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Proposal to support struggling SF students deserves voter support

Illustration by Mia Carson

Too many students in San Francisco’s public schools are struggling, either testing below grade level or experiencing unmet mental health challenges. Furthermore, the San Francisco United School District (SFUSD) faces dire fiscal problems. While much of the responsibility for these issues can be laid at the feet of prior leadership – both at the Board of Education and in the office of the Superintendent – the pandemic has clearly presented unique challenges. SFUSD’s new superintendent and refreshed school board need and deserve partnership from City Hall as they struggle to help students. 

Supervisor Hilary Ronen has stepped up by authoring the Student Success Fund charter amendment. This measure, unanimously approved this afternoon by the Board of Supervisors, will be put to voters on the November ballot. If passed, the City’s Department of Children, Youth and Their Families (DCYF) will oversee the program, under which grants will be provided for programs to improve academic achievement and the social/emotional wellness of students. 

While the initial proposal by Supervisor Ronen had significant deficiencies, her office is to be commended for soliciting and incorporating input from the community. (Disclosure: I was one of many people who was involved in providing feedback throughout the process.) The final version is much improved, and is likely to improve student outcomes. It passes the cost/benefit analysis test and deserves to be approved by voters.

Consider first the cost. After an initial ramp-up period, the Student Success Fund would spend $60 million per year, which is less than one percent of the City’s General Fund (projected in FY 2022-2023 to be approximately $6.8 billion out of a total $14 billion city budget). It grows only in proportion to the overall general fund budget and by no more than 3% each year. It also incorporates mechanisms to reduce funding in case of budget shortfalls, and it would sunset in fifteen years. 

Each of the above elements was negotiated to appropriately conservative levels by city unions in order to secure their support. The annual amount was reduced from $70 million to $60 million; the 3% cap on annual spending increases was introduced; the mechanisms to address budget shortfalls were strengthened; and the sunset provision was tightened from 25 years to 15 years. 

In general, any “set-asides” (i.e. mandated spending) in the city budget should be funded by a dedicated revenue source, in order to avoid crowding out other spending during economic downturns. Budget hawks will observe this is not the case here. However, this deficiency is mitigated by the funding reduction mechanisms in case of budget shortfalls, along with the fifteen year sunset period. 

It is noteworthy that fiscal discipline was enforced by organized labor. Unions have a natural inclination to advocate for programs that employ their members to be as generous as possible. But here there were competing unions at play: The money paid by the Student Success Fund would go to employees represented by United Educators of San Francisco, which could potentially come out of the pockets of city workers represented by the San Francisco Labor Council. And it’s the Labor Council that carries more clout in city politics.

Now let’s turn to the other side of the equation. Is the spending likely to secure the benefits it aims to achieve? 

The original design of the Student Success Fund had two key flaws: it was overly directive in how the money could be spent, and it was insufficiently accountable to the actual improvement of student outcomes. Both flaws have been addressed in the final version.

Originally, the Student Success Fund mandated that money could only be spent to implement a “community schools model” according to a rigid set of criteria. Properly implemented, the community schools model can be very effective, and this model has been attracting more funding both at the national and the state level. But the initial draft of the Student Success Fund ignored SFUSD’s existing community schools program, was overly prescriptive in how its own version of the community schools model should be implemented, and did not provide any flexibility for SFUSD to spend money on other programs that might prove over time to be more effective at improving student outcomes. 

The final version fixes these defects by incorporating SFUSD’s existing practices and providing greater flexibility for DCYF and SFUSD to work together. Crucially, the final version also creates “District Innovation Grants” to allow SFUSD – under the guidance and supervision of DCYF – to develop and implement other programs to improve student outcomes. In relaxing its rigid criteria, the Student Success Fund puts its focus exactly where it belongs: on whatever best helps students.

While the original version of the Student Success Fund was too rigid in how money could be spent, it was too lax in being accountable for results. The final version fixes this defect as well. It mandates that “clearly defined goals” and “measurable outcomes” tied to the improvement of student outcomes must be defined in advance for each grant made by the fund, which is enforced by giving DCYF oversight on these goals and outcomes. The high regard with which DCYF is held under the leadership of Maria Su gives confidence that DCYF’s oversight will be done effectively. 

Much credit goes to new Superintendent Matt Wayne, who was deeply involved in the negotiations around the Student Success Fund even before he officially took the job. Board of Education President Jenny Lam also deserves credit for being engaged throughout. Both leaders understood the need to focus on student outcomes and allow themselves to be held accountable for results. 

One day, hopefully, we will reach a point where taxpayers of San Francisco will be justified in providing funds to SFUSD with no strings attached except the understanding that such funds must be used responsibly to improve student outcomes. Until SFUSD earns that level of trust, San Francisco should provide appropriate financial support to SFUSD with the flexibility to be deployed usefully and the oversight to be confident in the result. The Student Success Fund meets these tests. Voters should give it their approval on the November ballot.

Patrick Wolff is the executive director of Families for San Francisco, a chess grandmaster and a parent of two children who attended SF public schools.

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