Dan Walters

‘I just refuse to die,’ says Democrat fighting uphill battle to reform schools

Gov. Jerry Brown joined Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, left, and other legislators and activists at the state Capitol in 2013 for a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech. Weber is a frontline soldier in California’s war over public education.
Gov. Jerry Brown joined Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, left, and other legislators and activists at the state Capitol in 2013 for a ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech. Weber is a frontline soldier in California’s war over public education. AP

Shirley Weber is a frontline soldier in California’s war over public education – and often surrounded by those on the other side.

“All of my friends are teachers, and I guess all of my enemies too,” Weber, a Democratic assemblywoman from San Diego, said half-seriously during a contentious hearing last month on her bill to require longer probationary periods for new teachers.

She spoke as the California Teachers Association and dozens of teachers lined up to oppose her bill and as she exchanged sharp words with the Assembly Education Committee chairman, former teacher Patrick O’Donnell, who at one point cut off her microphone.

O’Donnell said longer probation would allow administrators to cut spending, which Weber termed “a bogus argument.” Finally, the committee approved Weber’s Assembly Bill 1220, keeping it alive but still facing a very uphill battle.

The committee also approved another Weber bill (AB1321) that runs against the grain by requiring more detailed reporting on how schools spend extra money meant to help poor and English-learner students.

For years, the establishment, led by the deep-pocketed CTA, has been battling a loose coalition of education reform and civil rights groups over issues ranging from teacher tenure to academic accountability and the fate of charter schools.

Weber, who was born into a family of Arkansas sharecroppers but earned a doctorate in California, became a college professor and served on the San Diego school board, is one of very few Democratic legislators to openly buck the establishment.

She’s especially critical of how the Local Control Funding Formula, Gov. Jerry Brown’s pet education program, has been implemented. While it provides billions of dollars to school districts to raise the academic achievement of “high-needs” students, Brown and other officials have been very reluctant to evaluate spending and results.

Weber says she persuaded legislators such as herself, who represent large populations of those students, to support LCFF, but adds, “LCFF is a failure. It’s not doing what it said it was going to do.”

Outside studies by such prestigious academic organizations as the Public Policy Institute of California and Policy Analysis for California Education have been critical of the lack of clarity and the apparent diversion of LCFF funds to other purposes.

Weber says she’s pleaded with Brown to back tighter accountability, but so far he’s been unwilling. Brown has cited “subsidiarity,” which he defines as trusting local school officials to spend the money wisely.

“It’s a vicious circle we’re in,” Weber says of how LCFF has been implemented, and lamenting that “the only way we get change is that people have to be sued.”

It’s a reference to complaints and suits that civil rights advocates have pressed to force individual districts to account for how the money meant to help high-needs children achieve parity is actually spent on them.

Meanwhile, Weber will continue her crusade in the Capitol for education reform.

“I just refuse to die,” she says.

  Comments