Governor appoints S.F. attorney to upgrade education standards

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Nearly 10 years after serving as the nation's first immigration employment rights' czar, Lawrence Siskind is practicing politics closer to home.

Siskind, who served as special counsel for immigration-related unfair employment practices under Presidents Bush and Reagan, was named last month by Gov. Pete Wilson to the Commission for the Establishment of Academic Content and Performance Standards.

The panel's job is developing academically rigorous content and performance standards for California's public schools.

As a parent of three school-aged daughters, Siskind feels California's educational system needs improvement," said Siskind, a partner in the 100-year-old San Francisco law firm Cooper, White and Cooper.

Siskind, 43, joins 20 other appointed members on the commission, including parents, teachers, lawyers, and state Superintendent of Public Education Delaine Eastin.

Siskind's service is unpaid. But he has other motivations. "It's very simple. I'm for good schools," he said.

He's also for school vouchers — an issue that has been divisive within the Jewish community.

"I have a typically Jewish attitude about education: It's paramount. But I also think anything we can do to encourage competition between schools [like vouchers] should be done," said Siskind, a member of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette and vice president of the Bay Area's chapter of the American Jewish Committee.

Siskind's three daughters — Leah, 9; Cory, 8; and Sarah, 4 — attend public school in Piedmont. The district is considered among the best in the state, but Siskind is disappointed in his children's education.

"I shudder to think of schools in other communities," he said.

As starting points for improvement, Siskind suggests a greater emphasis on math and spelling, letter grades, and a longer school day and academic year.

"You can't learn if you're not in school," he said.

He also supports reduced class size and increased educational funding. Currently the state spends $4,773 per student per year, ranking 41st in the nation in per-pupil spending.

However, Siskind's first call is for a "re-examination of the teaching philosophy.

"Teachers once believed students could learn and were demanding of them," he said.

"My sense is we're not challenging our children enough. We've set the bar too low because we don't want them to be hurt or disappointed. But by setting it that low, we do them a disadvantage."

The commission, funded by a Wilson-approved $130,000 appropriation, has yet to meet or map out its strategies. However, public hearings are planned.

Meanwhile, Siskind, who heads his law firm's intellectual property law group, is approaching his commission responsibility with his "eyes wide open."

"My sense of all of this comes from a very limited experience," he said, though he added he is well-versed in public policy. "I'm eager to learn."