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The Literacy Crisis

Our illiteracy rate is alarming, but the ed establishment doesn’t seem to be concerned.

The biggest problem in the country today? Some may say that it’s healthcare, while others will insist that it’s the economy. A third group maintains that it’s ISIS. While a good a case can be made for any of the above, I argue that Problem #1 is an education system that is failing so many of its students. According to The Literacy Project, there are currently 45 million Americans who are functionally illiterate, unable to read above a 5th grade level, and half of all adults can’t read a book at an 8th grade level. In California, 25 percent of the state’s 6 million students are unable to perform basic reading skills. Without being able to read on an adult level, Americans will never be able to comprehend our other national problems.

With such poor readers, it’s hardly surprising that 44 percent of students entering Cal State schools need remediation. The situation in Los Angeles is particularly dire. Fifty-three percent of graduating students received at least one D in the A—G required courses. Students traditionally had to get a C or better in all of these core-area classes to graduate. But instead of ramping up the rigor, the school district made D the passing grade a couple of years ago. However, that created a problem: the University of California doesn’t allow students with any D’s in the required classes to enter the system.

With the lower threshold to graduate and the magic of bogus “credit recovery” classes, the Los Angeles Unified School District grad rate zoomed from 54 to 77 percent practically overnight. Referring to the higher grad rates, LAUSD Superintendent Michelle King had the temerity to proclaim that she is proud “of the heroic efforts by our teachers, counselors, parents, administrators and classified staff who rally around our students every day.”

So other than lowering the standards for graduation, what are the educational establishmentarians doing in LA doing to improve things?

As a way to replicate success, Great Public Schools Now (Eli Broad’s philanthropic effort) has awarded $750,000 to Public Service Community School and King/Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science, both located south of downtown L.A. “We believe this strategy of dramatically expanding schools is a smart way of ensuring that all students will have access to the best that schools have to offer,” said Myrna Castrejón, executive director of GPSN.

Sounds good, right? Apparently Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, doesn’t think so. His only on-the-record comment: “This is the same old bait and switch.

At the same time, UTLA is standing firmly behind SB 808, a bill by State Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Cerritos) which would limit charter school authorization to school districts only. As things stand now, if a district turns down a charter, the school can appeal to their county board of education and, if necessary, the state board. But if SB 808 becomes law, the local school board – which is frequently in bed with the local teachers union – would become the only charter authorizer. The 160,000 or so kids on charter school wait-lists in the Golden State and their parents are undoubtedly foes of this unnecessarily restrictive bill.

Caputo-Pearl has also been in the news lately for something else. Demanding more rigor for students? No. Coming up with a way to expedite the process of firing incompetent teachers? Hardly. The union leader is calling on LAUSD chief Michelle King to close all the city’s schools on May 1st for a massive protest to join the “broader resistance to the Trump administration’s agenda.” (The good news is that King has decided to ignore Caputo-Pearl’s politicking and keep the schools open.)

On the state level, the California Teachers Association’s way of dealing with the edu-mess is to get behind anti-charter school legislation in Sacramento, despite the fact that of the top 20 schools in LA Unified with the highest UC acceptance rates, more than half were independent charters. (H/T School Data Nerd.) So instead of looking favorably at these public schools of choice, the CTA-backed AB 406 (Kevin McCarty D-Sacramento) would either block or seriously limit the ability of for-profit companies to operate charter schools in California. Should AB 406 fly, it would send many successful charter schools’ operations into disarray.

Merit pay, which has long been discussed as a way to hire and retain great teachers, might help. In fact, “a merit-pay program led to the equivalent of four extra weeks of student learning, according to a new analysis of 44 studies of incentive-pay initiatives in the United States and abroad.” But as believers in the quality-blind, step-and-column method of teacher pay, no CTA-affiliate’s contract will allow for this.

National union leaders have been mum on the literacy issue. But American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten did take some time to weigh in on President Trump’s decision to bomb Syria and trash Neil Gorsuch’s ascendancy to the Supreme Court.

The National Education Association hasn’t addressed the mounting illiteracy rate either, but is prominently promoting the radical gay agenda. The union is in full support of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network’s annual Day of Silence, which is on April 21st. This year’s theme – no, I am not making this up – is to “make America Gay again.”

The teachers unions’ agenda is mostly political and has little, if anything, to do with making kids literate Americans. It is not part of their mission. Their frequently bought-and-paid-for handmaidens, the local school boards, do little to staunch union power. As such, it would behoove parents – and in fact all citizens – to get more politically involved and demand educational excellence. And the ideal way to do that is to let parents choose the best schools to send their kids to, and have tax dollars follow the child. Without a literate citizenry, the United States, as we have known it, will cease to exist.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Charter Chumps

The competition-phobic teachers unions are still trying to decimate charter schools.

As I wrote a couple of years ago, the teachers unions vacillate when it comes to charter schools. On odd days they try to organize them and on even ones they go all out to eviscerate them. But the organizing efforts haven’t gone too well. The Center for Education Reform reports that, nationwide, the percentage of unionized charter schools has dropped from 12 in 2009 to a paltry 7 in 2012. In California, there is a 15 percent unionization rate, but that number, from the 2009-2010 school year, is long overdue for an update.

So if you can’t join ‘em, you try to undermine ‘em. To that end, during National School Choice Week in January, the National Education Association claimed that charter schools are unaccountable and warned the public to be wary of them. Then last week, NEA posted “Federal funding of charter schools needs more oversight, accountability” on its website.

This is pure union obstructionism and especially laughable coming from an organization whose mantra is, “Let’s spend bushels more on public education … but don’t hold any unionized teachers accountable.” In fact, there is plenty of oversight and accountability for charters. As the California Charter School Association points out, unlike traditional public schools, charters “are academically accountable on two counts. They are held accountable by their authorizer (usually the local school district) and, most importantly, by the families they serve. When a team of school developers submit their charter petition, they must define their academic goals In order to be authorized, their goals must be rigorous. In order to stay open, they must meet or exceed those goals.” Additionally charters must abide by various state and federal laws, civil rights statutes, safety rules, standard financial practices, etc.

Perhaps most importantly, charter schools – schools of choice – have to please their customers: children and their parents. On that count, charters are doing quite well. Just about every study ever done on them shows that they outperform traditional schools, and Black and Hispanic kids benefit the most. Nationally, there are 6,440 schools serving 2,513,634 students, but the bad news is that there are over a million more kids on wait lists. And the situation is especially bad in areas that need charters the most: our big cities, which serve primarily poor and minority families. A new report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools points out that New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Boston, Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Miami and Washington, D.C. fail to meet parental demand.

And then there is California.

The Golden State is the national leader in charters with 1,184, serving 547,800 students. But not surprisingly it also leads the country in kids who want to get in but can’t, and there are 158,000 of them. Of course the teachers unions are saying and doing what they can to deny parents – again mostly minorities and poor – the right to escape their unionized public schools. United Teachers of Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl recently stated that “a lot of charters don’t allow access for special-education students or English learners.” This of course is bilge; charter schools must serve all students. Lest his sentiments were not clear, he added, “The ascendant forces in California’s charter movement, I don’t see a lot of value in them.”

California Teachers Association president Dean Vogel recently opined. “There is a role for charter schools in California’s education system, and that role should be performed to the same high standards of integrity, transparency and openness required of traditional public schools.”

My goodness, no! I want charters to perform at way higher standards than traditional public schools … and thankfully most do.

Sadly CTA, now in eviscerate mode, is sponsoring four bills making the rounds in the California legislature. The union’s professed aim is regulation, but it appears to be a lot more like strangulation. The bills, which you can read about here, are nothing more than ways to limit charter growth, harass them and take away any needed independence they now have. For example, Tony Mendoza’s SB 329 would allow a charter petition to be denied for “anticipated financial impact.” This is simply a way to deny a charter for any reason and use money as an excuse. (This bill is similar Mendoza’s AB 1172 which died in committee in 2012.) AB 787 would require that all charters be run as non-profits. The bill’s author, Roger Hernández, said it would also “establish charter schools as governmental entities and their employees as public employees, giving them an increased ability to unionize.” Pure nonsense. Charters are fully capable of organizing now and only 10 in the state (less than one percent) are currently for-profit schools.

What the unions will never admit is that charter schools are effective because they are independent and not bound by the union contact, and when they are unionized, they are no different from traditional public schools. Jay Greene, in The Wall Street Journal, cited a study conducted by Harvard economist Tom Kane which found that, comparing apples to apples,

… students accepted by lottery at independently operated charter schools significantly outperformed students who lost the lottery and returned to district schools. But students accepted by lottery at charters run by the school district with unionized teachers experienced no benefit. (Emphasis added.)

The war between teacher union leaders who insist on a one-size-fits-all cookie cutter education system run by them, and parents who want to get their kids out of failing schools and into charters rages on. In the meantime, there are thousands of kids in California whose futures are in jeopardy as the teachers unions direct their cronies in the legislature to do their bidding and decimate charter schools.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.