Three Affirmations for the San Francisco Unified School District

This weekend families in San Francisco will begin receiving school enrollment notifications for the 2011-2012 school year.  We went through this stressful time about nine years ago with our first child as we entered the public school system and are now going through it again as the same child enters the high school process. For those awaiting the letters and emails, this is a pretty stressful time, so I just lift up prayers of perspective and peace for students, families and school communities during this time.

Just a bit of background for those not from San Francisco. Over the years San Francisco has had a city-wide system where people submit a list of preferred schools and are admitted through a lottery system.  Charter schools operate in a similar way and independent schools have a variety of application and financial aid systems.  There are constantly changes to the system, some of which I think have been good and others not so much, but what you need to know is that this is not a place where, on the first day of school, you just walk down to your neighborhood school.

Yes . . . many of you are saying, “Back in my day, we just went to the school closest to us . . . and we liked it!” While I certainly feel this way sometimes, my wife and I have chosen to raise our kids in an urban context where there is simply a different system that has to address a diversity that simply does not exist anywhere else in this exact form.  What I consider entitled suburban values such as this do not work here if we hope to have any chance and building a diverse and thriving educational experience.

So we wade in, figure it out and try to make good choices for our children.  In all honesty, I think the San Francisco Unified School System gets a bad rap.  For despite budget issues, a uniquely diverse community and people who do not see the importance of public education, SFUSD does a fantastic job.  I may not always agree with what they do or what the Board of Education decides, but, as I have said before, a healthy public education system vital to a healthy society.  So in the midst of the maelstrom of criticism that will begin this weekend, I want to offer three points of affirmation for SFUSD.  Yes, you can find exceptions to each of these, but I challenge you to, as you levy critique, to also acknowledge the ways in which SFUSD helps our children thrive.

DIVERSITY OF CHOICE – As went through the search for a high school for Eldest, we explored a variety of options: private, charter, traditional public and alternative public.  While I get why it would be easier if there were no choice and everyone just attended the same school, I deeply appreciate that, even within a public setting there is a wide variety of styles, foci and sizes. From charters like City Arts and Tech, to alternative schools like The Ruth Asawa School of the Arts to traditional schools like Balboa, my daughter felt like she would both be challenged as well as nurtured in a variety of settings.  This kind of diversity allows students and parents to chose the setting where the child will have the best chance to thrive.  Add in the private schools like The Bay School, The Urban School and Lick-Wilmerding and our plate is overflowing with options.

OVERALL EXCELLENCE – Yes, there are some schools that are struggling to raise test scores and have issues that are detrimental to building a good learning environment, but as I have spoken with friends, lead school tours and interacted with young people and teachers throughout the city, we are doing pretty well.  The caliber of person that is being raised and nurtured in San Francisco is commendable.  The teachers who have committed their lives and energy to our children is herculean to say the least.  This is not just about academics and scores, but about a willingness to see and live in the world in a different way, and this is the primary reason that we have chosen to raise and school our kids in the city.

SAN FRANCISCO VALUES – Whenever I hear people use “San Francisco values” as a pejorative, I laugh.  You see, even though I am “conservative” in the context of San Francisco elections – mostly because I own property and do not want anarchy – the our city’s values around environmental issues, family structures, ethnic diversity and well . . . the kick-ass food compel me to embrace this bubble in which I live.  Usually proud and often smug, raising our kids in this environment is an intentional decision to ground them with a worldview that we think is positive, progressive and good for the world.  As we have experienced education here, SFUSD has played a central role in maintaining a consistency between our city values and our educational ones.  Sure, we do not always live up to the liberal and open values that we may espouse and we have some serious work to do around class, but you know what, at least we are trying . . .

So there you have it, some positive vibes to add to what will surely be a cacophony of voices that will soon be flooding the social networking airwaves.

One more Christian in Support of Public Education

My youngest daughter and her 2nd grade teacher, Mr. M.

Like many people today, I have opinions about a great many things and expertise in few. But, as a person who votes, pays taxes, is a person of faith and happens to have a venue where I can freely express my opinion, I think it’s important to sometimes jump into the fray. I do not pretend to have the organizational answers or legislative prowess that some may have, but, to tell you the truth, that does not seem to matter these days when if comes to public policy decisions.

So today I am going to wade into the treacherous waters of the public education debate. I am product of the California public school system, my three children attend a public school in San Francisco and I believe that public free education is a right that every child should have access to. With that said, I also believe that folks should have a choice about where and how they choose to provide education for their children. In fact, my oldest looking at high schools and we are thinking about independent/private options and I am in full support of those who choose to homeschool.

I also know that no system, especially one as entrenched as public education, is perfect and that much has to be redone and revamped if it will be effective in the future. But honestly some of the rhetoric about public education feels like this is not about committing to and improving a system, but blatant attempt to do away with it in its entirety. The toxicity with which public education is being discussed leaves little room for thoughtful conversations where flexibility or creativity can be expressed by any side. I am not sure we can get there, but I truly believe that if there was a genuine commitment to public education by our society, we could find new and creative ways to educate our children.

So with that said, I believe that our government should do everything within its power to not simply provide a public education system, but make the strengthening of the public school system a fiscal priority over and above defense, corrections, subsidies, tax-breaks, etc. I say this not only because I think it is good politics and social policy, but because my Christian faith informs what I believe about such things, after all, as my good friend Landon Whitsitt once said, “…the separation of church and state is not the same thing as the separation of faith and politics.”

My faith and belief that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and compassion has always been the foundation for my support of governmental programs that serve the greater good. While I may never participate in these programs myself, I believe that it is the role and responsibility of those with means to respond out of gratitude and support programs that lift up the entirely of society. This is not simply about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you, but an acknowledgment that we are one body with many parts and that, “…if one part of the body suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” — 1 Corinthians 12:12-30.

So with a faith that has always influenced my politics, I offer the following thoughts on public education.

Education for all… ReTweet — The biggest reason that I believe public education is so important is because, at its basic level, it is the place where everyone is welcomed and accepted. Public schools and the teachers who teach are called to their profession and seek to serve and educate all children. Every time I chaperone a field trip I am inspired by the commitment to our children that teachers have. While I support private school and homeschool choices, both of these options allow parents and school structures to decide who is allowed to be part of that particular educational experience. Our public schools make sure that the whole of society is given and opportunity to be educated and, as cheesy as it may be, when we are all given the opportunity to be educated, we all given the opportunity to succeed.

Health Care for Teachers…ReTweet — In a vacuum, it really does not seem like too much to ask for teachers to pay a percentage of their healthcare premiums. But we do not live in a vacuum and, since I have never heard of anyone who goes into teaching for the money or glory, I for one think that they deserve and I am willing to pay to ensure that they have great healthcare. It is the least we can do for answering this particular low-paying, but highly rewarding, call to public service.

Job Security for Teachers… ReTweet — I am not a big fan of tenure and I certainly know that, like any profession, there are some folks that are simply not competent. Still, because teachers will never make a good deal of money and it is noble work, like health care, we should be able to provide some way ensure job security for those who deserve it. Anxiety over year to year job security simple cannot be the norm. Evaluations are one thing, but knowing that EVERY year one’s job may be on the line undermines the kind of consistency that any school needs to build a solid educational foundation.

Fiscal Efficiency for Schools… ReTweet — One of the things that drives me nutzo is when people use the “If this were a business…” argument. Yes, some fiscal restructuring must take place, but when people use this argument there is an assumption that public education and business have the same goal or bottom line. We do not. Businesses have a bottom line and goal of achieving profitability while education has the goal of educating our children. To fall into this argument dooms public education to failure and send the message that we can somehow monetize education.

I hope that for those who do not agree we will still be able to engage some constructive conversation. And for those who find resonance with what I am saying, I hope you will seek out helpful ways to have your voices heard in places that matter. Our country and many of our states are beginning to make serious fiscal choices that will impact our lives, our children and our collective future, so now more than ever we must speak out for what we believe matters… in this case, public education.