Funding SFUSD's graduation rescue

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Sup. Jane Kim wants money to help kids graduate

The San Francisco school district’s achievement gap exploded into the news when district officials learned that as many as 1,900 High School juniors -- the vast majority of them students of color -- aren’t on track to meet the new graduation standards.

It’s a crisis: The district several years ago mandated that every high school graduate complete the A to G classes required by the California State University system -- essentially a requirement that every graduate be prepared for college. It was going to be a tough standard to meet -- and that was before the state whacked $77 million out of the SFUSD budget.

Now, with the new standards on the books, the class of 2014 is nowhere near ready. The city’s laudatory 82 percent graduation rate is at risk -- and more important, there’s a real possibility that hundreds of kids won’t get a high school diploma, which will severely damage their employment opportunities.

To make things worse, the district’s funding for after-school classes to help students who are behind catch up -- known as “credit recovery” -- is ending in December.

The statistics are alarming: More than 80 percent of African American kids and 70 percent of Latinos aren’t on track to graduate. And while Prop. 30 passed, preventing any more cuts, it doesn’t add to the district’s funding.

So Sup. Jane Kim is asking the city to pick up the $2.7 million tab for the credit recovery program, which makes perfect sense: If 1,900 kids don’t graduate from high school, the impacts on the city, from crime, unemployment, and social-service needs to homelessness, will vastly exceed that number. 

“It’s part of violence and crime prvention,” School Board member Sandra Fewer explained.

It’s also an issue of civic responsibility -- we, as San Franciscans, can’t just let those kids fail. “Remember, these are the ones who stuck it out, who are really trying,” Kim told me. “They aren’t the drop-outs.”

There is, of course, the question of whether this is going to be an ongoing problem -- what about the class of 2015? Fewer thinks the numbers will be a lot lower then: “”We’ve learned a lot,” she said. “We’ve had early warning indicators and I don’t think we’ll see these numbers again.”

Kim said that at first she thought the appropriation request would be noncontroversial -- it is, after all, a fairly modest amount of money, and the city’s budget picture is improving. “We’re doing fairly well,” Kim said. “One of the promises of all this tech growth was that we’d get some more revenue, and I think we need to spread that wealth.”

But the Mayor’s Office and some of her colleagues weren’t ready to go along. So, as often happens in these situations, somebody found some fiscal magic -- the Mayor’s Office folks “discovered” that the city had put an additional $1.5 million into the school district’s allocation from the Rainy Day Fund. Gee, maybe that could cover part of the cost.

Now it gets tricky.

The Rainy Day Fund, which Assemblymember Tom Ammiano created when he was supervisor, requires the city to set aside cash in flush years to use when times are tigher -- and part of it goes to the school district. That money has been used in the past few years to prevent teacher layoffs. (Another whole crazy issue -- the district has to issue layoff notices in the spring, and then rescind them, which sucks for everyone, but at least the Rainy Day Fund money has made most of the recissions possible).

So the teachers union isn’t thrilled with the idea of taking money that would prevent layoffs and using it for another worthy program. “We’re in support of the $2.7 million allocation,” union staffer Ken Tray told me. “We can’t fail these kids. But we’re afraid that the money that would go for this very good thing would lead to teacher layoffs.”

Sup. David Campos has concerns, too: “I think the Rainy Day Fund should stand on its own terms,” he said. “If any time something comes up we say let’s take it from the Rainy Day Fund, it can become a problem.”

He supports spending city money to help the students: “If it’s a crisis, we should handle it as a crisis.”

Which makes perfect sense to me. This IS a crisis, and Kim has properly identified a small amount of money for a one-time effort to address it, and in the end, her allocation would save the city way more than it costs. I can’t see why the mayor and the supervisors have to play games here; this is serious, serious stuff, and if the district thinks it can address it in a serious way for a modest amount of money at a time when the economy is picking up and the city budget is improving, why not just do it?