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Empire Statement

Andrew Cuomo becomes the latest governor to take on the teachers unions.

Expanding vouchers to unaccountable private schools. Stripping teachers of their right to due process. Converting neighborhood public schools into privately run charter schools unanswerable to local school boards and taxpayers. Proceeding with tax cuts for the wealthy while starving public schools.

Holy horrors! The above, from the National Education Association EdVotes page, would lead us to believe that a healthy dose of school choice would destroy our less than wildly successful education system. The same page specifically nails several governors for having the audacity to promote school choice and other child-friendly reforms. Making the NEA Hall of Shame are Sam Brownback (KS), Rick Snyder (MI), Rick Scott (FL), Mike Pence (IN) and of course public (employee union) enemy #1 – Wisconsin’s Scott Walker.

All Republicans.

But just recently a high-profile Democrat joined this exclusive club. New York State governor Andrew Cuomo blasted the teachers unions with a venom that probably made Chris Christie proud.

Cuomo told the New York Daily News that the teachers unions represent themselves, not the students. He referred to them, along with the entrenched education establishment, as an “industry” that is more interested in protecting the rights of its members than improving the system for the kids it purports to serve.

If (the public) understood what was happening with education to their children, there would be an outrage in this city. I’m telling you, they would take City Hall down brick by brick.

Somewhere along the way, I believe we flipped the purpose of this. This was never a teacher employment program and this was never an industry to hire superintendents and teachers.

He went on to decry the fact that 250,000 kids over the past decade were trapped in failing schools.

Where was the outrage? You want to talk to me about teachers’ rights? Why isn’t the question: ‘How did we let that happen to 250,000 kids — black and brown kids, by the way.’

At Cuomo’s State of the State speech, given a day before he talked to the Daily News, he spoke about matters that send teacher union leaders into an apoplectic state: more charter schools, stricter teacher evaluations, an end to teacher tenure in its current form and tax credits for donors who want to help students attend private schools.

Needless to say, teacher union leaders and their camp followers are now at war with Cuomo. The union bosses’ counter-offensive would normally involve Sheldon Silver – their bought-and-paid for speaker of the New York State Assembly and perhaps the most powerful legislator in Albany – to eviscerate any reforms being pushed by the governor. But in what could be viewed as providential, Silver was charged – the day after Cuomo’s fiery talk – with lining his pockets with nearly $4 million in bribes and kickbacks in a massive abuse of power dating back at least 15 years. He was accused of committing five felonies, including fraud, extortion and conspiracy. Each count carries up to 20 years in prison.

Not waiting for a trial, Silver quickly resigned his position, leaving the New York State United Teachers without its powerful lawmaker to do its bidding. But NYSUT ain’t gonna be cowed by no governor – even if their goombah in Albany now has a new office in Sing Sing.

In an attempt to fire up his troops, Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of teachers – NYSUT’s Big Apple affiliate – reached deep into the Teacher Union Guidebook of Clichéd and Ridiculous Responses to Education Reformers and accused Cuomo of being afraid of “the hedge-fund managers and corporate interests whose donations fill your campaign coffers.” Mulgrew also blasted the governor for being behind “corporate bonus-style merit pay,” claimed that his “education agenda isn’t about education at all – it is political payback” (because the unions did not support his reelection bid) and that “it is poverty and inequality and lack of funding, not ‘failing schools’ or ‘bad teachers,’ that are at the root of our education system’s struggles.” (I can hear Harlem Success Academy’s Eva Moskowitz howling over the last one.)

One not impressed in the least by Mulgrew’s claptrap is New York City Parents Union leader Mona Davids (H/T RiShawn Biddle) who fired back,

Funny thing is: 

1.  When Mulgrew eliminated extended day last year, he didn’t consult parents!  

2.  When Mulgrew sabotaged the teacher evaluations in 2013, he didn’t consult parents and didn’t give a hoot about our schools losing $290 million.  We had to sue to keep the $290 million!

3.  They accuse and are crying foul of the “reformers” political contributions–but, they’ve been giving pols money to get what they want all this time.  Now, they have competition.

UFT/NYSUT absolutely refuses to even admit maybe 1% — just 1%, of teachers are ineffective or make any changes to dismissal procedures.

But of course to union leaders, parents are nuisances who must be dealt with – “handled” – but should not be included in any important way that affects their children’s education.

Last Thursday, the union started to hold “emergency meetings” with teachers, parents and clergy. Why do I get the idea that Ms. Davids and other activist, reform-minded parents are not on the short list? And clergy…? Maybe the unions, in their desperate quest to leave no stone unturned, are looking for divine intervention.

At the meetings, I’m sure the union bosses will be wearing their Sunday best, spinning the data as only they can, pushing to spend more on education, while professing their purest, most heartfelt concern for “the children.” But the fact remains that in New York State just 40 percent of fourth graders are proficient in math and 37 percent in reading. Yet, as The Wall Street Journal reports, “New York spends more per pupil ($19,552 in 2012) than any other state and nearly twice the national average. Incredibly, the Empire State spends more on a per pupil basis on employee benefits than reform leaders Tennessee and Florida spend on teacher salaries.”

While not every problem in education is union-caused, many are. And until the unions fess up and make amends (don’t hold your breath), more and more elected officials – from both sides of the aisle – will be pushing back. It’s about time.

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.

Democrats and Teachers Unions: The Chasm Grows

As more Dems demand education reform, the teachers unions find themselves increasingly isolated.

Going back to 2009, I have written many times about the relationship between the teachers unions and the Democratic Party. It’s no secret that the party and the unions were at one time synonymous, but this is rapidly becoming history. Quite clearly, no entity is more aware of this than the National Education Association. In its year-end “Best and Worst Players in Public Education,” the usual right-of-center bogeymen – the Koch brothers and new villainess Campbell Brown – are of course trotted out.

But also prominently bashed is the Democrats for Education Reform, which advocates for sensible education policy changes. But according to NEA, the reforms suggested by DFER (and many other groups) have “acquired a bit of a stench over the last few years, as the ideas with which it is most closely associated – high stakes accountability, vouchers, merit pay, charter schools, not to mention teacher bashing – have not worn well with much of the public.” (Actually, polls show that the general public is now at odds with teachers unions, not the reformers.) Not surprisingly, NEA agrees with the union-owned California Democratic Party, which passed a resolution in 2013 calling on DFER to cease using ‘Democrats’ in their name, claiming their program “is clearly a front for a right-wing corporate agenda.” In other words, you are branded a right-wing crazy if you believe in things like school choice, holding schools accountable and empowering reform-minded mayors.

Apparently Andrew Cuomo is also one who should relinquish his Democratic credentials. Just last week, the governor of New York sent the state’s top education officials a letter warning that he plans to use his influence over the budget by pursuing an aggressive legislative agenda to fix an ailing school system hobbled by bureaucracy. The Wall Street Journal’s Leslie Brody writes,

The fact that only about one third of students are proficient on state tests in math and language arts was ‘simply unacceptable,’ the letter said.

It challenged Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and outgoing Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. to answer questions about whether to lift the cap on charter schools, how to make it easier to remove ineffective teachers and how to make teacher evaluations more stringent, among other issues.

Part of Cuomo’s frustration is that 95.6 percent of  teachers in New York were rated “effective” or “highly effective” during the 2013-14 academic year despite less than 40 percent of grade 3-8 students being assessed “proficient” on their standardized tests the same year. Additionally, 3.7 percent of teachers in the state were deemed “developing” and just 0.7 percent were rated “ineffective,” according to the data. So 60 percent of the kids are failing, but less than 1 percent of the teachers are.

Union leaders would have you think that Cuomo had just committed an act of heresy – which, of course, he did. United Federation of Teachers president Michael “I’m going to punch you in the face” Mulgrew said, “This letter comes right out of the playbook of the hedge funders for whom education ‘reform’ has become a pet cause and who poured money into the Cuomo re-election campaign.”

Karen Magee, president of the New York State United Teachers, also admonished Cuomo, suggesting that he should rely on advice from the “real experts—parents, educators and students—about what’s best for public education. Instead, New Yorkers get clueless, incendiary questions that do the bidding of New York City hedge fund billionaires who have letterhead and campaign donations, but know absolutely nothing about how public education works.” (If the teachers unions would become as obsessed with kids getting a good education as they are with hedgies, this country would be a much better place.)

Not easily cowed, Cuomo and his people fired back. Jim Malatras, the governor’s operations director, took a shot at the union, writing: “The education bureaucracy’s mission is to sustain the bureaucracy and the status quo and therefore it is often the enemy of change.”

And no one knows more about teacher union rigidity than former New York City school chancellor (and Democrat) Joel Klein. In a piece he wrote for The Atlantic, Klein explains that early in his stint as school chief, he decided to reach out to individual teachers in writing and in person.

My hope was that, as I invited teachers to group gatherings, brown-bag lunches, or meetings in schools, we would get to know one another as human beings. (I confess, I hoped some would say to themselves, ‘Hey, that Klein’s not the jerk I thought he was.’) Since it was physically impossible for me to meet 80,000 teachers face-to- face, I decided that, in addition to lots of small meetings, I’d write e-mails to them all as a group. What was to stop me? After all, I was their boss. Shouldn’t we be able to communicate? (Emphasis added.)

Well, actually, no. Because the United Federation of Teachers wouldn’t allow it. Klein was not permitted to “approach teachers directly on any matter that touched on their actual work. There would be no brown-bag lunches shared in the teachers’ lounge or coffee and conversation without union supervision. These matters were all subject to collective bargaining and, therefore, I was informed (first by the union and then by my own attorney) that I couldn’t discuss them directly with the teachers.” (Emphasis added.)

As more and more Democrats come to see that the teachers unions, with their rigid work rules and insistence on preserving the failing status quo, are the biggest impediment to education reform, the unions can either become more conciliatory or they can double down. You can bet your hedge fund holdings it will be the latter. Their money and power will still get some of their people elected, as it did California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. But eventually their unwavering course will turn a political chasm into a sprawling lonely gulf inhabited only by shrill and flailing unionistas. And as DFER, Andrew Cuomo and Joel Klein can attest, the sooner that happens the better.

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 Strange Politics of Education Reform

… where conservatives demand change and many alleged progressives, including teacher union elites, are really reactionary.

While this may be old news to some, it can’t be said enough: In our polarized times, education reform is the only truly bipartisan issue, whereas with other matters things invariably break down into Republican vs. Democrat, liberal vs. conservative, libertarian vs. conservative (social issues), libertarian vs. liberal (fiscal issues), etc. 

But in the world of edu-politics, folks from the conservative Heritage Foundation have made common cause with their counterparts at the libertarian Reason Foundation with plenty of room in the big tent for Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).  

Though not the main theme of an excellent blog post, “Grabbing the Bull By The Horns: Cuomo, Nutter and the Backlash Against Making Sh*t Up,” DFER executive director Joe Williams indirectly points to the odd political bedfellows who are pushing for much needed changes in education.

Williams begins his piece by writing, 

If you’ve ever been the subject of a blog-tirade by either of the Klonsky Brothers or Leo Casey, you understand that these old school reactionaries have made decades-long careers out of pushing bogus propaganda for their cause, i.e. they make sh*t up and hope that nobody calls them on it. 

The joke here is that both Casey and the Klonsky brothers come from Marxist backgrounds but really are, when it comes to education reform, not progressives but reactionaries – fervently protective of the status quo – blindly pro-union, claiming that more money will solve our education woes, all the while fighting against every meaningful way of improving the system. 

On the other hand, we have some big city liberal mayors who are trying to do the right thing in tough fiscal times. Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, Philadelphia’s Michael Nutter and New York’s Andrew Cuomo have closed some poorly attended failing schools. So what’s the problem? The teachers unions in those cities, who profess to be all about the kids, social justice and progressivism, pound the table and insist that our outdated 19th Century Prussian-style zip-code mandated school system continue without any innovation, just more money. These unions desperately fight to maintain the status quo and snuff any real reform – charter schools, vouchers, online schools, etc. As such, it’s time we start tarring union leaders with the reactionary brush. 

And while we are talking reactionaries, perhaps their poster child should be Diane Ravitch. She was a liberal before she became conservative before she became a progressive, but she’s really a reactionary. (She is wrong about so much that she should get an award for “Yes I can make this sh*t up.”) In fact, researcher Jay Greene set aside an entire week on his blog to debunk her endless reactionary blather, which he titled “Ravitch is Wrong Week.” 

And as I wrote last week, Louisiana’s Republican governor Bobby Jindal is trying to do his best for kids by expanding his state’s popular voucher program, only to be slapped down by the allegedly progressive Eric Holder. In reality, our attorney general is doing his best to emulate George Wallace, the segregationist and reactionary former governor of Alabama. 

Then there are those whom the teachers unions love to hurl “right wing” epithets at, like the admittedly conservative Heritage Foundation. There, policy expert Lindsey Burke regularly promotes various decidedly un-reactionary reforms – vouchers, tax credits, education savings accounts, etc. Sounds like Ms. Burke is trying to get us out of a complacent, dare I say, reactionary rut. 

Meanwhile, over at the Reason Foundation the decidedly un-reactionary director of education Lisa Snell regularly writes about the importance and benefits of school choice. 

We live in a time where the biggest enemies of change are the teachers unions. They and their fellow travelers espouse progressivism but in reality are clinging to a moribund education system that’s desperately in need of fundamental change. So I guess when you want to get things done in edu-world, look to those who are truly trying to effect real change – conservatives, libertarians and DFER-type liberals, not reactionaries in progressive clothing.

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.