Individual action to improve schools

I was motivated to write this four-part series of columns on education because I love public schools. Our public education system still provides an excellent service if you are able to get into a well-functioning school. My wife and I are both very pleased with the results of sending our children to San Francisco’s public schools for all their elementary and middle school years so far.

Nevertheless, too many of our schools are failing too many of our kids.

In the first column, we learned that the primary problem with California’s public schools is that they compare poorly to those in other states, and in particular are failing to provide a good education to our neediest kids. We also learned that San Francisco is doing an especially bad job in this regard (notably in its eastside schools), calling into doubt how “liberal” or “progressive” we really are as a city when it comes to education. A secondary problem is that public school teachers (especially the younger ones whose future pension benefits are highly likely to be less generous than what more senior teachers have already accrued) are insufficiently compensated for an increasingly difficult teaching job.

In the second column, we learned that inadequate funding is one root cause of the poor state of public education. Proposition 13 de-funded our schools, so that over the last four decades California has gone from being on par with other states to being near the bottom of the pack in funding as a percentage of state income. Over the same time period, our school population has become needier (e.g. a higher percentage of students do not speak English as their first language), and so logically should have received more resources, not less. Also over the same time period, we made substantial pension promises that we failed to fund; our schools now face a “silent recession” where a greater share of each future dollar of funding will go to fulfill past promises made – which means a smaller share of each future dollar of funding will go to teach the students.

In the third column, we learned that bad school management is another root cause of the poor state of public education. California’s Education Code has ballooned six-fold over the last forty years and is now stifling and bureaucratic. The results are in from a dozen years of analyzing the experience in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: a combination of radically increased autonomy and accountability can substantially improve education outcomes in public schools. Autonomy empowers teachers and administrators on the ground to make the decisions they believe are best for students in their schools.

Accountability ensures that schools demonstrate their approach is improving outcomes; it also allows low performing teachers and administrators to be removed when necessary and low performing schools to be closed when necessary.

What can each of us do to improve our system of public education? I suggest three things.

First and foremost, we must own the reality that our schools are not nearly good enough. California is failing. San Francisco is failing. The status quo is unacceptable. The fate of our children’s education is literally our future. A healthy, robust society prioritizes its future by investing sufficient resources and holding the people responsible for managing those resources to account. We must acknowledge these truths, internalize their significance, and motivate ourselves to action.

Second, we must move beyond false debates. For example, all too often the politics of public education devolves into a debate over being “for” or “against” teachers’ unions. But Massachusetts is a union state with one of the highest performing public education systems, while Mississippi is a right to work state with one of the lowest. There is nothing inherently good or bad about unions per se; what matters is: first, whether the needs of students are being met and second, whether the interests of all teachers (and other school employees) are being reasonably served as long as those teachers (and other school employees) are doing an adequate job.

Another false debate to jettison is whether “more money” or “school reform” is needed; in fact we must have both, or neither will succeed. The Massachusetts Public Reform Act of 1993 is a useful model for us to study; this grand compromise combined more funding that was progressively distributed in return for increased autonomy and accountability. California’s recently enacted Local Control Funding Formula is only a baby step in comparison, but at least it is a beginning.

Finally, I urge you to educate yourself about the candidates running for office and ask yourself who is likely to fight for the smart, radical changes we need. One race in particular to focus on this year is the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. This is not a race most people are not even aware of, let alone focused on, yet it matters a lot. Some of the things the State Superintendent can do are:

1. Interpret the Local Control Funding Formula to allow poorer schools within districts to receive greater funding over time – and intervene aggressively with failing schools

2. Work with districts to get multi-year “master waivers” from unnecessary regulation to empower them to innovate

3. Build a data system to capture and share best teaching and administrative practices across the state (and create a governance structure to support its use and implementation)

4. Use the public megaphone to advocate with the governor and legislators for the funding and reform our public schools need

The two candidates running this fall for State Superintendent of Public Instruction are Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond. As a columnist for the Examiner, I will not formally endorse either candidate. But in the interest of full disclosure, I will report that I have met several times with Marshall Tuck and he has greatly impressed me with his knowledge, his passion, and his ideas. And Marshall Tuck has the full-throated endorsement of Arne Duncan, who was US Education Secretary under President Obama.

I encourage you to learn about both Marshall Tuck and Tony Thurmond, so you can make up your own mind. But whatever you do, don’t sit this race out! Your engagement in November and beyond is critical for the future of our public schools.

Patrick Wolff lives in the Sunset District. Email him at

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