Education Has Become a Hot Election Issue

Opening a Mayoral debate on education, Scott Himelstein, Director of the San Diego University (USD) Center for Education Policy and the Law said: "A recent poll showed that education ranks a close second to jobs and the economy," and the next mayor needs to play a leadership role, whatever that is.

Meeting Monday evening in the opulent rotunda of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, USD in cooperation with the San Diego Union Tribune, asked the four mayoral candidates what they would do as mayor if elected.

They were all over the map and hesitant too, in part, because the poll also showed that while the people wanted strong leadership, they were suspicious of a mayor taking too much power away from the popularly elected school board.

What then was the Mayor's role?

Clearly, it was up to the new Mayor to answer that question, and persuade the electorate that they have a vision and a strategy to change education as we know it.

Bonnie Dumanis, former judge now serving as District Attorney and running as a Republican, favored a citizen committee vetting at least four additions to the school board, as she put it, to "depoliticize" the governing process. That drew heat, as the implication was clearly that the present board was biased, and a mayor who appointed four new board members wasn't.

Congressman Bob Filner, a Democrat who was himself an educator, a member of the local school board and as a member of Congress was opposed to former President Bush's "No Child Left Behind Act," didn't favor too much intervention with the existing system. "I never met a teacher who didn't want to do the best for their kids" he said. Filner was the only candidate willing to support Governor Brown's ballot initiative increasing funding for education.

Sitting Councilman Carl DeMaio, endorsed by the local Republican Party, however, had no qualms about a "performance based " system that would make it easier to get rid of underperforming teachers. Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, meanwhile, seemed to favor a more balanced approach recognizing teacher tenure and freedom with an improved method of making teachers and the whole system more accountable.

No one thought the "last hired, first fired " method was fair, but they had no alternative.

David Brooks of the New York Times, said recently that the nation was watching San Diego because Fletcher "represents a nationally important test case." He recently abandoned the Republican Party saying he has become disillusioned with the party system and opted to run as an independent.

Fletcher's decision may or may not be enough. He is willing to take risks, where education is concerned however. According to the San Diego Union Tribune Fletcher started the dialogue and "was the first candidate to claim education as an official issue in the race." He also favored testing, which everyone seemed to accept as necessary, but said, maybe we are testing the wrong things. "Creativity and collaboration" are important too.

Fletcher also wanted San Diego to focus on being "The World's Most Innovative City," abandoning "America's Finest City," a slogan chosen by then Mayor Pete Wilson as a public relations effort to get the city recognized as a destination for conventions, including possibly the National Republican Party.

What was perhaps most heartening was that all the candidates understood that education in San Diego, the second largest school district in California was in trouble, not unlike the nation; that more than two thirds of San Diego students were not functioning at grade level, and that the state of their readiness to meet the challenges of a vastly different workplace was in peril. The whole community, they recognized, needed to do something. And now.

Juan Williams, Fox political analyst who moderated the discussion, pointed out that San Diego had joined the national trend to focus on education as New York, Chicago, Boston, and other big cities have done. But the jury is still out as is the vote.

Cities everywhere should be looking to the San Diego race to see what the city does about education ... whoever is elected.