community-based, collaborative vision of school reform.

The district is now led by a dynamic school board chairman, Richard Barrera, and a low-key superintendent, Bill Kowba. Barrera has a background as a community organizer in the labor movement, and Kowba is a retired rear admiral with 30 years in the Navy and administrative experience in the San Diego public schools. Together, they are passionate and effective advocates for the San Diego public schools.

The San Diego plan is working, as judged by the only metrics that matter these days: test scores and graduation rates. Superintendent Kowba recently reported the following:

The 2011 CST [California Standards Test] scores represent a solid accomplishment for our principals, teachers, support staff, parents, and most importantly our students. These results show that San Diego Unified is the highest-achieving urban district among California's large urban districts in English Language Arts. Since 2007, student CST achievement levels have increased by more than 20 percent in English, Math and Social Studies and have more than doubled in Science."

In addition, the graduation rate for the district is 74.9 percent, second among urban districts in the state only to San Francisco and impressive compared with urban districts across the nation.

Sadly, all of this steady progress is grinding to a halt because of California’s budget crisis. The state legislature has slashed $15 billion in funding from California’s public schools in the past four years. San Diego alone has lost $450 million since 2007-2008 and has had to lay off teachers and other staff, increase class size, and eliminate programs for children. San Diego may be forced to declare bankruptcy, along with many other districts. Critics carp that the school leaders are unwilling to make cuts to balance the budget, but there comes a time when there is not enough money to provide a sound, basic education. School leaders are now asked to cut bone, not fat.

Please watch Richard Barrera here where he explains that the legislature is sacrificing the education of California’s children while refusing to impose taxes on the booming oil industry or the alcohol industry. Barrera points out that Congress bailed out the banks because they were “too big to fail.” He says that it is time to save public education, because it is “too important to fail.”

So here is a large urban district that has excellent leadership, dedicated teachers, and a vision that works for its children. Yet the district may soon be in bankruptcy due to the negligence and indifference of the state legislature.

We often hear from the “reform movement” about why we must prepare for the future, prepare for globalization, prepare to compete, etc., yet I hear nothing from reformers about the fiscal crisis that is devastating our public schools. Why the silence?


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.