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2005 blog


New San Diego school board unfamiliar
with Jewish communal concerns—Bersin

School superintendent expresses concern about possible
effect of vouchers on schools and Jewish community
,  Feb. 16, 2005

With San Diego's Jewish community unrepresented on the San Diego Unified School District board of education for the first time in 27 years—and with School Superintendent Alan Bersin's tenure coming to an end this June—the school district will have to be re-sensitized to perennial public education issues affecting the Jewish community.

That was the consensus of four educators who spoke Feb. 9 at a forum cosponsored by the San Diego Jewish Times and the Men's Club of Tifereth Israel Synagogue at the latter's congregation.

Bob Filner, today a congressman, served as the District D representative on the school board from the end of 1978 through 1983. He was replaced by Susan Davis, who also is today a member of Congress, and she in turn was replaced at the end of 1993 by Ron Ottinger, who served until the end of 2004. Also during that period, Sue Braun served as the District B representative from the end of 1990 through the end of 2001.

Bersin and Braun were joined on the panel at Tifereth Israel Synagogue by Miyo Reff, who was an unsuccessful candidate in 2004 for the District A seat, and by Marty Block, current president of the San Diego Community College Board and a past president of the San Diego County Board of Education. 

Bersin, whose contract was bought out a year early by the current board consisting of Luis Acle, John de Beck, Shelia Jackson, Mitz S. Lee and Katherine Nakamura, suggested that when it comes to issues affecting the Jewish community, "the sensitivity will not be there."

"I think the people on the new board are of good heart, but they are very green," he added. "The new members have a lot of learning to do and a lot of consensus building, but I can assure you that one of the issues that is not going to be uppermost in their mind, unless it is brought to their attention, is sensitivity to Jewish issues."

Other panelists enumerated some of the issues that are of Jewish community concern. The board should "make sure that school doesn't start on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur," said former board member Braun, who also is a congregant at Tifereth Israel Synagogue.

Drawing on his experience with the county Board of Education, Block said the school board should avoid situations such as have occurred in the past in Vista and Fallbrook "where Jewish kids basically are compelled to take part in Christmas plays, compelled to sing Christmas carols... We had programs where they actually were told by their teachers if they didn't participate they would get a zero for the day."

Reff, a Japanese-American who converted to Judaism, said as an activist in the Parent-Teacher Association she had expended considerable effort "to make sure that the kids weren't discriminated against, that tests weren't given on High Holy Days" and "if kids were calling in absent that day for religious reasons, making sure that absence wasn't held against them during that marking period."

Braun said of all the current members of the San Diego School Board, Nakamura is the one she is confident will be most understanding of Jewish concerns. "She is a Caucasian woman married to a Japanese man, and she has lived in Japan for quite a while and she is very sensitive to ethnic, racial, religious differences," Braun said. "So I probably would call Katherine before I would call another board member but time will tell."

Block said the School Board's General Counsel Tad Parzen, while not a voting member of the board, clearly brings to the board his Jewish perspective. Block noted that Parzen is scheduled to serve as San Diego regional president this year of the American Jewish Committee. Parzen is "extremely sensitive and understanding of church-state issues and... if he stays--and I hope he will under a new superintendent--he will be an important ally in a key position on those kinds of issues," Block said.

The fact that there are no Jews on the board may be a reflection of the fact that fewer and fewer Jewish families are enrolling their students in the San Diego Unified School District—having moved to outlying, suburban school districts or enrolling the children in Jewish day schools or private secular schools.

Bersin said "most Jewish kids don't go to public schools, not in San Diego and not in most cities of the country. This hurts me. Everything I have in life I owe to my father and my mother but also to public education. The relationship between Jews and public education is a critical one.

"Public education which links a free and public education to public money is the essence of a liberal society," Bersin said. "Jews do not do well in societies that lose the liberal spirit," he warned. 

Public schools, he said, had provided to generations of Jews "opportunities that would not be available in the private schools--certainly not when my father was growing up or when I was growing up in the (19)50s and 60s--and it provided us with a platform from which we could pursue the professions or business. As public education becomes a place for 'those' kids and not 'our' kids, this society will suffer..."

Bersin said such a development is bad for the Jewish community "because when there is no link between the notion of merit and the notion of opportunity and the notion of accomplishment, then we are in a society that will not be friendly to the diversity that has been necessary for Jews to flourish in society."

Public schools, he asserted, are "essential to American democracy and American democracy is essential to the thriving of Jewish life. When we lose one, we threaten the other," Bersin said.

"When we sever the link between public education and public money— which is what will happen if the Latino kids and the Indochinese kids and the Black kids in San Diego don't get an opportunity to grow— then in fact people will give up on public education and we will see vouchers and we will see a whole group of non-public schools getting public money. When that happens, the institution will be doomed and that will mean a society less friendly to the values that have been so beneficial to Jews and to Jewish life."

Block, amplifying on the theme, said "voucher schools drain tremendous amounts of money that are needed in public school. In fact the last time--and you may see it again--a proposition for vouchers was on the ballot (in California), the money that would have gone to vouchers for really a handful of parents would have taken $1.5 billion out of the public schools who are hurting for money as it is."

Reff observed that vouchers weaken the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state "because you have vouchers which are state funds and anybody attending any private school will be allowed to use that voucher, so they can be in a very religious school or any type of school."

"I serve on the board of the American Jewish Committee," she added, "and they have taken a position where they do not support vouchers, but that is not across the whole spectrum of the Jewish community because there are some Jews who send their children to Jewish day schools and some of their parents see value in having vouchers to be used at a Jewish day school. I would rather not see vouchers approved at all because I worry about public funds being out of control and it could be used at a school teaching any philosophy that they want and it could even be dangerous to us as a minority supporting democratic ideals."

Bersin said if vouchers were approved with, say, parents receiving $10,000 to educate their child, there still would be a two-tier system of quality education for the rich and lesser education for the poor. Existing private schools, he said, "would raise their tuition $10,000 and you would see a whole flurry of fly-by-night scholos that would open up to exploit people at the lower levels." Furthermore, he said, there would be "no accountability to public authority."

Donald H. Harrison