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Quality Education Remains Thwarted by Teachers Unions

An article in today’s American Prospect, of all places, offers an in-depth look at just how little progress has actually been made towards restoring quality education to California’s public school students. Because the article appears in a publication that is “dedicated to American liberalism,” and because “American liberalism” depends more than anything else on billions in annual political contributions from government unions, you almost have to read between the lines to realize who the bad guys are.

Nonetheless, “California’s Ed Reform Wars,” by Rachel Cohen, all 3,200 words of it, is a fine piece of work. Read it closely, if you can stomach the facts. The bad guys – a matter of opinion, of course – are the government unions. The victims? California’s students, and the future of this great state.

Covered first is the uncertain fate of the Vergara case, funded by wealthy activists – many of them liberals – in the Silicon Valley. The plaintiffs are public school students whose case was founded on the argument that union work rules, specifically the policies governing tenure, layoff and dismissal policies, cause disproportionate harm to students in low-income communities. During round one, two years ago in a Los Angeles courtroom, reformers were mesmerized by the brilliant closing arguments of the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, along with the ruling by the judge in the case, who emphatically agreed.

That was then. In April of this year, by a 3-0 vote, the California Court of Appeals unanimously struck down the original Vergara v. California decision. The case will now go to the California Supreme Court. Its chances aren’t great.

But shouldn’t elected officials, not the courts, make policy decisions? In a perfect world, that would certainly be true, but in California’s state legislature, as Cohen herself writes, “Following the original Vergara decision, Republican lawmakers introduced a package of three bills to extend the time it would take a teacher to earn tenure, to repeal the “last-in, first-out” statute that makes layoff decisions based on seniority, and to establish an annual teacher evaluation system. These bills, however, got nowhere in the Democratic-controlled statehouse.”

Here’s where the story gets interesting. Because then a democratic Assemblywoman who takes money from government unions, Susan Bonilla, tried to push legislation through that might reform at least some of the employment statutes that protect bad teachers. Cohen writes:

“Bonilla proposed, among other things, giving principals the option of waiting until a teacher’s third or fourth year to grant tenure, and placing poorly performing teachers in a program that would provide increased professional support. If the ineffective teacher received another low performance rating after a year in this program, Bonilla’s legislation would enable schools to fire the teacher through an expedited process.”

Might that be watered down enough? Might that not have a chance? For the children?

Forget it. Despite endorsements including one from the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times, the teachers union issued an “action alert” to their members, calling the bill “an all-out assault” by “corporate millionaires and special interests.” The bill was going to go nowhere in California’s union-controlled legislature. So Bonilla tried again. As Cohen reports:

“In June, Bonilla introduced an amended version of her bill, one that would require new teachers to work for three years before becoming eligible for tenure. Her bill no longer included provisions to create a new teacher evaluation system, to require teachers with poor performance reviews to be laid off before those with less seniority, and to remove many of the dismissal rules that administrators found frustrating.”

Not much left there. Just a bill to marginally extend the probationary period before teachers acquire tenure. But still it was opposed by the unions, and it died in committee by a vote of 9 to 2. The two legislators who voted in favor were due to be termed out and therefore could vote their consciences.

When it comes to government unions, perhaps the teachers union most of all, the lack of support for bipartisan reform is not a mystery. Government unions in California collect and spend over $1.0 billion each year, which gives them the ability to financially dominate any election, anytime, anywhere, whenever they choose. But there’s more to it. These unions use their financial and organizational power to anoint not only politicians, but also bureaucrats, teachers, and anyone in the business community who may have any need to work with the government bureaucracy. They can anoint, or they can target. Best friend or worst enemy? Take your pick.

Liberals know this, but they tolerate the teachers union because along with all that money the union gives their candidates, the union political agenda matches their own – bigger government, more regulations. They don’t understand, unfortunately, that more regulations favor big business and destroy entrepreneurs who deliver the competitive innovations that have improved our lives. And they certainly don’t put enough importance on innovation in education.

Someday liberals may care enough “for the children” to stand up to the teachers union. Don’t hold your breath.

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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

The Hypocrisy of Public Sector Unions

During the industrial age, labor unions played a vital role in protecting the rights of workers. Skeptics may argue that enlightened management played an equally if not greater role, such as when Henry Ford famously raised the wages of his workers so they could afford to buy the cars they made, but few would argue that labor unions were of no benefit. Today, in the private sector, the labor movement still has a vital role to play. There may be vigorous debate regarding how private sector unions should be regulated and what restrictions should be placed on their activity, but again, few people would argue they should not exist.

Public sector unions are a completely different story.

The differences between public and private sector unions are well documented. They operate in monopolistic environments, in organizations that are funded through compulsory taxes. They elect their bosses. They operate the machinery of government and can use that power to intimidate their political opponents.

Despite these fundamental differences in how they operate, public unions benefit from the still common perception that they are indistinguishable from private unions, that they make common cause with all workers, that they are looking out for us. This is hypocrisy on an epic scale.

Hypocrites regarding the welfare of our children

The most obvious example of public sector union hypocrisy is in education, where the teachers unions almost invariably put the interests of the union ahead of the interests of teachers, and put the interests of students last. This was brought to light during the Vergara case, which the California Teachers Association (CTA) claimed was a “meritless lawsuit.” What did the plaintiffs ask for? They wanted to (1) modify hiring policies so excellence rather than seniority would be the criteria for dismissal during layoffs, (2) they wanted to extend the period before granting tenure which in its current form permits less than two years of actual classroom observation, and (3) they wanted to make it easier to dismiss teachers who were incompetents or criminals.

When the Vergara case was argued in court, as can be seen in this mesmerizing video of the attorney for the plaintiffs’ closing arguments, the expert testimony he referred to again and again was from the witnesses called by the defense! When the plaintiffs can rely on the testimony of defense witnesses, the defendants have no case. But in their appeal, the defense attorneys are fighting on. Using your money and mine.

The teachers unions oppose reforms like Vergara, they oppose free speech lawsuits like Friedrichs vs. the CTA, they oppose charter schools, they fight any attempts to invoke the Parent Trigger Law, and they are continually agitating for more taxes “for the children,” when in reality virtually all new tax revenue for education is poured into the insatiable maw of Wall Street to shore up public sector pension funds. No wonder education reform, which inevitably requires fighting the teachers unions, has become an utterly nonpartisan issue.

Hypocrites regarding the management of our economy

Less obvious but more profound are the many examples of public union hypocrisy on the issue of pensions. To wit:

(1)  Public pension systems don’t have to comply with ERISA, which means they are able to use much higher rate-of-return assumptions. Private sector pensions are required to make conservative investments and offer modest but financially sustainable pensions. Public pensions operate under a double standard. They make aggressive investment assumptions in order to reduce required contributions by their members, then hit up taxpayers to cover the difference.

(2)  One of the reasons you haven’t seen the much ballyhooed extension of pension opportunities to all workers in California is because the chances they’ll offer a plan where the fund promises a return of 7.0% per year are ZERO. Once they’re forced to disclose the actual rate-of-return assumptions they’re prepared to offer, and why, the naked hypocrisy of the public sector pension plans using higher rate-of-return assumptions will be revealed in terms everyone can understand.

(3)  When the internet bubble was still inflating back in the late 1990’s, and stock values were soaring, public sector unions didn’t just agitate for, and receive, enhancements to pension benefit formulas. They received benefit enhancements that were applied retroactively. Public pensions are calculated by multiplying the number of years someone worked by a “multiplier,” and that product is then multiplied by their final salary (or average of the last few years salary) to calculate their pension. Retroactive enhancements meant that this multiplier, which was increased by 50% in most cases, was applied to past years worked, increasing pensions for imminent retirees by 50%. Now, with pension funds struggling financially, reformers want to decrease the multiplier, but not retroactively, which would be fair per the example set by the unions, but only for years still to be worked – only prospectively. And even that is off the table according to the unions and their attorneys. This is obscenely hypocritical.

(4)  Take a look at this CTA webpage that supports the “Occupy Wall Street” movement. What the CTA conveniently ignores is that the pension systems they defend are themselves the biggest players on Wall Street. In an era of negative interest rates and global deleveraging, public employee pension funds rampage across the globe, investing over $4.0 trillion in assets with the expectation of earning 7.0% per year. To do this they condone what Elias Isquith, writing for Salon, describes as “shameless financial strip-mining.” These funds benefit from corporate stock buy backs, which is inevitably paid for by workers. They invest with hedge funds and private equity funds, they speculate in real estate – more generally, pension systems with unrealistic rate-of-return expectations require asset bubbles to continue to expand even though that is killing the middle class in the United States. This gives them common cause with the global financial elites who they claim they are protecting us from.

(5)  In America today most workers are required to pay into Social Security, a system that is progressive whereby high income people get less back as a percentage of what they put in, a system that is adjustable whereby benefits can be reduced to ensure solvency, a system that never speculates on the global investment market. You may hate it or love it, but as long as private citizens are required to participate in Social Security, public servants should also be required to participate. That they have negotiated for themselves a far more generous level of retirement security is hypocritical.

The hypocrisy of public sector unions isn’t just deplorable, it’s dangerous. Because public unions have used the unfair advantages that accrue when they operate in the public sector to acquire power that is almost impossible to counter. Large corporations and wealthy individuals are the natural allies of public sector unions, especially at the state and local level, where these unions will rubber-stamp any legislation these elite special interests ask for, in return for support for their wage and benefit demands. Public unions both impel and enable corporatism and financialization. They are inherently authoritarian. They are inherently inclined to support bigger government, no matter what the cost or benefit may be, because that increases their membership and their power. They are a threat to our democratic institutions, our economic health, and our freedom.

And they are monstrous hypocrites.

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Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

Loss of LIFO

If Eli Broad’s charter school plan goes forward, there will be a major shake-up in the ranks of LAUSD teachers.

Philanthropist Eli Broad’s ambitious plan to create 260 new charter schools over an eight year period in Los Angeles, enrolling at least 130,000 students, will have major ramifications for many of the city’s 25,600 teachers. With this in mind, the Los Angeles Times Howard Blume wrote “Thousands of LAUSD teachers’ jobs would be at risk with charter expansion plan” last week. (Interestingly, the online version of the piece was originally titled “L.A. charter school expansion could mean huge drop in unionized teaching jobs” – a more honest title.)

The Broad plan would include places for about 5,000 more charter school teachers, which simply means that 5,000 thousand current teachers in Los Angeles could be displaced. What Blume’s article doesn’t address is just which teachers will be losing their positions. Due to seniority or last in/first out (LIFO) – a union construct that is written into the California Constitution – the teachers who could lose their jobs would not be the 5,000 poorest performing ones, but rather the 5,000 newest hired. But there is a silver lining here. While some of the 5,000 should not be in the profession, many are good teachers and some are terrific. And the latter groups will not be unemployed for long, because charter schools are independent (mostly non-unionized) and therefore not beholden to the district’s industrial style employment hierarchy, so competent teachers will be snapped up.)

20151014-UW-Sand
Philanthropist Eli Broad

Blume mentions that the new plan refers to “hiring from an expanded Teach For America and other groups that work with young, inexperienced instructors” and “makes no mention of recruiting instructors from the ranks of L.A. Unified.”

The plan might not make any mention of recruiting current teachers, but clearly the charter schools could not fill their ranks with all rookies. And therein lies the beauty of the Broad plan. Those rehired would be the good and great teachers who are working now because they are qualified, not because they are LIFO-protected.

Broad spokeswoman Swati Pandey elaborated: “We are in the process of listening to educators and community members to determine how best to support the dramatic growth of high-quality public schools in Los Angeles. We know that without great teachers, there can be no great public schools. We’re eager to engage and support teachers as part of this work.”

Needless to say, United Teachers of Los Angeles president Alex Caputo-Pearl had a different take. He said, “The charters are specifically looking for educators who have not had the experience of being in a union, which means that, by and large, they’re looking for teachers who may find it more challenging to raise their voice about curriculum or school conditions.”

The experience of being in a union…? What?! And where does he get the idea that only unionized teachers dare to speak up about “curriculum and school conditions?”

But then again, maybe the UTLA boss is just mouthing the union party line and his transparency should be applauded. In 2009 UTLA president A.J. Duffy told a group of young teachers at Liechty Middle School, “Saving your jobs would mean that more experienced teachers would lose theirs. Seniority is the only fair way to do it . . . and any exception would be an act of disloyalty.” The California Federation of Teachers website claims that “Seniority is the only fair, transparent way to administer layoffs. It ensures equal treatment for all teachers.” (Yes, for Teachers-of-the-Year and incompetents alike, LIFO does ensure “equal treatment.”)

Others who actually have children’s and parents’ best interests at heart have a different view, however. Alluding to the teachers unions’ claim that thousands of teachers will need to be recruited over the next decade, Jim Blew, president of the Sacramento-based advocacy group StudentsFirst, said, “… they say there’s no room for teachers from organizations with proven, documented records of creating quality teachers…. L.A. needs more great teachers, and everyone should welcome them regardless of who recruited them to the city.”

Jason Mandell, Director, Advocacy Communications of the California Charter School Association (CCSA) added, “Great teachers change students’ lives. Charter school teachers do that every day and the evidence is in their students’ progress. Teachers are the heroes of the charter school movement.”

And parents agree with both Blew and Mandell.

As CCSA points out, there are 40,000 kids on charter school waitlists in Los Angeles, unable to enroll in a high quality school of their parents choosing because there aren’t enough seats. Also, as I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the recently released California Assessment of Student Progress and Performance (CAASPP) scores showed that only one-third of students in traditional LA schools performed up to their grade level in English and one-fourth did so in math, while LA charter students far outpaced their counterparts.

It should be noted that the current seniority and tenure laws, both of which are toxic to students, are imperiled. In the Vergara case, Judge Rolf Treu ruled these byzantine legal protections unconstitutional and went on to say that “it shocks the conscience.” However, the state and the teachers unions are appealing the decision. And even if Treu’s decision is upheld, we have no guarantee that the archaic statutes will be replaced by anything much better.

In summing up the situation, we are left with the following:

  • Charters allow children to escape from the antiquated zip-code monopoly education system.
  • Charters only flourish if parents choose to send their kids there.
  • Kids on average get a better education in charters.
  • Good teachers will always find work.
  • Charters will choose and retain the best teachers who fit in with their mission.
  • Poor-performing teachers will find it difficult to stay in the field.
  • Unions will have less money and power, due to diminishing ranks.

In other words, the Broad plan is a win-win-win situation for good teachers, children and their families. Mr. Caputo-Pearl, does that matter to you at all?

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.

Life After Deasy

It was only a matter of time before the Los Angeles school chief was run out of town.

John Deasy is the latest to exit the fast-moving revolving door known as Los Angeles School Superintendent. The job – really an impossible one – saw Roy Romer replace Ray Cortines in 2001. Romer in turn was replaced by David Brewer in 2006, who was replaced by Cortines in 2009, who was replaced by Deasy in 2011. Now the octogenarian Cortines is back for a third stint as chief – for how long is anyone’s guess. Deasy is the fourth California superintendent in the last two years to be driven from a job that has the shelf life of homogenized milk.

Since his resignation on October 16th, much has been written about Deasy, who wore his good and bad traits on his sleeve. He admittedly had little use for political niceties, and at times seemed to enjoy getting up in people’s faces. As Doug McIntyre wrote in the Los Angeles Daily News, “Even Deasy’s supporters acknowledge he can be prickly, humorless, stubborn and thin-skinned.” Others have described him as bull-headed and impatient. School board member Steve Zimmer pointed out that he frequently used a sledgehammer – sometimes joyfully so – where a scalpel would have sufficed. Deasy’s heavy-handedness is exemplified by the Miramonte fiasco. Mark Berndt, a veteran teacher, was removed from the classroom after feeding his second graders cookies laced with his semen. At the same time, a colleague at the school was accused of inappropriately touching a female student. Instead of launching an immediate internal investigation to ferret out other possible miscreants, Deasy further destabilized the school and angered parents by removing every teacher from the campus, without any indication that others were in any way involved.

Deasy had other troubles. There was the wildly ambitious and ultimately bungled $1 billion iPad program in which he sought to put a computer in the hands of every student in the district. The rollout began amid confusion over whether or not students would be allowed to take the devices home and who’d be held responsible if they were lost or stolen. Then, upon receiving the computers, many students easily breached their security locks and began using the devices for non-school-related purposes. Additionally, many were outraged over the program’s bloated billion-dollar price tag. Deasy mercifully halted the process only after emails revealed he had discussed a possible contract with Apple before the bidding even started.

Then there is the “MiSiS crisis,” which came about when an online school information system was rushed into place prematurely, resulting in thousands of students being left with no class schedules. It’s hard to make the Obamacare rollout look good by comparison, but somehow Deasy and LAUSD accomplished it.

The United Teachers of Los Angeles was especially brutal toward Deasy. In April, 2013, it mounted “Whoopsie Deasy,” a campaign that sought to get rid of the controversial chief. The union encouraged teachers to give the superintendent a “no-confidence” vote, listing 10 reasons it considered Deasy a menace to the teaching profession. Their case included the fact that teachers had not received a raise in six years, that “testing was overtaking teaching” and that the superintendent was too cozy with “billionaire outsiders.” The poll clearly resonated with union members who delivered the no-confidence vote by a margin of 10 to 1.

But the real reason that UTLA regularly hammered the superintendent and his policies was the same reason the reformers supported him. He wanted to shake up the sclerotic system and viewed the union and its cronies on the school board as impediments to his pro-child agenda.

Deasy’s supporters quickly brushed the negatives aside and pointed to all the good he did for the district. He tried to bring teacher evaluations into the 21st Century. He championed charter schools as a way to let kids escape from district failure factories. He was a supporter of the Parent Trigger, which empowers parents to force a change of governance if a school is underperforming. He testified for the plaintiffs in the Vergara case, where Judge Rolf Treu ruled that the state’s archaic seniority, tenure and dismissal statutes were unconstitutional, adding that the evidence submitted “shocks the conscience.”

Reformers also give Deasy credit for the district’s improved test results but this argument is problematic. The test scores did go up a little, but it’s difficult to pinpoint just what factors led to the small increase. A recent study by The Brookings Institution showed that superintendents on average account for just “0.3 percent of student differences in achievement.”

Deasy has also been credited with a lower dropout rate. But again, it’s hard to know what the truth is. In April 2013, LAUSD reported a 66 percent grad rate. Then earlier this month, the district proudly announced it was up to 77 percent. Sounds impressive, right?

Well, not really.

It is 77 percent if you don’t include the students who couldn’t hack a district school and were placed in what are euphemistically called “alternative schools” where the grad rate can be as low as 5 percent. This is tantamount to saying that Joe Smith’s batting average is .300 – if you don’t count the 50 times he struck out. Also not included in the data are the “invisible dropouts” – those who never set foot in a high school. They are not counted as high school dropouts because, well, they never dropped in. Nevertheless, they are dropouts. Hence, we need to seriously rework the way we measure graduation rates before we can attribute credit to anyone for better numbers.

Devil or angel, Deasy’s troubles are not unique. Big city superintendents have faced similar daunting tasks and invariably wind up quitting or getting fired within a few short years of accepting the job. The most dramatic example of this pattern was the fiery three-year stint of reformer Michelle Rhee had in Washington D.C. In fact, referring to the LA superintendent position, Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, told LA School Report, “I don’t know a single person on earth who would want that terrible job. It won’t be a change agent. It will be a status quo candidate who will make life pleasant for himself by enjoying all the wrapping of the superintendency and being smart enough not to try and change a thing.”

The question then becomes, “Is LAUSD manageable at all?” Is a district that includes 31 smaller cities covering 720 square miles with 655,000 students who speak 87 languages, taught by 32,000 teachers (plus a support staff of 35,000) too big not to fail?

One possible solution is to break up the behemoth district – hardly a new idea; it’s been floating around for years. The northern part of the city, the San Fernando Valley, tried to break away in 2000. Then, in 2004, mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg said that his first priority, if elected, would be to lead “a task force of teachers, parents, principals and other experts to come up with a plan to create smaller, community-based districts.” In 2006, state Assemblyman Keith Richman introduced legislation to split “the 727,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District into more than a dozen smaller districts, with the break-up overseen by a nine-member commission of mayors from the 27 cities that the district serves, the state superintendent of public instruction and university professors.” Most recently, Marc Litchman, who unsuccessfully challenged Rep. Brad Sherman for the 30th Congressional District in Los Angeles, said the first bill he would introduce would be to split up L.A. Unified. “The schools have to perform, and I think we’ve all been through this for quite some time. They’re not performing to the level we all hoped they would. In Los Angeles, the biggest barrier to that is the school district,” he said.

The problem with the dissolution idea is that it would result in power being ceded by those currently in charge. The LA school board and the teachers union will fight tooth and claw to keep the mammoth school district intact – no matter how unmanageable and dysfunctional it is.

Another change scenario is underway in New Orleans. Last month, the city became the country’s first all-charter district. Charter schools are public schools, funded by taxpayer dollars but run by largely independent boards. These schools get to avoid most of the red tape and union influence typical in a district contract. Teachers unions don’t have much of a presence in NOLA. The United Teachers of New Orleans, which had 5,800 members before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has dwindled down to 530. The small size and independent nature of charter schools is a disincentive to labor organizers. “The same amount of effort that it takes to negotiate a contract with a district, you spend on one school,” a union leader in Louisiana said. Of course, teachers could exercise a “local only” option which would give them greater control over their own destiny, be more child-friendly and excludes costly membership in a state and national affiliate.

Unfortunately, without a cataclysmic act of nature wreaking havoc on Los Angeles, this scenario too would run up against massive resistance from all the usual suspects. It would take a herculean effort by maverick legislators or a well-funded ballot initiative to make an all-charter district a reality.

So until then, we will suffer along with a yet-to-be-named superintendent who will either be a Deasy-type provocateur, burning out after a short time or, more likely, we will be treated to a make-nice type who will not rock the LAUSD boat. The losers, as always, will be the children who could have better but for the self-serving demands of the grown-ups captaining a ship that is constantly taking on water.

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.