Last month, the mayoral candidates participated in a forum at the University of San Diego to share their plans for education.
This is a first for San Diego.
The mayor has no jurisdiction over schools, but this could change. Indeed, the mayor of any big city needs to get involved in education. In this election year, almost all of the San Diego mayoral candidates think maybe that's the right thing, too.
If you care at all about whether the next generation of citizens and workers are well-educated, civil and community-minded, the issue of accountability is paramount. Very few people have any idea what the school boards are doing, or for that matter who the school board members are.
At present, mayors run the schools in less than a dozen big cities, and seven have some authority over appointments of school boards or management and operations. Oakland; Chicago; Baltimore; Boston; New York; Yonkers, N.Y.; Cleveland; Philadelphia; and Providence, R.I. are among those cities taking control of their schools.
But the tide is turning in favor of mayoral involvement. Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once said, “Mayors should take control of big-city school districts where academic performance is suffering [to provide] the strong leadership and stability needed to overhaul urban schools.”
While test scores seem to be rising in San Diego, there is serious debate whether test scores even matter. What matters most, analysts agree, are whether the schools are fostering creativity and innovation, the new thinking skills, which the work force demands.
Bonnie Dumanis, a former judge now serving as district attorney, spoke in support of a citizen committee that would vet additions to the school board to "depoliticize" the governing process. Congressman Bob Filner, a former educator and a member of the local school board, 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 Gov. Jerry Brown's ballot initiative increasing funding for education.
Councilman Carl DeMaio 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.
According to the UT-San Diego, Fletcher "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 he said that maybe we are testing the wrong things. Creativity and collaboration are important, too, he said.
What was perhaps most heartening was that all the candidates understood that education in San Diego, the second largest school district in California, is in trouble, not unlike the nation; that more than two-thirds of San Diego students are not functioning at grade level; and that the state of their readiness to meet the challenges of a vastly different workplace is in peril.
The whole community needs to do something. And now.
Eger, a telecommunications lawyer, is the Lionel Van Deerlin Endowed Professor of Communications and Public Policy at San Diego State University, and executive director of SDSU's International Center for Communications.