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Tenure Tremors in California

Tax-Free Teachers?

ACLU Joins Unions to Attack California Charter Schools

About 6.2 million students attend California’s K-12 public schools. Of those, over 570,000 are enrolled in public charter schools. Most of these charter schools operate with a degree of management autonomy and teacher accountability that goes well beyond what is permitted by the union work rules that govern traditional public schools. These charter schools themselves are accountable – if they don’t deliver better academic outcomes cost-effectively, they are closed down. They are a laboratory for excellence in education and administration, and they’re working. And their success is a tremendous threat to teachers unions.

Enter the ACLU. In a study released earlier this week, the ACLU said it had identified 253 schools with “exclusionary policies,” and noted “this is just the tip of the iceberg.” The exclusionary policies were (1) exclusion based on academic performance, (2) discrimination against English learners, (3) pre-enrollment essays or interviews, (4) illegal parent/guardian volunteer requirements, (5) requirements that discourage undocumented students.

If you consider the ACLU case on its merits, there isn’t much to argue about. Traditional public schools receive funding to admit all students, and charter public schools must do the same. But the entire premise is flawed: schools should be able to develop unique identities in order to offer a diverse set of educational choices to our diverse student population.

Examples of such diversity are inspiring, and range from the Eagle Academy in Harlem, which is attended almost exclusively by African American young men, or the Detroit International Academy for Young Women. These schools deliver outstanding academic results, they cannot possibly admit everyone who wants to attend, and they are exclusionary.

Some of the premises underlying the ACLU’s case are easily contestable, because they are rooted in a concession to mediocrity that has taken over public schools. Instead of making charter schools change their policies, why not change the rules? For example, why aren’t all public schools engaging in “pre-enrollment essays or interviews”? Why don’t all public schools require parents to volunteer some time at the school?

As for violation No. 2 – our public schools are academically segregated as it is, with the high-achieving students exclusively taking AP courses that relegate their exposure to the rest of the student body to hallways and common areas. Should a charter school focus on attracting top students? And if some of them did, how would that differ from what already occurs with AP courses?

The ACLU’s case with respect to the other violations is, at least, easier to justify on moral grounds. Of course we should be admitting students who don’t speak English as a first language. Of course we have to educate children regardless of their immigration status. But the vast majority of charter schools aren’t trying to exclude these students. Most charter schools are non-profits, with supplemental funding provided by philanthropists with the noblest of intentions. Charter schools are an attempt to deliver educational excellence in communities with some of the worst-performing traditional public schools in the U.S. The ACLU is missing the forest for the trees.

If the ACLU wants to fix public education, it might throw its considerable legal might behind the upcoming final round of the Vergara case, likely to be heard in the California Supreme Court next year. The plaintiffs in this case argued that the right to a quality public education is a civil right, and that students in low-income communities are denied that right through inferior public schools. They specifically challenged three union work rules which they demonstrated had a disproportionately negative impact on education in low-income communities: (1) granting teacher tenure after less than two years of classroom observation, (2) “last-in, first-out” policies whereby seniority trumps merit in layoffs, and (3) dismissal procedures so onerous that incompetent teachers are almost never fired.

Where is the ACLU with respect to Vergara?

The ACLU has a well-earned reputation for impartiality. When it comes to civil rights issues they are as likely to defend someone on the far right as someone on the far left. For this they have earned animosity and respect, depending on whom you ask. But if the ACLU intends to be truly impartial on the civil right to a quality education, at the least it may use its resources to support the plaintiffs in the Vergara case.

As for the ACLU’s salvo against charter schools? The organization should realize that charter school operators are almost invariably motivated by nothing more than providing excellent education to underprivileged students. They should be making it easier for them to do that, not more difficult.

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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

Teachers Union Kills Another Commonsense Reform Bill

Despite the U.S. declaring its independence from Britain in 1776, Californians are still saddled with teacher union redcoats 240 years later.

Teacher tenure is an atrocity. Officially called “permanence,” this union-mandated work rule allows some teachers to stay in the classroom when they should be imprisoned or at least working somewhere else, preferably far away from children.

Just a few recent examples of permanence at work:

This awful perk is, in part, what California’s fabled Vergara lawsuit is about. Though the ultimate fate of the case is still unknown (next stop California Supreme Court), the state legislature has been trying to come up with some fixes to satisfy the reformers and the teachers unions alike. One such effort was a bill introduced by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord. As originally written, Assembly Bill 934 would place poorly performing teachers in a program that offers professional support, though if they receive a second low performance review after a year in the program, they could be fired via an expedited process regardless of their experience level. Also, permanence would not always be granted after two years, and seniority would no longer be the single overriding factor in handing out pink slips. Teachers with two or more bad reviews would lose their jobs before newer teachers who have not received poor evaluations.

Ben Austin, policy and advocacy director for Students Matter (the outfit that filed the Vergara case), thought the bill was on the right track but could be even stronger. Reformer Michelle Rhee has noted that while there should be protections in place so that teachers can’t be fired for arbitrary reasons, she doesn’t think we need to reform tenure; she doesn’t see any need for it at all.

But ultimately Austin’s and Rhee’s opinions matter little. Nor do the left-leaning San Francisco Chronicle, the libertarian Orange County Register and other California dailies that supported the bill. Parents, too, are fed up with the inability get rid of rotten apples, but too few in positions of power care about parents. In a 2015 poll, 73 percent of California voters said that teachers should never be given tenure or receive it much too quickly, and believe that performance should matter more than seniority when teachers are laid off. But voters’ opinions are not worthy of consideration. According to another poll from last year, even most educators believe that a teacher should serve in the classroom at least five years before an administrator makes a decision about whether or not to grant tenure. But then, why should teachers’ thoughts be respected?

Actually the only entity that really matters when it comes to tenure, seniority and other teacher work rules is the California Teachers Association, the powerful special interest which regularly bullies its way through the halls of Sacramento to get its way. This case was all too typical. At first, CTA opposed Bonilla’s bill on the basis that it “would make education an incredibly insecure profession.” Then the union went into hysterical mode, using its trademark loopy rhetoric to proclaim, “Corporate millionaires and special interests have mounted an all-out assault on educators by attempting to do away with laws protecting teachers from arbitrary firings, providing transparency in layoff decisions and supporting due process rights.”

And then CTA spun into action. The union arm-twisted Bonilla and ultimately managed to eviscerate the fair-minded, commonsense, hardly-radical, pro-child bill and transformed it into legislative detritus that pretty much keeps the current tenure and seniority laws securely in place. For example, tenure would be achieved after three instead of two years, whereby if a teacher doesn’t regally screw up in roughly 30 months, they essentially have a job for life. And the quality-blind seniority regimen would be virtually untouched. (For a detailed comparison of the original bill and CTA version, Students Matter has put together an easy-to-read chart.)

Claiming that the disemboweled bill was better than the status quo, Bonilla and some in the media thought the union’s version was better than none at all, and that the legislation should move forward. But Austin and other reformers were outraged and felt strongly that the sham bill should be killed. Austin declared, “Watered down and gutted beyond recognition, the new AB 934 preserves the unconstitutional and unjustifiable disparities in students’ access to effective teachers caused by the current laws.”

Austin et al prevailed, and last Wednesday the bill was mercifully euthanized in the state’s Senate Education Committee. Hence, we have no changes to our odious tenure and seniority statutes and CTA’s imperious regime marches on. So as the nation has just celebrated its 240th birthday, the children of California sadly still cannot escape the tyranny of the teachers unions. Fans of King George III, rejoice!

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.

Vergara Update: Virtues and Villainy

The union and media reactions to the appeals court decision in the Vergara case had me going through a whole can of room deodorizer.

In 2014, the plaintiffs in the Vergara trial claimed that several California education statutes – all of which are on the books at the behest of the teachers unions – cause greater harm to minority and economically disadvantaged populations because their schools “have a disproportionate share of grossly ineffective teachers.” Judge Treu ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on every issue, removing five statutes concerning tenure, seniority and teacher dismissal rules from the state’s constitution, adding, “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” Well, it’s now 2016 and last week the Court of Appeals shocked the plaintiffs by overturning the original decision.

Some of the wording in the ruling was quite interesting: “Critically, plaintiffs failed to show that the statutes themselves make any certain group of students more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers than any other group of students.” Also, Justice Roger Boren, wrote in his opinion that it was the court’s job merely to determine whether or not the statutes are constitutional, not whether they’re “a good idea.” As Reason’s Brian Doherty points out, “The core of the new decision, which seems to this non-lawyer (and non teacher, and non student) to be saying that if the crummy policies are as near as we can tell causing equal harm to all California students rather than special harm to an identifiable group, then the Court feels powerless to overturn them.” Or in plainer English, “All kids are hurt by crappy teachers, so get over it.”

The justices are of the mind that much of the problem falls on administrators. While this certainly may be true to some degree, the path for principals to get rid of a rotten apple is currently so onerous and time-consuming that many, understandably, choose to stick with the poor performers and try to place them in positions where they do the least damage. Also, getting rid of bad teachers is very costly. Recently in Los Angeles, it took $3.5 million just to try to get rid of seven tenured teachers who were deemed incompetent and only four of them were actually removed.

Needless to say, much has been written about the successful appeal, but not all the reporting has been accurate. Unsurprisingly, the teachers unions’ responses were ecstatic, and laden with mounds of bunkum.

I will attempt to separate reality from fantasy.

First of all, the case is not over. This is a three-round fight and to be sure the unions were victorious in Round 2, but the plaintiffs won the first round and will appeal to the California Supreme Court which will ultimately decide the winner. (Don’t hold your breath, however; it could take a year before there is a final decision.)

The Los Angeles Times reported, “In a major victory for unions, a California appeals court on Thursday reversed a lower court ruling that had thrown out tenure and other job protections for the state’s public school teachers.” (Emphasis added.)

No, not really. Judge Treu did not say teacher tenure is detrimental per se; rather, he stressed that the probationary period for teachers is too short. California is one of only five states where schools reward teachers with tenure after only two years or less. In 41 states, the probationary term ranges from three to five years and four states don’t allow tenure at all. In any event, the decision was never about “throwing out tenure,” but rather extending the probationary period.

The National Education Association crowed that the verdict was a “major victory for due process.” Again, wrong. It’s not “due process.” In fact it’s not even really “tenure.” What teachers achieve after two years on the job is “permanent status.” Think about it. Other than the SCOTUS Justices, who else in the world has a permanent job? Do you? Of course not, and for good reason. If you do well, you keep your job; if you don’t perform well you lose your job. Why do we have this awful law for people who deal with our most precious commodity – our children?!

Regarding seniority or “last in, first out,” the unions claim that this is the only way to determine layoffs because it is “objective.” Well, it is indeed “objective” and that’s exactly the problem with it. It makes about as much sense as retaining teachers by alphabetical order. So if layoffs are necessary and your surname is Allen, you are in good shape. But if your last name is Zygmond, adios!

California Teachers Association president Eric Heins was jubilant. “I consider this a victory for teachers and a victory for students. What these statutes have done is…bring stability to the system.” Stability, of course, is not in and of itself a bad thing, but when permitting thousands of poorly performing teachers to stay on the job, it stinks for kids.

In praising the decision, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten dredged up every cliché in the book, including this golden oldie, “You can’t fire your way to a teaching force.” Randi, I would urge you to read what Eric Hanushek, an economist who writes extensively about education issues, has to say on the subject. After doing detailed research, he wrote that by getting rid of as few as 5 to 7 percent of bottom performers, not newest hires, and replacing them with just average teachers, education achievement in the U.S. could reach that of Canada and Finland. So yes, Randi, getting rid of bad actors can do wonders for thousands of educationally abused kids.

Coincidentally, the very day that the Vergara appeal decision was announced, a similar lawsuit was filed in Minnesota by Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice, which has also filed a parallel suit in New York in 2014. Regarding the litigation, Weingarten huffed, “It’s not surprising that Campbell Brown continues to do the bidding of her monied donors—particularly when the weight of the evidence is so clear that you cannot fire your way or sanction your way or test your way to children’s educational success.” (Here, she manages to slam arch-enemy Brown, rich corporate types and get in her golden oldie in a single sentence.)

It’s worth noting that with all the judicial wrangling, the courts have rightfully not “legislated from the bench.” Regarding the dismissal statutes, the California legislature made a gesture toward sanity by passing Assembly Bill 215 in 2014. That bill makes it somewhat easier for administrators to remove teachers accused of “egregious behavior,” such as sexual abuse. And now we have Assembly Bill 934 written by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord. According to the Sacramento Bee, “Under this bill, teachers who are doing poorly would be placed into a program that offers them extra professional support. If they receive another low performance review after a year in the program, they could be fired via an expedited process regardless of their experience level.” Also, permanence would not always be granted after two years and seniority would no longer be the single overriding factor in handing out pink slips. Teachers with two or more bad reviews would lose their jobs before newer teachers who have not received poor evaluations.

While I think Bonilla’s bill doesn’t go far enough, it is a heck of a lot better than what we have now. Of course, CTA disagrees. It opposes the bill because the changes “would make education an incredibly insecure profession.”

And so the beat goes on. As the teachers unions dig in, hundreds of thousands of school kids – poor and otherwise – are victimized by their work rules which have been enshrined into state law. Our only hope is that the State Supreme Court makes these rules “impermanent” and that parent and kid-friendly laws take their place.

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.

The Unions’ Assault on Truth

The teachers unions continue to mislead its members and everyone else.

In the latest issue of the California Federation of Teachers quarterly newsletter, CFT president Josh Pechthalt writes “The lawsuits that educators and unions must defeat,” which is referred to as a “special report” – special because it is especially filled with half-truths, omissions and lies.

Pechthalt starts his piece with, “Education unions and public sector unions are facing legal attacks designed to destroy our ability to represent our members. Not surprisingly, these cases are supported by the usual anti-union law firms and wealthy backers. What follows is a snapshot of the cases CFT and other unions are now fighting.”

He then delves into four lawsuits he claims are an “attack on union treasury driven by wealthy education ‘reformers.’”

The first lawsuit on Pechthalt’s hit list is the Friedrichs case which, if successful, would make paying dues to a public employee union voluntary. The union boss skirts the essence of the suit and instead focuses on a secondary aspect. He writes, “While a complete elimination of agency fee is unlikely, the Supreme Court could make it more difficult to collect agency fee payments, which would have a serious financial impact on unions, weakening our ability to advocate for our members and be engaged in politics.” First, if his scenario is correct, dues collection could be more difficult, but only for teachers who don’t want to join the union. And he doesn’t mention the benefit to the taxpayer who, at least for the latter group, could be out of the dues collection business. Secondly, the ability to be “engaged in politics” is rather humorous. What Pechthalt doesn’t mention is that their spending goes to only leftist causes and many donations go to groups that have nothing to do with education whatsoever. A brief look at the union’s parent organization’s latest labor department filing shows that teachers’ dues money went to organizations like The National Newspapers Publishers Association and the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. And what teacher isn’t going to be thrilled that the union donated $250,000 to the Clinton Global Initiative and another $250,000 to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation? (Only about 13 percent of money given to the latter winds up as charitable grants for those in need. The rest is spent on salaries, benefits, travel and fund-raising.)

Pechthalt’s next hit is on the Students Matter or Vergara case, which he uncleverly dubs “Students Don’t Matter.” In this well-publicized case, the judge struck down the tenure, seniority and dismissal statutes in California’s constitution. Pechthalt claims that these statutes “protect teachers’ ability to teach free of coercion and favoritism.” Baloney. No one in the private sector is entitled to have a job for life and gets to keep their position over a more talented colleague thanks to nothing more than an earlier hiring date; why should public employees merit such extraordinary privilege? All these statutes do is guarantee that mediocre and worse teachers are on equal footing with the good and great ones. And our poorest children have paid the price for decades.

The union president then rolls into Doe v Antioch, litigated by Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the same firm that was responsible for Vergara’s success. This suit is based on a 2012 ruling in which Sacramento-based nonprofit EdVoice correctly maintained that teacher evaluations require, in part, the use of standardized test scores and the judge promptly ordered their inclusion. However, in a report released earlier this year that sampled 26 districts’ compliance with the decision, EdVoice found that half of them were ignoring the court-ordered requirement to use the test scores. Pechthalt claims that, “While a 1999 law amended the 1971 Stull Act to broadly include the use of test scores, the advocates for education unions contend districts were given latitude to negotiate language relevant to their needs.” Fine. But the law says that student test scores still must be used as some part of a teacher’s evaluation. “Latitude” doesn’t mean “none.”

Pechthalt’s last broadside is saved for Bain v CTA, which he subtitles, “I-want-it-all-for-free.” This is a lie, plain and simple. The plaintiffs in this case want to belong to the union, are willing to pay dues, but don’t want to support the union’s political agenda. Maybe they don’t feel like supporting the Clintons. Or maybe they’d like to decide for themselves if their hard-earned money should be given to the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless. Or maybe they are actually in favor of the reforms that teachers unions regularly fight against in Sacramento.

Sad to say, Pechthalt is not unique. Distorting the truth is very common with union bosses. AFT president Randi Weingarten has proclaimed, “If somebody shouldn’t teach – if somebody can’t teach – they shouldn’t be there.” Nice words, but she doesn’t mean a word of it. During her reign as head of the New York City teachers union, just 88 out of 80,000 teachers lost their jobs for poor performance over a three year period.

The AFT also got caught in a whopper when it claimed in 2014 it had no agency fee payers – teachers who still have to pay money to the union but have exempted themselves from paying for the union’s political agenda – even as AFT locals reported that thousands have gone the agency fee route. In 2015, the union reported exactly one agency fee payer. One.

It’s not only teachers unions that have a loose relationship with facts. UnionWatch’s Ed Ring has given us a primer in Deceptive and Misleading Claims – How Government Unions Fool the Public. It is up to teachers, citizens and journalists to learn the truth and start calling unions on their BS. Maybe then their lies will stop, or at least slow down a bit. Maybe.

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.

Social Justice Warriors at Work

With the election season in full swing, expect a tide of union-led anti-reform, anti-choice and anti-Republican politicking in our kids’ classrooms.

I watched the GOP presidential debate because my students are counting on me” is the title of a piece posted on the National Education Association website by “guest writer” Tom McLaughlin, a high school drama teacher from Council Bluffs, IA. He claims that “…in addition to this debate, I had an obligation to watch future debates, take notes, and share the truth. I have a responsibility to do that for my students.” (Hmm – just why is a drama teacher delving into politics with his students? Brought back memories of a Che Guevara poster prominently displayed in the music teacher’s class at my former middle school.)

So in any event, I’m thinking this will be a commentary about Common Core, since it garnered the only discussion of education at the first Republican debate in Cleveland last Thursday. In reality, that issue provoked a brief back-and-forth between Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio which really didn’t shed much light on the subject. But the words “Common Core” never appear in the piece by McLaughlin. Instead, the drama teacher’s “truth sharing” includes comments like,

Many of the candidates on last night’s stage have clear records of draining critical funding away from public schools to give to private schools, supporting charter schools that are unaccountable to students, parents, and taxpayers, and slashing education funding and those programs that serve students and help them in the classroom.

As educators and trusted messengers in our communities, we must make sure the public is informed and not fooled by presidential candidates who say they believe in a world-class education system but have a history of starving our public schools of critical funding and supporting flawed so-called reforms that don’t work.

Obviously McLaughlin never intended to report on the debate, but rather to deliver a diatribe infused with standard teacher union talking points against any and all who favor reform and dare have an “R” after their names. (Curiously, Chris Christie, Scott Walker and Jeb Bush all took shots at the teachers unions during the debate and there was no mention of them in McLaughlin’s critique.)

Over at the “NEA Votes” Facebook page, the union faithful were having a field day with McLaughlin’s post and the debate. With one or two exceptions, the comments were posted by pro-union mouthpieces using the same tired talking points that the union elite use. Perhaps the loopiest of all was a post that equated conservatism with Fascism:

The scary part of all this is that these teachers, who don’t seem to have an objective bone in their collective bodies – and are proud of it – have a captive audience of children, many of whom will be the recipients of their teachers’ anti-reform, anti-school choice and anti-Republican rhetoric leading up to the presidential election in 2016.

If you are a Republican parent (or just a fair-minded one of any political persuasion), please be ready for the political onslaught supporting the Big Government-Big Union complex (aka the Blob) your kids may be in for. When the indoctrination starts, don’t be shy about speaking up. Please mention to anyone who is spouting the union party line (and your kids) that in Jeb Bush’s Florida, there are more than 40,000 teachers who do not work for school districts and 14,000 of them have chosen to work in charter schools. They’ve made these choices for the same reason parents do – because charters offer a better fit for their individual needs.

Tell them that despite McLaughlin’s absurd comment, charter and private schools are indeed accountable…to parents. If parents aren’t happy with those schools, they close, unlike traditional public schools which are accountable to no one and typically get more money thrown their way if they are failing.

Tell them that we have tripled our public education funding nationally – in constant dollars – over the last 40 years and have nothing to show for it.

Tell them that Wisconsin’s test scores have risen since the teachers unions’ favorite Republican punching bag Scott Walker has been governor.

Tell them that homeschooling is advancing across the country – especially in big cities – because parents of all political stripes are tired of a one-size-fits-all Blob education.

Tell them that in California, the Blob is under attack and that the effort is bipartisan. The Stull, Reed and Vergara lawsuits, all of which have successfully challenged Blob work rules like tenure and seniority and fought to get a realistic teacher evaluation system in place, have seen Republicans and Democrats working together to undo the mess that McLaughlin and his ilk have helped to create.

Perhaps most importantly explain that when it comes to education policy reform, the battle is not typically between Democrats and Republicans or liberals and conservatives, but rather between those who defend the status quo and those who are demanding reasonable reforms to an outsized, outdated, outmoded and out-of-touch educational system.

When I was growing up, I never had a clue what my teachers’ politics were. They understood they were not there to indoctrinate me. Accordingly, I followed suit when I taught public school for 28 years. But there are many now who have decided not to check their politics at the classroom door, instead bringing it to their students with a religious zeal that makes Elmer Gantry look like a wallflower. Many teachers now take their cue from the likes of National Education Association Executive Director John Stocks who, at the recent NEA convention, told his flock that teachers need to become “social justice warriors.”

Silly me, all along I thought teachers were there to teach.

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.

Teachers Unions Appeal Vergara

… and continue to block any and every meaningful reform the California state legislature has to offer.

On May Day (how fitting!) the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers filed their appeal of the Vergara decision. In that 2014 ruling, Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu struck down California’s teacher tenure, layoff and dismissal laws, claiming that they deny students access to a quality public education, especially those from poor and minority families.

In a PR move, union bosses have been taking their rather lame case to the media. CTA president Dean Vogel somehow managed to maintain a straight face when he stated, “This suit was never about helping students. As educators we believe every student has the right to a caring, qualified and committed teacher and that is why we are appealing the judge’s misguided decision.” Then, tossing in some class warfare for flavor, he added that the judge failed to take into consideration “the impact of a severe lack of funding and growth in poverty which are some of the most important factors impacting student achievement.” (Actually, most studies have shown that the most important factor in student achievement is the effectiveness of the teacher.)

CFT President Josh Pechthalt, avoiding the merits of the case, did his typical “class warfare first, last and always” song and dance. “Wealthy anti-union advocates like David Welch, the funder of this suit, are obscuring the real problems of public education, which are best addressed by restoring funding to programs that ensure student success. It is not coincidental that the law firm he retained is one of corporate America’s leading anti-worker, anti-union firms.” (Increasing funding doesn’t “ensure” anything. Far from it. We have almost tripled education spending in forty years with nothing to show for it.)

A confident Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, said she fully expects the California Court of Appeal will return education policy to where it belongs: the legislature. “Every student deserves a highly effective teacher in his or her classroom. The California legislature has worked to provide fair due process protections that ensure quality teachers are in every classroom. Due process prevents good teachers from being fired for bad reasons, and it protects teachers’ professional judgment and academic freedom.” (“Due process long ago morphed into “undue” process; even pedophiles have a hard time getting the ax.)

Perhaps the NEA’s leader’s comments are most galling of all. First she seems to forget that a whole load of ugly Jim Crow laws were eradicated by the courts. I highly doubt that Eskelsen García would have groused about judicial activism in those cases. (By the way, Judge Treu did not make any laws; he just ruled that several laws on the books are unconstitutional.) Another reason her “policy belongs in the legislature” comment is nonsense is that CTA has a lock on that body. With its forced dues scheme, every public school teacher in the Golden State is made to fork over on average more than $1,000 a year, with much of that money going to buy legislators. Parents, kids and taxpayers have no mechanism to match the union’s wildly unfair advantage. So in essence, Eskelsen García is forcing us to play cards – but only with a deck that the unions have carefully stacked. It is commonly said that CTA is an important wing of the Democratic Party in California. It’s more accurate to say that the Democratic Party is really a wing of the powerful California union.

In fact, prior to Eskelsen García’s statement, several California state legislators already had attempted to pass legislation with Vergara in mind.

• Assembly Bill 1044 (Assemblywoman Catherine Baker, R-Dublin) would have eliminated “last-in-first-out” by declaring seniority cannot be the sole factor governing layoffs.

• AB 1248 (Assemblyman Rocky Chávez, R-Oceanside) would have extended from two to three years how long it takes for teachers to win tenure and would allow administrators to  revoke tenure if teachers have consecutive poor performance reviews.

• AB 1078 (Assembly Minority Leader Kristin Olsen, R-Riverbank) would have increased the number of ratings teachers could be assigned and would require educators to be evaluated in part based on student test scores.

Not surprisingly, these bills – modest as they were – never really had a chance. Each one was summarily killed in the CTA owned-and-operated education committee in the State Assembly.

Then there was AB 1495, introduced by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego. Whereas existing state law calls for two teacher ratings – satisfactory and unsatisfactory – Weber’s bill would have added a third teacher rating of “needs improvement” to the state’s minimum requirement for evaluations. It would also call on districts to put teachers who are not rated fully satisfactory first in line for professional coaching. This sensible bill garnered support from the likes of EdVoice, Students Matter and StudentsFirst – all Sacramento student advocacy groups. But CTA’s cronies in the Assembly education committee snuffed out this bill too. That prompted Weber, no shrinking violet, to lash out at her fellow Democrats. As reported by LA Weekly’s Hillel Aron, she said, “When I see what’s going on, I’m offended, as a senior member of this committee, who has probably more educational background and experience than all ya’ll put together on top of each other.” She added, “Obviously, it was orchestrated by the teachers union to not let the bill out. It was purely political.” Shirley surely gets it.

There is one bill, however, that the teachers unions have not taken a position on … yet. Carol Liu, D-La Cañada-Flintridge, has concocted SB 499. Her teacher evaluation bill requires teachers to be evaluated in part on student progress, including such objective measures as testing, but – and it is a very big but – mandates that the specifics be worked out as part of the union-school district collective bargaining agreement. However, giving unions more negotiating power over evaluations would be a problem said Nancy Espinoza, a legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association in testimony before the Senate Education Committee a couple of weeks ago. “We are going from developing evaluation standards to negotiating them. That is a tremendous change.” It creates opportunities, she said, for teachers unions “to leverage evaluation standards related to student achievement for gains related to salary” and would likely increase the frequency of an impasse in negotiations “and concerted actions like strikes.”

Also weighing in against the bill is a coalition of groups including Democrats for Education Reform and the California Chamber of Commerce. In a letter to Liu, it mentioned “Offering unions this power affords them the opportunity and incentive to water down teacher evaluations.”

StudentsFirst called the bill misguided, claiming it ignored research on what makes an evaluation effective, and puts the state at risk of losing federal support.

Bill Lucia, CEO of EdVoice, called retaining school boards’ authority over evaluation criteria a non-negotiable “bright-line issue.”

In defending her bill, Liu said that “buy-in from teachers” is critical for evaluations to be useful in helping teachers improve. “Teachers need to be at the table to discuss goals of an evaluation. Their voice needs to be heard and heard loudly.”

But buy-in from teachers is not important in Sacramento. The only buy-in there that matters is from the teachers unions. Liu’s – and every other education bill – is in the unions’ hands. Until the Vergara appeals are exhausted, that is the unpleasant fact of life.

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.

Bain Explained

Bain v. CTA is the latest lawsuit to challenge teacher union hegemony.

For the third time in three years, a lawsuit has been filed in California that challenges the way the teachers unions do business. In May 2012, eight California public school children filed Vergara et al v. the State of California et al in an attempt to “strike down outdated state laws that prevent the recruitment, support and retention of effective teachers.” Realizing that some of their most cherished work rules were in jeopardy, the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) chose to join the case as defendants in May 2013.

But three days before they signed on to Vergara, the unions were targeted again. On April 29, 2013, the Center for Individual Rights filed suit on behalf of ten California teachers against CTA and the National Education Association (NEA). The Friedrichs case challenges the constitutionality of California’s agency shop law, which forces public school educators to pay dues to a teachers union whether they want to or not.

Now in April 2015, the teachers unions are facing yet another rebellion by some of its members. Bain et al v. CTA et al, a lawsuit brought by StudentsFirst, a Sacramento-based activist outfit founded by Michelle Rhee, was filed on behalf of four public school teachers in federal court in California. It challenges a union rule concerning members who refuse to pay the political portion of their dues. Contrary to what many believe, teachers are not forced to join a union as a condition of employment in California, but they are forced to pay dues. Most pay the full share, typically over $1,000 a year, but some opt out of paying the political or “non-chargeable” part, which brings their yearly outlay down to about $600. However, to become “agency fee payers,” those teachers must resign from the union and relinquish most perks they had by being full dues-paying members. And this is at the heart of Bain. As EdSource’s John Fensterwald writes,

Although paying this portion is optional, the teachers charge that the unions punish those who choose not to pay it by kicking them out of the union and denying them additional economic benefits, such as better disability and life insurance policies. The unions provide those benefits only to members. This coercion, the teachers argue, violates their constitutional right to free speech. About one in 10 teachers in California have opted out of paying the portion of dues supporting politicking and lobbying.

In addition to losing various types of insurance, the affected teachers also give up the right to vote for their union rep or their contract, the chance to sit on certain school committees, legal representation in cases of employment disputes, death and dismemberment compensation, disaster relief, representation at dismissal hearings and many other benefits.

The question becomes, “Why should a teacher lose a whole array of perks just because they refuse to pay the third or so (it varies by district) of their union dues that go to political causes?”

That very sensible question summons up a great number of erroneous statements, hysteria, lies and general panic among the mainstream media and unionistas alike. Let’s examine a few of them starting with a partial-truth from the estimable John Fensterwald. He wrote, “Both the CTA and CFT are obligated to negotiate contracts dealing with pay, benefits and working conditions on behalf of union and non-union teachers.” That’s true; all teachers do indeed become “bargaining unit members.” However, that is only because the unions insist on exclusive representation. The unions would have a case here if teachers were free to negotiate their own contracts, but they aren’t allowed to. (For more on this issue, see my back-and-forth with CFT VP Gary Ravani in the comments section of Fensterwald’s piece.)

A Los Angeles Times editorial claims that the case at its core is “an attack on the power of any public employee union to engage in politics.” How they came up with that assessment defies logic. If Bain is successful, unions will still be free to “engage in politics.” It is true that more teachers may opt out of the political part, thus leaving the union with fewer coerced dollars to spend. But to say it is an “attack” is a great exaggeration.

Alice O’Brien, general counsel for NEA, said in a statement, “The Bain lawsuit attacks (there’s that word again) the right of a membership organization to restrict the benefits of membership to those who actually pay dues.” What?! The teachers in question are all dues payers and will still be dues payers if their case is successful.

Never one to be subtle, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten claims that the lawsuit is “part of a siege against unions by StudentsFirst.” (Before starting StudentsFirst, Rhee – now departed – was Washington, D.C. school chancellor, where she and Weingarten tangled constantly.) In a statement Weingarten said, “This is the same group that has worked for five years to stifle the voices of teachers, and strip them of collective bargaining and other rights and tools to do their jobs.” Then as if to clarify this baseless statement, she added, “The suit cites political activity on issues it considers unrelated to education – like gun control, for example.”

The Friedrichs case, with a possible Supreme Court decision next year, is much further along than Bain. If the former case is successful, it will be interesting to see what becomes of the latter. Friedrichs claims that all union spending is political and therefore joining should be voluntary. If it flies, teachers will have an option to join the union or refrain from doing so. That could take the wind out of Bain’s sails as there will probably not be the two tiers or classes of membership that there are now. If all dues are political and you join the union, then all fees will be chargeable and teachers couldn’t then opt out of the political portion because all of it would be political. However, should Friedrichs fail, Bain will be all the more important.

Other scenarios are possible, with the courts, of course, having the final say on how it all gets sorted out.

In any event, the teachers unions’ heavy-handed political arm-twisting would seem to be in jeopardy and their days of unbridled power numbered. And that can only be good news for teachers, students, parents and taxpayers.

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.

NEA’s Sorry Spin

The latest teachers union PR ploy is pure cowplop.

“Persuading the People on Public Schools,” a National Education Association document posted by the The Daily Beast’s Conor Williams, details the union’s new communication strategy. Subtitled “Words to avoid … Words to Embrace,” the previously internal “research brief” gives us a look into the mindset of an entity that is losing the national debate with school choicers and other reformers. To be sure, a political body like NEA needs jargon, mediaspeak, spin, whatever, to sell its message, but if its latest effort – with the help of two progressive communications outfits – is any indication, the hole it has dug for itself could become an abyss in no time. Just a few examples….

Instead of using the word inequality, NEA is now advising its people to use living in the right zip code. This of course plays right into the hands of reformers who constantly and correctly make the point that throughout much of the country we have a rigid government-run monopoly by zip-code education system. As RiShawn Biddle writes, “NEA leaders will then have to explain why their affiliates, along with that of AFT,  fight vigilantly throughout the nation against the expansion of public charter schools and other forms of choice that have proven to improve graduation rates for black and Latino children.”

The brief suggests dumping educational equity and replacing it with the squishy committed to the success of every child. I guess the monopolists at NEA aren’t comfortable with equity, because using that term leaves them open to blame for keeping poor and minority kids in urban failure factories by waging war on policies that would help them escape.

NEA wants to change the narrative from meaningful, rigorous evaluations to the argument that testing takes time from learning. The union really doesn’t loathe testing per se, but it cannot abide the fact that a teacher’s evaluation should reflect – at least in part – how well students perform on a standardized test. (We really need to lose the test-phobia that seems to be gripping the nation these days. Unionistas and others keep carping that we have “too much testing.” Maybe we do – and of course, too much of anything is not good. We need food to live but too much of it will make us obese and possibly send us to an early grave. But we don’t want to do away with food; we just need eat better and more moderately. Same mentality should be applied to testing.)

Perhaps most telling is that the union wants to use get serious about what works and avoid research driven practices. Sounds as if the union knows that it is getting clobbered by a parade of studies which show that charter schools, privatization and other forms of school choice are effective, and it is trying to divert us from this reality.

The rest of the communiqué is riddled with euphemisms that the union hopes will fool the public. But, mercifully, people have gotten hip to teacher union twaddle and a majority now sees the unions as a stumbling block to school reform.

In a sense there is nothing new about the document. For a while now, the unions have been aware that much of its language has been losing favor with the general public. Tenure and seniority both have received black eyes of late – due, at least in part, to California’s Vergara case – and have been replaced with the kinder and gentler due process and importance of experience.

In another example of pre-document union wordplay, Tennessee Education Association president Gera Summerford, talking to supporters in March 2014, explained, “This march to corporatization – that’s the word that we’ve been trying to use because it does sound a little more ‘evil’ than privatization.”

Maybe some will be taken in by this nonsense. But thousands of kids and their families who have won the lottery (literally) and have been given a shot at a good life via a good education by the likes of Eva Moskowitz’s Harlem Success Academies, KIPP Schools and the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program undoubtedly won’t. The union’s “evil corporations taking over education” meme has quickly turned into a tired old cliché.

Like teacher union spin, manure comes with many different names – dung, fertilizer, cowplop, etc. But whatever you call it – it still stinks.

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.

Permanent Disgrace

My encounters with tenure, aka permanence, aka undue process for teachers.

In an article posted recently, Harvard professor and editor-in-chief of Education Next Paul Peterson asks, “Do Teachers Support the Vergara Decision?” More specifically, he discusses tenure, which is on hold in California due to Judge Rolf Treu’s ruling. The tenure statute is the part of the California education code which stipulates that teachers essentially have a job for life if they can survive their first two years on the job, which is really just 16 months of actual work. It is worth noting that what we all commonly refer to as tenure is really a word reserved for college professors. The proper term for K-12 teachers is the more honest – and odious – “permanence.” (I was once corrected by former United Teachers of Los Angeles chief A.J. Duffy when I referred to it incorrectly at a union meeting.)

Peterson alludes to an Education Next poll, the results of which were released earlier this fall, that asked public school teachers to rate their colleagues’ competence on an A to F continuum. While 69 percent gave colleagues in the local school district an A or B, 8 percent said their colleagues deserve a D and 5 percent deserve an F.

This led me to think about my own experience as a middle school teacher in Los Angeles where I toiled for 15 years before retiring in 2009. At any given time, there were about 50 teachers at my school, and most of them, I’d say, were competent-to-good with a few that were exceptional. But there were always a handful of my colleagues who shouldn’t have been allowed in a classroom. Just a few cases in point:

  • AA, an English teacher, was a mean one; she rarely smiled and was antagonistic to a fault. During lunch period on a warm late spring day, she decided she was too pale and headed out to the athletic field to catch some rays at lunch. She proceeded to lie on her stomach, take off her blouse and unstrap her bra. (Ladies, you know how unsightly those tan lines can be!) As AA’s glamor gambit was seen by kids, a few teachers and the plant manager, denial was not an option. However, she did not lose her job. Instead, she was transferred to a nearby elementary school which was run by a woman, known by many as “the principal from hell.” I have no idea what has become of AA, but I’m sure she went on to infect many more kids with her bile and bad judgment.
  • BB was a nice old gentleman and a lawyer with a J.D. Unfortunately, whatever skills he may have possessed in the courtroom did him no good in the classroom, which often resembled a British soccer riot – pure mayhem. As testing coordinator, I had occasion to visit his class several times and invariably regretted not wearing a flak jacket. To maintain order, BB resorted to showing film strips, pretty much daily. The kids didn’t learn much, but at least the janitors had less to clean up at the end of the day. The principal eventually got hip to BB’s act, and knowing she couldn’t get rid of him, pressured him to retire. (Trying to fire him would have taken years and hundreds of thousands of dollars.) Fortunately, BB took the hint and retired.
  • CC was a PE teacher who had an interesting ritual between classes. He would go to his car, parked on campus, and open his trunk where he kept a large cache of hooch. By the end of the day – every day – CC was obviously pickled. But having attained permanent status, he knew that no matter how slurred his speech may have been, getting plastered daily was an activity he could indulge in without consequence. He finally retired after 37 years and shortly thereafter had a massive stroke and died. Sadly, the union may have rewarded CC with permanent status, but the real world provides no such guarantees.
  • DD was as wacky as they come. She, too, had no control over her classes, and whenever I had any of her third period science kids in my fourth period history class, I had to spend a good 15 minutes peeling them off the walls. The entire staff knew DD was an awful teacher, but axing her was out of the question. Instead, she was sent to the “Peer Assistance Review” (PAR) program – a union created mechanism – which didn’t help a bit. She couldn’t teach; her kids didn’t learn. Her greatest strength as a teacher was at faculty meetings where her loony comments would make us all laugh… very nervously. By the way, DD just renewed her teaching credential for another five years.
  • And then there was EE. One day this eighth grade English teacher allegedly touched a female student inappropriately. There were witnesses, but the student involved would not press charges so they put EE into the district office for a while – the so-called “rubber room” or “teacher jail.” Since firing him was not a viable option, the powers-that-be decided to transfer him to another school, where he apparently fondled another student. So he was sent back to the district office, where he whittled away his paid vacation ogling porn. Busted, he was transferred to yet another school, where he got caught sharing his smut with some of his female students. He was then returned to the district office, where the last I heard, he was waiting for his next assignment, courtesy of his union lawyer.  This was almost ten years ago and I have no idea what EE is doing now or to whom he is doing it, but I do hope its behind closed doors and doesn’t involve teenage girls.

Please keep in mind that I have described just one public school out of about 10,000 in California. Stanford economist Eric Hanushek has famously said that if we could get rid of the bottom 5-7 percent of the teaching profession, we could have a world-class system like Finland. If we take Hanushek’s middle number – 6 percent (of 300,000), that means there are 18,000 teachers in the Golden State that should be looking for other means of employment. But they’re not – which means that about 450,000 young minds are getting shortchanged – and worse – year after year. (The reality is that, on average, just ten “permanent” teachers a year in California are let go.)

Right after being termed out as National Education Association president in July, Dennis Van Roekel gave an interview to Education Week and addressed the union’s insistence on maintaining an industrial-style model. He said, “Union members, however, are not going to give up their industrial union rights to enjoy the benefits of being treated like real professionals until they are treated as real professionals.”

He has it backwards. Teachers will never be considered professionals until they take charge and professionalize the field. There are 282,000 teachers in California who are doing an adequate, good or great job and it is incumbent upon them to take the lead and purge the field of the stinkers and pedophiles. Teachers have long wanted to be recognized as professionals, but they will never attain that status as long as they allow the teachers unions to protect incompetents and miscreants. 450,000 kids’ deserve better …much better.

(An abridged version of this post was printed in U-T San Diego on Jan.16th.)

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.

Vergara: What Comes Next?

Assuming Judge Treu’s rulings survive the appeals process, what will replace the offending statutes?

In last year’s Vergara case, Judge Rolf Treu ruled that the state’s archaic seniority, tenure and dismissal statutes were unconstitutional, adding that the evidence submitted “shocks the conscience.” The judge’s ruling is now being appealed by the state of California, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers. Should the decision survive the appeals process, legislators will need to pass new laws to fill the void. In that vein, the Students Matter team that brought the lawsuit has come out with their suggested fixes or “policy pillars.”

Regarding tenure or more accurately “permanence,” their recommendation is solid:

Students Matter believes teachers should earn a designated number of effective or highly effective ratings on annual performance evaluations in order to receive tenure; that a teacher’s permanent status should be portable between school districts; and that permanent status should be able to be rescinded if a teacher receives multiple evaluations showing an ineffective rating.

A million times better than what we have now, but still – why is it that teaching is the only profession – or any job for that matter – that warrants something called “permanence?” In fact, this pillar hedges a bit. It says, “…permanent status should be able to be rescinded…” Well, if permanence can be rescinded if a teacher isn’t effective, then it’s not really permanent, is it?

They also have good ideas about the onerous dismissal statutes.

In order to reduce the extreme cost – in time, money, morale and student learning – of the current teacher dismissal process, while protecting the constitutional rights of both students and teachers, Students Matter recommends explicitly including ineffectiveness as grounds for dismissal and mirroring for teachers the same dismissal process established for classified employees.

In 2014, California took a step forward by passing AB 215, which made it easier to get rid of teachers who are proven guilty of “egregious and immoral conduct.” But there is nothing in the law about getting rid of incompetents. Hence, this pillar hits the mark. Public education should join the rest of the civilized work-world, weeding out those employees who are not getting the job done.

They score a bulls-eye with their suggestion about seniority:

Students Matter recommends explicitly requiring that student learning be the preponderant criterion in layoff decisions and explicitly prohibiting the consideration of seniority as the preponderant criterion.

The current last-in-first-out method of picking winners and losers is an abomination. Length of time on the job should never be the sole reason to keep that job. Would you go to a wonderful doctor who has been practicing for 10 years or a quack who has been killing (or just maiming) his patients for 20 years? The question answers itself. In fact, Dr. Quack’s patient load would tank and he would undoubtedly be forced to find another means of employment. Why not extend this line of thought to the world of education?

So except for the minor quibble with the tenure pillar, the Students Matter suggestions are excellent.

And now for the bad news. Whatever legal changes are made must survive the California state legislature, which is essentially controlled by the California Teachers Association. While the powerful union has yet to comment on the pillars, it goes without saying that it will use every ounce of influence it has to fight them.

Permanence: The union has taken to calling it “due process.” This is laughable – a job for life has nothing to do with legal rights. And union leaders are offering up ridiculous excuses for the existence of tenure. Recently, New York City teacher union boss Michael Mulgrew actually said, “Without tenure, teachers can be disciplined or even fired for speaking out on behalf of the needs of their students.”

Criminy, is that the best he can do?!

Dismissal statutes: Anthony Lombardi, the principal of an elementary school in New York City, bluntly stated that American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten “… would protect a dead body in the classroom. That’s her job.” Well that may be a slight exaggeration, but it’s true that people who shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near children are almost never fired.

In California, due to the union-orchestrated dismissal statutes, on average just two “permanent” teachers a year lose their job due to incompetence. That’s two bad apples out of about 300,000. In my almost 30 years in the classroom, there were always at least two teachers at my school alone who should have been let go. Also, it’s ridiculously expensive to get a teacher out the door. Between 2000 and 2010, the Los Angeles Unified School District spent $3.5 million trying to fire just seven teachers (out of over 30,000) for poor classroom performance. Only four were let go during that time.

Seniority: Union leaders are quite incoherent in this area. “Saving your jobs would mean that more experienced teachers would lose theirs,” UTLA president A.J. Duffy told a group of young teachers at Liechty Middle School in 2009. “Seniority is the only fair way to do it . . . and any exception would be an act of disloyalty.” The California Federation of Teachers website claims that “Seniority is the only fair, transparent way to administer layoffs. It ensures equal treatment for all teachers…”

Problem is that not all teachers deserve equal treatment. The great and good should be treated better than the mediocre and awful.

Interestingly, a recent survey funded by Teach Plus, an organization that strives to ensure that urban children have access to effective educators, found that 69 percent of teachers in California agreed that “tenure protected an ineffective colleague who should have been dismissed but wasn’t.” But it also found that 81 percent said that “tenure was important to them personally.” In brief, the teachers polled came down somewhere in between the Students Matter pillars and traditional union hardline resistance to change. You can access the survey here.

Will the unions listen to their more moderate members and act accordingly? Don’t bet on it.

Will the unions besiege their cronies in Sacramento to ignore the Students Matter fixes? Most assuredly.

What can you do? Send letters and emails to your state legislators, and implore them to do right by the children of California. Only when enough good people stand up to the destructive agenda of the teachers unions will public education take a great leap forward.

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.

Teachers Unions’ Election Day Thumping

“Teachers Unions Take a Beating in Midterm Races”

“Teachers Unions Take a Shellacking”

“Teachers Unions Get Schooled in 2014 Election”

The above is just a small sampling of post-election headlines which flooded the media after last Tuesday’s historic election, which generated a major political shakeup in the nation’s capital as well as state houses from coast to coast. While it was a bad day for Democrats in general, perhaps the biggest losers were the nation’s teachers unions.

Unions, especially the teacher’s variety, had a lot on the line, and except for two wins, the rest of the key contests were nothing short of disastrous. Perhaps their number one target was Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who had minimized teachers’ collective bargaining “rights.” Michigan governor Rick Snyder wasn’t far behind Walker on the union hit list for the same reasons, but both incumbents won handily. The unions went after Florida governor Rick Scott for expanding school choice in the Sunshine State, but he prevailed over challenger Charlie Crist. Especially galling for organized labor was the victory in Illinois (Illinois!) where Republican pro-voucher businessman Bruce Rauner ran against incumbent governor Pat Quinn. Rauner clearly expressed disdain for union bosses on several occasions, accusing them of “bribing politicians to give them unaffordable pensions, free healthcare, outrageous pay and benefits and they’re bankrupting our state government, they’re raising our taxes and they’re forcing businesses out of the state, and as a result we’ve got brutally high unemployment.” Apparently, Rauner’s blunt message resonated with voters; he won by five points.

Many other Republicans were victorious in gubernatorial races in traditional blue states, including Maryland, Massachusetts and Maine. It got so bad for the unions that the one Republican they backed – Allen Fung for governor of Rhode Island – lost to Democrat Gina Raimondo who, as treasurer, worked to rein in out-of-control public employee pension spending. That, of course, incurred the wrath of Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Education reformers were thrilled with the results. “I’d call it a mandate for change sent boldly from voters,” Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform, said in a statement. “Governors-elect in these states have proven themselves to be champions of reforms during their tenure as incumbent state executives, or have run on platforms that don’t shy away from being really vocal, putting students and parents first.”

“A bunch of these guys did stuff you’re not supposed to be able to do. They tackled pensions in purple states. They modified collective bargaining. They fought expansively for school choice,” said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “What that says to me is the unions need to rethink some of their assumptions about what the world’s going to look like going forward.”

The union response to the thumping was varied. Randi Weingarten essentially blamed it on President Obama in a press release. “It’s clear that many believe this country is on the wrong track and voted for change. Republicans successfully made this a referendum on President Obama’s record and won resoundingly, but where the election was about everyday concerns—education, minimum wage, paid sick leave—working families prevailed.” She then pointed to the two needle-in-a-haystack union victories to crow about – the ouster of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and Tom Torlakson’s narrow victory over challenger Marshall Tuck in the race for California Superintendent of Public Instruction.

National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García, whose “heart was heavy” was a bit more realistic. “We knew this was going to be an uphill battle. But I don’t think anybody on our side, and we’ve got some very savvy people, anticipated going over the falls like this. Tectonic plates have shifted. And we’re going to have to come back with a new way of organizing for these kinds of races.”

Eskelsen Garcia’s heart may have been heavy, but the teachers unions’ political coffers are a whole lot lighter. The final tallies won’t be known for a while, but it is estimated that the two unions spent at least $70 million in this election cycle – more than in any other year ever.

The Washington Free Beacon’s Bill McMorris writes,

The NEA was the second-largest Super PAC donor of the 2014 cycle, spending more than $22 million to aid Democratic candidates for federal office. The federal spending was on top of an estimated $28 million push at the state and local level….

The AFT had said it planned on spending $20 million during the 2014 cycle, a ten-fold increase from the $2 million it spent on 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

It’s worth noting these lofty numbers don’t include any money that was spent by the unions’ state and local affiliates. The California Teachers Association spent $11 million alone to fend off Tuck’s challenge to Torlakson for the Superintendent of Public Instruction position. Speaking of which….

Usually this scenario – union-backed-incumbent vs. guy-no-one-has-heard-of is a real snooze-fest and the former wins easily. But not this time. Tuck matched his rival Democrat in spending and did well in many parts of the state, winning the more conservative counties of Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange, and Kern. He got clobbered, however, in the gentrified areas – Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Mendocino and Marin – where many parents opt to avoid the public schools.

Low voter turnout also played a role. EdSource’s John Fensterwald reports,

Torlakson beat Tuck with 2,266,000 to 2,085,000 votes – a difference of 181,000 votes – with thousands of absentee ballots still to be counted. The total vote of 4.35 million was 900,000 fewer than the 5.2 million votes cast for governor and about 700,000 fewer – 14 percent – than for secretary of state, the only other closely contested statewide contest on the ballot, despite the tens of millions of dollars spend on ads and mailers by both sides in the superintendent race.  

One important thing Torlakson had working for him was that Tuck was an unknown. As John Fensterwald explains, “For most voters, he was a blank canvas that Torlakson and his allies painted darkly. In ads, they attacked him as a Wall Street banker – a reference to a banking job he had right out of college – working with billionaires to privatize and dismantle public schools.”

But the biggest factor in Torlakson’s reelection – in addition to the $11 million gift from CTA – was the fabled teacher union ground game. The low voting numbers gave the unions and their get-out-the-vote messaging a huge advantage that is very difficult to overcome. In fact, U-T San Diego’s Steve Greenhut quotes founder of the California Center for Parent Empowerment and former CA State Senate majority leader Gloria Romero “… You can’t buy this seat and that was Tuck’s and his donors’ mistake. There is a political machine that CTA controls, which would never show up in those stupid polls …. It’s money after money. Below that great green wall is an army.”

Then there was also the voter ignorance factor. Tuck, unlike Torlakson, strongly favored the Vergara decision – where a judge ruled the tenure, seniority and dismissal statutes needed to be eliminated from the state education code – and made it an important part of his campaign. But as City Journal’s Ben Boychuk points out “… polls showed that Vergara resonated weakly with voters. Though 42 percent of likely California voters ranked education as their top priority this year, and the vast majority of voters surveyed after Treu’s ruling agreed that the state should do away with “last hired, first fired” seniority protections, nearly 60 percent said they didn’t know what the lawsuit was about.

So we had Tuck, a no-name candidate, without a ground game, whose messaging failed to reach a low-information populace and who suffered a poor voter turnout, fighting against a man backed by the most powerful state teachers union in the country – and Tuck still lost by only four percentage points. I would call this something of a moral victory, and reformers should not despair; they are a few tweaks away from winning. But they must develop more of a grassroots approach to campaigning – as victorious Republicans did in other states – if the unacceptable educational status quo is to be upended. Tuck acknowledged the sad reality in his concession speech,

Today, one day after this election, there are still 2.5 million children in California public schools who can’t read and write at grade level.  Those children are counting on all of us to take every action necessary to give them a better education and a chance at a better future.

I look forward to continuing to do my part in the collective effort to ensure that each child gets the education they need to achieve their dreams.

So while the rest of the country took a bold step and almost universally denied teachers union candidates, we in California still have work to do.

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.

Education Reform: #1 Issue on the Ballot in California

Reformer battles with teachers union darling for top education position in Sacramento.

“Teachers Unions Are Putting Themselves On November’s Ballot” was the headline in a recent article by Haley Edwards in Time Magazine. Okay, this is hardly news, but the extent of the largess is eye-opening. Considering that this is not a presidential election year, the political spending is noteworthy.

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, is on track to spend between $40 million and $60 million this election cycle, while its smaller sibling, the American Federation of Teachers, plans to throw in an additional $20 million – more than the organization has spent in any other year.

The reason for the spending orgy is easy to understand: education reform – at long last – has become an important issue with voters across the country. As Edwards writes,

While the issues at stake vary by state, a number of elections this cycle will hinge on a variety of education-related questions, including recent cuts to public schools, growing class sizes, Common Core State Standards, access to pre-K education and the availability of state-funded student loans for college. A June Rasmussen report found that 58% of total expected voters ranked education as “very important,” while local polls indicate that voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Kansas and Illinois rank education as among the top three most important issues this cycle.

In California, perhaps the most ballyhooed contest is not for a legislative position, but rather the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction.  As Fox & Hounds Joel Fox points out, the election is a referendum on teachers unions, pitting reformer Marshall Tuck against incumbent Tom Torlakson, the bought-and-paid-for choice of the California Teachers Association. The SPI’s various responsibilities include acting as chief spokesperson for public schools, providing education policy and direction to local school districts, and working with the education community to improve students’ academic performance.

Typically, in a race that pits union guy vs. reformer, organized labor gets its way. But maybe not this time.

First off, Tuck is passionate, articulate and a pit-bull on the issues. He worked on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley before serving as president of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school management organization. He then became CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s collaboration with the Los Angeles Unified School District to operate 17 struggling public elementary, middle, and high schools.

Torlakson was a teacher before entering politics as a city councilman in 1978. He served as a California State Assemblyman and Senator before becoming SPI in 2010.

Perhaps the difference between the two is best exemplified by their responses to the Vergara ruling, which saw a judge throw out the state’s teacher tenure, dismissal and seniority laws. Tuck saw the decision as a victory for kids, while Torlakson claimed it was unfair to teachers. Moreover, the incumbent asked the California attorney general to appeal, which she did.

As writer Steve Greenhut points out, the challenger has direct experience dealing with issues raised by the Vergara case. After Tuck took over some of LA’s most troubled schools as CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, “about half of his teachers received layoff notices because of the system’s seniority based layoff system, which protects older teachers regardless of job performance.” Tuck explains,

The CTA should always be part of the equation because teachers are so important but their influence is too large right now. … The state superintendent is a nonpartisan position, right? Not Republican, not Democrat … and it’s supposed to just be focused on advocating for kids, yet the state superintendent has never disagreed with the CTA. It’s insane.

As a result of this ‘undue influence,’ the state ends up with ‘laws like two-year tenure and seniority based layoffs, laws that we know are not good for kids; they stay on the books for year after year. … Our kids are harmed dramatically by them to the point where the judge said the evidence shocks the conscience.’

Additionally, he refers to California’s behemoth educational code as

… the ‘visual definition of bureaucracy’ and wants to help public schools — traditional ones and charters — receive waivers from the red tape and allow more local control and flexibility. He wants to give parents a seat at the table in determining school policy.

Torlakson and his CTA friends are losing the battle of ideas, basically because they don’t have any. Instead, they disparage Tuck’s previous work as a “Wall Street investment banker.” They also idiotically claim that the challenger wants to turn schools over to “for-profit corporations” and “sell off our schools and sell out our kids.” The October issue of CTA’s magazine, California Educator, is full of anti-Tuck blather, including an editorial by union president Dean Vogel in which he solemnly proclaims that the challenger is a “well-funded corporate education reformer who supports the privatization of public schools and efforts to obliterate due process for teachers.” Also, in a talk a few months ago, Vogel asserted that, “We know who Tom is. He is one of us….”

He sure is.

Invariably in races like this, CTA manages to outspend the reformers. This one, however, may be an exception, as Tuck’s donations have been keeping up with Torlakson’s. The challenger has found some deep-pocketed backers whose donations have matched the free-spending CTA. As reported by EdSource,

Nine wealthy backers of Marshall Tuck – led by $1 million donations each from William Bloomfield of Manhattan Beach and Eli Broad, a longtime funder of reform efforts in Los Angeles – seeded a new independent expenditure committee with $4 million. That brought outside fundraising for Tuck nearly even with outside fundraising by the California Teachers Association, the biggest financial backer of Supt. Tom Torlakson. The CTA contributed an additional $1.4 million this week to the $5.7 million it has already contributed to Torlakson. The new donations, as of Oct. 10, will push expected spending by groups not affiliated with the candidates to about $14 million, split about 40 percent for Tuck and 60 percent for Torlakson.

The two candidates themselves have raised about $4.4 million in direct contributions as of Oct. 10 … That combined total is already more than twice the total raised by the candidates in the 2010 election, in which Torlakson defeated a retired school district superintendent, Larry Aceves. As of the latest campaign finance disclosure period, which ended Sept. 30, Torlakson had about $608,000 left in the bank, while Tuck had close to $700,000.

Money, however, isn’t the only important factor in elections. Teachers unions have a great advantage in races like this. In California, they have easy access to 300,000 teachers who are being told, in no uncertain terms, that Torlakson “is one of them” and that Tuck is the corporate reformer from Hell.

But interestingly, Tuck is getting a major boost from the mainstream media. Just about every major daily in the state, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times has come out – forcefully – in favor of Tuck. The Sac Bee editorial board endorsed the challenger because it believes that “teachers unions have a chokehold on the state’s public education system and that’s been detrimental for everyone, including teachers.”

With two weeks to go, polls show an even race with many still undecided; it’s anybody’s guess as to who will ultimately prevail. I suspect that the teachers unions will ramp up their spending down the home stretch because they know that if Torlakson loses, the status quo is history. And for a reactionary bunch like CTA, that is a fate worse than death.

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.

Bad Week for Teachers Unions

These days, the teachers unions have landed on the wrong side of judges, teachers, the general public and just about everyone else whose lives they touch.

Seems like the teachers unions are getting it from all sides these days. In a Wall Street Journal piece, the writers note that the percentage of elementary and secondary teachers who are union members is down about 20 percent since 1988. But as private and charter schools proliferate and the right-to-work movement grows, the last 26 years will look like the good old days.

Big Apple Kerfuffle

In response to the death of Eric Garner while in New York Police Department custody, United Federation of Teachers command central decided to join forces with Al Sharpton in blaming the police. However, New York City teachers responded by giving UFT president Michael Mulgrew a one-finger salute, and on the first day of school last week teachers all over the city wore pro-cop T-shirts. This independent streak was way over the top for Boss Mulgrew, whose union emailed a brief warning, “…as public employees, one must remain objective at all times.”

Teachers union members remain objective?!! WHAT!!! This followed UFT’s sponsorship of an Al Sharpton rally in support of Mike Brown, who died while in police custody in Ferguson, MO.

Now, how teachers should respond to non-education-related community events is a discussion for another day; the issue here is the union’s hypocrisy. But then again, Mulgrew has always shot from the hip … and as often as not, the bullet has wound up piercing his shoe. Most recently, despite teacher misgivings with Common Core, the union president decided that the standards were worthy. And at the American Federation of Teachers convention last month, in classic thug style, he closed with these pearls,

If someone takes something from me, I’m going to grab it right back out of their cold, twisted, sick hands and say it is mine! You do not take what is mine! And I’m going to punch you in the face and push you in the dirt because this is the teachers! These are our tools and you sick people need to deal with us and the children that we teach. Thank you very much!

If they ever decide to recast Goodfellas, Mulgrew is a shoo-in for the Joe Pesci role. (Extreme profanity alert.)

Michigan Shenanigans

After Michigan went right-to-work in 2012, the Michigan Education Association decided to play hardball. Most teachers didn’t know that the only period they could resign from the union was when most of them weren’t paying attention to school or union matters – in August. Some teachers sent in their resignation notice before the union-mandated allotted time and thought they’d legitimately opted out and stopped paying dues. However, they were soon faced with threats that unless they paid up, the union would do its best to damage their credit ratings. But the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation took the teachers’ side and brought suit against the union. Then, just last Tuesday administrative law judge Julia Stern recommended that the “ Employment Relations Commission order the Michigan Education Association to no longer limit school employees to leaving the union solely in August of each year. She said the law that took effect last year incorporated a federal law interpreted to give public employees the ability to leave their union anytime.”

Furious with the decision, the union went into spin-mode to divert attention from it, triumphantly pointing to the fact that only 5,000 teachers (out of 110,000 total) had resigned during the August window. But as Mike Antonucci notes, the bigger picture is not so rosy. “In 2008-09, the union had 129,000 active members. The latest loss brings that number down to 106,000 – a drop of almost 18 percent.” Also, as more contracts expire, more teachers will have the opportunity to disengage from the union. Additionally, as teachers see that the world of their non-unionized colleagues does not come to an end without Big Daddy, many will realize that the $1,000+ dues they pay on a yearly basis could be much better spent elsewhere.

Sophistry Vergara

Hardly a surprise, but immediately following Judge Rolf Treu’s final decision in the Vergara case, which affirmed his original one, the California Teachers Association, the California Federation of Teachers and Governor Jerry Brown (under pressure from his biggest political backers – the unions) filed an appeal. In a dual release, the unions trotted out the usual off-subject malarkey in an attempt to convince people of the evil intent of the suit.

All along it’s been clear to us that this lawsuit is baseless, meritless, and masterminded by self-interested individuals with corporate education reform agendas that are veiled by a proclamation of student interest.

The Vergara ruling makes clear that Judge Treu failed to engage the evidence presented in court by education experts and school superintendents who testified that teacher rights are not impediments to well-run schools and districts.

He also failed to take into account the impact of underfunding, poverty, growing inequality, and lack of decent jobs in the communities surrounding our schools….

… this ruling doesn’t address any of the real solutions to problems facing public education, solutions such as adequate funding, peer assistance and review programs for struggling teachers, and lower class sizes.

Blah, blah, blah.

While this kind of union spin has traditionally been successful, the general public at long last has become hip to it. In an Education Next  poll released in August concerning the issue of tenure – a major part of the Vergara suit,

… Survey respondents favor ending tenure by a 2-to-1 ratio. By about the same ratio, the public also thinks that if tenure is awarded, it should be based in part on how well the teacher’s students perform in the classroom. Only 9% of the public agrees with current practice in most states, the policy of granting teachers tenure without taking student performance into account.

Fair Share Flim-Flam Fades

Every year around Labor Day, Gallup polls Americans on their attitudes toward labor unions. This year a question was added about right-to-work laws, and the responses were not good news for the forced-union crowd. As Mike Antonucci writes,

The poll finds 82% of Americans agreeing that ‘no American should be required to join any private organization, like a labor union, against his will,’ a position advanced by right-to-work proponents. Pro-union forces partly oppose right-to-work laws because of the ‘free-rider’ problem, with non-union workers benefitting as much as union workers when unions negotiate pay and benefit increases with employers. But by 64% to 32%, Americans disagree that workers should ‘have to join and pay dues to give the union financial support’ because ‘all workers share the gains won by the labor union.’

The teachers unions are starting to remind me of a man at sea flailing away for help, but the courts, the general public and even many of their own members are not not throwing out a life raft. Perhaps Mr. Mulgrew needs to start breaking some legs. Nothing else seems to be working.

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.

Keeping Their Backs Up and Claws Sharp

As the teachers unions lose popularity, some think that they will soften their positions. But as recent events show, this is very far from the truth.

A poll taken in June, right after the Vergara decision was handed down in Los Angeles, found that 49 percent of California voters think that teachers unions have a “somewhat or very negative” impact on the quality of K-12 education, with just 31 percent saying that they have a “somewhat or very positive” impact.

This result is consistent with national polls. In 2012, long before Vergara became national news, an Education Next survey found that those with a positive view of unions dropped to 22 percent in 2012, down from 29 percent the year before. Perhaps more interestingly,

The survey’s most striking finding comes from its nationally representative sample of teachers. Whereas 58% of teachers took a positive view of unions in 2011, only 43% do in 2012. The number of teachers holding negative views of unions nearly doubled to 32% from 17% last year.

In addition to losing favor, the National Education Association has been bleeding teachers. Due to a shrinking student population and right-to-work legislation passed in several states, the nation’s largest union has lost more than a quarter-million members over the past five years.

Some predicted that the loss of rank-and-file and stature would lead the national unions to soften their more rabid positions and become more amenable to certain reforms, but if their recent conventions are any indication, this is hardly the case. In fact, they seem to be digging in.

At the NEA convention a couple of weeks ago, Lily Eskelsen Garcia was elected president and proclaimed that her first task was to win back the public. She apparently thinks the unions need better PR, not to become more child-friendly and accountable. But as the public’s awareness of what the unions are really about grows, that strategy won’t fly. As Democrats for Education Reform president Joe Williams pointedly said, “Eskelsen Garcia must navigate that minefield carefully because the public will smell bulls**t from a mile away.”

And indeed, there was plenty of odiferous waste at the convention. Among other things, the union faithful came up with a New Business Item (NBI) which called for the resignation of Arne Duncan, who had the audacity to tweet a positive response to the Vergara decision. (It’s ironic: As former California state senator Gloria Romero points out, the union that fights to keep every last teacher in classroom, including those who commit unspeakable offenses against children, wants to ditch Duncan for merely voicing an opinion contrary to theirs.) Other items had nothing at all to do with education but, being champions of “social justice,” the activists came up with an NBI which proposes to inform the public about the dangers of fracking, another that calls for the end of “food deserts” (don’t ask) and one that wants President Obama to investigate the continued incarceration of Leonard Peltier, a man who was convicted of first-degree murder in the slaying of two FBI agents in 1977.

Outgoing president Dennis Van Roekel was hardly in conciliatory mode when he blasted those whom he deems a threat to his union’s hegemony. Just a sampling of his enemies list:

The issue of privatization of more and more jobs of our education support professionals. The intrusion of for-profit players, both in higher education and K-12. Especially troubling is the increasing influence and control of huge corporations like Pearson and others. And the incredible onslaught of corporate reformers like Democrats for Education Reform, Michelle Rhee, and the like. Attacks on educators’ rights and even attempts to silence our voice. And if that were not enough, our lives revolve around testing–the overwhelming amount and the offensive misuse of scores from high-stakes standardized tests.

Then last week in Los Angeles, the American Federation of Teachers’ convention got off to a rousing start when Reverend William Barber gave a speech that most definitely will not “win back the public.” Setting the dial at “hellfire-and-brimstone,” he excoriated Tea Party “extremists,” greedy ultra-conservative “puppets,” the Koch Brothers, the religious right, those who want to “give vouchers to the wealthy,” all the while singing the praises of a green economy and healthcare for all. Clearly he was appealing solely to the left, while insulting and ignoring the majority of the membership which leans slightly to the right.

Not to be upstaged, AFT president Randi Weingarten joined the trashing of the Vergara decision:

When we last met, we didn’t know that a court decision in California would reignite the perverse rallying cry of so-called reformers: that the only way for students to win is for educators to lose.

And then, referring to Harris v Quinn – a SCOTUS decision which held that homecare workers could not be forced to join a union – she said,

And while many of us rejoiced when marriage equality was upheld by the Supreme Court, sadly that court has become Supreme Court Inc., ruling in favor of corporate interests while diminishing the rights of voters, women and working families.

Then she, too, blasted all her bête-noires: Democrats for Education Reform, Jeb Bush, Eli Broad, ALEC, Govs. Snyder, Walker, Corbitt, Jindal and Brownback, the Walton family and – what would a union leader diatribe be without them? – the Koch Brothers. But she didn’t join the “Dump Duncan” chorus; instead, she just chastised him over his pro-Vergara stance. But two days later, AFT approved a resolution calling for him to resign “if he does not improve under a plan to be implemented by President Obama.”

Edu-pundit Andy Smarick suggests that teacher union leadership appears to be defiantly marching their members toward Waterloo.

There is an alternative, though it might seem implausible in the current environment. First, the appeal of Vergara could be halted. Instead of relitigating the case, unions might work with the California legislature to rewrite the challenged laws so they primarily protect students not jobs. Second, the national unions and their affiliates could seek to amend tenure and seniority rules in other states so Vergara-inspired lawsuits don’t get off the ground.

Smarick’s alternative suggests that the teachers unions become more conciliatory and flexible. They won’t. Despite losing members and the dissatisfaction of the more conservative rank-and-file, the union hardcore is doubling down. As Stanford’s Terry Moe rightfully asserts,

Unions are unions. They are in the business of protecting jobs: that is why their members join, that is what their members expect them to do, and that is what they actually do. If you expect them to do something else–to represent children or to represent the public interest–you will be wrong. Don’t expect a cat to bark.

They’ll just keep hissing and baring their claws.

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.

Will the Supreme Court Do an “Abood Face?”

The decision in Harris v Quinn could be just the first shoe to drop in the fight against forced union dues.

Last month was not kind to Big Labor. First, the teachers unions in California had some of their favorite work rules knocked out of the state constitution by Judge Rolf Treu in his Vergara decision. Then, on the last day of the month, the Supreme Court agreed with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation in Harris v Quinn and ruled that homecare workers could not be forced to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Vergara upset the teacher union Pooh-Bahs who just can’t believe that educators who hang on to their jobs for 16 months aren’t entitled to them for life, regardless of whether they’re good, mediocre or teachers from hell. The decision is going to be appealed and no one knows –  if the appeal fails – how the subsequent replacement laws will play out. But if Vergara got the unions in a snit, Harris has pushed them into apoplexy.

Regarding Harris, I searched the internet long and hard to find a statement from a union leader that went something like this:

The decision doesn’t harm the union movement in the least. It gives hard working men and women the freedom to choose whether or not to join us. If they do join, they will enjoy the benefits and perks that come with union membership. If they choose not to join, we will not force them to. They are free to make whatever deal that they and their employer agree to. As patriotic Americans, we believe in liberty and that means giving all workers a choice.

Okay, I confess. I really didn’t search long and hard. In fact, I didn’t search at all; it would have been a complete waste of time. Instead, we were treated to union leaders doing what they usually do when they don’t get their way: trot out the usual half-truths, fear-mongering and lies to rally the troops and garner public sympathy.  Chalkbeat reports,

‘This court has built a record of weakening the rights of both voters and working families; no one should be surprised by this decision,’ said American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten in a statement.

Weingarten is saying  that one working family has a right to force a member of another working family into a union.

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, defended the ‘fair share’ practice. ‘Fair share simply makes sure that all educators share the cost of negotiations for benefits that all educators enjoy, regardless of whether they are association members.’

There is nothing fair about forcing a worker to pay dues to an organization that he or she does not want to belong to.

The NEA website goes deeper into the “fair share” philosophy:

All union members who enjoy the benefits, rights, and protections of a contract should, in fairness, and must, according to Illinois state law, contribute to maintaining that contract. Sometimes called ‘agency fee,’ fair share is a percentage of full union dues, based on the actual cost of collective bargaining, contract maintenance, and other services provided to all union members. 

Well yes, all those who benefit from the union contract, should pay dues. But if they don’t want any part of your contract, why are you trying to force them to pay you?

Mind you, Harris was a narrow decision. Justice Samuel Alito’s ruling drew a distinction between the home care workers and ‘full-fledged’ public employees

… who were required to pay union dues under the Court’s Abood v. Detroit Board of Education precedent in 1977. In that sense unions dodged a more sweeping decision that could have jeopardized dues payments from all public workers.

But – and this is what’s scaring the spit out of unionistas – Alito added that Abood (which maintains that it is illegal to withhold forced dues from dissenters beyond the cost of collective bargaining) is “questionable on several grounds.” Collective bargaining issues, he wrote, “are inherently political in the public sector.”

In the private sector, the line is easier to see. Collective bargaining concerns the union’s dealings with the employer; political advocacy and lobbying are directed at the government… But in the public sector, both collective bargaining and political advocacy and lobbying are directed at the government. (Emphasis added.)

Clearly, Alito left the door open for the court to do something of an “Abood face.” The next shoe that drops could lead to the unions’ worst nightmare – making union membership optional nationwide. (At this time 26 states are forced union states, while 24 are right-to-work.)

In fact, that “next shoe” is awaiting a fitting. Friedrichs et al v CTA is on a path to reach SCOTUS within a year or two. This litigation has ten teachers and the Christian Educators Association International – a union alternative – taking on the California Teachers Association with a lawsuit aimed squarely at California’s “agency-shop” law, which forces teachers to pay dues for collective bargaining activities, though – as per Abood – paying for the unions’ political agenda is not mandatory. The plaintiffs’ lawyers are challenging the law, claiming collective bargaining is inherently political and that all union dues should be voluntary.

Terry Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, a public interest law firm representing Rebecca Friedrichs and her co-plaintiffs, was upbeat after the Harris ruling was announced.

Today’s decision is a good sign of things to come. The Court will soon have before it another union dues case, one that asks it to recognize the First Amendment rights of all employees to decide whether to pay union dues, not just home healthcare workers.

He importantly added,

We’re not attacking collective bargaining. … That’s not at issue. All we’re saying is individual teachers get to decide whether to pay dues to that organization. You can have collective bargaining and you can have a strong union, but you don’t have to have compulsory dues.

If Friedrichs is successful, and the court overturns Abood, workers will have a choice. To paraphrase President Obama, “If you like your union, you can keep your union.” But if you don’t, you can’t be forced to join. Freedom of choice – sounds like the American way to me.

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.

Post-Vergara Rumblings

The Vergara decision is three weeks old – and due to the teachers unions’ appeal, nothing has changed. Or has it?

Because Judge Rolf Treu has placed a stay on his Vergara ruling pending the outcome of the teachers unions’ appeal, the tenure, seniority and dismissal statutes are still alive and well in California. However, there already has been some fallout engendered by the decision.

Introduced in February of this year, AB 1619 would have required school districts with fewer than 250 students to grant tenure to teachers after three years. Amazingly the unions had not, until earlier this year, tried to sink their hooks into these smaller districts that have no tenure laws at all. The bill, cosponsored by the California Teachers Association (surprise!) and Lorena Gonzalez, former leader of the San Diego Imperial Counties Labor Council, sailed through the State Assembly but hadn’t made its way out of the Senate Education Committee. As reported by LA School Report, “Paul Ochoa, an aide to Gonzalez …, said the bill ‘will not move forward this year,’ but he was uncertain if Gonzalez would try again next year.” Teacher union watchdog Mike Antonucci recently observed that there’s no doubt that “had it not been for the Vergara ruling, not only would AB 1619 have passed already, but we probably wouldn’t have even heard a word about it.”

While California is wrestling with the ramifications of Vergara, New York has inaugurated a similar lawsuit. Campbell Brown, a former CNN anchor who has become involved with education reform of late, launched the Partnership for Educational Justice in December 2013. Inspired by Vergara, she has identified six children who have agreed to serve as plaintiffs, arguing they “suffered from laws making it too expensive, time-consuming and burdensome to fire bad teachers.”

Ms. Brown wants a verdict in her group’s case to spur legislators to come up with better education policies. ‘My hope is this would be a wake-up call to politicians who failed to solve these problems for years,’ she said.

Her team has been meeting with parents to find plaintiffs. One is Jada Williams in Rochester, who wrote a seventh-grade essay complaining about teachers who she said gave no real instruction and failed to manage unruly students. Her mother, Carla, said in an interview: ‘When a child in class is educationally neglected, that’s a criminal act.’

David Welch, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who financed Students Matter, the advocacy group that filed the Vergara suit, has given Ms. Brown guidance, and came to a meeting of about 30 people at her apartment in April to discuss it, she said. A mother of two children in private school, Ms. Campbell said she gave seed money to the Partnership for Educational Justice. She declined to disclose other donors. She has applied for nonprofit status.

Shortly after the Vergara verdict, the USC Rossier School of Education and Stanford-based Policy Analysis for California Education conducted a poll and found

… that two-thirds of voters (68 percent) agree that the state should do away with “Last In, First Out,” a policy that requires the newest K-12 teachers be laid off first, regardless of merit. Just 17 percent said California should continue to conduct teacher layoffs in order of seniority….

California voters also largely opposed the state’s tenure laws for public school teachers, according to the poll. Six in 10 California voters said teachers should not continue to receive tenure, as it makes firing bad teachers difficult. Twenty-five percent of voters said the state should keep tenure for public school teachers to provide them job protections and the freedom to teach potentially controversial topics without fear of reprisals.

When asked specifically about the timeline to tenure — which can be awarded after as little as 18 months in the classroom — 38 percent said two years is too soon to award tenure, and 35 percent said public school teachers shouldn’t receive tenure at all, the poll showed. Seventeen percent of voters said two years was the “right amount of time” to earn tenure, and 4 percent said two years was too long, according to the poll.

Perhaps most interestingly, the poll showed that when asked about California’s teachers unions,

… 49 percent of voters said they have a “somewhat or very negative” impact on the quality of K-12 education, with 31 percent saying unions have a “somewhat or very positive” impact.

Then, for sheer entertainment value, we have the teachers unions’ responses to the ruling and its aftermath, bloviating about the turn of events every time a microphone is within harrumphing range. In an obvious slap at Campbell Brown, New York State United Teachers president Karen Magee nonsensically claimed that, “If hedge fund millionaires and celebrity dilettantes were truly interested in guaranteeing students a quality education, they would join parents and unions in fighting for fair funding for all children, not just the affluent.”

The funding canard doesn’t even merit a response. And if Magee has issues with “celebrity dilettantes,” why didn’t she pillory Matt Damon for statements he made supporting tenure at an SOS rally in 2011? I guess, for her, some celebrity dilettantes are more equal than others.

Responding to the Vergara decision, National Education Association leader Dennis Van Roekel informs us that, “This lawsuit was never about helping students, but is yet another attempt by millionaires and corporate special interests to undermine the teaching profession and push their own ideological agenda on public schools and students while working to privatize public education.”

His might as well have said, “The cow jumped over the moon” for all the sense he made. Getting rid of incompetent and criminal teachers and trying to save the hides of young teachers victimized by last in/first out rules is what the case was about. Privatization and an “ideological agenda?” Not even close. Actually it’s the teachers unions’ “ideological agenda” that is helping to spur the very school choice movement that Van Roekel and other union leaders are forever decrying.

And of course American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten weighed in, claiming that the decision “strips the hundreds of thousands of teachers who are doing a good job of any right to a voice.” Oh please. Teachers have plenty of “voice” except maybe when they run afoul of the union for not toeing the party line. Effective teachers won’t be affected by the Vergara decision, though some pedophiles’ and incompetents’ livelihoods may be cut short.

Mike Antonucci analyzed the national and California teacher union leaders’ responses to the Vergara decision and noted that none of them used the words “tenure” or “seniority.” He writes,

My view of all this is that the unions will, as they have in the past, score well with the general public when attacking evil corporate puppetmasters. But judging from the media reports of the Vergara ruling – almost all of which prominently use ‘seniority’ and ‘tenure’ – they will have an uphill battle altering the public perception of protecting bad teachers.

If the USC poll is any indication, the Vergara trial – if nothing else – has been a public relations disaster for the unions. Translating that into meaningful political change is going to be the tricky part. And so, the battle continues.

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.

Pull the Plug on LIFO Support

Despite bellyaching from the union crowd, the California education code’s last in/first out (LIFO) statute must be tossed.

California’s fiscal problems have taken a toll on the teaching profession in California. And the Golden State’s arbitrary seniority system, whereby staffing decisions are made by time spent on the job, has made things much worse. A recent Sacramento Bee story spells out the details:

Young teachers have become far more scarce in California classrooms after school districts slashed their budgets to survive the recession.

From 2008 to 2013, California saw a 40 percent drop in teachers with less than six years’ experience, according to a Sacramento Bee review of state data.

As the state cut funding, districts laid off teachers with the least seniority and stopped hiring new applicants. Those employment practices, in turn, discouraged college students from pursuing the profession in California, as enrollment in teaching programs fell by 41 percent between 2008 and 2012. (Emphasis added.)

Not surprisingly, while traditional public schools have been taking a beating, charters – which are rarely unionized and don’t honor seniority – have flourished. In fact, there are over 50,000 kids on charter school wait lists in California.

Charter schools educate about 10 percent of Sacramento County’s students, but last year they employed 40 percent of the region’s first- and second-year teachers. Teachers at five schools in the Sacramento City Unified District – all charters – averaged less than five years in the profession in 2013. They were Capitol Collegiate Academy, Sol Aureus College Preparatory, Yav Pem Suab Academy, St. Hope Public School 7 and Oak Park Preparatory Academy.

Studies that have been done on seniority have nothing good to say about it. For example, The New Teacher Project found that only 13 to 16 percent of the teachers laid off in a seniority-based system would also be cut under a system based on teacher effectiveness.

The nonpartisan California Legislative Analyst Office found that basing employment decisions on the number of years served instead of teachers’ performance “can lead to lower quality of the overall teacher workforce.”

Also, by not using seniority, fewer teachers would need to be laid off. Due to the step-and- column method of paying teachers, veteran teachers, whether they deserve to or not, make considerably more than younger ones. In a policy brief, the Annenberg Institute reports:

Because more experienced teachers are generally higher on the salary scale than newer teachers, districts would actually be able to meet budget goals with fewer layoffs if they had more leeway to fire teachers across the board, based on quality, not seniority.

Sadly, seniority-based layoffs take a much bigger toll on poor and minority schools. When senior teachers have the opportunity, they frequently escape these hard-to-staff schools, leaving rookies in their place. So when layoffs become necessary, as they did during the recent recession, the younger teachers are the first to get pink-slipped, saddling impoverished students with revolving subs. This results in the least stable education environment imaginable and has a lot more to do with the failure of inner city schools than the “poverty is destiny” crowd would have you believe. Accordingly, the ACLU jumped on this issue in 2010.

In Reed v. State of California, … the Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles, considered whether to grant a preliminary injunction in favor of a group of students to stop the Los Angeles Unified School District (“LAUSD”) from laying off more teachers at three middle schools in the district. The Superior Court concluded that “notwithstanding any contractual or statutory seniority-based layoff provisions,” the State of California and LAUSD should be restrained and enjoined “from implementing any budget-based layoffs of teachers” at three LAUSD middle schools that have been devastated by teacher layoffs in 2009.

The three middle schools at issue, Samuel Gompers Middle School (“Gompers”), John H. Liechty Middle School (“Liechty), and Edwin Markham Middle School (“Markham”), are each ranked in the bottom 10% of schools in California in terms of academic performance. During a 2009 reduction in force (“RIF”), LAUSD sent RIF notices to 60% of the teachers at Liechty, 48% of the teachers at Gompers, and 46% of the teachers at Markham. These figures are in contrast with the fact that LAUSD only sent notices to 17.9% of all of its teachers. The RIFs resulted in a large number of teacher vacancies at all three schools.

The settlement reached between the plaintiffs, LAUSD and the Mayor’s Partnership for Los Angeles Schools protected students

… in up to 45 Targeted Schools in the unfortunate event of budget-based teacher layoffs and provides support and resources aimed at stabilizing and improving these schools, including retention incentives for teachers and principals. The Targeted Schools will be determined annually and will include 25 under-performing and difficult-to-staff schools that have suffered from staff retention issues yet are starting to make positive strides. In addition, up to 20 schools will be selected based on the likelihood that the school will be negatively and disproportionately affected by teacher turnover. To ensure that any impact from preserving teacher positions at the Targeted Schools is fairly distributed, the settlement provides that no school at or above the district-wide average of layoffs will be negatively affected.”

But several months later, the United Teachers of Los Angeles, threatened by a shake-up to the status quo, successfully appealed the decision and the settlement was nullified.

While adamant about protecting seniority, the teachers unions and their fellow travelers have only bromides and falsehoods to bolster their position. When A.J. Duffy, then UTLA president, talked to some young teachers at Liechty Middle School – one of the three named in the ACLU suit – he said, “Saving your jobs would mean that more experienced teachers would lose theirs…. Seniority is the only fair way to do it… and any exception would be ‘an act of disloyalty.’”

State Superintendent Tom Torlakson was dutifully  toeing the union line when he stated, “The {ACLU} ruling could hurt students by requiring them to be taught by inexperienced teachers rather than finding ways to bring in more experienced and arguably more effective teachers.”

Continuing the “experience trumps all” line of thought, the California Federation of Teachers website proclaims, “Seniority is the only fair, transparent way to administer layoffs. It ensures equal treatment for all teachers … Research consistently shows more experienced teachers provide better student learning outcomes than inexperienced teachers.”

But of course, not all teachers are “equal” and the “experience = better” mantra is a myth. Time on the job is not a proxy for quality. Most studies show that a teacher’s effectiveness maxes out in 3-5 years and that the majority of teachers do not improve over time. Actually, some studies show that teachers become less effective toward the end of their careers.

As edu-pundit RiShawn Biddle pointed out in 2010,

… what’s truly appalling is the teachers union defense of last hired-first fired and of seniority rights. It lays bare some of the most-glaring flaws in union thinking: How can unions demand equal pay and treatment for all workers while advocating work rules and compensation that favor one group of rank-and-file members over another? How can the NEA and AFT call themselves unions of modern professionals – and demand that teaching be considered on an equal footing with lawyers and doctors – when they defend labor practices best-suited for early 20th-century factory workers?

Yes, their insistence on seniority exposes the teachers unions’ industrial-style nature. For them, teachers are nothing more than interchangeable, dues-paying widgets and teacher competence and effectiveness are of no discernible consideration. The arbitrariness of such a set-up is epitomized by Bhavini Bhakta, a teacher-of-the-year who lost teaching positions in four Southern California schools over eight years because she lacked seniority. One of her yearly encounters with LIFO involved a situation where either she or another teacher-of-the-year – who was hired on the same day – was to be laid off. The district had the teachers pull numbered Popsicle sticks out of a hat to see which one kept her job. Ms. Bhakta got a lower number and thus lost her position, yet again.

Standardized tests, evaluations by impartial trained experts, the principal and parents, etc. should all be utilized to determine a teacher’s value. And certainly, we need to have a conversation about how much weight should be given to each of these and possibly other criteria. But for the sake of the kids and the teaching profession, we need to put the Popsicle stick method of teacher retention – also known as seniority – into the garbage.

Postscript: There is a chance that seniority could be in for a major upheaval in the near future. The Students Matter (Vergara v California) case is winding up and will shortly be in the hands of Judge Rolf Treu. If he finds for the plaintiffs, and the ruling survives the inevitable appeal, LIFO – as well as tenure and the dismissal statutes as we know them – will be removed from California’s education code and be rendered unconstitutional.

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.

The Good, the Ugly and the Uglier

After a loss in Indiana, the teachers unions’ war on education intensifies in Chicago and California.

In 2011, Indiana passed a school choice bill which currently allows 9,300 kids from low and middle income families with household income below 150 percent of school lunch eligibility to receive vouchers equal to between 50 and 90 percent of state per-pupil education funding to use at any of 289 schools – some of which provide religious education – that participate in the Choice Scholarship Program.

Not surprisingly, upon passage of the bill the National Education Association and its state affiliate, the Indiana State Teachers Association, sued to stop it with claims that “letting families use the vouchers at religious schools violated the state constitution’s religion clauses.”

But last week, in a resounding 5-0 decision, the unions’ plea was denied.

‘We find it inconceivable’ the justices wrote that the framers meant to prohibit government spending from which a religious institution could ultimately benefit. Everything from police protection to city sidewalks benefit religious institutions, but ‘the primary beneficiary is the public,’ and any benefits to religious groups are ‘ancillary and indirect,’ said the ruling. ‘The direct beneficiaries under the voucher program are the families of eligible students and not the schools selected by the parents for their children to attend.’

Part of the unions’ case was based on the Catholic-bashing Blaine Amendment. As Mike Antonucci writes:

The Indiana Supreme Court ruled unanimously today that the state’s school voucher program is constitutional. This is good news for supporters of school choice, and bad news for teachers’ unions. But the Indiana ruling is especially interesting since it may sound the death knell for legal challenges to vouchers based on states’ Blaine Amendments.

Indiana is one of 37 states with a constitutional provision prohibiting – in varying degrees – the use of state funds to benefit religious or sectarian institutions. The amendments are named after Rep. James G. Blaine of Maine, who as Speaker of the House tried to get a similar provision amended to the U.S. Constitution in 1875. Although the Blaine Amendments were closely associated with anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant bigotry in the 19th century, they made a handy argument against school vouchers in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The title of Antonucci’s post asks, “Is James G. Blaine Finally Dead?” The answer is very possibly yes, and that would most certainly be a good thing.

Moving on to California, the Vergara v. State of California case was back in the news last week. The suit was filed in May 2012 by Students Matter, a nonprofit founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch. As I wrote in June, the goal of the suit is to get the seniority, tenure and dismissal statutes out of the state education code and leave these policy decisions to local school districts – as is done in 33 other states.

The student plaintiffs attend school in four districts, though the complaint targets only two—Los Angeles Unified and Alum Rock Elementary Unified in San Jose. Other named defendants include California governor Jerry Brown, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, the state of California, the state board of education, and the state department of education. Students Matter is determined to ensure ‘that the policies embodied in the California Code of Education place the interests of students first and promote the goal of having an effective teacher in every classroom’

… Currently, California schools don’t take teacher effectiveness into account when making layoff decisions. The newest hires are the first to go, and senior teachers have their pick of schools. Struggling inner-city schools end up suffering the most, as the lawsuit states: “One recent study showed that a school in the highest poverty quartile is 65 percent more likely to have a teacher laid off than a school in the lowest poverty quartile. As a result of seniority-based layoffs, the highest poverty schools in California are likely to lose 30 percent more teachers than wealthier schools. The disproportionate number of vacancies in those schools are then filled by transferring lower performing teachers, including grossly ineffective teachers, from other schools.

Hardly a radical fix to a serious problem. But of course, never missing a chance to block child-friendly reform, two state teachers unions – the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers – released a joint press release this past week announcing that they had filed a motion “to intervene in litigation.” This means that CTA and CFT would like to be become involved in the case because they feel that the current defendants – the state and the school districts – are not adequately representing the interests of their teachers, whose rights they maintain could be adversely affected by the case.

The unions declare that if the suit is upheld, it will be more difficult “to attract and retain quality teachers in California’s schools.”

That’s a ridiculous assertion.  For one, do “quality” teachers really care about seniority? I suspect that the “quality” teachers-of-the-year who got pink slipped while their less talented colleagues kept their jobs are not all that jazzed by the “last in/first out” clause. The press release then proceeds to spout the usual blather – in which the unions pretend to really, really care about parents and children while at the same time taking a swipe at wealthy people who they insist want to usurp public education for their own personal gain.

“The people who agreed to lend their names to this wrong-headed lawsuit are attempting to crowd out the voices of all other parents in California.  We should be working to bring students, parents and teachers together — not driving them apart. Legislation, informed by the experience and testimony of all members of the education community, is the best process for improving public education,” said CFT President Josh Pechthalt, parent of an eighth-grade student in the Los Angeles Unified School District. “The real agenda of this suit is to attack and weaken teachers and their unions in order to privatize public schools and turn them into profit centers for the corporate sponsors behind the lawsuit.”

The backers of this lawsuit include a “who’s who” of the billionaire boys club and their front groups.  Their goals have nothing to do with protecting students, but are really about undermining public schools.

This kind of demagogic rhetoric is old, tired and just plain ugly. Fortunately, not all that many people are buying it these days.

Then there is Chicago, where its school district is dealing with a $1 billion deficit. For a variety of reasons the city’s school population has been dwindling since the 1960s and there is a move afoot to close 54 sparsely populated campuses. According to RiShawn Biddle,

Chicago’s enrollment of 404,584 children is a third smaller than the number of kids served by the district during the 1960s. Three hundred thirty of the district’s 616 schools — more than half of the district’s portfolio — operate below capacity, with 137 of them half-empty. At some schools,  includes Drake Elementary School in the city’s Bronzeville section, and an elementary school named for hometown hero Emmett Till (whose murder in Mississippi by two men offended by his violation of Jim Crow segregation spurred the modern civil rights movement), just two out of every five seats are filled during the school year.

And, a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) fact sheet tells us:

Population declines over the last decade in both the African American community and in school-aged children are driving the majority of underutilization in our District’s schools. Today, our schools have space for 511,000 children, but only 403,000 are enrolled.

So it certainly seems sensible to shut down some underutilized schools and consolidate their enrollments, right?

Not if you are a union boss. What you do then is come out with a statement, avowing that your main priorities are kids, parents and their neighborhoods, and bolster your case by spouting a bunch of good-sounding half-truths in an attempt to make yourself sound believable. And no one does this kind of chicanery better than American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten.

The AFT stands with teachers, parents, students and other Chicagoans fighting to guarantee every child in Chicago the high-quality neighborhood public school he or she deserves. Chicago’s reckless mass school closure agenda will destabilize neighborhoods, threaten our children’s safety, fail to improve learning or save money, and create a domino effect of destabilization in schools across the city. It is part of a disturbing trend in cities across the country by the powers that be to ignore what parents, students and teachers demand and what our children need in favor of failed policies.

As the CPS fact sheet details, every one of Weingarten’s points is bogus, but then again truth and accuracy emanating from a union leader’s mouth is rare indeed.

When unionistas and their fellow travelers don’t get their way, they typically take to the streets and the Windy City was no exception. The Chicago Teachers Union, led by its thoroughly obnoxious and confrontational leader, Karen Lewis, organized a rally last Wednesday in downtown Chicago. As EAGnews.org writer Brittany Clingen reports,

The event brought out all the usual suspects – the Occupy Chicago contingent, fellow union members from SEIU, members of CORE (Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators) and Action Now, and a general assortment of anti-capitalism protesters who relish any excuse to march around with angry signs held high.

According to CTU President Karen Lewis, the school closings are racially motivated. In her speech delivered to the crowd of approximately 700 gathered in Daley Plaza, she said, “They are closing down schools that have names of African American icons, but they’ll open up schools to put a living billionaire’s name in the front.”

Lewis failed to mention that CPS is approaching an astronomical $1 billion budget deficit. And the schools that are slated to close are either underperforming, underutilized (a school that has far fewer students than its capacity allows) or both. The students whose schools are scheduled to close will either be placed in charter schools or their closest neighborhood schools.

No one present at the rally was able to offer a better alternative to closing the schools, with some even implying that there is some sort of conspiracy going on within CPS.

Ah, nothing quite like race baiting, conspiracy theories and class warfare to get the socialists’ juices flowing. It doesn’t get any better than that, and in front of a willing media, no less!

The political angle was not lost on journalist Michael Volpe, who pointed out,

While the school closures in Chicago may seem to involve only local issues, the protest offered a clear glimpse into one of the most powerful segments of the Left. …(T)eachers unions routinely act in concert with open socialists — because their agendas and leadership merge to an alarming degree. While both claim to represent the interests of “the children” and the downtrodden, their real interest is exploiting the vulnerable to advance the principles of socialism.

Does it get any uglier than that?

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.