Reading, Writing and Reality?
By Eilene Zimmerman
Hundreds turned out for the ribbon-cutting to mark the opening of Bell Junior High School’s brand-new library in January 2003. The $2 million facility was awe-inspiring for students at this Paradise Hills school, where nearly half are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches.
Here was a school library with 9,000 square feet for books, teaching materials, research guides and computers, as well as four staff members. It has a waterfall and a living room, curtains on the windows and a cappuccino maker. The ribbon-cutting had a Chinese New Year feel to it, with theme decorations and refreshments. Speeches centered around the promise of public education and the importance of libraries.
One year later, Linda Whinnery, the nationally certified library media teacher at Bell, found she had been voted the school’s Teacher of the Year. Soon afterward, she was told her position had been eliminated. Whinnery became one more casualty of the school budget crisis, which has seen the loss of instructional supplies, teacher aides, special-education aides, counselors, security personnel, nurses, janitors and office staff. A dozen schools, most of them serving the city’s neediest children, have lost their librarians.
“These are students who don’t have books or computers at home, or parents who take them to the public library or know how to use the Internet,” says Whinnery, who went on to win first runner-up in the school district’s Teacher of the Year competition. “We have 10 gangs in our area of town, so the school playground is not where you want to be at lunchtime—you want to be in the library. Now this library will, for the most part, store books, because without a credentialed teacher to supervise, you can’t have students in here.”
The library at Bell was paid for with money from Proposition MM, the $1.51 billion bond measure San Diego voters overwhelmingly approved in 1998 to modernize 165 schools and build or rebuild 16 others. But that was six years ago, when the state was awash in tax money from Silicon Valley and the economy was robust.
By 2004, California was wrestling with an enormous deficit and, for the second year in a row, San Diego Unified School District was facing its own multimillion-dollar deficit. Enrollment has been declining since 2000, the five-member school board is politically polarized, and critics of Superintendent Alan Bersin say much of the problem lies with the central office’s refusal to cut its highest-paid administrators—those charged with ensuring that reforms introduced to the district in 2000 are being properly implemented.
The San Diego City Schools District is funded from its own general fund, composed of federal, state and private grant money. The 2003-2004 general fund has $1.09 billion, and still that’s not enough to adequately fund the district, which is the second largest in California and the eighth largest in the country.
The budget holds two kinds of funds—restricted and unrestricted. Restricted funds ($358 million this year) have strings attached: Title I funding for schools where more than 50 percent of the students live in poverty, and funds for special education, English-language learners, gifted and talented education programs and those for low achievers.
Unrestricted funds totaled $733 million this year. These come without strings and are used for basic school programs as well as teacher, principal and secretarial salaries.
Sixty-two percent ($682.6 million) of the general fund goes to salaries for classified and certificated employees, including teachers, who are covered by union contracts. Currently, there’s a salary freeze for union workers—although they do receive incremental increases—and salaries cannot be cut without going to the unions and renegotiating, which is not being done.
The school district’s deficit has myriad causes. One is Proposition 13, which in 1978 capped property taxes and dramatically reduced state funding. A depressed economy—nationally and in California—means less federal and state funding. About 10 percent of the district’s budget goes to fund health and welfare benefits, worth approximately $100 million. And declining enrollment hurts: For every child attending city schools, the district gets about $5,000 from the state.
Superintendent Bersin told principals that this year they would be charged with making cuts at their schools. The thinking, he says, was that “they know their schools best.” Last year, says Bersin, cuts focused on the central office. “We cut our ranks by $46 million,” he says. But this year, cuts had to be made at school sites.
What’s striking about this is the timing. Since Bersin took over in 1998, principals and teachers have been largely left out of the budget process. To include them now, at one of the lowest points in the district’s history, is a convenient way to avoid blame, says board member and constant Bersin critic John de Beck. He has been on the board since 1990 and opposes the way cuts have been handled.
“Out of the blue, because we’re in deficit mode, the board goes from saying, ‘We know what’s best’ to ‘Oh, you guys do it. You know which finger to cut off better than we do.’”
Elementary schools had to take a 2-3 percent reduction; secondary schools, a 7 percent reduction. Scott Patterson, chief financial officer for the district, says he understands the criticism, but it is a no-win situation. “We either decide what’s best for everyone or we let them decide, and we thought there would be even more criticism if the central office made across-the-board cuts,” he says. “There’s no good way to do this.”
Patterson says schools were given the power to shape how they would use their resources, and to some extent that’s true. They were permitted to cut vice principals, librarians, nurses, counselors, office staff, medical supplies, paper, books and textbooks. “All the things you need to run a school, the heart and soul of learning,” says Betsy Klene, PTA president at Muirlands Middle School.
Principals were not, however, permitted to cut site content administrators (Bersin reform managers) or peer counselors—high-paid district employees who support the Core Instructional Improvement Strategies (what the former Bersin Blueprint for Success has evolved into) at schools. These administrators, as well as 11 instructional leaders who oversee 165 principals, are restricted—protected by Bersin, the school board and by specific grants.
The school district reports that site content administrators make $59,435 to $92,630 annually; instructional leaders, $100,071 to $127,787. Peer coaches have the same salary schedule as the most-senior-level teachers. Board member Fran Zimmerman (another reform critic) estimates that, conservatively, these professionals cost the district $38,940,927. (Her calculations also show the superintendent’s office—which includes Bersin and seven others—costs the district about $926,000 in salary and benefits.)
The biggest budget gripe among Bersin’s detractors is that he won’t cut any of these administrators. Teachers complain peer coaches are an unnecessary luxury in a time of crisis and that content administrators often interfere with learning in order to ensure the core strategies are taught according to plan.
Mike McCarthy, president of Voters for Truth in Education (VOTE), a nonprofit education advocacy group with more than 10,000 members, complains peer coaches and content administrators don’t even work with students. “Why not cut them first?” he asks.
Bersin’s response: “They are restricted.”
In defense of instructional leaders, both the superintendent and CFO Patterson note that in previous administrations, a hierarchy existed to supervise and guide principals. Says Patterson: “Pre-Bersin, in the early ’90s, you would have referred to instructional leaders as assistant superintendents or area managers. They had essentially the same mission. A principal has to have someone at the central office coordinating their efforts from a district-wide perspective.”
Bersin, clearly exasperated by the tenacity of his critics, likens the call for him to eliminate instructional leaders to that of a CEO being asked to eliminate senior management.
“The real world doesn’t operate that way,” he says. “I feel for those who have lost their jobs, but I don’t think you solve the problem by saying someone else should lose their job. At the end of the day, the question is this: What is the fundamental purpose of a public school—to provide employment to adults or an education for children?”
The superintendent’s motive may be, as he says, “to give kids what they need for their educations.” But critics charge he’s only concerned with his own legacy. For the most part, Bersin has protected the sweeping reforms he and Anthony Alvarado, former chancellor of instruction, pioneered in 2000. Even if librarians and nurses have to go, the Blueprint for Success reforms will be funded.
One way is through philanthropic donations. In 2001, Mike Smith, director of education programs at the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park and a former undersecretary of education under President Clinton, helped assemble more than $50 million in grant funding from organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to support Blueprint initiatives. (In 2003, the Gates Foundation gave another $11 million to fund the high school reform effort within San Diego City Schools. This fall Kearny, Crawford and San Diego high schools will reopen as 14 smaller schools, each with its own identity and principal.) These, like most grants, don’t fund teachers and other personnel.
More than $4 million of the $50 million in grants came from philanthropist Eli Broad—a fan of the superintendent—through his Broad Education Foundation in Los Angeles. Broad also bankrolled negative advertising that slammed Jeff Lee, an anti-Bersin candidate for school board in 2002. Broad’s name, with the tagline “Education Reform Advocate,” was the return address on the direct-mail pieces. Lee lost to Katherine Nakamura, a board member who now rarely votes against Bersin.
One central idea of the Alvarado-Bersin reforms is intensive professional development of teachers and principals. That and other strategies aimed at raising student performance are based largely on what Alvarado—who resigned last year—put in place in New York’s Community School District 2 in the late 1980s. In 1998, he brought his reforms to San Diego.
“The idea behind the strategy is that in order to educate the kids better, you also need to educate the adults,” says the Hewlett Foundation’s Smith, an advocate of the reforms. He acknowledges the irony of cutting essential personnel and services from city schools while pricey reforms and capital improvements move forward.
“Alan made a deal. It’s the way to get extra money. And although it can’t rehire a librarian, it can give these reforms a real chance to succeed,” says Smith. “The idea being that down the line, you’ve really changed the way teachers teach. And that will last long after Bersin is gone.”
He may not be gone anytime soon. Bersin has created and found financing for the San Diego Review, an assessment of his efforts here by education experts and scholars, who will review every facet of the district’s operations—“from teaching and learning to bus transportation and food services,” wrote Bersin in a February letter to U.S. education secretary Rod Paige. More than $350,000 has been raised (from private philanthropic organizations) to support the effort. In August, at a conference that will bring together authors, urban school reformers, San Diego City Schools personnel and other practitioners, the results will be presented.
In theory, this is a good thing—a top-to-bottom review of the last five years of reform at the district. But in his summary of the project’s goals and process, principal investigator Frederick M. Hess of the American Enterprise Institute wrote, “With the 2004 board elections looming, a sophisticated analysis of direct performance and district achievements will help ensure a more informed electorate and will clarify Bersin’s record in his first five years.” Which raises the questions: If results are positive, will they then be used in the political campaigns of pro-Bersin board candidates? Do we really need a $350,000 review when we already have a $3 million, three-year assessment of Blueprint reforms under way by the American Institutes of Research?
The Blueprint strategies have been controversial since they were put in place, and reviews—locally and nationally—have been mixed. Third-year results from the American Institutes of Research assessment aren’t yet available, but one year ago, the group’s report said elementary school students showed higher rates of reading and literacy in San Diego than at elementary schools in the rest of the state. Still, this same report said that while students at elementary and middle schools demonstrated increased mathematics achievement over time, “their rate of growth was slower than that of students in the rest of the state.”
In fact, La Jolla High School’s faculty was so stringently opposed to the new physics curriculum three years ago, it investigated becoming a charter school. Instead, the board signed an agreement with La Jolla High that exempts it from Blueprint strategies.
Teacher morale isn’t great either. Although current research shows teachers at low-performing schools are happy with reforms, their counterparts in higher-performing schools aren’t, says Jorge Ruiz-de-Velasco, a program officer in the education program at Hewlett. That may well be due to the Blueprint’s focus on low-performing schools and underachieving kids.
Teachers surveyed by the American Institutes of Research said the quality of peer coaching—and the coaches themselves—varied greatly. The report also warns that a majority of teachers have not bought in to the reforms: “While the dissatisfaction of teachers might be expected with any change at the outset, the continued dissatisfaction of teachers with certain Blueprint features and with the district change process could ultimately undermine its long-term success.”
Despite his critics, Alan Bersin presses forward. He has managed to protect his reforms without cutting classroom teachers or increasing class size, as promised. And regardless of how great the cost—librarians, teacher aides, guidance counselors, textbooks, nurses—he wiped out the projected deficit this year.
“As a result of cutting 240 full-time-equivalent positions, $22 million in site-directed cuts, a hiring freeze and shifting $15 million from unrestricted to capital funds, we were able to present a balanced budget,” says district spokesperson Steven Baratte.
And that’s an important victory for the district. Yet the question remains: Victory at what cost?