Mark Stegeman Special To The Arizona Daily Star | Posted: Tuesday, May 18, 2010 12:00 am

After 16 months on the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board, I recommend the job to anyone who feels that life is getting stale. Here is one viewpoint, from the firing range.

TUSD has long included excelling schools – 11 are currently rated “excelling” by the state – and excellent teachers and programs, but it has also suffered from serious management failures. These failures have eroded public and employee confidence and frustrated those who believe in public education and have invested personally in the district’s success.

In 2008, a turnaround began. We now have fewer administrators, better administrators in key positions, better principals at many schools and a new emphasis on accountability. We still have far to go, but the turnaround has enough momentum to survive ongoing shocks.

TUSD’s top management united quickly after learning of Elizabeth Celania-Fagen’s resignation, and Maggie Shafer has performed well as acting superintendent. This continuity buys the time necessary for a careful search for a new superintendent. We need someone who will stay and bring stability to the district.

The board and the staff are working well as a team, better than in times past. We have made some mistakes and deserved some (but not all) of the negative headlines, but we are also making decisions more carefully, with more information and usually with more opportunity for public input.

TUSD faces many challenges as we continue to put our house in order.

We have made significant cuts in administrative expenses, but we have more work to do. The moment that we declare victory in the war against administrative costs will be the moment that we lose that war.

We must focus relentlessly on student achievement, measured not just by test scores but by the whole range of knowledge and skills demanded by a technical and rapidly changing society. We who teach at universities know that the current K-12 system produces unacceptable results. Too many entering freshmen perform far below their potential.

TUSD has ignored, at its peril, the divisions surrounding the Ethnic Studies program. The district rightly argues that programs that motivate students and raise their achievement should be cherished. It is appropriate to teach about regional history and the diverse cultures that form our heritage. As an educator, I also believe that high school students should be exposed to radical voices. Teaching history requires teaching about oppression.

It is important, however, for students to hear the whole spectrum of radical voices – and the teacher should not be one of them. It is our obligation to provide balance.

Opinions about this program have become polarized. I am concerned that thousands of families who have little personal stake in the debate and seek only a solid education for their children will become the victims of a political shoving match.

Therefore, unless the law against ethnic studies is overturned, we must respect it scrupulously. We should create a bipartisan panel to assess the program’s compliance with the law and, if necessary, make recommendations to the board.

The glare of immediate issues can obscure the broad picture. Conservative and liberal economists agree that improved and expanded public education played a critical role in the United States’ rise to economic dominance in the early 20th century. Public education needs a similar rebirth today. Poorly educated students place far greater burdens on the taxpayer, through unemployment, crime and social services, than the cost of a good education.

Transforming TUSD into a premier school district will take time, and the severe budget problems Arizona faces add to the challenge. But I am committed to reaching that goal as quickly as possible.

Mark Stegeman sits on the TUSD Governing Board and is an associate professor of economics at the University of Arizona. E-mail him at mark.stegeman@tusd1.org

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