Posts

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.

Tenure, Temerity and the Truth

Los Angeles Times op-ed and teachers union defense of educational status quo are packed with malarkey.

Now in its third week, the Students Matter trial still has a ways to go. Initially scheduled to last four weeks, the proceedings are set to run longer. On Friday, Prosecutor Marcellus McRae told Judge Rolf Treu that the plaintiffs need another week and a half or so to conclude their case before the defense takes over. The coverage of the trial has been thorough, with the Students Matter website providing daily updates, as has the always reliable LA School Report.

The media have generally been either neutral or supportive of the case, which claims that the tenure, seniority and dismissal statutes enshrined in the state Ed Code hurt the education process in the Golden State, especially for minority and poor kids. The defendants are the state of California and the two state teachers unions – the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers.

Having studied and written about the case extensively, I am of the opinion that the defense has no defense and that the best that they can do is to muddy the waters to gain favor with judge. In an effort to learn what the defense will come up with, I have tried to read everything I can by folks who think the lawsuit is misguided. I have written before about California Teachers Association president Dean Vogel’s rather inept argument presented in the December issue of CTA’s magazine.

The CTA website has been posting more about the case as the trial has progressed, and it would appear that desperation has set in. The union’s old bromides hold about as much water as a ratty sponge.

The problems we face with layoffs are not because of Education Code provisions or local collective bargaining agreements, but lack of funding.

No, the problem is who is getting laid off; we are losing some of the best and the brightest, including teachers-of-the-year due to ridiculous seniority laws.

The lawsuit ignores all research that shows teaching experience contributes to student learning.

Not true. Studies have shown that after 3-5 years, the majority of teachers don’t improve over time.

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

Oh please – the evil rich and the privatization bogeyman! Really! Zzzzz.

Then we have cartoonist Ted Rall who penned an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times last week, which is mostly concerned with “tenure tyranny.” This wretched piece is maudlin sophistry at its gooiest.

First, Rall needs to get his verbiage straight. K-12 teachers do not get tenure. What they achieve after two years on the job is “permanent status.” Permanent status! What other job on the planet affords workers something called “permanence,” and getting rid of an inept teacher who has reached that lofty perch is just about impossible. But Rall makes the claim that, “Tenure doesn’t prevent districts from firing teachers. It makes it hard. (Not impossible: 2% of teachers get fired for poor performance annually.)”

The 2 percent figure is a half-truth. During the first two years on the job, a teacher can be let go relatively easily for poor performance. Maybe two percent of newbies don’t cut it. But what Rall and his teacher union buddies don’t tell you is that, in California, for example, about ten teachers a year out of nearly 300,000 (.003 percent) who have attained “permanence” lose their jobs. Of those, a whopping two teachers (.0007 percent) get canned for poor performance.

This is a disgrace, and most teachers know it. In fact, according to a recent survey of teachers working in Los Angeles conducted by the National Council on Teacher Quality, 68 percent reported that “there were tenured teachers currently working in their schools who should be dismissed for poor performance.”

Then Rall goes off the rails on tenure, saying that what’s wrong with tenure is that “only teachers can get it.”  (When you go to a doctor for a serious medical condition, Mr. Rall, do you want to see the best one or any old quack who still has an MD after his name?)

Rall then ventures into other areas. He whines twice about his mother’s (a retired public school teacher) “crummy salary.” He apparently hasn’t read much on the subject. In fact, the most recent study on teacher pay shows that when perks like healthcare and pension packages are taken into consideration, today’s teachers are in fact overpaid. Armed with facts, charts and a bevy of footnotes, Heritage Foundation’s Jason Richwine and American Enterprise Institute’s Andrew Biggs explain,

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

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

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

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

Then Rall gets political. He writes,

During the last few decades, particularly since the Reagan administration, the right has waged war on teachers and their unions. From No Child Left Behind to the sneakily anti-union, anti-professionalization outfit Teach for America to the Common Core curriculum, conservatives are holding teachers accountable for their kids’ academic performance.

Reagan? What did his administration do?

The sneakily anti-union, anti-professionalization outfit Teach for America

Do you mean the very successful organization that identifies young teacher-leaders and trains them for service, founded and run by social justice advocates who have made (some) peace with the National Education Association? That TFA?

Common Core?

Sorry, but it is a bipartisan issue. In fact, your beloved teachers unions, including NEA president Dennis Van Roekel and AFT President Randi Weingarten, support it.

…conservatives are holding teachers accountable for their kids’ academic performance.

Horrors! Holding teachers accountable for their work! If not them whom?  The school bus driver? And for crying out loud, it’s not just conservatives who are demanding teacher accountability. StudentsFirst’s Michelle Rhee, American Federation of Children’s Kevin Chavous, Democrats for Education Reform’s Joe Williams and former CA state senator Gloria Romero, all want more accountability and none of them qualify as right wingers.

Rall’s piece ends with an editor’s note:

[Correction, 11:26 a.m., February 6: An original version of this post incorrectly described Students Matter as a “right-wing front group.” The post also linked to the wrong David Welch, founder of Students Matter.]

If the editors think that this is the only errata, they most definitely need to review this bilge and reexamine every word, including “and” and “the.”

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.

Leonie Haimson: Teacher Union Advocate

Is it okay for a “parent advocate” to send her kids to a private school while maintaining that your kids remain in a failing government run school?

Last week, via the blogosphere, we learned that education reform leader Michelle Rhee sends one of her two kids to a private school. One post asks the question, “Should we care?”

The answer is, “Of course not.”

Through StudentsFirst, Rhee champions the best education opportunities for all kids whether they be traditional public, charter or private schools. Additionally, she is in favor of vouchers or opportunity scholarships. As chancellor of Washington D.C. schools from 2007-2010, she sent her kids to a public school. But now one of her two daughters (both of whom live in Tennessee with her first husband) goes to a private school. Hence, she is not doing anything for her own kids that she wouldn’t advocate for any other parent.

Then we have “parent advocate” Leonie Haimson. As reported by the GothamSchools blog last week,

Leonie Haimson’s career as a New York City education activist started when her older child was assigned to a first-grade class with 28 other students. That was in 1996, and since then, Haimson has advocated for public school parents — through her organization, Class Size Matters; the blog and online mailing lists she runs; and the national parent group she helped launch.

But her personal stake changed last summer, when Haimson ceased to be a public school parent. Her younger child started at a private high school in September, following a trajectory from public to private school that her older child, now an adult, also took.

If it’s okay for activist Rhee to send one of her kids to a private school, why not activist Haimson? The answer is that Haimson, founder of Class Size Matters, who also fronts a faux parent advocacy group called Parents Across America, doesn’t want your kids to have the same opportunity that hers do. She is anti-charter, anti-voucher, anti-any choice and wants to force your kids to stay in public schools no matter how awful they may be. In other words, she is a hypocrite. As an editorial in the New York Post states,

Guess who sends her kids to private school when they reach high school age? That’s right: longtime public school parent-activist Leonie Haimson.

Fine by us. Like any parent, she’s entitled to do what’s best for her children — and private schools by and large provide more, and often better, choices for city kids.

But what about parents who want similar choices yet don’t have the resources? Increasingly, they turn to charter schools — public schools with more rigorous standards and non-union staffs.

… Haimson specifically cites her pet issue: smaller class sizes in private schools. (She runs the group Class Size Matters.) Yet, even though charters often have smaller classes, she continues to fight them.

Haimson is also against colocating charters in traditional public school space, despite the fact that charters don’t receive public funds to build or lease facilities.

What the Post editorial doesn’t mention is that Haimson is a member in good standing of the National Education Association Church, which is hardly surprising since she is in part bankrolled by the union. She consistently mouths teacher union dogma – bashing school choice, defending tenure and seniority, insisting that smaller classes are the sine qua non of reform – and even has gone so far as to defend the Chicago Teachers Union and its outrageous strike last September.

As Democrats for Education Reform president Joe Williams said,

She keeps choosing to defend the same awful schools she would never allow her kids to attend.

Not surprisingly, Diane Ravitch, who is on the Class Size Matters board and has been paid handsomely as an NEA spokesperson, rushed to defend Haimson with some incoherent comments:

You can see why powerful people would want to discredit her. She is a force, she has a large following, and she threatens them.

Consider the premise of the article: only public school parents may advocate for public schools.

This is classic corporate reform ideology. Corporate reformers use this specious ideology to argue for the parent trigger, claiming that the school belongs to the parents and they should be “empowered” to seize control and give it to a charter corporation.

Classic corporate reform ideology? Huh?!

Perhaps Dropout Nation’s RiShawn Biddle sums it up best,

… it is nice to see GothamSchools’ Geoff Decker do stellar work in breaking news yesterday on this contradiction between Haimson’s public criticism of expanding school choice and her very private decision to embrace it. And even nicer to see how her fellow traditionalists (including Ravitch) are attempting to justify her … instead of arguing for providing poor and minority families with the range of options to which Haimson (along with many of them) avails herself. This matter speaks louder than words to their amorality and intellectual charlatanism.

One other thing. Wondering about the name of Haimson’s organization Class Size Matters? In most cases it doesn’t.  But gross hypocrisy always does.

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.