Let’s just suppose a class of San Francisco students showed up and found no teacher in the room, just a blackboard note saying “Study pages 136-150 today.” That would be considered quite a failure in fulfilling an education system’s most basic responsibility.
At least the San Francisco Unified School District isn’t known to have failed at anything quite so inexcusable. However, what it did fail to do — by not providing books — violates those same basic education responsibilities any halfway competent school district administration ought to be expected to handle without foul-ups.
Yet now — as some 55,000 SFUSD students enter the second month of their school year — classes are still lacking at least 3,500 textbooks. This embarrassing shortage is interfering with instruction in core topics such as math, English, history and science. In a survey covering 84 of the district’s 113 schools, a majority reported they do not have necessary supplies — not only textbooks but also other needs, including science laboratory equipment.
Worst-hit are The City’s high schools, according to a report filed with the Board of Education. As of now, when there are insufficient books for the entire class, teachers must resort to making their students “buddy-read” shared texts. Or for write-in workbooks, teachers might need to photocopy the day’s lesson — sometimes at their own expense.
So far, the excuses The San Francisco Examiner is getting from SFUSD spokespersons are the usual rationalizations served up by any public or corporate bureaucracy. A district official with the impressive title “deputy superintendent of instruction, innovation and social justice” said the shortfall is “high” on the district’s radar. He blamed the textbook shortage primarily on lack of central inventory oversight, saying the materials are “counted literally school by school, book by book.”
Other alibis offered were the seven-year publishing cycles of textbook-publishing companies, and the state’s delay of its decision on adopting textbooks in order to save money. Meanwhile, the SFUSD is supposed to meet a deadline of Oct. 16 to supply the necessary materials for students in core subjects, according to the state education code. After two months of the school year, a lack of supplies would violate the Williams Act, which requires districts to provide equal access to instructional materials.
This whole embarrassing mess gives us some blunt questions to ask our school district administration: If there is no “central oversight” of the book inventory, is such a system now being worked on at high priority, and how soon will it be operational? And are the needed 3,500-plus books on order for arrival before next week’s Williams Act deadline?
If not, why not? These are questions we intend to keep asking until we get satisfactory answers. After all, the district already has a $7.4 million budget for books and supplies plus an additional $453,000 to run its textbook department. And if that’s not enough, it needs to allocate money from priorities less important than bringing in enough books for the students.