U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited San Francisco in May as part of his "Listening and Learning" tour through 15 states.
Early in his visit the Secretary expressed grave concerns about California schools, colleges, and universities ("U.S. schools chief: State longshot for stimulus," The Chronicle, May 23) saying that "California has lost its way."
"Your state once had the best education system in the country," Duncan told educators and executives. "I ask you, is California going to lead the race to the top or are you going to lead the retreat?"
His remarks were undoubtedly driven by a desire to trigger the state to take innovative approaches and make serious reforms in education. As part of the federal government's stimulus package, more than $4 billion is available for states that exceed their peers in improving test scores at the worst-performing schools. The money is to be used in part to improve development opportunities for teachers and other educationstaff.
However, as California looks to slash education funding in the face of a budget crisis, it seems clear that it will in no way increase its chances of getting those federal funds. Furthermore, as Duncan told San Francisco Schools Superintendent Carlos Garcia, individual school districts cannot apply for such funds independently.
The Secretary then spent the afternoon on the ground, at the University of California San Francisco and Paul Revere Elementary School in Bernal Heights. Paul Revere is the city's only pre-K-through-8th-grade public school and it offers a Spanish Immersion program as well as English language curriculum while serving a largely low-income, mostly minority population.
At Paul Revere the Secretary should have learned some lessons to spur the Obama administration and Congress into reconsidering whether to give individual school districts access to federal stimulus money. At Paul Revere and other schools, the San Francisco school district is taking exactly those steps that the federal government seems to be looking for.
Principal Lance Tagomori and his staff are focusing on teacher development, on ensuring a path to success for each and every student, and on involving the community in the process.
Such efforts are not unique to San Francisco, but they are repeated across this city and are part of a turnaround in education that is starting to show results. At Paul Revere, for example, some 20 percent of this year's 39 8th graders have been accepted to Lowell High School in San Francisco, which is ranked by Newsweek one of the top 100 schools in the country.
Back in Washington, Duncan should look back on what he has seen and understand that budgetary failure at the state level should not undermine our tremendous strides, creative initiatives and community-driven gains on the local level. Individual districts are working hard to make the changes envisioned by the federalgovernment, but their hands may be tied by the state's refusal to support education. San Francisco seems unique in that this city is helping to fund schools with its own rainy day fund.
Our city leaders are willing to walk the walk of making education a top priority. That should be recognized and rewarded by allowing individual districts like San Francisco to qualify for stimulus money. San Francisco and schools like Paul Revere are ready to lead the race to the top, even if the state is in retreat.
Paul Revere parents
Carel van Panthaleon van Eck