Public Comment

Commentary: Yes, Berkeley Schools Are for Local Kids

By David Baggins
Friday September 01, 2006

Local public schools, well supported and integral to the community, are at the heart of the progressive tradition. Perhaps only in Berkeley is this a controversial statement. When I decided just weeks ago to campaign for School Board service I did so with a sense that a whole election season would otherwise go by without discussion of the meaningful issues that affect the schools. 

Berkeley schools are unrepresentative of this diverse, quirky, marvelous place we live. There are many factors to this phenomenon, including birth rates, differing ages of demographic groups, and use rates of private schools. However, a leading factor, and certainly the factor most tied to public policy, is the under-reaction of the district to false registration. 

Berkeley’s is overall a pretty good school system, with some spectacular accomplishments, located between much larger failing districts. If there ever was a district with deep need for a robust system of validation it is in Berkeley. Yet as we compare our city’s residency enforcement protocol, attitude and resources to other districts we are demonstrably anemic. Rampant false registration threatens every aspect of Berkeley’s schools 

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 placement program is based on this truth. 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. Superintendent Michele Laurence stated “almost the entire work we do is to address equity and achievement.” Yet the achievement gap remains. If Berkeley insists on staying the course of non-enforcement it is only likely to reproduce current results.  

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. Little did they know the real priority for funding was for out-of-district low performance students. As funding is increasingly raised from local sources, the problem of parents outside the city wanting to access city schools can only increase. 

Third, given the policies that have created the achievement gap, it is difficult to advance all other priorities. As the Superintendent said, almost all energies go to dealing with the achievement gap. What then for average students? Berkeley’s privileged kids, while deserving a fine education and inclusive rights in the schools, will find a way to educate themselves. Average students of Berkeley, however, are under considered in their education needs. Doesn’t every child of the community deserve an education based on the best interest of the child? 

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 the much larger East Bay, this function is drained.  

So what is to be done? 

First Berkeleyans, congratulate yourselves. The achievement gap, rather than a failure of curriculum, increasingly is the creation of a generosity of spirit. No other community that I know of has given from its tax base so liberally. 

But Director Shirley Issel’s point is well taken, “it is not possible to give a child a successful education if it is based on a lie.” In my experience the kids falsely registered resent the whole mess it causes. Berkeley needs a validation office that ends false registration as a norm. Other districts think the task is perfectly achievable. Teachers must be encouraged to believe that at their own discretion they can contact that office when they know a student to be out of district. If after this the city is committed to high external access, the way to that end is increased valid transfers. But transfer policy should not be used to the disadvantage of local at-risk youths by exacerbating the achievement gap.  

I recommend one further change. The most expensive and difficult level of education is high school. Berkeley High is clearly impacted. We should require re-registration with transition from middle school.  

I began this campaign with the hope of getting the city to focus on the policies that have created the most difficult problems in our public schools. If the city is thinking about this issue, I am satisfied. I must correct two aspects of Becky O’Malley’s editorial. My own analysis does not agree with the claim that without out-of-district infusion African-American composition would fall below 13 percent. Also, she seems to infer that cheating in registration is limited to one ethnic group. My observation is that every demographic group feels entitled to cheat, including of course well-off neighbors in Rockridge and Kensington. Berkeley’s students and tax payers are the losers. Berkeley is best served when Berkeley schools are for Berkeley’s kids. 


Cal State East Bay professor David Baggins is a candidate for the Berkeley School Board.