Berkeley residents have taxed themselves to buy good schools for the kids of the community. We have talented teachers, good physical facilities, and a population that is world famous for its love of peace and ideas. So why are many classes overcrowded? Why are there cutbacks in academic curriculum, continuous incidents of violence and why do a third the students fail to gain a minimal education? I believe that with the many accomplishments of Berkeley’s schools there are also a string of failures and that these are understandable results of policies that have created a sub-culture of failure. We need policies that turn that around to promote new accomplishments.
The most distinctive policy of failure is the inability to control false registration. Observers of the schools from diverse ideological perspectives agree that a defining characteristic of Berkeley schools is the large number of false registrations. Cheating in registration is the natural result of BSEP and other measures that have raised the quality of local education through local funds. Failure to acknowledge and deal with such mass theft is a betrayal of the public trust.
Who are the losers of the status quo? The very first group must be Berkeley’s own at-risk population. There is no doubt, based on extensive research, that a leading factor determining whether at-risk students succeed or fail is the accomplishment rate of surrounding students. Berkeley’s extensive busing program is based on this realization. As well-intentioned school leaders have increased the achievement gap through under-enforcement of residency, they have jeopardized the population most in need of support. Simply, a one-third underperforming cohort generates more negative force than intervention can hope to alter. Only half this cohort is predicted from the census to reside in Berkeley.
The second loser group is of course taxpayers. They have generously supported the schools with the promise that education would become better for Berkeley’s kids. As funding is increasingly raised from local sources, the problem of parents outside the city wanting to access city schools can only increase. I fully support Measure A. Our schools would be worse without such funding. But we must recognize the ramifications of our tax policy in the surrounding region.
Third, Berkeley is starving programs that benefit its own population by misplaced priorities. Sad is the parent of a child qualified for GATE who then reads in the congratulations letter that there actually are no real funds allocated to teach accomplished children.
Finally, the community as a whole loses as resources are drained to service the larger East Bay. Schools ought to have the resources to serve as playground, park, and cultural center. Yet as resources are diverted to serving as the alternative schools for the much larger East Bay, this function also is drained.
I am encouraged that since I raised this issue there has been an awakening of awareness. I believe that the leadership of the district is ready to construct a validation policy that protects the tax-payers and students of our city.
In this computer age, one information technology staff person could easily generate comprehensive residency for all students. In-district false residency remains easy to fabricate. Out-of-district actual residency can no longer be hidden from simple data based scrutiny. All that is lacking has been the will to protect Berkeley schools. I believe that has turned around.
Moving on to just one more issue, it is time to reconsider placement policy in grade school and at Berkeley High. I say this not just because the current policy must continue to result in frustration, a sense of injustice and litigation, but because the district ought to prize in placement only the best interest of each individual child. It is time to end the possibly illegal and certainly dysfunctional lottery for placement at Berkeley High. Children respond to challenges. It is much better to set up the conditions that allow a child to earn the right to high school placement than run a stacked lottery system that mocks both achievement and fairness. Surely we can achieve the level of administrative competence that allows programs to grow and shrink according to student preference. Student interest rather than administrative convenience should be the driving value.
I propose that every eighth grade child in public school be allowed his or her first choice of schools in Berkeley High if all classes are passed with a grade of “C” and all state exams are passed with a score at least of “basic”. This encourages all of the desirable behaviors. Berkeley residents are encouraged to choose public school. Middle schools kids are rewarded for effort and achievement. Rewards are linked to accomplishment rather than lottery or special privilege.
Students who are entering the system or who do not achieve these standards are sent to private conference. The first priority is to determine if the student is entitled to district service. If the student is entitled to service and is low achieving, the conference tries to ascertain with the parent the causes of low achievement. With a councilor the student and parent then co-choose a school.
Grade schools placement needs much process and discussion. Ultimately I hope to maximize choice and respecting preferences while minimizing expensive transportation. Before we continue expensive litigation I hope we have a clearer consensus that the status quo is so perfect that it must be defended regardless of cost.
With a move away from failure oriented policies Berkeley schools can become as fantastic as this amazing city!
My credentials for this office include: 22 years as a professor of political science, service as a department chair, three published books on public policy and reform, and two kids in the public schools. Please join me in establishing a culture of accomplishment and community pride in our city’s public schools.