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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.

Anti-Charter-School Rhetoric Isn’t Helping L.A.’s Kids

As the son of poor sharecroppers from East Texas who came to California to work as migrant farm workers, I greet the new school year as a time of hope and possibility for my family.

Neither of my parents was able to complete elementary school in the segregated South, but they knew education was the ticket to a brighter future for my brothers and me. With their encouragement, I went on to graduate from UCLA and Harvard law school. I was lucky to have been raised in a small town with few minority students and an excellent Public School system. Many of my relatives and friends who lived in Los Angeles did not receive the same education opportunity I was afforded.

As a result, I have spent the greater part of my adult life committed to expanding educational opportunity, especially for poor black and brown kids who are just like me. I am increasingly dismayed at the nasty polarization in education politics. For those of us who say we are concerned about public education, we urgently need to change the tenor and discourse about how to improve all of our schools.

20160907-CPC-Alliance
Alliance charter high schools have a 95% graduation rate

Regrettably, this new school year has begun amid ill-informed denunciations of charter schools by the NAACP and Black Lives Matter; a skewed and misleading piece by TV comedian John Oliver; and closer to home, a hyperbolic call to arms by the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers’ union for Los Angeles Unified schools, against charter schools more broadly and specifically against Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, of which I am a founder and on whose board I still sit.

Missing in all the critiques of charter schools is any mention of student needs and achievement. Instead we are fed abstract arguments about the need to protect bureaucratic government systems that have shortchanged minority families for decades. Missing has been the voices of hundreds of thousands of parents who have found a better opportunity for their children in innovative, autonomous public charter schools.

At Alliance schools, neither our students nor their parents care about the governance structure of their school. Like my parents, what they care about is if their school is safe and welcoming and whether it lives up to the promise to educate all students regardless of how they walk in the door. At Alliance, we have lived up to that promise.

The average Alliance student enters our middle and high schools four to five grade levels behind in reading. Yet, 95 percent of Alliance students graduate in four years and 95 percent of those graduates are accepted to college.

It is highly insulting to the 12,500 families and 1,200 teachers, school leaders and staff — who have worked tirelessly to build Alliance into one of the largest and most successful public school networks in the nation — to dismiss their hard work and dedication to student success as a nefarious conspiracy led by a secret cabal of “billionaires” determined to destroy public schools. It’s also an offensive distortion of reality.

When I hear the president of UTLA regularly condemn Alliance specifically and charter schools more broadly, I feel that I am living in an alternate reality. In any rational universe, Alliance schools would be celebrated, studied and asked to share what we have learned.

There is a strong case to be made for the positive impact charter schools like Alliance have had on traditional public schools. In Los Angeles, we have helped to change the debate and expectations about what is possible, especially for black and brown students in our city’s lowest-income communities.

More important, we’ve made a difference in the lives of our students and their families. Beyond the exceptional results of Alliance schools, the 2015 research study by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that the academic gains in math and reading for African American, Latino, low-income and special education students in urban charter schools are significantly higher than traditional urban public schools. The example of what is possible at high-performing charter schools has helped spur the LAUSD to increase graduation rates as well as strengthen its commitment to college-ready education for all students.

I applaud LAUSD Superintendent Michelle King’s effort to cool the heated us-vs.-them rhetoric fueled by the teachers union, and instead turn her focus on charters and traditional schools learning from each other, increasing high-performing schools of all kinds and offering low-income families the school choice that more affluent families have.

As we begin the new school year, let’s focus on the wonder and promise that can be seen in eyes of every child who walks into a school — any type of school. It is long past time to turn down the bombastic rhetoric and divisions driven by adult politics and focus instead on what works to provide all of our children a high-quality education.

Virgil Roberts is an attorney at the law firm of Bobbitt and Roberts, and a member of the board of directors of Alliance College-Ready Public Schools. This commentary originally appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News and appears here with permission from the author.

LAUSD Offer Worth $122,938 Per Year – Will They Strike Anyway?

“Our demands, they’re not radical. When did it become radical to have class sizes that you could actually teach in? When did it become radical to have staffing and to pay people back after eight years of nothing?”
 – Alex Caputo Pearl, President, UTLA, February 26, 2015, Los Angeles Times

If the 35,000 members of the United Teachers Los Angeles, the union that represents employees of Los Angeles Unified School District, actually go on strike, in large part it will be because they want an 8.5% salary increase and the district is only offering them 5%. They also want smaller class sizes – tough to do when you’re passing out salary increases. But how much do these teachers actually make?

If you review the most authoritative source of public information on LAUSD salaries, the California state controller’s public pay website you will get the impression they aren’t making much. The summary page for LAUSD shows “average wages” of $40,506 per year and employer paid “average retirement and health” benefits at $10,867 per year.

This is extremely misleading. These “averages” include part-time workers such as student teachers and substitute teachers. But the “Raw Export” tab of the state controller’s website yields more comprehensive information.

20150303-UW_Ring-LAUSD-SCO

If you eliminate part-time workers and eliminate workers who were hired or left employment mid-year – based on screening out of the data any individual record where the recorded “base pay” is 10% or more less than the stated “minimum pay for position” for that record – a very different compensation profile emerges. In reality, teachers who worked full-time during 2013 for the LA Unified School District made direct pay that averaged $72,781, and they collected employer paid benefits averaging $17,012, meaning their total pay and benefits package was $89,793. And they collected this in return for working between 163 and 180 days per year (ref. UTLA/LAUSD Labor Agreement, page 30).

20150303-UW_Ring-LAUSD-Actual

Properly estimating how much LAUSD teachers make, however, requires at least two important additional calculations, (1), normalizing their pay to take into account their extraordinary quantity of vacation time, and (2) taking into account the state of California’s direct payments into CalSTRS as well as the necessity to increase CalSTRS contributions in order to pay down their unfunded liability.

Normalizing for vacation time is easy. Using the larger number referenced in their labor agreement, 180 days per year of work, based on 260 weekdays per year, means LAUSD teachers work 36 weeks a year and get 16 weeks off. The typical private sector worker rarely gets more than four weeks off, two weeks of vacation and two weeks of paid holidays. While many professionals earn more than two weeks of vacation, they are also required to be perpetually on call and often work far more than 40 hour weeks. Many entry level or low income workers don’t get paid for any holidays or vacation. It is reasonable to assume the typical teacher works 12 weeks less per year than the average private sector worker. This translates into a $24,260 value on top of the average LAUSD teacher’s direct pay of $72,781 per year.

“Eight years of nothing.” Really, Mr. Caputo Pearl?

Normalizing for the value of pensions is not easy, but using similarly conservative assumptions we can develop reasonable estimates. For starters, from the CalSTRS website, here’s what the state contributes:

“The state contributes a percentage of the annual earnings of all members to the Defined Benefit Program. Under the new funding plan, the state’s contribution is increasing over the next three years from 3.041 percent in 2013–14 to 6.328 percent beginning July 1, 2016. The state also contributes an amount equal to about 2.5 percent of annual member earnings into the CalSTRS Supplemental Benefit Maintenance Account. The SBMA account is used to maintain the purchasing power of benefits.”

Sticking with current contributions – 3.041% plus 2.5%, based on “member earnings” referring to “direct pay,” that adds another $4,033 to the average earnings of an LAUSD teacher.

In summary, LAUSD teachers are threatening to strike because they only make – using real world equivalents – $97,041 in direct pay, plus $21,045 in employer paid benefits. The average full-time LAUSD teacher earns total compensation worth $118,086 per year. Throw onto direct pay the 5% offer from the district, worth another $4,852 per year, and you have a total average teacher compensation proposed to go up to $122,938 per year.

Any critic of this analysis who happens to be an LAUSD teacher is invited to work 48 weeks a year instead of 36 weeks a year, or, of course, give up their pension benefit. Otherwise, these are the numbers. To verify them, download this spreadsheet analysis which uses payroll and benefit data provided by LAUSD to the California State Controller’s office:  LAUSD_2013_Compensation-Analysis.xlsx (10.0 MB).

No reasonable person should fail to sympathize with the challenges facing teachers in Los Angeles public schools. But the solution is not higher pay. The solution is to purge the system of bad teachers, reward excellent teachers, give principals more autonomy, stop promoting and retaining teachers based on seniority, measure teacher effectiveness based on the academic success of their pupils, and, gasp, improve the ratio of teachers to support staff. As it is, during 2013 LAUSD spent $2.6 billion on full-time and part-time teachers, and $2.1 billion on full-time and part-time other staff. Do they really need to spend 45% of their payroll outside the classroom? The solution is also to lower the cost of living for everyone, through supporting government policies that encourage competitive development of land and resources.

Finally, this estimate of the value of average total compensation for LAUSD full time teachers is still dramatically understated, because CalSTRS remains wallowed in an underfunded position that is officially recognized at $73.7 billion.

To the extent the leadership of the UTLA and their membership subscribe to “left wing” political sentiments, remember this:

There are currently $4.0 trillion of state/local U.S. government worker pension fund assets overseen by managers who rampage about the entire planet demanding annual yields north of 7.0% per year. This is a financial maelstrom of cataclysmic proportions that is corrupting the entire global economy. It is an act of wanton aggression against honest capitalists and private households attempting to save for retirement. Ongoing annual returns of this size require asset bubbles which require risky investments and cheap credit – antithetical to sustainable economic growth.

Remember this as you fight to enhance your compensation and defend your pensions as they are – you have exempted yourself from economic reality and are recklessly gambling with the future of the people you supposedly serve. Through your pension funds, you are benefiting from capitalism in its most aggressive and parasitic form.

Remember all this when you go on strike because you’ve had “eight years of nothing.”

 *   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

“Hey, Deasy, baby, I want my money.”

Los Angeles teachers demand a raise, but their appeal to the public is embarrassing and more importantly, misses the big picture.

Claiming that teachers have not received a raise since 2007, the United Teachers of Los Angeles held a protest rally last Wednesday. As reported by Ryan White in LA School Report,

“Hey, Deasy, baby, I want my money,” the red-shirted crowd sang in a hip-hop inspired chorus at a rally organized by UTLA in its ongoing bid to win salary increases from the district. Their target: Superintendent John Deasy.

With teachers’ last pay raise dating back to early 2007, the union says a salary hike is long overdue, especially since last fall’s voter-approved Prop. 30 increased the per-student funds the district receives from the state. The argument that teachers are now owed their financial due after years of sacrifice was the rally’s dominant refrain.

While the chant was thoroughly obnoxious, the teachers’ plea seems reasonable … on the surface. But a look under the microscope reveals things not apparent to the naked eye.

First, while it is true that teachers in Los Angeles have not received an across-the-board raise in almost seven years, they get yearly raises throughout most of their careers. Due to the step-and-column way we pay our teachers, most get a bump for simply not dying over the summer. Then they get more raises for taking “professional development” classes and workshops, despite conclusive research over the last 25 years by Stanford-based economist Eric Hanushek showing that these classes have no effect on student learning. In LA, the set-up is particularly egregious, resulting in a huge and unnecessary burden to the taxpayer.

According to the district contract with the United Teachers of Los Angeles, coursework, to qualify as professional development, must be “directly related to subjects commonly taught in the District.” So a kindergarten teacher can take “Northern and Southern Economies on the Eve of the Civil War,” say, and receive what is euphemistically called “salary-point credit” for it. Or an American history teacher could take a class in identifying different kinds of plankton and also get a bump in pay. Taxpayers pay out a whopping $519 million a year in extra salary payments to teachers who take such courses. (Emphasis added.)

In Los Angeles, a starting teacher makes $45,637 and a veteran can make up to $98,567. But it’s important to note that the average teacher works between 6 and 8 hours a day, 180 days per year – compared to the average college-educated worker, most of whom work over 8 hours a day and 240-250 days a year. The teacher union-perpetuated myth of the undercompensated teacher was blown up in 2011 by Andrew Biggs, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute and Jason Richwine, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. Their study, in fact, found that teachers are overpaid. Typically, teachers have perks like excellent healthcare and pension packages which aren’t counted as “income.” Armed with facts, charts and a bevy of footnotes, the authors make a very good case for their thesis. For example, they claim,

Workers who switch from non-teaching jobs to teaching jobs receive a wage increase of roughly 9 percent, while teachers who change to non-teaching jobs see their wages decrease by approximately 3 percent.

When retiree health coverage for teachers is included, it is worth roughly an additional 10 percent of wages, whereas private sector employees often do not receive this benefit at all.

Teachers benefit strongly from job security benefits, which are worth about an extra 1 percent of wages, rising to 8.6 percent when considering that extra job security protects a premium paid in terms of salaries and benefits.

Taking all of this into account, teachers actually receive salary and benefits that are 52 percent greater than fair market levels.” (Emphasis added.)

Another pay issue worth examining is the set-in-stone collective bargaining contract which makes no allowance for teacher quality. While many in the “Hey, Deasy, baby” crowd undoubtedly support collective bargaining, is it fetching them more money? Not according to data collected by the National Council on Teacher Quality. As Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli reports, “Teachers in non-collective bargaining districts actually earn more than their union-protected peers – $64,500 on average versus $57,500.” He does add that

… there is some evidence from the NCTQ data that non-collective bargaining districts drive a harder bargain when it comes to health care….

All of this sheds a light on what the unions are really about: protecting benefits and seniority–not pushing for higher pay. If you’re a young teacher earning a lousy salary and paying union dues, that’s something to be very angry about.

An additional problem with collective bargaining is that it hurts good teachers because of  “wage compression,” which occurs when the salaries of lower paid teachers are raised above the market rate, with the increase offset by reducing pay of the most productive ones. As Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson wrote in 2010,

The impact of this wage compression is significant. Using an instrumental variables model, and taking into account alternative explanations, Hoxby and Leigh (2004: 239) conclude that between 1963 and 2000, “Pay compression increased the share of the lowest-aptitude female college graduates who became teachers by about 9 percentage points and decreased the share of the highest-aptitude female college graduates who become teachers by about 12 percentage points.” (Emphasis added.) To this, Neal (2002: 34) adds that, “The rigid wage structures among public schools also raise questions about teacher retention.” In particular, he points to studies by Murnane and Olsen (1989, 1990) and Stinebrickner (2001), which examine separation rates for public school teachers, and concludes that “teachers with higher test scores and better college records leave their jobs at higher rates.”

After reviewing all the data, what leaps out is that teachers as a whole don’t fare badly at all when it comes to salary and benefits. But it is shameful that school districts and teachers unions in California have colluded to treat teachers as interchangeable widgets with no acknowledgment of teacher quality. That a great teacher and a mediocre teacher – both of whom have taught for the same period of time – make exactly the same amount of money is disgraceful. Good teachers are a treasure and should be compensated accordingly. At the end of the day, protesting teachers may demand “their money,” but after examining the facts, only the best ones deserve it.

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 with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

Parents, Students, Businessmen, Mayors, Reformers, Civil Rights Groups, Conservatives, Liberals et al vs. Teachers Unions

It seems as if most of the civilized world is squaring off against the teachers unions these days; California’s SB 441 is the latest battle.

As a way to put some teeth in a moribund teacher evaluation system in California, State Senator Ron Calderon has written SB 441, a very modest bill, which would at long last begin to address a deplorable situation.

The bill would do the following:

1- (It) would require the evaluation and assessment at least every 3 years of the performance of each certificated employee with permanent status who have been employed at least 10 years with the school district and meet specified requirements.

(Existing law requires the evaluation and assessment of the performance of each certificated employee to be made on a continuing basis, as prescribed, including at least every other year for personnel with permanent status and at least every 5 years for personnel with permanent status who have been employed at least 10 years with the school district and meet specified requirements.)

2- (It) would instead require the governing board of each school district to regularly evaluate and assess the performance of certificated employees assigned to positions as classroom teachers or school principals using multiple measures, including, but not limited to, specified minimum criteria. The bill would require at least 4 rating levels to be used in evaluating a certificated employee and for the governing board of the school district to define each rating level used.

(Existing law requires the governing board of each school district to evaluate and assess certificated employee performance as it reasonably relates to specified matters.)

3- (It) would also require the governing board to avail itself of the advice of parents of pupils, as specified.

(Existing law requires the governing board of a school district, in the development and adoption of specified guidelines and procedures, to avail itself of the advice of the certificated instructional personnel in the district’s organization of certificated personnel.)

Hardly radical stuff. In fact, many teachers from the Los Angeles area spoke in favor of the bill before the Senate Education Committee last Wednesday. One teacher told the committee that he supported the bill because he’d undergone a more “comprehensive evaluation working at Blockbuster than I do as a public school teacher in California.”

Parent and student advocacy groups, business people and civil rights groups – representing all political persuasions – are supporting the bill, many of them trekking to Sacramento to make their voices heard.

  • Mayors of Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Jose
  • California United to Reform Education
  • EdVoice
  • Lanai Road Education Action Committee
  • Los Angeles Unified School District
  • Office of the Mayor of San Francisco
  • National Action Network Los Angeles
  • Orange County Business Council
  • Parent Partnership
  • Parent Revolution
  • Parents Advocate League
  • San Diego United Parents for Education
  • Simmons Group Inc.
  • Stand Up for Great Schools
  • StudentsFirst

Needless to say, there is one entity that is vehemently fighting to snuff the bill in committee: the teachers union. The following are opposing the bill’s passage:

  • California Federation of Teachers (CFT)
  • California School Employees Association (CSEA)
  • California Teachers Association (CTA)
  • United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA)

When teachers unions see any legislative threat to the status quo, they obfuscate the issue and then fiercely lobby to kill the bill. CTA’s response was typical – it offered up a 36 page monster spelling out its suggested teacher evaluation procedures. It’s difficult to believe that the union is serious about augmenting such a convoluted strategy, but since it needs to feign concern, it throws out an unrealistic alternative, knowing that it will never see the light of day. CTA’s main concern seems to be that teachers’ collective bargaining rights are going to be diminished. But there is nothing in this tame bill that would affect collective bargaining except for the increase in the frequency of teacher evaluations.

CTA is undoubtedly threatened by SB 441 because it sees this bill as the beginning of a slippery slope to greater reforms. They even had their #1 lobbyist, Pat Rucker, speak before the committee. (Just wondering: is it not a conflict of interest that Rucker, a high powered teacher union lobbyist, sits on the state board of education? The story of the fox guarding the henhouse would seem to apply.)

While the unions are doing their best to kill SB 441 in its present form, Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst is going in the other direction. If Rhee’s organization had its way, the bill would be strengthened by:

  • requiring that teachers and principals be evaluated annually.
  • defining what pupil progress means and designating the weight of pupil growth to be 30 to 50 percent of a teacher or principal’s evaluation.
  • eliminating seniority-based layoffs.

As an elementary and middle school teacher for over 28 years, I can attest to the fact that the bill as written is quite restrained and that StudentsFirst’s suggested amendments would be beneficial. But as certain as night follows day, it is also a fact that the teachers unions will do whatever they can to kill the bill in any form.

Needing five affirmative votes to get out of the education committee, the bill was stalled when the legislators voted 4-4-1 last Wednesday. It will be “reconsidered” this Wednesday, however, with the bill’s advocates and detractors going at it once again. Assuming the committee yeas and nays stand firm, the vote will be left to San Diego State Senator Marty Block who abstained last week. He is on good terms with the teachers unions and has introduced SB 657, a CFT sponsored teacher evaluation bill. But there is hope in some quarters that committee chair Carol Liu, who has backed other reform efforts, might change her vote to yes on SB 441.

On the UTLA website, there is a page devoted to the bill. Their “background” begins with the words:

SB 441 (Calderon) is pushed by disgraced former Chancellor of D.C. Schools Michelle Rhee and her StudentsFirst organization.

Nothing like a nasty ad hominem attack to add fuel to the fire. But then again, there is nothing new here. The unions invariably play dirty and make no bones about it. You want to talk about “disgrace?” The teachers unions wrote the book on it.

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 with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

Unions, Not Lack of Funding, Afflict Public Education

It is hard for education reformers to be too optimistic about the post-strike prospects for Chicago schools. The resulting contract significantly boosts teacher pay in exchange for some modest changes such as a lengthened school day and improved teacher testing.

As school officials figure out how to pay for the new deal and bolster vastly underfunded teacher pensions, new disputes are likely to arise. At least officials in Chicago recognized that educational improvements require taking on unions and their counterproductive work rules.

By contrast, officials in California are still peddling the idea that the state’s public-school system – which receives 40 percent of the general-fund budget, by constitutional edict – is struggling because it lacks money.

“We can’t keep cutting our schools and still keep the economy strong for the next generation,” Gov. Jerry Brown wrote in support of Proposition 30, an initiative that would impose higher income taxes on Californians who earn more than $250,000 a year and raise sales taxes for everyone.

Brown’s pitch is as cynical as it is untrue. The tax increase, which is favored in opinion polls, doesn’t provide additional funds for schools. The governor and legislators passed a budget that increases spending for many other priorities, but cuts $5.4 billion from public schools, unless voters approve the tax increase. So it is blackmail – raise taxes or watch school programs get cut. Brown and his fellow Democrats didn’t have to set up the budget this way.

At the same time, the state’s political establishment is trying to defeat Proposition 32, which strikes at the heart of the school problem by attacking the way unions, including the powerful California Teachers Association, are funded. That initiative, lagging in the polls after a labor-financed ad blitz, would stop automatic union-dues payroll deductions, which bankroll the political campaigns that make the union such a powerhouse.

But the real battle over education isn’t being waged in Sacramento, but in poor and middle-class neighborhoods of Los Angeles, where desperate parents have increasingly turned to charter schools. Such schools, which are free of the union collective-bargaining constraints and many state regulations, have flourished by offering students educational choices and a model based on results.

As The Los Angeles Times reported in 2010, “Fueled by money and emboldened by clout from some of the city’s most powerful figures, charter schools began a period of explosive growth that has challenged the status quo in the Los Angeles Unified School District.”

The city, which has the second-largest U.S. school system after New York, has the highest number of charter schools in the nation. United Teachers Los Angeles fights the movement in any way it can, from rallies to regulation efforts. A proposal to expand restrictions on charters and halt new approvals of such schools in the interim is up for a vote this month. If the union can’t beat them, it is trying to organize them.

But it is unionization that is afflicting public schools, not lack of funds. At the state level, there is little debate over education policy beyond efforts to find additional tax revenue. Even reforms that should be noncontroversial have no hope of passing if the California Teachers Association opposes them.

A bill introduced in the state Legislature after the arrest of a Los Angeles elementary-school teacher on horrific molestation charges would have streamlined “the labyrinthine ‘dismissal statutes’ that require districts to navigate a seemingly endless maze of hearings and appeals,” wrote Larry Sand in City Journal. But the union got the proposal quashed.

In 2009, The Los Angeles Times exposed how the school district places teachers accused of serious wrongdoing in “rubber rooms,” where they collect millions of dollars in pay and benefits as the cases against them wend their way through the system. That is why the Los Angeles school district gave the teacher indicted on charges of multiple sex crimes a $40,000 severance package just to get rid of him.

It is impossible to run an efficient, productive and compassionate school system when miscreants and incompetents can’t easily be fired; where seniority trumps teaching skill; and where city leaders, however reform-minded, have little authority over the classroom.

Yet all that Californians hear about from their state leaders are laments about a lack of money. “Spending on K-12 programs has decreased to $7,530 per pupil in the current budget from a 2008-09 peak of $8,414,” reported the Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters. Yet a Pepperdine University study in 2010 found that K-12 per-pupil spending soared almost 26 percent in the five years before the peak.

These per-pupil spending numbers can be vastly understated, according to some researchers. Adam Schaeffer of the Cato Institute, for example, calculated that, when local and state bond measures and capital expenses are included in the spending calculation, Los Angeles spent almost $30,000 a student in the 2007-08 school year.

“More money – they repeat that like it’s some kind of mantra,” said Lance Izumi, a California education scholar and member of the board of governors of the California community colleges. “There’s no correlation between higher spending and performance. If that were the case, the Washington, D.C., public schools would be the best ones in the nation.”

Meanwhile, the schools superintendent in Los Angeles, John Deasy, told a community group recently that the district is so financially pressed that it can’t cut its lawns because “we fired all the gardeners.” It is hard to feel too sorry for the district, given that the Pepperdine study found that while classroom funding fell, spending soared on the number and pay of administrators. This spike, while not necessarily the fault of the union, is another failure of a noncompetitive school system.

Will California voters buy into the poor-mouthing and hand over more cash? Or will they look closely at Los Angeles, where the only hope for change comes from competitive school alternatives, and at Chicago, where a Democratic mayor could finally draw a line with the teachers union?

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.