Tuesday, September 27 , 2016, 12:57 pm | Fair 87º

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Lou Segal: Parcel-Tax Measures W and X Won’t Improve Our Schools

Without fundamental reform, no amount of money will fix long-standing problems

I know many of the readers of this wonderful online newspaper have never heard the counter-argument for voting for parcel-tax Measures W and X to raise our property taxes to provide additional funds to our Santa Barbara schools.

Proponents tell us that without this additional new money our schools will be unable to educate our youth. We hear about the critical budgetary problems our state is having, and if voters vote down Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative next November that our schools will suffer disproportionately. I know the voters are bombarded with pleas to approve these measures and are told of all the terrible consequences if they vote no.

However, I am going to tell you to ignore these voices and to focus on the one reason — which gets short shrift in the media — these measures will fail to improve our schools. The reason is simple: Without fundamental reform, no amount of money is going to cure the long-standing problems crippling our schools.

What kinds of reforms am I talking about that don’t require additional money? The most important is to overhaul the antiquated and ineffective tenure and seniority system imbedded in all our public schools. How preposterous is it that an ineffective teacher is given lifetime security and can be paid much more than a far better teacher in the same school? A policy of last-in-first-out (lifo) automatically eliminates the jobs of the most recent hires when teaching positions need to be cut at a school. How foolish is it to eliminate teaching positions using an arbitrary system that totally ignores performance?

A few years ago, a teacher from one of the Santa Ynez schools who was awarded Teacher of the Year lost her position because of this misguided policy.

A series of articles in the Los Angeles Times has documented how costly and tortuous it is to dismiss ineffective teachers. It also highlighted the difficulty of firing the growing number of teachers accused of sexual and/or physical abuse of children. Because of the byzantine laws and collective bargaining rules, they are still collecting paychecks insofar as it is virtually impossible to terminate any teacher.

In Los Angeles, less than one-10th of 1 percent of teachers are dismissed because of performance-related reasons. This is true for most other cities as well. I would also challenge anyone to defend the system of paying teachers based on seniority. Not rewarding great teachers with merit pay or having them paid the same or less than far less effective teachers is nonsensical. Although there have been many attempts to change the rules, the teacher unions have spent prodigious amounts of money to frustrate all efforts to initiate any reform in the evaluation, hiring and firing of teachers.

It is not rocket science how we could improve our public schools without throwing new money at the same old problems. One way is to make the people who run the public schools accountable. Principals should be told that their job security is dependent on the school’s performance as measured by various quantitative and qualitative benchmarks. Of course, it would be unfair to impose this burden on our principals if we didn’t grant them the power to hire and fire teachers, as well to make curriculum changes to improve student performance. All principals and superintendents would be given the necessary powers and a specific period of time to meet the goals as outlined for them by school boards and parents.

Although some might say these methods are unusually harsh or even too simplistic, sometimes the answers to our most intractable problems are not all that complicated — if the will is there to impose the necessary changes.

The curriculum in our schools also needs to be overhauled. We have too many kids leaving our elementary schools unable to write a coherent sentence or perform basic math. Far too little time is dedicated to teaching the fundamentals, which is the lynchpin for all further learning.

Children need to write every day. Teachers need to drill in grammar and syntax while editing their work. Not nearly enough time is spent on such activities.

In addition, we are medicating our children in alarming numbers because of the rote teaching of mind-numbing facts and the regurgitation of this information on too many tests. Our students are increasingly tuning out the teachers and, consequently, diagnosed with the all-too-common attention deficit disorder syndrome. I would challenge parents to sit through these insipid and incredibly boring classes throughout a school day. You might need medication, too, to get through the day.

We need to think outside the box and develop a curriculum that challenges our children and promotes an active learning style that encourages critical thinking skills. There is no reason why education can’t be fun and effective. To learn more about the erosive effects of our antiquated educational system, please see this video by Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized leader in the development of education, creativity and innovation.

I also think it is inherently unfair that all seniors who are 65 years of age and renters are exempt from the parcel taxes, although renters should not be surprised if their rents are adjusted to reflect the increased taxes. The greatest household wealth or median net worth is actually concentrated in the 65-or-older age group. Their median net worth has increased 42 percent in the past 25 years. What happened to the notion of shared sacrifice?

So why do I oppose parcel-tax Measures W and X? Because they enable our school bureaucracy to continue with the status quo and acquiesce to the powerful teacher unions. Until we change the culture in our public schools, they will continue to fail our children. We need to say no to the educational establishment and deny them any more money until these reforms are enacted. It is time for the voters to let the powers that be know that they are tired of waiting for these critical reforms and will not fund a failing public school system with more of their hard earned tax dollars. No reform, no money.

— Lou Segal is a Santa Barbara resident.

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