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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.

The Department of Justice on Student Suspensions

A recent memo accuses educators of racial discrimination while failing, with a few exceptions, to address the real problems.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a series of guidelines regarding the suspension of students from school. In short, though partially correct, the DOJ report is misguided, misleading, and missing key elements relevant to the issue.

Where the DOJ is wrong

The most disturbing part of the DOJ memo suggests that schools unfairly discriminate against students based on race.

The U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice (Departments) are issuing this guidance to assist public elementary and secondary schools in meeting their obligations under Federal law to administer student discipline without discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. The Departments recognize the commitment and effort of educators across the United States to provide their students with an excellent education. The Departments believe that guidance on how to identify, avoid, and remedy discriminatory discipline will assist schools in providing all students with equal educational opportunities.

This is egregious. Suggesting that American schools, its administrators and its teachers are guilty of widespread racism has no basis in fact and has been rightfully denounced by most pundits. (Personal anecdote: as a teacher for over 28 years – almost exclusively in majority minority schools, including stints in Harlem and South Los Angeles – I have never seen a teacher or administrator act in a prejudicial way toward any minority kid.)

Simply put, schools have rules and if a student disobeys them, he or she is disciplined accordingly. And if minority kids are breaking the rules more often than other kids, shouldn’t they be punished more? That having been said, there are inequities that do need to be addressed that did not appear in the DOJ memo. More on that shortly.

Where the DOJ is right

The DOJ is correct when it charges that schools have become too dependent on law enforcement to solve internal problems. Many “zero tolerance” policies need to end. In too many cases, the guidelines have become downright silly. Should dress-code violations and posting a picture of a pellet gun on Instagram really become police matters? Is it right to suspend a student for chewing a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun? Does it make the least bit of sense to suspend kids who are truant? “Okay, Johnny, we are going to keep you out of school today because you ditched school yesterday.”

Also, as one who has seen many a student suspended during my stint in middle school, I can tell you that in most cases the action is useless. After a suspension, I always asked what they did with their time when they were out of school. By far the most prevalent answer was, “Watched TV.”

Some punishment. Yeah, that’ll learn ‘em!

After a while, my school wised up and began employing “in-house” suspensions. In these cases, the students had to come to school, but didn’t go to their regular classes. By doing this, the school made a statement and tried to deal with the problem via the dean, the guidance counselor and the assistant principal. Also, the kid didn’t have a day off to watch TV and the school didn’t lose the funding it would have lost had the student been absent from school.

What the DOJ did not address

Why do kids misbehave in school? There is no one answer, but the following are four important ones:

1. Bad parenting. An obvious one and as RiShawn Biddle says, it’s a tough one to overcome. If a parent is not willing to parent properly, teachers and their schools have a much bigger challenge on their hands than with a child from a solid home.

2. Undiagnosed learning disability. This happens, but more often than not, students are misdiagnosed and often given needless medication. For example, if a boy is bored in school and “acts out” he’s likely to be painted with the ADHD brush and drugged, while the real cause of his behavior goes unaddressed.

3. Student boredom due to unqualified and/or inexperienced teachers. Yup, this is a big problem and has been for many years, but it too went unacknowledged by the DOJ. In fact, if you are searching for discrimination in public education, this is the place to look. In 2011, an ACLU lawsuit rightfully claimed that high-minority schools are discriminated against by the seniority laws that are enshrined in the California state education code. Because they invariably have a high percentage of new hires, the lowest performing schools usually take the brunt of the layoffs under this system, destabilizing them further by requiring a revolving door of substitutes. Judge William Highberger agreed and ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Unfortunately, the decision was appealed and overturned, giving the teachers unions a victory at the expense of minority kids.

Another lawsuit, Vergara v. California, is due to begin in Los Angeles next week.  It asserts that

… five “outdated statutes” prevent administrators from making employment decisions in students’ interest. The tenure statute forces districts to decide after teachers are on the job only 18 months whether to grant them permanent job status. Once granted tenure, they gain due-process rights that make it expensive and difficult to fire them even if they’re “grossly ineffective.” And then, when an economic downturn comes – witness the last four years – a Last In/First Out (LIFO) requirement leads to layoffs based strictly on seniority, not competency.

If successful, this lawsuit will remove the tenure, seniority and arcane dismissal statutes from the California education code and render them unconstitutional, thus making it easier to get rid of incompetent and criminal teachers while outlawing seniority as a method of teacher-retention. While this litigation will help all students in the state, inner-city kids would benefit the most. As I wrote in City Journal in 2012,

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.”

The California Teachers Association has joined this suit in an attempt to protect its turf at the expense of the poor and minority students. Sadly, the DOJ is MIA on tenure and seniority and the unions’ efforts to keep them in place.

4. Teachers receive little or no classroom management training in schools of education. Little talked about, classroom management should be a very important part of every teacher’s training, but sadly it’s not. (The DOJ memo does allude to classroom management techniques, but says the school should provide it and makes no reference to ed schools.) Scandalously, my teacher training at Cal State had zero class hours set aside in how to manage a classroom. (My science methods teacher, realizing that this was a huge mistake, spent part of his classes giving us desperately needed tips on the subject.)

A new report by the National Council on Teacher Quality claims that classroom management continues to be one of the greatest challenges new teachers face. Surveys repeatedly document that novice teachers struggle in this area, and their school district supervisors concur.

  • A 1997 poll revealed that 58 percent of PK-12 teachers said that behavior that disrupted instruction occurred “most of the time or fairly often.”
  • A 2003 survey of teachers found that nearly half indicated that “quite a large number” of new teachers need a lot more training on effective ways to handle students who are discipline problems.
  • In 2012, over 40 percent of new teachers surveyed reported feeling either “not at all prepared” or “only somewhat prepared” to handle a range of classroom management or discipline situations.
  • In a 2013 survey, classroom management was “the top problem” identified by teachers.

It’s no secret that ed schools are, for the most part, a ridiculous waste of time and money. This is due in no small part to the fact that the nation’s #1 accrediting organization, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), is beyond useless. The mission of this organization, set up by the National Education Association in 1954, is to “help establish high quality teacher preparation.” Sixty years later, I can’t help but wonder when they are going to start.

In sum, the DOJ has raised a subject that needs to be discussed. But playing the race card – saying that “racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem” – is ludicrous. Does the DOJ really think that most teachers, their administrators and school board members are closet Klan members? And why aren’t the teachers unions defending their members against the DOJ’s scurrilous charge? (The American Federation of Teachers did issue a wishy-washy statement including a few suggestions that they think would help, but did not directly address the DOJ racism accusation.)

There are so many things we can do to improve education, but due to the intransigence of the education establishment and the teachers unions with their one-size-fits-all bureaucratic diktats, we are stuck in the status quo muck. Not mentioned in the DOJ report, the following reform measures would improve things considerably:

  • Give school districts more latitude in placing teachers and more power to fire poor performers.
  • Ditch the step-and-ladder pay scale and pay good teachers more to work in impoverished areas.
  • Demand good results from all teachers and pay them accordingly.
  • Insist that ed schools teach prospective teachers effective classroom management techniques.
  • Get rid of seniority, tenure and the endless dismissal statutes that exist in many states.

Harping on the race angle and blaming teachers for discriminatory practices are needless distractions that do no kid of any color or ethnicity any good. In fact, the DOJ report will make things worse.

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.

California’s Public Sector Union Pension Secrecy Lobby

Last month, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) announced that it would post the names and pension amounts of its retirees. But after the Retired Public Employees Association of California (RPEA) objected, CalPERS quickly pulled back from this pledge. RPEA leaders made what amounted to a novel and troubling argument about why vital public records should remain sealed: releasing pension information, they said, would subject pensioners to criticism, which government retirees simply should not have to bear.

“It’s a good thing CalPERS . . . delayed a plan to post a database online displaying the specifics of all the pensions it administers,” wrote George Linn, RPEA’s public relations director. “Posting unvarnished numbers like that without context would not inform the public, it would only open hardworking middle-class public servants to another round of attacks from Wall Street critics looking for their own political gain.” Linn argued that California taxpayers already have plenty of information about pensions. If they did some research, he went on, they’d learn that the “average public servant in our state retires on just $26,000 a year,” that public-school teachers don’t earn Social Security, and that governor Jerry Brown’s pension-reform plan last year “dramatically reduced government employees’ compensation.”

Linn’s facts are mostly disinformation. For starters, that $26,000 figure is about three times the average pension in the private sector. Further, the data used to compute the average go back decades—before the massive retroactive pension increases of recent years—and include everyone who has worked in the public systems, even if only for a short time. Such a massive data set tends to obscure the particulars of today’s pension formulas, which remain astonishingly generous. Many state firefighters, for example, get the “3 percent at 50” pension benefit that the preponderance of California public-safety workers enjoy—3 percent of their final year’s pay multiplied by the number of years worked, available at age 50. And that’s before applying the common pension-spiking gimmicks that can push the pension well above an individual’s final working salary. As a result, a California firefighter’s average total compensation—salary plus benefits and overtime—is about $175,000 per year.

Linn’s right that most teachers receive lower pensions than many other public employees, and they don’t get Social Security benefits (they opted out years ago). But his claim that Governor Brown’s pension-reform plan will cut back public-employee compensation is fantasy. The pension plan—passed in the waning days of the legislative session to gin up support for a tax increase—applies only to new employees and is far more modest than the governor’s original proposal, which would have created a hybrid defined-benefit and defined-contribution plan for new state workers.

In objecting to the CalPERS data release, Linn and his allies are trying to prevent informed debate. But voters can find the information elsewhere. The California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, for example, has been running its $100,000 Pension Club database for several years. “Our $100,000 Club database has had about two-million page views since being put online in 2009 and I haven’t heard of any reports of problems from those retirees on the list,” said CFFR vice president Jack Dean, who also runs pensiontsunami.com. California newspapers regularly publish pension data, too.

Defending its change of heart, CalPERS cited pending legislation that would amend the state’s Public Records Act to wall off pension data from public scrutiny. Pension officials would love to see that happen, of course, but it’s unlikely that such a measure would survive a court challenge. To prove constitutional, argues Terry Francke in the San Jose Mercury News, such legislation “would have to adopt findings demonstrating necessity, when all the proponents’ announced rationales for such secrecy have been argued to the appellate courts and found unpersuasive.” Francke, who serves as general counsel for the First Amendment advocacy group Californians Aware, noted that courts have widely rejected another argument that public pensioners make—that releasing the information would expose seniors to scams.

Indeed, the courts have repeatedly rejected attempts to shut down the release of information from the state’s various pension systems. As U-T San Diego reported in June, “Courts in seven California counties have ruled in favor of releasing pension data for retirees. Retirement systems in three counties appealed these rulings, with no success so far.” The courts recognize that this is bona fide public information that taxpayers need to ensure proper oversight of the state’s unfunded pension liabilities—which can only exist, after all, through taxpayer-backed debt. Yet the secrecy lobby continues to wage this fight based on emotional arguments.

It’s unclear why CalPERS proposed creating its own database in the first place. It’s even more difficult to understand the push for secrecy, given the court record and the availability of similar information elsewhere. California public employees already enjoy myriad privileges, but immunity from criticism would take their special treatment to a whole new level.

Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for U-T San Diego, formerly the San Diego Union-Tribune. Write to him atsteven.greenhut@utsandiego.com. This column originally appeared in City Journal and is republished here with permission.