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Tax-Free Teachers?

LA Teachers Union: Striking Out?

UTLA is planning to walk out over a mess that it helped to create.

The case is being built for a teachers’ strike in Los Angeles. The next step in the contract negotiation process is mediation, whereby a state-appointed mediator will try to get the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) to reconcile their differences. If no progress is made during those sessions, scheduled for March 26th, April 6th and April 15th, the fact-finding stage is next. Anything that comes out of this part of the process is not binding, but could be influential in the last step in which the district makes its final offer. At that point, the union can accept the deal, or reject it and call for a strike vote.

There are a number of issues on the table, but the main sticking points are as follows:

UTLA wants a bigger raise than LAUSD is offering. The district’s offer is 5 percent, but the union, after originally asking for 17.5, has lowered its demand to 8.5 percent, retroactive to July 2014.

The union wants smaller classes. Due to budgetary constraints, the district wants latitude in determining the number of teachers on the payroll. The union wants the district to commit to a hard and fast teacher-student ratio. Fewer teachers, of course, translate to larger classes.

The union does not want an imposed teacher-evaluation system. In light of a lawsuit settled in 2012 that mandated substantive teacher evaluations, the district came up with a simple four-level teacher-evaluation plan which it instituted in 2013. But the union pushed back successfully, claiming the district single-handedly imposed the process, prompting an administrative law judge to rule that LAUSD had to repeal it. The decision came in response to an unfair labor practices charge that UTLA filed three months later. The union is demanding to be a part of any new evaluation system for its teachers.

Moving away from the bargaining table, the leaders of the two warring factions have gone public with their case. In January, LA Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines called the union’s latest demands “entirely unrealistic” and asserted that they raise “serious ethical and equity issues” for the district. He pointed out that

… all the district’s other unions have agreed to new contracts within the current economic landscape, he chided UTLA for its bargaining stance over 16 negotiating sessions, saying, ‘It is regrettable that the current UTLA leadership has gone in an entirely different direction.’

UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl has been mouthing off to the press all along, lambasting the district and everything else he can think of. At a rally in downtown LA last week, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, he bloviated,

The recession, the cuts to the bone at schools, the attacks on public service, the increasingly savage racism and economic inequality that our students face, John Deasy for three years, all of them have set us back. And we are not going to take it anymore.

Okay, now here is the reality: LAUSD is mired in fiscal purgatory. Dealing with a $160 million deficit, Cortines said just 11 days ago that he has already begun cutting programs for next year, and layoffs are next with the first round of pink slips due to go out March 15th. (Worth noting: $160 million is almost the exact figure LAUSD is paying to the victims of one teacher – sexual predator Mark Berndt, whose wretched legacy owes a nod to the teachers union which traditionally has insisted on laws that make it practically impossible to get rid of incompetent and debauched educators.) When asked what’s most likely to be cut, Cortines said, “Everything.” LAUSD officials added that giving the union everything it is asking for would pile another $800 million of debt on the district.

If layoffs become necessary, Cortines will be painted as the goat, but it is the union that bears the majority of the responsibility. In good economic times, UTLA – and most teachers unions – demand that school districts use up all available resources to hire more educators. Then, when the inevitable economic downturn hits, layoffs become necessary. Also, it’s not just teachers who are hired when the economy is robust; more support personnel are invariably a part of the package.

The fiscal situation is even bleaker for the district than the $160 million deficit and additional $800 million the union is demanding the district spend. Due to recent legislation, school districts in California now have to come up with a greater proportion of retired teachers’ pensions. This will cost the district an additional $1.1 billion over the next seven years. The annual salary for LAUSD teachers who have taken some professional development classes and taught for 10 years is $75,592, which the union says isn’t enough. But while union leaders whine over what they deem to be paltry salaries, they never mention the additional perks a teacher gets like a comprehensive healthcare package and a defined-benefit pension. When those costs are added in, that ten-year teacher’s total compensation is more like $90,000. Not bad for 180 days work.

Also, teachers – the good ones, that is – could be making considerably more if not for the industrial-style step-and-column way that unions insist its teachers get paid. With no nod to quality, mediocre and worse teachers are paid the same as the good and great ones

Regarding the smaller class-size demand – LA has about 640,000 students and 31,000 teachers, which means about 20 kids per teacher, not exactly an overbearing number. If some teachers’ classes are too large, then rebalancing becomes the issue. While it’s true that there are instances where some kids benefit from more individual attention, it is by no means universal. The most extensive study on the subject was done by Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek in 1998. He examined 277 different studies on the effect of teacher-pupil ratios and class-size averages on student achievement, and found that only 15 percent of the studies indicated an improvement in achievement, while 72 percent showed no effect at all. Worse, 13 percent found that reducing class-size actually had a negative effect on achievement.

But class size and teacher pay are related. If you lopped off the bottom 10 percent lowest performers from the district, the remaining (better) teachers could get a hefty raise with just a few more kids in each class and no additional outlay from the district.

It’s important to note that the entire collective bargaining process is not beneficial for many teachers and their students. Thomas F. Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli finds that, “Teachers in non-collective bargaining districts actually earn more than their union-protected peers—$64,500 on average versus $57,500.” Petrilli adds that “there is some evidence … that non-collective bargaining districts drive a harder bargain when it comes to health care.” He also points out that collective-bargaining districts focus on seniority, protecting various benefits associated with longevity rather than pushing for higher pay. These tenure and seniority “benefits,” which clearly are unfair to good teachers and their students, are what Judge Rolf Treu was referring to in his recent Vergara ruling when he said. “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

In 2012, Chicago teachers – already the highest paid teachers in the country while working the fewest hours of any other big-city school district – went on strike. Stanford’s Terry Moe wrote at the time,

Collective bargaining is not fundamentally about children. It is about the power and special interests of adults. In Chicago and elsewhere, the teachers unions are in the business of winning better salaries and benefits, protecting job security, pressuring for restrictive work rules and in other ways advancing the occupational interests of their members. These interests are simply not the same as the interests of children.

Not to say that school districts are perfect. Far from it. But ideally, their mission is to promote the interests of children, while unions are there to serve their rank-and-file – the good and the bad, it’s all the same to them. The teachers unions may blather about the children, but ultimately they are there to serve the adults. And that’s causing big problems in Los Angeles and everywhere else these unions have power.

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.

Chicken Little Class Size

With a big assist from the teachers unions, the small class size myth lives on.

“The sky is falling” is well-known throughout the world as an admonition to be wary of hysterical claims. While we appreciate the silliness of the Chicken Little story, we fail to recognize its relevance in many of the myths perpetuated by the education establishment, one of the most enduring of which is the claim that class size affects student achievement.

Let me begin by saying that, as a teacher, I liked small classes. Why wouldn’t I? There were fewer papers to grade, report cards to fill out and parents to deal with. In other words, small class size made life easier on me. But I never deluded myself into thinking that my students were getting a superior education when I was teaching 20 instead of 25 of them. It is true that there are a few exceptions like certain special education classes where the kids need more individual attention. But, by and large, the smaller-is-better meme is pure bunkum.

Because small class size benefits them, the most vocal hucksters perpetuating the fiction are the nation’s teachers unions. Smaller classes = more teachers = more dues money. Just last month United Federation of Teachers boss Michael Mulgrew proposed ending tax breaks for landlords in New York City who are not residents of Gotham. The resulting $900 million windfall would net the city the classroom space and labor needed to reduce class size in grades K-3. (It is important to note that many parents favor smaller classes too because their kids get more individual attention that way.)

But as Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek recently wrote in the New York Daily News,

Nobody has shown that the substantial class-size reductions of the past 15 years have paid off in terms of student achievement. Instead, the two main effects of past class-size reduction have been more teachers and more expensive schools.

Education research is essentially unanimous: The effectiveness of the teacher in the classroom is far, far more important than how many students are in the classroom. But this is not the message that the union wants to hear, because it would involve evaluating teachers and making personnel decisions based on the quality of the work they do. (Emphasis added.)

Hanushek has done a lot of work in this area. In 1998, he released the results of his research that examined 227 separate studies on the effect of teacher-pupil ratios and class size averages on student achievement. He found that 15 percent of the studies showed an improvement in achievement, while 72 percent found no effect at all and 13 percent found that reducing class size actually had a negative effect on achievement. While Hanushek admits that in some cases children might benefit from a small-class environment, there is no way “to describe a priori situations where reduced class size will be beneficial.”

Other researchers have come up with similar findings. Also in 1998, Stanford’s Caroline Hoxby found that “reductions in class size from a base of 15 to 30 students have no effect on student achievement.” Jay Greene, chairman of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, writes that most of the evidence on which the “smaller-is-better” crowd relies on outcomes from Tennessee’s STAR project, an experiment conducted in the 1980s, with very questionable methodology.

In fact, the public has swallowed the class size myth for years and legislators have acted accordingly. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that teacher-pupil ratios across the nation have diminished steadily since 1955, when the ratio of public school teachers to students was 26.9 to one. By 1970, the ratio was 22.3 to one. And by 2010, the last year for which federal government statistics are available, the ratio came down to 16 to one. In California, going back to 2007, the student-teacher ratio was reduced to 21.6 pupils. Today, it has “ballooned” – to use the teachers unions’ favorite term – back up to about 24.

Frequently left out of the conversation is that when classes get smaller, more teachers are hired and the quality of the talent pool is diluted. Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews noted in a 2006 story how California had a decade earlier authorized a $650-per-pupil bonus to schools with kindergarten-to-third-grade classes of no more than 20 students. “This produced many more classes that required more teachers, many of whom, parents complained, were inexperienced and ineffective,” Mathews wrote. Is it possible that larger classes and fewer teachers might even be preferable? Yes, if the teachers let go are the weaker performers. As Hanushek argues: “If you … replaced five to eight percent of the worst teachers with an average teacher, U.S. achievement would rise to somewhere between Canada and Finland.” Though the teachers unions will have none of that getting-rid-of-bad-teachers stuff, ask any parent if they rather have their kid in a class of 21 with a mediocre or worse teacher or a class of 24 with a good or great teacher. No need to wait for an answer.

What about countries that are more successful at educating than we are? Do they have smaller classes? OECD shows that out of 34 countries, the US is slightly below average in class size. However, China, Korea, Germany and Japan all have considerably larger class sizes than we do, and regularly clobber us in student performance.

In the meantime, the small class myth lives on. Mulgrew is pushing his tax scheme in New York. In Los Angeles, new teacher union president Alex Caputo-Pearl pitched the small class mantra three separate times in his coronation speech. And on its “Local Bargaining Updates” page, the California Teacher Association reports that “smaller class size” is a top bargaining priority for union locals all over the state. Again, the unions couldn’t care less about teacher quality or accountability; it’s all about hiring more dues-payers.

It is truly incumbent upon the public, notably the taxpayer, to start fighting the class size myth. Chicken Little eventually got the message; it’s about time that the rest of us do too.

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.

Small Class-Size Balloon Punctured Again

It’s time to “just say no” to the small class-size pushers and eliminate seniority as a staffing mechanism.

Small class size means less work for teachers. Parents seem to think that their child will be better educated in a room with fewer classmates. Unions love fewer kids in a class because it equates to a larger workforce, which means more money and power for them. Only problem is that small class size does not lead to greater student achievement. It just means more hiring, then laying off the same teachers and punishing taxpayers who needlessly pay for a bloated workforce.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal published “The Imaginary Teacher Shortage,” an op-ed by professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas Jay Greene, in which he exposes the small-is-better canard.

For decades we have tried to boost academic outcomes by hiring more teachers, and we have essentially nothing to show for it. In 1970, public schools employed 2.06 million teachers, or one for every 22.3 students, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Digest of Education Statistics. In 2012, we have 3.27 million teachers, one for every 15.2 students.

Greene also addresses the fact that as hiring increases, there is less likelihood of a student getting a good teacher. And a having a good teacher is the most important factor in student achievement.

Parents like the idea of smaller class sizes in the same way that people like the idea of having a personal chef. Parents imagine that their kids will have one of the Iron Chefs. But when you have to hire almost 3.3 million chefs, you’re liable to end up with something closer to the fry-guy from the local burger joint.

Just three months ago, director of Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom Andrew Coulson wrote a similar op-ed in the same newspaper. The subhead in “America Has Too Many Teachers” sets the tone:

Public-school employees have doubled in 40 years while student enrollment has increased by only 8.5%—and academic results have stagnated.

In the body of the piece, he gives us some numbers to chew on. Whereas Greene talks specifically about teachers, Coulson refers to the entire “public school workforce.”

Since 1970, the public school workforce has roughly doubled—to 6.4 million from 3.3 million—and two-thirds of those new hires are teachers or teachers’ aides. Over the same period, enrollment rose by a tepid 8.5%. Employment has thus grown 11 times faster than enrollment. (Emphasis added.) If we returned to the student-to-staff ratio of 1970, American taxpayers would save about $210 billion annually in personnel costs.

I contributed my own two cents on the subject in City Journal in July of 2011.

In 1998, Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek released the results of his impressive review of class-size studies. Examining 277 separate studies on the effect of teacher-pupil ratios and class-size averages on student achievement, he found that 15 percent of the studies found an improvement in achievement, while 72 percent found no effect at all—and 13 percent found that reducing class size had a negative effect on achievement. While Hanushek admits that in some cases, children might benefit from a small-class environment, there is no way ‘to describe a priori situations where reduced class size will be beneficial.’

So basically, almost three-quarters of all the studies showed no benefit to small class size, and of the rest, almost the same number revealed negative effects as positive ones.

While it is a personal hardship for a teacher to be laid off, no one should be surprised when it happens. When economic times are good, it’s easy to buy into more hiring. But good economic times don’t last forever and when suddenly we can’t afford all the teachers we have hired and some need to be let go, it is brazen of the self-righteous, small class-size true believers to mislead the public with their hand-wringing and political posturing.

And we can’t say we weren’t warned that there were going to be problems. Back in April of 2004, teacher union watchdog Mike Antonucci wrote,

Enrollment Figures Spell Big Trouble for Education Labor.

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) regularly reviews enrollment figures, comparing past years with expectations for the future. Its most recent report shows clearly that the fat years of teacher employment are over, and the lean years may last much longer than anyone has previously predicted.

NCES compared the period 1988-2001 with its projections for 2001-2013. The differences are stark. While public school enrollment increased 19 percent between 1988 and 2001, it is expected to grow only 4 percent between 2001 and 2013. During the period 1988-2001, the number of public school teachers grew by an astonishing 29 percent. The forecast for 2001-2013 is growth of only 5 percent – or less than 0.4 percent annually.

Then in June 2004, referring to Rankings and Estimates, a National Education Association report, Antonucci wrote,

In 2003-04, American public elementary schools taught 1,649,027 more pupils than they did in 1993-94. But there were 247,620 more elementary school classroom teachers in 2003-04 than there were in 1993-94. Simply put, for every 20 additional students enrolled in America’s K-8 schools in the last 10 years, we hired three additional elementary school classroom teachers.

So clearly, having fewer teachers is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is tragic when we lose the good ones. Throughout much of the country, the decisions as to which teachers get laid off are determined by archaic seniority policies. Teachers-of-the-year are laid off before their mediocre or incompetent counterparts simply because the latter may have been hired a few days before the former. This is no way to run an education system. The sooner we get away from the smaller-is-better myth and turn our attention to scrapping the industrial style “last in, first out” method, the better.

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.

Responding to Romney’s Critics

Regarding education reform, Romney needs to pound on the facts, leaving his detractors to pound on the table.

Recently Mitt Romney laid out his education vision in a speech at the Latino Coalition’s annual economic summit in Washington D.C. The Republican candidate for president didn’t mince words. He said that we are in the midst of a “national educational emergency,” and that the only reason we don’t hear more about it is that our national focus is squarely centered on the economy. Then he got down to specifics and said,

Parental choice will hold schools responsible for results, but parents can only exercise that choice effectively if they have good information. No Child Left Behind helped our nation take a giant step forward in bridging this information gap. But the law is not without its weaknesses. As president, I will break the political logjam that has prevented successful reform of the law. I will reduce federal micromanagement while redoubling efforts to ensure that schools are held responsible for results.

Dramatically expanding parental choice, making schools responsible for results by giving parents access to clear and instructive information, and attracting and rewarding our best teachers–these changes can help ensure that every parent has a choice and every child has a chance.

He then talked about the teachers unions’ role in the problem.

…accomplishing real change won’t be easy. Efforts to truly reform our schools always meet strong resistance from entrenched interests.

The teachers unions are the clearest example of a group that has lost its way. Whenever anyone dares to offer a new idea, the unions protest the loudest.

The teachers unions don’t fight for our children. That’s our job. And our job keeps getting harder because the unions wield outsized influence in elections and campaigns.

Annually, many teachers are forced to pay almost $1,000 in union dues. The two major teachers unions take in $600 million each year. That’s more revenue than both of the political parties combined.

Mr. Romney’s talk was a good one, basically hitting on many of the points that education reformers have been making for years. So, naturally, the naysayers and outright opponents of reform took him to task.

Jay Mathews, writing in the Washington Post, oddly claims that Romney and Obama are “educational twins.” While both men certainly are reform-minded, their reforms run in different directions, most notably Romney’s embrace of vouchers. (Obama favors some school choice but not vouchers – were he to do so, it would destroy his lovey-dovey relationship with the teachers unions.) Usually sensible, Mathews has a blind spot when the “v” word is mentioned. He says that, “…vouchers have no chance of ever expanding very far.” However, Greg Forster, senior fellow with the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, has debunked Mathews’ claim in the past and does so again in a point by point rebuttal, the centerpiece of which is,

there are now 34 school choice programs serving 212,000 students, and this story Mathews is telling hasn’t happened anywhere.

Not surprisingly, the most hostile commentary comes from the union apologists. Matt Miller, who says he has “slammed teachers unions plenty,” goes into somber mode and in sotto voce tells us in that there is a “deeper reality” that we all need to grapple with.

The top performing school systems in the world have strong teachers unions at the heart of their education establishment.

Lighten up, Mr. Miller. In reality, this does not qualify as “grappleable.” The same claim has been made countless times by union defenders. The short answer to your “deeper reality” is that in Finland and other countries, the teachers unions are more like guilds – they exist mainly to advance the professional status of their members. American teachers unions are built on the industrial model – treating teachers not like professionals but like factory workers, and protecting them no matter what crimes they may have committed and no matter how poorly they do their jobs.

Then there is Mike Hall writing on the AFL-CIO website. He picks on Romney’s assertion that, despite the popular myth, smaller class size does not translate into student achievement. The unions will never give up their “smaller is better” mantra because small classes mean more teachers and therefore more dues for the union. As if to show that he is knowledgeable on the subject, Hall trots out a dinosaur – Project Star – a study from Tennessee conducted in the 1980s – which Hall claims,

…showed students who were placed in a smaller-sized classroom made measurable gains and performed better even when they were put back in larger classes.

I totally debunk the “smaller is better” myth here. The most extensive study on the subject was done by Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek in 1998. He examined 277 different studies on the effect of teacher-pupil ratios and class-size averages on student achievement, he found that 15 percent of the studies found an improvement in achievement, while 72 percent found no effect at all—and 13 percent found that reducing class size had a negative effect on achievement. While Hanushek admits that in some cases, children might benefit from a small-class environment, there is no way “to describe a priori situations where reduced class size will be beneficial.”

And what would a presidential talk about education reform be without a rebuttal from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten? In a press release posted on the AFT website, she claims,

Today, Mitt Romney squandered an opportunity to participate in a meaningful discussion of real education reform by attempting to disguise attacks on teachers and public education as meaningful policy proposals.

Attack teachers? Hardly, though he did have harsh words about their unions. But the next part made my head explode,

Instead of looking to improve education for all children, he parroted failed voucher and privatization schemes that have not improved student learning. Romney’s proposal to take even more money out of public education and funnel it to private schools is absurd at a time when school budgets already are being slashed to the bone across the country.

“Failed voucher and privatization schemes?” She really sounds as if she believes this nonsense. A little over a year ago, the Friedman Foundation released the results of study, the most extensive ever done, which stated,

Ten empirical studies have used random assignment, the gold standard of social science, to examine how vouchers affect participants. Nine studies find that vouchers improve student outcomes, six that all students benefit and three that some benefit and some are not affected. One study finds no visible impact. None of these studies finds a negative impact.

Nineteen empirical studies have examined how vouchers affect outcomes in public schools. Of these studies, 18 find that vouchers improved public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical studies find that vouchers harm public schools.

Weingarten’s point that vouchers take money out of public education is also erroneous. As the Friedman Foundation explains,

State budgets typically save money when students use vouchers to attend private schools. Vouchers usually redirect state education spending from school districts to parents. If the vouchers are not worth the entire amount of state education spending, as is generally the case, then the state saves money on the difference. For example, if a state spends $6,000 per student annually in public schools, and offers a $5,000 voucher, the state saves $1,000 each year for each participating student.

The only problem I found with Romney’s talk is that while he wants to disentangle Washington from education matters to a certain degree, he doesn’t go far enough. He straddles the fence on No Child Left Behind – the reforms proposed by George W. Bush. NCLB is the 8th reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Second Education Act (ESEA) which signaled the feds’ intrusion into what had always been a state issue. Federal involvement has produced no benefits for U.S. school kids. What it has done is divert a ridiculous amount of money from the classroom to feed an insatiable bureaucracy.

Writing in National Review Online, Heritage Foundation education fellow Lindsey Burke says it best,

Moving forward, Romney’s agenda should include the conservative alternative to NCLB: the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (APLUS) Act. APLUS would allow states to opt out and spend their share of federal education dollars on any lawful education purpose they believe would best benefit students. It’s one of the best ways Congress could restore constitutional governance in education: send dollars and decision-making back to state and local leaders who are closest to the student.

Romney’s vision is a good one. With a few tweaks it could be a great one. Importantly, he has facts on his side, and he needs to pound on them every chance he gets. If he does that, all the union leaders and other entrenched special interests can do is pound on the table.

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. (Title for identification purposes only.)