Wednesday, January 17, 2007

inside the box

The most interesting debate for me at last night’s San Francisco school board meeting (ie until I had to leave at 9:15 PM) was over the supposedly mutually exclusive choice between spending prop H money on “violence prevention programs” ( $50K block grants to be spent as the school site chose) or academic support for teachers. Superintendent Gwen Chan argued that since the SFUSD district was now a “program improvement district” the priority needed to be “academic support” (as if violence prevention isn’t a precondition for learning). The Community Advisory committee argued for violence prevention and 4 Wellness Centers (instead of the 3 that Chan’s plan called for) as a priority, arguing that the students themselves defined that as a priority.

So, two things become clear to me in this debate. One, there isn’t enough money (in a BIG WAY). Two, the local community won’t get to set the priorities – state legislatures do.

These are the fundamental issues that were the pink elephants in the room last night. The debate should have been explicitly about how to do we mobilize the SF community to demand more money from the state and city (instead of arguing over the few crumbs we get from the table see ny times article, also below). The debate also should have focused on why does the community have so little say in what the educational theory and priorities are and how do we get a more democratic decision making process implemented? These issues remain unspoken. Instead, we have accepted the paradigm of inadequate funding and decision by test score alone in public debate.

The small school policy debate (that followed the prop H proposal discussion) has been equally narrowed to one in which the only reason an educational reform should be made into policy is to make sure that the school system continues to socialize and sort in a legitimate fashion. It was clear to me last night that small school proponents have accepted the premise that those who don’t “succeed” in school should be blamed for their failure as individuals. Equity, according to the small school proponents last night, will exist if school success cannot be correlated to race, gender, class or neighborhood or parental income. That is, if failure can be pinned on the individual or family, then the successful can wash their hands of any responsibility for the growing polarization of wealth and its resulting social, cultural and political impoverishment (not to mention impending ecological disaster – and why isn’t Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth required viewing in the district?). Apparently it is okay if a student is damaged or alienated by the school experience as long as such damage isn’t correlated with race, class or neighborhood. Equal opportunity damage. Yeah, sign me up.

The debates and presentations last night occurred within the paradigm that defines success as going to college. Let’s ignore all the reasons why the system, as is, will never let everyone go to college (which is why the RHETORICAL goal of getting the college bound to be proportional to disaggregated demographics exists). What if everyone went to college? Would that necessarily result in everyone having a decent home, health care, functional families, disposable income and world peace (would it alter the nation’s spending priorities – see article, also below)? What are people actually learning in school? How long does that learning last? How many adults, for example, learned algebra and still know it? Is anyone learning in school how the power structure in this country actually works (as opposed to the myth of how it works)? No one is explicitly examining, debating or questioning whether qualifying to go to college is really evidence of how well one has accepted one’s role to support the status quo.

Asking everyone to think outside the box (eg give up the myth that we live or could live in a meritocratic society) is like being against slavery in 1750. It is an exercise in frustration, unless one is thinking in the long term. But unlike 1750, I worry that in 2007 there is no long term, that we are locked into a box on a truck heading towards the edge of a cliff. Two articles in the NY TIMES (yesterday and today, snippets below) make me feel that we are indeed in deep trouble unless we make some fundamental changes – one of which is transforming schools from places in which we socialize to one in which we actually start educating people. And for that to happen, much greater sums of money must be spent on schools, not war, as a necessary but not sufficient variable. It is not a matter, as Jurgis Rudkus (The Jungle) thought it was, of merely “working harder.”

What $1.2 Trillion Can Buy
by david leonhardt, January 17, 2007

…… $1.2 trillion would pay for an unprecedented public health campaign — a doubling of cancer research funding, treatment for every American whose diabetes or heart disease is now going unmanaged and a global immunization campaign to save millions of children’s lives.

Combined, the cost of running those programs for a decade wouldn’t use up even half our money pot. So we could then turn to poverty and education, starting with universal preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old child across the country. The city of New Orleans could also receive a huge increase in reconstruction funds.

The final big chunk of the money could go to national security. The recommendations of the 9/11 Commission that have not been put in place — better baggage and cargo screening, stronger measures against nuclear proliferation — could be enacted. Financing for the war in Afghanistan could be increased to beat back the Taliban’s recent gains, and a peacekeeping force could put a stop to the genocide in Darfur.

All that would be one way to spend $1.2 trillion. Here would be another: The war in Iraq.

When Being Green Raises the Heat
By KEN CALDEIRA January 16, 2007

CARBON DIOXIDE is heating up the Earth. Ice caps are melting, ocean levels are rising, hurricanes are intensifying, tropical diseases are spreading and the threat of droughts, floods and famines looms large. Can planting a tree help stop all this from happening?. . . . While preserving and restoring forests is unquestionably good for the natural environment, new scientific studies are concluding that preservation and restoration of forests outside the tropics will do little or nothing to help slow climate change. And some projects intended to slow the heating of the planet may be accelerating it instead. . . . Consider Pacific Gas and Electric’s surcharge plan. While the carbon soaked up by California’s forests reduces atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations everywhere, cooling Crete, Cancún and Calcutta, the sunlight they absorb warms the state and the surrounding region.. . . The broadest goal is neither to slow the growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere nor to slow climate change, but rather to preserve the irreplaceable natural balance that sustains life as we know it on this planet. . . . regardless of its impact on climate — we need more trees, not fewer. But the notion that we can save the planet just by planting trees is a dangerous illusion. To preserve our environment, we must drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and this will require a major transformation of our energy system.


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Eric Mar said...

agree with the need for more thinking out of the box and not getting cornered into the 'eduspeak' of liberal and conservative reformers - ie "Marshal Plans" for schools, "rigor, relevance and relationships", etc.
re funding - even the parcel tax dicussion from last night begs the bigger question of why there isn't adequate funding for schools and human needs. though i am glad that board president sanchez has 'sunshined' the parcel tax issue and other important issues, we never have the time or political space to talk/think through the root causes for the predicament we are in and come up with longer range solutions as you suggest.