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Transitional Kindergarten: A Boondoggle by any other name….

CA announces a budget surplus — and legislators can’t wait to blow it.

It’s hardly surprising, but California’s we-never-met-a-big-budget-bill-we-didn’t-like Democratic lawmakers and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson have joined hands to sponsor SB 837, new legislation that would provide free public preschool to every four-year-old child in California.

The Kindergarten Readiness Act of 2014, introduced by Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and co-sponsored by Torlakson and Early Edge California, will expand access to transitional kindergarten programs to all four year old children, no matter when their birthday. Currently, children with birthdays early in the year are excluded.

“It’s impossible to overstate how important these early years are to a child’s future success in school,” Torlakson said in a press release. “Transitional kindergarten—particularly a full-year, full-day program—can make all the difference, especially for families who may be struggling to give their young children these valuable learning opportunities.”

According to the proposal, 46,000 four-year-olds would be added each year for the first five years of the program, which will cost a total of $990 million by 2019-20.

This bill is an upgrade to SB 1381, which the legislature passed in 2010. 

California’s current transitional kindergarten program applies to 4-year-olds who turn 5 in October, November or December. That age group was affected by the 2010 bill, which requires children to turn 5 by Sept. 1, instead of Dec. 2, to attend kindergarten. The state began phasing in the program, one month a year, in 2012-13.

Needless to say, the California Teachers Association is on board with this (and any) bill that adds thousands of new dues-paying jobs to help replenish its sagging coffers. In fact, SB 837 would create 8,000 teaching positions for class sizes of 20 children or fewer.  (CTA president Dean Vogel was not very happy with the earlier bill because unlike SB 837, it let individual districts decide whether or not to offer TK.)

Interestingly, the people of CA already weighed in on the subject back in 2006 when over 60 percent of the voters resoundingly clobbered Prop. 82 – a tax-the-rich scheme proposed by actor/activist Rob (Meathead) Reiner – which would have enabled four year-olds across the state to attend taxpayer supported preschool. But the Sages of Sacto have turned a blind eye to the will of the people since then.

What do we really know about Transitional Kindergarten (TK)?

TK, Pre-K and Head Start are different names for programs that accomplish little more than adding unionized teaching and educational support jobs to the state’s payroll. Oh, sure, the sales pitch sounds great. As Steinberg says, “Expanding transitional kindergarten can be accomplished with just a fraction of increased Proposition 98 funds while saving billions of dollars in the long run by reducing the extra costs of special education, grade retention and juvenile crime.”

Steinberg’s cheerleading notwithstanding, early childhood education has never proven to have lasting results. Obviously, due to its newness, there are no longitudinal studies specifically for TK. But we sure know about Head Start, which would seem to be TK by another name. The results of the third and final phase of the federal government’s Head Start study were released in December 2012, and they matched those of the second phase of the study published in 2010. They revealed that basically the federal program has been a $180 billion (and counting) boondoggle. Lesli Maxwell in Education Week explains,

In the first phase of the evaluation, a group of children who entered Head Start at age 4 saw benefits from spending one year in the program, including learning vocabulary, letter-word recognition, spelling, color identification, and letter-naming, compared with children of the same age in a control group who didn’t attend Head Start. For children who entered Head Start at age 3, the gains were even greater, demonstrated by their language and literacy skills, as well their skills in learning math, prewriting, and perceptual motor skills.

The second phase of the study showed that those gains had faded considerably by the end of 1st grade, with Head Start children showing an edge only in learning vocabulary over their peers in the control group who had not participated in Head Start.

And now, in this final phase of the study, “there was little evidence of systematic differences in children’s elementary school experiences through 3rd grade, between children provided access to Head Start and their counterparts in the control group,” the researchers wrote in an executive summary. (Emphasis added.)

After the second phase results came out, Reason Foundation’s Lisa Snell blogged,

The just-released large-scale random assignment study of Head Start confirms once again that the $7 billion a year federal preschool program provides meager benefits to children at huge costs to taxpayers.

In other words, it’s a very expensive and wasteful federal babysitting program. The Heritage Foundation’s Lindsey Burke elaborates:

… This federal evaluation, which effectively shows no lasting impact on children after first grade and no difference between those children who attended Head Start and those who did not, should call into question the merits of increasing funding for the program, which the Obama administration recently did as part of the so-called “stimulus” bill.

In a rare moment of candor, the mainstream media joined the naysayers, Time Magazine’s Joe Klein weighed in,

You take the million or so poorest 3- and 4-year-old children and give them a leg up on socialization and education by providing preschool for them; if it works, it saves money in the long run by producing fewer criminals and welfare recipients…it is now 45 years later. We spend more than $7 billion providing Head Start to nearly 1 million children each year. And finally there is indisputable evidence about the program’s effectiveness, provided by the Department of Health and Human Services: Head Start simply does not work.

So we may as well be flushing cash down the toilet. Perhaps that is what CA governor Jerry Brown was thinking when he announced his new budget last week. It seems that the quirky state leader has reservations about the financial outlay. Friday, he said that he has adjusted his initial budget proposals “to accommodate lawmakers on some of their priorities in recent years. But he made no mention in his presentation Thursday of a chief concern of legislative Democrats: transitional kindergarten.” When asked about the proposal, the governor said he would listen to proposals, but stressed that “wisdom and prudence is the order of the day.”

It’s outrageous that the taxpayers might have to fork over billions to satisfy the political agenda of the state legislature and their teacher union cronies. The Brookings Institution’s Grover J. Whitehurst sums it all up quite well, writing that childhood education,

… remains mired in philosophy, in broad theories of the nature of child development, and in practices that spring from appeals to authority and official pronouncements of professional guilds, rather than to research. Until the field of early education becomes evidence based, it will be doomed to cycles of fad and fancy. We need a science of early-childhood education, and we need it now.

Indeed, before spending another dime on any of this, we need fiscal discipline and solid research. Until then, we are at the mercy of what Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby refers to as the cardiac test. “We just know in our heart that this is right.”

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 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.

Big Education Jive Exposed

Good week for debunking teachers union hype, big government waste and mainstream media distortions.

The factually challenged Valerie Strauss unleashed a doozie in her Washington Post blog last week. As Alabama was passing tax credit legislation, Strauss, as she so often does, echoed the teachers union line, railing about the program being “welfare for the rich.” Truth is, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, these programs

… allow individuals and corporations to allocate a portion of their owed state taxes to private nonprofit school tuition organizations that issue scholarships to K-12 students. The scholarship allows a student to choose among a list of private schools, and sometimes public schools outside of the district, approved by the school tuition organization. The scholarship is used to pay tuition, fees, and other related expenses. As a result, the state does not have to appropriate per-pupil education funding for those students that receive scholarships.

So, the state actually saves money. And “welfare for the rich?” Hardly. Over at the Cato Institute, Jason Bedrick  points out,

The reality is almost exactly the opposite. Donors are not benefitting financially at the expense of the poor or anyone. And while it is true that tax-credit scholarships do not always cover the full cost of tuition at private schools, thanks to low-cost options and needs-based tuition breaks, low-income families are the primary beneficiaries of STC programs.

It is odd to claim that “wealthy businesses” are financially benefitting by receiving a tax credit for their donations. Even a 100% tax credit means that they are simply no worse off than before. A corporation with a $10,000 tax liability that made a $10,000 donation to a scholarship organization would then owe no state taxes but it would still have $10,000 less than it did before. Whether the $10,000 went to the government or a nonprofit is irrelevant to its bottom line.

Moreover, Strauss fails to mention that most state STC programs do not grant 100% credits. In fact, only four of the fourteen STC programs do. The other credits range from 50% to 90%. In these states, corporations would be better off financially if they merely paid their taxes.

Another non-story that garnered hysteria recently was the Metlife Survey of the American Teacher, which found that allegedly teachers are not the happy campers they used to be.

Teacher job satisfaction has plummeted to its lowest level in 25 years, from 62 percent in 2008 to 39 percent in 2012 – a total of 23 points, according to the annual Metlife Survey of the American Teacher, released today. Teachers reporting low levels of job satisfaction were more likely to be working in schools with shrinking budgets, few professional development opportunities, and little time allotted for teacher collaboration.

National Education Association president Dennis Van Roekel, who never misses an opportunity to campaign for more and more education spending, whined

This news is disappointing but sadly, there are no surprises in these survey results. Teacher job satisfaction will continue to free fall as long as school budgets are slashed…. Educators are doing everything they can to prepare their students to compete in the global economy, but the rug just keeps getting pulled out from under them.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten chimed in with,

When teacher dissatisfaction is at a 25-year high, school leaders have to stop ignoring the red flags and start listening to and working with teachers to figure out what they and their students need to succeed.

Before going for the crying towel, be assured – as with so many agenda-driven “studies” – this one comes up far short. Andrew Rotherham deflates the whole mess very simply in Real Clear Politics,

…the much-touted data point about teacher satisfaction is, to put it politely, fundamentally flawed. Metlife asks about job satisfaction in different ways in different years. In 2008 and 2009 they asked teachers, “How satisfied would you say you are with teaching as a career?”

The survey didn’t ask about satisfaction in 2010, but in 2011 and 2012 teachers were asked, “How satisfied would you say you are with your job as a teacher in the public schools?”

Veteran pollster and polling expert Mark Blumenthal, who is now the polling editor for The Huffington Post, says they are different questions and that “presenting the two questions on a single trend line is questionable.”

He’s being polite, too. What Metlife did would be akin to asking a soldier on a tough deployment how he likes his job vs. asking him how he likes his career in the armed forces — and claiming that it was the same question.

“The apparently dramatic drop in ‘job satisfaction’ since 2009 could be an artifact of the change in wording, yet the authors of the report make no allowance for that possibility” says Blumenthal.

So Weingarten, Van Roekel, and a credulous education press (“U.S. teachers’ job satisfaction craters,” blared The Washington Post) were responding to a five-year “trend” based on two different questions.

To paraphrase Rahm Emanuel, the teacher union leaders never let a good crisis – even if it’s a fraudulent one – go to waste.

And speaking of “waste,” there is President Obama’s State of the Union address in which he became evangelical in his attempt to foist an expanded preschool program on the American people. Undeterred by the 48 year, $180 billion boondoggle also known as Head Start, using words that would make Van Roekel and Weingarten gush, he tried to sell the country his new plan which is based upon “successes” in Georgia and Oklahoma. Bursting that bubble, Reason Foundation’s Lisa Snell and Shikha Dalmia write in the Wall Street Journal.

Oklahoma implemented its program in 1998 and is the pet of universal preschool activists because it’s a red state that has diligently applied their playbook. It spends about $8,000 per preschooler, about the same as on K-12. Its teachers are credentialed, well-paid, abundant (one per 10 children) and use a professionally designed curriculum. Georgia expanded a pre-K program for high-risk children to all 4-year-olds in 1995.

Both programs are voluntary and involve the private sector. Oklahoma pays churches and other community providers for the children they enroll. Georgia effectively hands parents a $4,500 voucher for a qualified preschool. Both states have participation rates well above the 47% national preschool average, and Oklahoma’s 75% enrollment rate is the highest in the country.

Yet neither state program has demonstrated major social benefits. The first batch of children who attended preschool in Georgia, in 1995, are now turning 22, so Mr. Obama’s claim that they are better at “holding jobs” and “forming stable families” can’t be true.

But what about, say, teenage girls staying out of trouble? Teen birth rates have declined in the past 10 years in Georgia and Oklahoma (as they have nationwide), but both states remain far above the national average. In 2005, Georgia had the eighth-highest teen-birth rate and Oklahoma the seventh-highest, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Now Georgia has the 13th-highest, Oklahoma the fifth-highest. Many states without universal preschool have a far better record.

Spendthrift politicians and the teachers unions in concert with their mainstream media cronies are very good at selling lies and distortions in a pretty box with puppies-and-kittens wrapping paper. (It’s “for the children!”) It is important that the tax-weary public sees through the hype and refuses to buy the deception.

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.

NEA Agenda: More Money, Minimal Reform

The teachers union not only plays the poverty card, but by battling reforms, ensures that the impoverished will remain that way.

No Education Reform Without Tackling Poverty, Experts Say,” is the title of an article on the National Education Association website. Experts? A trip into the weeds leads to something called the Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy at Georgetown University. Its main benefactor is none other than the Open Society Foundations run by megalomaniac George Soros, a man who once said he saw himself as “some kind of god, the creator of everything.” Expecting anything without an agenda from this bunch would be foolish.

The NEA’s “experts” claim that pouring money into education will eradicate poverty is wrong on all counts. For example, they state that children would be better educated by attending a “high quality pre-school.” Yet Head Start, according to Reason’s Lisa Snell, U. of Arkansas Professor Jay Greene and others, has been a bust. In 2010, Lindsey Burke at the Heritage Foundation wrote,

Taxpayers have been on the hook for more than $100 billion for the Head Start program since 1965. This federal evaluation, which effectively shows no lasting impact on children after first grade and no difference between those children who attended Head Start and those who did not, should call into question the merits of increasing funding for the program, which the Obama administration recently did as part of the so-called “stimulus” bill.

So, $100 billion later, children are no better off attending a preschool, but what’s important to the unions is that more adults are employed. And that means more dues for them to spend on their progressive political agenda which favors causes that have little to do with education – e.g. abortion on demand, same-sex marriage, income redistribution, and nationalized health care. In 2010-2011, NEA spent $133 million in lobbying and gifts to further its progressive agenda.

Also, with all the union kvetching, one might assume that we stint on education spending. In fact, in the U.S. since 1970, education spending has increased 150 percent. Compared to other countries around the world, we are number four in spending after Luxembourg, Switzerland and Norway. Yet,

The three-yearly OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report, which compares the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 70 countries around the world, ranked the United States 14th out of 34 OECD countries for reading skills, 17th for science and 25th for mathematics.

Thus the problem is not the amount of money we spend, but how it’s spent. Charter schools typically lead to better educated kids and save us money at the same time. Inner city charter school operators like Eva Moskowitz and Geoffrey Canada and the KIPP schools do a far better job – with fewer tax dollars – than traditional public schools. Even taking the superstars of the movement out of the mix, charter schools outperform traditional public schools. As Jay Greene writes, “Charter Benefits Are Proven by the Best Evidence.”

But no, the NEA doesn’t back charters. And the reason it doesn’t has nothing to do with education; it’s because charters are individually run and therefore very hard to unionize. In fact, only 12 percent of the nation’s 5,500 or so charters are unionized.

If the teachers unions were really serious about improving education and eradicating poverty, they would support the ultimate in school choice – voucher systems. A voucher would give a kid a chance to opt out of a failing public school and use his education dollars to pay for a private school of his choice. This would level the playing field for poorer families. However, the unions can’t abide vouchers because public schools would lose students to private schools, which are not unionized.

Eliminating the twin evils of tenure and seniority would go a long way to improving the current teaching force, by ceding more power to individual school districts. Bad teachers should be fired and the good ones should get raises. Better teachers can also handle slightly larger classes, thereby reducing the overall number of teachers we need.

But saving the taxpayers money, leveling the playing field for the poor, ceding power to local education agencies and thus having fewer dues-paying members are solutions nowhere to be found in the union playbook.

The nation’s education woes began about forty years ago – right at the time the NEA became a major force in education. Certainly other social trends have contributed to the educational morass we find ourselves in, but the National Education Association is the main reason for it – all the time using young children as pawns while vigorously pursuing its political agenda. Despite all the warm and fuzzy platitudes they spew, it is obvious that the teachers unions are not terribly interested in the education of our children or helping them get out of poverty.

About the author: 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.