[Hall Monitor] SAISD Asked Business Leaders for Support and They Delivered

Note from SA Charter Moms: We are proud to share guest posts from hallmonitor covering San Antonio’s public schools.

Hall Monitor SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez at a school board meeting Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, where a vote was taken to move forward with a partnership with Democracy Prep Public School to takeover Stewart Elementary starting in the fall.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez at a school board meeting Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, where a vote was taken to move forward with a partnership with Democracy Prep Public School to takeover Stewart Elementary starting in the fall. Photo by Alma Hernandez for Folo Media.

One of the best things about business leaders is their fondness for putting things in writing. Rather than leave it to journalists and bloggers (like me) to try to parse where they stand, the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce decided to circulate a statement in its newsletter explaining its full support for embattled SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez. The full statement is copied below.

This support will probably do little to ease tensions with the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, the district’s union. It will not count as evidence as they fight the Alliance’s lawsuit to stop the partnership with Democracy Prep. What it will do is continue the political and financial enthusiasm that has cleared the path for Martinez and his board to fight those battles.

In that way, the support of the business community helps make vision into reality, but it requires results. Schools like Ogden Elementary and Gates Elementary are the kind of results that Martinez is holding up as evidence. Test scores are up. Campus climate has improved. Business community wants more like that.

Since Martinez arrived in the district he has had no shortage of support from business leaders, whose interest in the district is primarily financial, and at times missional. None of what follows is meant to take away from the straight up altruism out there. Charles Butt is not messing around, nor are Mike Burke, City Education Partners, the Brackenridge Foundation, or Harvey Najim. There comes a point when folks like these (some of who happen to be in business) are simply putting their money where their mouth is and trying to make things better for kids.

But there’s a more practical reason behind Chamber of Commerce’s support for SAISD, as you will read in their statement. For one, these are the folks who will be employing (or not employing) SAISD alumni. Companies want strong schools because they want a homegrown workforce that can compete with whatever they could import at a higher price.

Second, a lot of business leaders are invested in areas served by SAISD. Like downtown, the Broadway corridor, the near Eastside, and Southtown.

Financial interest is both powerful and agnostic. Real estate developers want strong schools to increase the value of their investment. Businesses have a lot of muscle to put behind efforts toward that end. The zeitgeist is usually with charter schools, which offer an alternative for families who want to live and work downtown, but don’t want to send their kids to a public school with a bad reputation. And there’s always private school—this is the exact phrase as said by concerned, affluent grandparents trying to figure out why their adult children are moving into the city center.

But really, with the system as is, nothing beats a strong school district from a real estate and workforce perspective. They simply educate more kids. So if you want a large talent pool, it would be great to improve the system that educates the most kids.

If you are trying to convince people to move their businesses and families here, good school districts are selling point. No lottery, no application, no tuition. You move here, you automatically get the perk of good schools.

So when business leaders throw their weight behind Martinez, it’s because they really believe he’s making better schools. You can be cynical about their motivations, but the fact is that business leaders aren’t going to back a loser, at least not for long. Self-interest is absolute. Capitalism 101.

So why not just hand the reigns to business leaders entirely? Why not just let the Chamber of Commerce authorize schools? Why not let the market decide? This is America, after all.

Exactly. This is America, where we know the shortcut to becoming the kind of “good school” that sells well. Get as many poor kids out as possible. Fill those seats with middle class kids, highly motivated families, and/or high achievers who do great on standardized tests, which ranks them well with the Niche/Zillow/etc. systems, and your housing development is off to the races. Districts can also create magnet schools to receive imported families, or create attendance zones that favor certain neighborhoods. It has been done. It can be done again.

Even creating an educated workforce can, in the worst instances, actually mean funneling low income students into low wage jobs, while culling managers from the same places they’ve always been found—wealthy neighborhoods and the schools that serve them.

That’s not what the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce wants, of course. All signs point to wanting a stronger economy with more local kids making more money when they grow up. But I’m saying that support from business is not an inherent or unqualified virtue. It’s just a signal that something is working, and “working” is a great place to start.

For education to work for everyone, it has to prioritize another stakeholder, another seat at the table, another whatever jargon you want to use. It has to prioritize students. The Chamber of Commerce statement indicates that they agree with this, and that’s another reason they are backing Martinez.

The first, middle, and last interest has to be children, including the least likely to boost your Niche score. To use business terms, the kids are the clients, whether or not they want to join the workforce, contribute to the economy, or disrupt the market.

If you want to educate all kids, even those who need the most support, you can’t actually just trust the market. You need some of the elements of that old-fashioned government bureaucracy, with some of its red tape, all of its special education regulations, and its performance measures (preferably more nuanced than standardized tests). You have to make sure that nobody is gaming the system. You have to make sure that the only way to get the numbers and stats and graduation rates you want is by actually educating the children you have. Or the children you should have. That’s why SAISD is maintaining control of enrollment in every school, even as it partners with charter operators and prepares to offer more autonomy to individual campuses.

Choice, specialization, open enrollment, all of those efficient tools that business leaders love, are only as good as the centralized, profit-neutral guardrails to keep them from squeezing out the same kids who were squeezed out the last time we created a school system. The system based on where we live. The system funded by property tax so that schools in wealthy neighborhoods have more money. That system left some kids out, and whatever replaces it will leave them out too unless someone makes it their business to write those very kids into the equation.

Martinez and his team say they have made that their business. I’ve seen the numbers and policies to back that up thus far. But the public will need a steady diet of facts and information with all this change, all this enthusiasm, all this money. People are skeptical about this stuff—at least the Alliance is.

With the backing of the business community, Martinez is going to have to communicate more, not less. Explain more, not less. His message has to be as hybrid as his System of Great Schools. He will have to answer the skeptics—something few business leaders like to do. He will have to put stories out front—something few bureaucrats like to do. He will have to continue to work on his orientation to that fine line between sowing chaos by saying too much, and sowing mistrust by not saying enough.

BUSINESS BACKS SAISD

By Shaun Kennedy, Chairman of the Board of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce

At the SAISD board of trustees meeting on Monday, May 14, among the testimonies from teachers, parents and community members, an individual stood up and boldly stated the “business community” was displeased with the vision of Superintendent Pedro Martinez and the leadership of the board who backs him. As the Chairman of the Board of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, the oldest and largest business organization in San Antonio, representing 2,100 businesses across San Antonio and the region, and a long-time member of the San Antonio business community, I say this could not be further from the truth.

Education is the foundation of a competitive economy. Public schools serve the vast majority of our students and are the source for our workforce. The Chamber and our business community have been long-time advocates for improving the quality of education for every single child in our city. I know from experience that when businesses face fierce competition, market share losses, and retention challenges, leadership must seek innovative ways to regain ground. School districts are no different. They must seek out-of-the-box strategies to keep students on track, attract dynamic talent, and turnaround schools that struggle year after year. Taking decisive measures within the boundaries of established governing rules and regulations is the responsibility of school district leadership and what our children and community deserve.

The business community knows change is messy, even under the best of circumstances. It is clear that SAISD leadership is pursuing thoughtful disruption within an outdated system. Their north star is to educate each and every student to be prepared for facing the great challenges of our future. There are always elements of change with which people will disagree. However, disagreement with a decision does not mean the decision is wrong. The students and families in SAISD are worthy of excellent educational opportunities. Our city’s long-term economic stability depends on cultivating the best and brightest workforce within our schools. We have confidence that the research-driven vision for SAISD will deliver great outcomes for all our benefit.

Originally published as “SAISD asked business leaders for support. They delivered. Here’s what that means . . . and here’s what it doesn’t mean,” Hall Monitor, June 14, 2018

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