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Critics of San Diego superintendent call on Biden to rescind her nomination to Education post

Cindy Marten is pictured, masked, inside a San Diego County elementary school.
San Diego Unified Supt. Cindy Marten, pictured visiting an elementary school for a coronavirus test on Jan. 12, has been nominated as deputy U.S. Education secretary.
(Jarrod Valliere / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The recent announcement that San Diego Supt. Cindy Marten was tapped to become the next deputy U.S. Education secretary drew widespread praise among policymakers and educators, who say Marten has championed equity within schools.

But some local parents, community members and the NAACP San Diego are criticizing the choice, saying Marten has not reduced racial disparities in schools for Black and Latino children and that her failure to reopen schools for 98% of San Diego Unified students has caused students to fall behind.

For the record:

8:07 PM, Jan. 29, 2021This story says the San Diego Unified School District suspension rate for Black students in the 2018-19 school year was unchanged from 2013, when Cindy Marten took the helm. The suspension rate in 2018-19 was 1.5 percentage points lower than in 2013.

The nomination of the former teacher and principal drew praise from Secretary of State Shirley Weber, state Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, the San Diego Unified school board, the San Diego teachers union, the national Council of the Great City Schools, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, former Mayor Kevin Faulconer and San Diego County Dist. Atty. Summer Stephan, among others.

“Cindy Marten will be a great voice for our students and educators,” Weber tweeted. “Thank you for your equity work, spanning 31 years in education, including 17 years in the classroom.”

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“Congratulations to [Marten], who has dedicated her career to improving the lives of students, inspiring countless educators, and championing equity,” Thurmond tweeted. “A great day for California and our nation, and I am proud to call you a colleague and friend.”

“This is a great pick by @JoeBiden,” tweeted Mayor Todd Gloria. “Since her time as Central Elementary’s principal I’ve seen [Marten’s] passion for educating students. I’m excited that San Diego will be at the table in the new administration.”

But some local parents and community members who have long had complaints with San Diego Unified have criticized the nomination and challenge the idea that Marten has succeeded in making schools equitable.

One of the criticisms is that Marten has kept students out of school for the past 10 months of the pandemic.

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Parents say distance learning has exacerbated inequities because it often leaves much of the teaching and supervision of children to parents, hurting families that have essential workers or are otherwise not able to help children learn at home.

Many students also lack a suitable home environment for learning, and some students, particularly those with disabilities, can’t learn effectively online or through Zoom.

“If one of Biden’s focuses is to reopen schools, how can Cindy Marten be a role model?” said Tamara Hurley, a parent whose children graduated from the district.

San Diego Unified officials have repeatedly said the district is taking a “science-based approach” to reopening, consulting with UC San Diego experts and choosing to keep campuses closed because community rates of the coronavirus have been high in some areas of the district.

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Several parents have supported the school closures, saying they’d rather their children stay home than risk being exposed to the virus at school.

Many large districts, including Los Angeles, also remain closed. Marten was among a group of California superintendents who called on Gov. Gavin Newsom to provide more support for schools to reopen, including more testing and funding.

San Diego Unified has offered limited in-person support sessions to students on an appointment basis. But that has been a disappointment because it is serving a small number of students — currently about 1,100, or 1%, of the district’s students — San Diego Unified school board members have said.

Others say that, even before the pandemic, Marten failed to provide equity for all children, particularly for Black students.

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NAACP San Diego has called on Biden to rescind Marten’s nomination because the district suspends and expels Black students at disproportionately high rates — a disparity that is widespread among schools nationwide.

“Dr. Marten in the past year has attempted to correct harm by having anti-Racist trainings that included changing policies on grading. While this is commendable, it does not erase the fact that SDUSD has a history of harming Black children,” NAACP San Diego said in a statement.

Disparities by race

In the 2018-19 school year, Black students in San Diego Unified were suspended more than three times as often as white students, and they accounted for 18% of students suspended despite making up 8% of the student body.

The suspension rate for Black students that year was unchanged from 2013, when Marten took the helm.

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“Someone at the level of deputy secretary should have a long track record of success within education for all students, for providing equity for all students,” said Katrina Hamilton, education chair for NAACP San Diego. “And while we have folks who are saying that [Marten] has 31 years of equity, where is that track record?”

Racial disparities are evident in other aspects of San Diego Unified schools, including the national test scores that President Biden’s team cited as one reason for choosing Marten.

In 2019, San Diego Unified was one of two large urban districts nationwide to outperform the average on national test scores for math and reading for fourth- and eighth-graders.

Despite that record, achievement gaps for Black and Latino students compared with white students remained largely unchanged from 2013, the year Marten became superintendent, according to NAEP, the Nation’s Report Card.

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State test score data also tell an inconsistent story about performance.

State data show the district raised the performance of all students — including Black, Latino and white students — between 2015 and 2019.

But while achievement gaps between Black or Latino students and white students shrank slightly, they still exceeded 30 percentage points for both English language arts and math.

About 62% of Black students and 57% of Latino students did not meet state standards for English language arts in 2019, while 72% of Black students and 68% of Latino students did not meet standards for math in 2019.

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In graduation rates, there is a 10-percentage-point gap between Black and Latino students — at 84% — and white, Asian and multiracial students — who had rates of 94% or greater.

The district’s overall graduation rate is 89%.

Some local leaders dispute the criticisms about Marten, saying they unfairly disregard the progress she has made in the district.

“She has worked hard to bring about positive change when it comes to equity,” said Frank Jordan, a past president of the San Diego NAACP and California NAACP.

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“It’s very easy to complain, but what have you done to create that dialogue and open doors yourself?” he said. Marten “has tried, she has honestly tried. You cannot snap your fingers and create change. To create positive change, it takes work.”

Equity reforms

A report by the Learning Policy Institute, an organization led by the state school board president that helped amplify San Diego Unified’s reputation as a well-performing district, found that San Diego Unified was one of multiple California districts where Black, Latino and white students performed better academically than predicted — given the socioeconomic status of families in the district.

The report noted that percentages of all student racial groups and low-income and non-low-income students reaching proficiency on state tests rose between 2015 to 2017. About 57% of San Diego Unified students are low-income.

San Diego Unified’s Black and Latino students also graduated at higher rates than did Black and Latino students in California as a whole.

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Under Marten’s leadership, San Diego Unified has implemented several racial equity reforms, including changing the way students are graded to be less punitive, requiring restorative discipline, launching efforts to increase staff diversity and studying the role of school police.

San Diego Unified Board trustee Sharon Whitehurst-Payne recently said the district was moving in the right direction.

“I don’t think anybody existing is perfect, and that goes for me, you, superintendent and the rest of us,” Whitehurst-Payne said. “But the question is, are we on a continuum to improve? We at least have discovered a path, and we’re following that path.”

Marten will stay with the district until she is confirmed by the Senate, which school board officials expect to happen next month.

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Kristen Taketa writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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