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The state of the teachers union

Are LAUSD Teachers Underpaid, or Does it Cost Too Much to Live in California?

In California, public sector unions pretty much run the state government. Government unions collect and spend over $800 million per year in California. There is no special interest in California both willing and able to mount a sustained challenge to public sector union power. They simply have too much money, too many people on their payroll, too many politicians they can make or break, and too much support from a biased and naive media.

The teachers strike in Los Angeles Unified School District cannot be fully appreciated outside of this overall context: Public sector unions are the most powerful political actor in California, at the state level, in the counties and cities, and on most school boards, certainly including the Los Angeles Unified School District. With all this control and influence, have these unions created the conditions that feed their current grievances?

The grievances leading the United Teachers of Los Angeles to strike center around salary, class sizes, and charter schools. But when the cost of benefits are taken into account, it is hard to argue that LAUSD teachers are underpaid.

According to the Los Angeles County Office of Education, the median salary of a LAUSD teacher is $75,000, but that’s just base pay. A statement by LAUSD in response to a 2014 report on LAUSD salaries challenged the $75,000 figure, claiming it was only around $70,000. They then acknowledged, however, that the district paid $16,432 for each employee’s healthcare in 2013-14, and paid 13.92 percent of each teachers salary to cover pension contributions, workers comp, and Medicare. That came up to $96,176 per year.

The Cost of Benefits is Breaking Education Budgets

This average total pay of nearly $100K per year back in 2013-14 is certainly higher today – even if salaries were not raised, payments for retirement benefits have grown. For their 35,000 employees, LAUSD now carries an unfunded pension liability of $6.8 billion, and their OPEB unfunded liability (OPEB stands for “other post employment benefits,” primarily retirement health insurance) has now reached a staggering $14.9 billion. CalSTRS, the pension system that collects and funds pension benefits for most LAUSD employees, receives funds directly from the state that, in a complete accounting, need to also count towards their total compensation. And CalSTRS, as of June 30, 2017 (the next update, through 6/30/2018, will be available May 2019), was only 62 percent funded. Sixty-two percent!

The reason to belabor these unfunded retirement benefits is to make it very clear: LAUSD paying an amount equivalent to 13.92 percent of each employee’s salary into the pension funds isn’t enough. What LAUSD teachers have been promised in terms of retirement pensions and health insurance benefits requires pre-funding far in excess of 13.92 percent. To accurately estimate how much they really make, you have to add the true amount necessary to pay for these pensions and OPEB. This real total compensation average is well over $100K per year.

To put LAUSD teacher compensation in even more accurate context, consider how many days per year they actually work. This isn’t to dispute or disparage the long hours many (but not all) teachers put in. A conscientious teacher’s work day doesn’t begin when the students arrive in the classroom, or end when they leave. They prepare lesson plans and grade homework, and many stay after regular school hours to assist individual students or coordinate extracurricular activities. But teachers working for LAUSD work just 182 days per year. The average private-sector professional, who also tends to put in long hours, assuming four weeks of either vacation or holidays, works 240 days per year – 32 percent more. The value of all this time off is incalculable, but simply normalizing pay for a 182 day year to a 240 day year yields an average annual pay of not $100K, but $132K. Taking into account the true cost of pensions and retirement healthcare benefits, that’s much more than $132K.

This is what the LAUSD teachers union considers inadequate. If that figure appears concocted, just become an independent contractor. Suddenly the value of employer-paid benefits becomes real, because you have to pay for them yourself.

California’s Ridiculously High Cost-of-Living

If a base salary of over $70,000 per year – plus benefits (far more time off each year, pensions far better than Social Security, and excellent health insurance) worth nearly as much – isn’t enough for someone to financially survive in Los Angeles, maybe the union should examine the role it played, along with other public sector unions, in raising the cost-of-living in California.

Where was the California Teachers Association when restrictive laws such as CEQAAB 32SB 375 were passed, making housing unaffordable by restricting supply? What was the California Teachers Association stance on health coverage for undocumented immigrants, or sanctuary state laws? What did they expect, if laws were passed to make California a magnet for the world’s poor? Don’t they see the connection between 2.6 million undocumented immigrants living in California, and a housing shortage or crowded classrooms? Don’t they see the connection between this migration of largely destitute immigrants who don’t speak English, and the burgeoning costs to LAUSD to provide special instruction and care to these students?

From a moral standpoint, how, exactly, does it make the world a better place when, for every high-needs immigrant student entering LAUSD schools, there are 10,000 high-needs children left behind in the countries they came from, as well as fewer resources for high-needs children whose parents, some of them Latino, may have lived in California for generations?

When you make it nearly impossible to build anything in California, from housing to energy and water infrastructure, and at the same time invite the world to move in, you create an unaffordable state. When California’s state legislature passed laws creating this situation, what was the position of California Teachers Association? Need we ask?

The Union War Against Education Reform

Charter schools, another primary grievance of the UTLA, is one of the few areas where politicians in California’s state legislature – nearly all of them Democrats by now – occasionally stand up to the teachers unions. But why are charter schools so popular? Could it be that the union-controlled traditional public schools are failing students, making charter schools a popular option for parents who want their children to have a better chance at a good education?

Maybe if traditional public schools weren’t held back by union work rules, they would deliver better educational results. The disappointing result in the 2014 Vergara vs. California case provides an example. The plaintiffs sued to modify three work rules, (1) a longer period before granting tenure, (2) changing layoff criteria from seniority to merit, and (3) streamlined dismissal policies for incompetent teachers. These plaintiffs argued the existing work rules had a disproportionately negative impact on minority communities, and proved it – view the closing arguments by the plaintiff’s attorney in this case to see for yourself. But California’s State Supreme Court did not agree, and California’s public schools continue to suffer as a result.

But instead of embracing reforms such as proposed in the Vergara case, which might reduce the demand by parents for charter schools, the teachers union is trying to unionize charter schools. And instead of agreeing to benefits reform – such as contributing more to the costs for their health insurance and retirement pensions – the teachers union has gone on strike.

Financial reality will eventually compel financial reform at LAUSD. But no amount of money will improve the quality of LAUSD’s K-12 education, if union work rules aren’t changed. The saddest thing in this whole imbroglio is the fate of the excellent teacher, who works hard and successfully instructs and inspires their students. Those teachers are not overpaid at all. But the system does not nurture such excellence. How on earth did it come to this, that unions would take over public education, along with virtually every other state and local government agency in California?

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Early Christmas for LAUSD teacher: a refund of his UTLA union dues – and an end to future deductions

Few: “Teachers shouldn’t have to make a federal case out of this.”

This article first appeared on FlashReport.org.

Just in time for Christmas, the Los Angeles teachers union gave Thomas Few some good news: a refund of $433.31 dues he paid and the union’s promise to stop taking $80 per month from his paycheck.

Few said he is “elated by the victory,” but also determined to press forward with his lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District and United Teachers of Los Angeles.

“On June 27, the Supreme Court said government employees – including my fellow teachers in Los Angeles Unified – have the right to fund or to not fund union activities,” Few said. “Teachers shouldn’t have to make a federal case out of this.”

Beginning in June, Few told United Teachers of Los Angeles three times to stop taking cash from his paycheck. The third time, he says he placed a copy of his demand directly into the hands of a teachers union official visiting the San Fernando Valley school where Few teaches special-ed children.

But UTLA refused to stop taking his money. Then, on Nov. 13, the nonprofit California Policy Center and the Liberty Justice Center filed a federal lawsuit on Few’s behalf against UTLA and LAUSD. Two weeks later, UTLA did an about-face and sent Few the refund check.

The check came with a letter from UTLA executive director Jeff Good explaining that even though Good believes UTLA still has the right to take Few’s money, they are going to stop “rather than expend dues money on litigation.”

Gold claimed Few’s federal lawsuit suggested the teacher had a “misimpression that the union had not accepted your resignation.” In fact, Good told Few, the union had accepted his resignation.

But payments to the union were another matter, Good wrote: Few had “signed a separate agreement with the union, apart from your agreement to become a member, committing [Few] to pay an amount equivalent to dues to the union ‘irrespective of your membership status.’”

California Policy Center CEO Mark Bucher, one of the attorneys representing Few, called that a “desperate attempt by UTLA to skirt the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME.”

In that June 27 decision, the Supreme Court held that forcing government employees to join political organizations like UTLA violates their First Amendment rights.

“Arguing that Mr. Few can leave the UTLA as long as he continues to pay UTLA at the same rate is like a Vegas magician sawing a woman in half,” Bucher said. “It’s sleight-of-hand. In this case, it’s also deceptive and illegal.”

Bucher said the union’s capitulation does not end the federal suit, now scheduled for a February hearing in the U.S. Court in downtown Los Angeles.

“Even though UTLA has stopped taking money out of Mr. Few’s check, he does not intend on dropping the suit,” Bucher said. “Few is asking the court to declare that UTLA does not have the right to take his money, or the money of countless other teachers who are in the same position.”

Until his February hearing, Few said he’s focused on the spirit of the season. That means “spreading the good news to all of California’s government employees: you too qualify today for an end to dues deductions from your union.”

Then striking a lighter note, Few added, “With Christmas around the corner and the usual family expenses,” he says, “my wife and I are stoked to have our money back.”

Will Swaim is president of the California Policy Center. Contact him at Will@CaliforniaPolicyCenter.org.

The looming apocalypse in California

How the Los Angeles Unified School District spent its summer vacation

LAUSD schools open in two weeks after having had the July from Hell.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is heading into the new school year after something less than a whiz-bang summer. The follies began with a report revealing that the predicted 2017 graduation rate of 80 percent didn’t quite hit the mark. In reality, it was 76.1 percent because the state’s Department of Education changed its definition of “graduate” after a federal audit questioned the accuracy of California’s method of figuring out who really completed high school. Using the old formula, students were counted as graduates if they transferred to adult education programs to earn their diploma or passed a high school proficiency exam. But now they are more honestly considered dropouts. The value of a diploma had previously gone south after the district decided in 2015 to pad its numbers with “credit recovery classes” – allowing students to take frequently useless crash courses on weekends, holidays, etc. Additionally, the demise of the California High School Exit Examination in 2016 gave the false impression that grad rates were improving.

Of course, none of this should be at all shocking, as earlier this year California’s school rating system showed that 52 percent of LAUSD’s schools earned a D or F in English language arts, 50 percent earned a D or F in math, and just 40 percent of all students graduate college or are career ready.

At the same time, the education advocacy organization Parent Revolution released a report which showed that in LA’s 44 lowest-performing schools, 46 percent of their teachers were not evaluated at all from 2014 to 2017. (In the 2016-17 school year alone, 70 percent of teachers working at those 44 schools were not evaluated, “even though only 27 percent of students at those schools were proficient in English language arts and only 20 percent were proficient in math.”)

The LA school board also took a hit. Ref Rodriguez, one of the four reform-minded board members, was forced to resign after pleading guilty to a felony count of conspiracy and four misdemeanor counts for making contributions in another person’s name during his 2014 campaign board run. Although Rodriguez escaped prison time, he did have to vacate his board seat. Given his strong pro-charter school stance, that’s good for the education establishment, but bad for kids. While the board could pick a temporary successor, considering the new 3-3 split, getting a majority to agree on anyone will be difficult. The board will probably call for an election to fill the vacant seat, but it’s doubtful that will happen before next spring.

There was, however, some good news…for some students. At the same time the district has been scandalously neglecting its least capable students, the school board decided that principals at bottom performing schools would not have to hire “must place” teachers who have either been deemed ineffective or were bumped due to the state’s archaic quality-blind seniority system. While that sounds like a much needed improvement, it really is a zero-sum game since the unwanted teachers will now be foisted on all the other schools. LAUSD school board vice-president and rare right-thinker Nick Melvoin saw through this sham and said that the same logic should apply to all students. But Melvoin knows well that districtwide hiring practices must be negotiated with the teachers union. Speaking of which….

The United Teachers of Los Angeles is talking strike. Starting two years ago, UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl threatened not only to call for a teacher walkout, but ominously to unleash a “state crisis” on California. Well, looks like crisis time is on the horizon. In a July 24th press release, UTLA submitted its “Last, Best and Final Offer” to LAUSD and demanded a “48-hour response from the district.” The union said that the 2 percent ongoing salary increase, an additional one-time 2 percent bonus and a $500 stipend for materials and supplies offered by the district was “insulting.” The union then trotted out all the usual bogeymen, blaming unaccountable charter schools, pro-privatization ideologues and new school superintendent Austin Beutner for the district’s woes.

But union kvetching aside, Beutner just may be the right man for the job. While UTLA whines that he is a “billionaire investment banker, not a teacher,” his status as a businessman is a good thing. He is dealing with a school district whose unfunded liability for retiree health benefits has risen to $15.2 billion, up from $13.5 billion in 2016. As CALmatters Jessica Calefati reports, LAUSD could be “just two years from financial ruin.” Nick Melvoin added, “We’re in a death spiral.”

Speaking recently to LA business leaders about the deficit, Beutner posited, “By 2021, if we haven’t changed things appreciably, we will be no more, and that reckoning will not be pretty.”  While Beutner didn’t say what would follow the apocalypse, Dan Walters writes that there will be political pressure, particularly from the teachers unions, for a taxpayer-funded state bailout.

The summer has turned out to be long, hot and horrible for the country’s second largest school district, and the fall and winter aren’t looking any brighter. Students and taxpayers will remain collateral damage for a system where unaccountable bureaucrats and the teachers unions run the show.

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.

Striking at the wrong target

Teachers should stop listening to union leaders and look at the data before striking. When one looks at the actual dollars-and-cents reality, the emotional photo of the kindly old 1st grade teacher picketing for more money “for the classroom” falls flat. Very, very flat. There are several relevant facts that teachers and all Americans – especially the taxpaying variety – need to know.

LAUSD – Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez, pro-school-choice candidates defeat union-backed rivals

Where school dollars go to die

A new study points fingers at charter schools for malfeasance, but traditional public schools are still by far #1 in wasteful spending.

Are Charters Doomed in California?

Charters Under Attack

For years, teachers’ unions have tried to kill charter schools—but only on odd-numbered days. On even-numbered days, they tried to organize them. Things lately have become very odd, at least in California; the unions are in full-assault mode.

United Teachers of Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl has long groused about how charter schools don’t play by the rules. Teachers’ union talking points effortlessly roll off his tongue—billionaires this, accountability that. But on May 4, despite pleas by charter school parents, UTLA, in concert with the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools—a union front group—planned a major protest outside schools where charters share a campus with traditional public schools. “We will stand with Los Angeles parents, educators, students, administrators, and community members for fully funded public schools and call on corporate charter schools to pay their fair share to the district,” AROS said in a statement. Of course, charters are public schools, not “corporate.” And charters are the ones that aren’t fully funded, which is why they frequently have to share facilities. But UTLA and AROS don’t bother with those minor details. The rally mostly fizzled, so school kids were thankfully spared the sight and sound of angry protesters marching and chanting.

UTLA wasn’t finished. In what it thought would be a coup de grâce, the union released the results of a “study” it commissioned, which, among other things, asserted that the Los Angeles Unified School District “lost more than $591 million dollars to unmitigated charter school growth this year alone.” The school district countered by pointing out that it actually makes money due to the existence of charter schools. Undaunted, Caputo-Pearl was at it again in August. “With our contract expiring in June 2017, the likely attack on our health benefits in the fall of 2017, the race for governor heating up in 2018, and the unequivocal need for state legislation that addresses inadequate funding and increased regulation of charters, with all of these things, the next year-and-a-half must be founded upon building our capacity to strike, and our capacity to create a state crisis, in early 2018,” he told the annual UTLA leadership conference in July. “There simply may be no other way to protect our health benefits and to shock the system into investing in the civic institution of public education.”

Despite public charter schools outperforming traditional public schools in both English & Math on standardized testing for 2016 - Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, had stated the importance of spending the next year-and-a half on building a capacity to strike against charter schools.

Despite public charter schools outperforming traditional public schools in both English & Math on standardized testing for 2016 – Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, had stated the importance of spending the next year-and-a half on building a capacity to strike against charter schools.

In late August, just weeks after Caputo-Pearl’s tantrum, UTLA hit the streets with a media campaign. Empowered by a massive dues increase, the union began spreading its venom via billboards, bus benches, and the media. The timing was particularly bad, as the just-released 2016 state standardized-test results showed that charters outperformed traditional public schools in both English and math. Los Angeles, where one in six students is enrolled in a charter, saw 46 percent of its independent charter-school students meeting or exceeding the standard on the English Language Arts test, versus 37 percent for students in traditional public schools. On the math test, the difference was smaller: 30 percent versus 26 percent. Despite the unions’ perpetual “cherry-picking” mantra, 82 percent of charter students qualify as low-income compared with 80 percent for traditional schools. Charters also match up closely in areas of ethnicity, English-language learners, and disabled students.

The California Teachers Association jumped into the act on August 31 by unleashing “Kids Not Profits,” an “awareness” campaign calling for more “accountability and transparency of California charter schools and exposing the coordinated agenda by a group of billionaires to divert money from California’s neighborhood public schools to privately managed charter schools. These same billionaires are spending record amounts of money to influence local legislative and school board elections across the state.” In a press release announcing the launch of the campaign, the union quotes from its new radio ad, which claims to lay out the “billionaires’ coordinated agenda”:

  1. Divert money out of California’s neighborhood public schools to fund privately run charter schools, without accountability or transparency to parents and taxpayers.
  2. Cherry-pick the students who get to attend charter schools—weeding out and turning down students with special needs.
  3. Spend millions trying to influence local legislative and school board elections across California.

While Numbers One and Two are outright lies, there is some truth to Number Three. CTA has become fat and happy. It is by far California’s biggest political spender. It drives the union elite crazy that philanthropists are pouring unprecedented amounts of money into edu-politics in an attempt to balance the playing field. The union is finally facing some stiff competition in Sacramento, as well as in some local school board races.

Second only to its obsession with billionaires is the union’s incessant harping about accountability. “It’s time to hold charter schools and their private operators accountable to some of the same standards as traditional public schools,” CTA president Eric Heins says. This is laughable. Charter schools operate in accordance with all state and federal laws. They must meet rigorous academic goals, engage in ethical business practices, and be proactive in their efforts to stay open. If a school doesn’t successfully educate its students according to its charter, parents will pull their kids out and send them elsewhere. After a specified period—usually five years—the school’s charter is revoked. A failing traditional public school, by contrast, rarely closes. Union-mandated “permanence” laws ensure that tenured teachers, no matter how incompetent they may be, almost never lose their jobs.

The CTA and other unions can’t deal with the fact that non-unionized charters typically do a better job of educating poor and minority students than do traditional public schools. So they lie and create distractions in order to preserve their dominion. But all the yammering about charters “siphoning money from public schools,” grousing about billionaires “pushing their profit-driven agenda,” and bogus cries for “accountability” simply expose the unions as monopolists who can’t abide competition. But that’s just what children, their parents, and taxpayers deserve—less union meddling and more competition and choice.

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.

LAUSD Spends More Even as Enrollment Drops

Editors Note: By almost every objective standard, the educational outcomes delivered by the Los Angeles School District are among the worst in the nation. The following article documents how LAUSD has spent millions, hundreds of millions, on budget items that have little impact on the quality of classroom education, all the while attempting to blame charter schools for their budget challenges. We’ve dug into this issue in other articles published this month: “LA Story: The Poorer You Are, the More Likely You Are to Support Charters” documents how, ironically, it is the wealthy enclaves of Los Angeles where voters support union backed school board candidates, and how voters in underprivileged communities are more likely to support reform candidates and charter schools. In “ACLU Turns its Back on LA’s Poorest Students in Attack on Charter Schools” we describe recent efforts by the ACLU, surprisingly, to discredit charter school performance using biased statistics. In “Anti-Charter-School Rhetoric Isn’t Helping L.A.’s Kids,” a board director of the nonprofit Alliance College Ready Public Schools debunks the unfounded anti-charter school claims that are relentlessly pushed by the teachers union. There is a war in Los Angeles for the future of the next generation of citizens. The war is not between unions who care about students and “millionaires and billionaires trying to hijack education for profit.” The war is between innovative charter school operators, nearly all of them nonprofits, who are logging impressive successes against a teachers union that is bent on their destruction.

The Los Angeles Unified School District is hemorrhaging cash, and the teachers union wants you to believe the problem is charter schools. The real problem is closer to home: district officials and teachers union leaders who systematically raid the coffers with no regard for the consequences.

LAUSD’s new $7.6 billion budget, issued in June for the coming fiscal year, adds $700 million in new spending. Most of that new spending will fund expenses outside the classroom as the district struggles to pay for increased benefits. This new budget comes just after state officials ordered the district to stop misallocating funds intended for high-­needs students. Local advocates say the new LAUSD budget continues to violate the state order.

LAUSD continues to spend more even as the district has lost over 100,000 students since 2006 – a drop of more than 20%. Despite the exodus, union leaders have pressed the district to add teachers and administrators. The district has seen a 22% increase in administrative staff over the last five years. Those teachers and administrators earn relatively generous salaries and benefits despite the abysmal performance of LAUSD schools overall. That generosity has produced unfunded pension liabilities of roughly $13 billion – about 1.5 times the district’s annual operating budget. Its operating budget runs a deficit of $333 million and rising, projected to exceed half a billion annually by 2019-­2020.

Then there are the district’s laughable, myriad budgeting failures. LAUSD has spent $73 million for a new ethnic studies program that was supposed to cost $4 million. The district will have spent more than $200 million for a new computer system by 2018 – for which they originally budgeted $27 million. That miscalculation was so severe that it required a temporary district­wide hiring freeze.

The truth, then, is that charters are not the problem.
The problem is that LAUSD schools are consistently
among the worst in the United States – and that residents
pay a premium for those miserable results.

Last year, the district clocked several financial disasters. In April 2015 alone, Superintendent Ramon Cortines asked the school board to set aside $1 billion in additional funds for a union health care agreement – and wanted the board’s approval before they’d even been presented with the district’s annual budget. This being the LAUSD, the school board agreed, even refusing board member Monica Ratliff’s request for a 10­ year analysis of the district’s future obligations.

At the same time, the LAUSD school board unanimously approved a teachers contract that included a 10.36% pay raise and added $278.6 million a year to the district’s budget deficit. Board president Richard Vladovic, endorsed by the teachers union, claimed the contract was “the right thing to do” because teachers “are worth every penny, and more.” A good idea, but can the district afford it? Vladovic said the superintendent would figure out the math. In the same agreement, the school board agreed to hire 139 additional teachers and allowed teachers to collect 14.3% of their annual salary in back pay over the next two years.

Despite this assortment of imprudent financial decisions by the union ­controlled school board, United Teachers Los Angeles, the LAUSD teachers union, blames charter schools for the district’s problems. As part of their propaganda effort, the union funded a study claiming charter schools have cost LAUSD $591 million in lost revenue due to declining enrollment. Many district officials and charter school leaders disagree, pointing to numbers that suggest charter schools actually bring LAUSD money.

The truth, then, is that charters are not the problem. The problem is that LAUSD schools are consistently among the worst in the United States – and that residents pay a premium for those miserable results. Instead of solving its financial problems, Los Angeles Unified makes them worse with every new budget. LAUSD requires serious financial reforms to maintain fiscal solvency, and these reforms must start with reining in unions, not attacking charters, the only part of Los Angeles Unified that is successful.

David Schwartzman is a junior studying economics and applied mathematics at Hillsdale College. He is a Journalism Fellow at the California Policy Center in Tustin.