San Francisco’s seven-member school board has three vacancies that will be filled in this election on Nov. 6; there are 18 candidates and no incumbents.
John Trasviña—a native San Franciscan with a history of focusing on education during his career, both in the private sector and in the White House—argues that his federal and nonprofit experience makes him the right choice.
Trasviña has a history of involvement with education. He attended all of his primary schooling in San Francisco. His mother was one of the first bilingual teachers in the city, and Trasviña was the second student representative to sit on the Board of Education when they first began allowing students.
After graduating from Lowell High School, he attended Harvard and Stanford Law School, focusing on civil rights, immigration rights and immigrant housing rights.
He was the City’s Deputy Attorney from 1983-1985, then worked for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund until 1987. He then began working for the federal government, first as counsel for former Illinois Rep. Paul Simon, and then as General Counsel and Staff Director for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights.
Trasviña was appointed to be Special Counsel for Immigration Related Unfair Employment Practices in the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) in 1997. He left the DOJ in 2001 and returned to the private sector, again working for MALDEF after a brief teaching stint at Berkeley
He then worked with the Obama Administration in the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), after which he became Dean of University of San Francisco Law School.
Trasviña points to his lengthy resume in both the private and public sector as qualification for his spot on the school board.
“In part because I recognize how important education is and when I was in the Obama administration, I was there in the first term as assistant secretary … we made a lot of improvements,” Trasviña said. “We have the first rule on LGBT housing discrimination … but they’ve been taken away by this administration. And there’s one thing you can’t take away, that’s a child’s education. That’s why I feel so compelled to run for the board and really improve the quality of the schools in San Francisco.”
Latino students make up 27 percent of San Francisco’s school district, making them second largest demographic.
Trasviña feels his time at HUD gave him experience in the decision making and listening to under-resourced communities, experience that he argues could be an crucial difference for parents.
“I feel that I’m an inclusive leader and by that I mean, listening and learning and then acting based on what I’ve learned.,” he said. “I did that in Washington, listening to career civil servants who were beaten down by the bureaucracy, but also listening to advocacy groups and just average people who had faced housing discrimination.”
This federal experience comes with its own perspective and network, Trasviña is the only school board candidate endorsed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Nancy Pelosi.
In terms of educational strategies, Trasviña has several ideas, one of which is a Latino Education Initiative that would focus on educating the parent and the child through community outreach to foster the most learning.
“We go to the unions, we go to churches, we go to Mission Graduates as an example, that’s how we reach out,” he said. “Not as a department, or school district but as the effective bridges to reach people.”
A joint component to this, Trasviña argues, would be teaching kids English at the earliest stages of education. He stands behind the League of United Latin American Citizens’ (LULAC) pledge that every child should know 400 english words before starting school.
The top-down (parent to child) and bottom-up (child to parent) education approach is something Trasviña would say is crucial towards the success of Latino and non-Latino students. At a base level, this approach to education seeks to get parents more involved in the child’s educational process.
“This is incorporating them [parents] into the system, this gives them a louder voice so they can be active in the overall involvement of schools, so the approach that I’m suggesting, would do like we did in MALDEF in Los Angeles would equip parents with the kind of skills and strategies so they can be an effective voice at the school site level,” he said.
These solutions are idealistic but designed to work toward an equitable and well-distributed educational system for all of the city’s students. San Francisco does have structural impediments to its education system like exorbitant cost of living that then limits the amount of money public schools get from the state which in turn lowers the number of kids going to public schools. These structural issues are cyclical and require instituting structural solutions.
Trasviña addressed this and presented a possible solution.“Other issues such as finance, that is a key problem and California has addressed that in some respects by increasing state aide to the school districts, we used to, after prop 13 we were in the high 40s … by that I mean at the bottom of state comparators for funding public education. Over the past few years we’ve moved up into the 20s in terms of ranking.”
His solution hinges on 2020 ballot initiative that splits commercial and industrial properties from Proposition 13, the 1978 measure that reduced state property taxes by 57 percent, so that the state can raise taxes on these properties.
“We’re still not there yet, I support what many support on the 2020 ballot which is to split out commercial property and industrial property from Proposition 13, so we can raise the property tax on those properties—leave the houses alone,” he said. “It would bring in $4.4 billion to the school districts, not just ours, statewide and the community colleges, that again brings us closer to some of the other states that are much higher in per pupil spending.”
This strategy has incurred some criticism from lawmakers. State Senator Scott Wiener argued that this could incentivize commercial rather than residential development.
Trasviña said he cares about education in the city and wants to do what he can to fix what he sees as the biggest issues. A criticism could be made that the solutions he supports are broadly reactionary and not structural, or at the least that the structural solutions he supports have their fair share of drawbacks.
Trasviña also brought up the idea of a “Latino Congreso” likened to the African American Achievement and Leadership Initiative. While there currently is a similar program for students learning English, there are a variety of kids who are non-English speakers who are not Latino.
“So when I say we need a Latino education initiative, having a parent counsel, those are the type of things that will give parents a form and a voice to be part of the decision making—getting information, sharing it with other parents, that’s the process that i would undertake,” Trasviña said.
His practical strategies call upon his federal experience in housing, combined with his personal background to promote and support outreach programs that educate both the kids and the parents. His ideology, politically is wrapped in his pragmatism; Trasviña sees the institutions of education as functional and if provided enough support, those institutions will help create the most equitable learning environment all students.
Whether or not San Francisco students and parents will see this ideological pragmatism will be decided on Nov. 6.
Story by: Ian Firstenberg