San Joaquin Valley’s Fresno County can boast about more than its raisins.
Clovis, a city of about 100,000 located right next to Fresno in California’s fertile San Joaquin Valley, has a particular distinction: the city’s schools have never been unionized. Of course, the California Teachers Association dons pretend that Clovis doesn’t even exist because the district works quite well for teachers and kids without an organized labor presence. No, teachers aren’t fired “for advocating for their students,” aren’t bound and tortured by sadistic principals and aren’t slaving away for minimum wage.
As reported in a recent piece by Joe Mathews, Clovis is the 16th largest school district in California, with 42,000 students, 49 schools, and 5,000 employees. The student body is ethnically mixed, and about half of its children are on free or reduced lunch.
Back in the 1970s, when the teacher unionization epidemic hit California, Clovis superintendent Floyd Buchanan and the city’s teachers decided that they could handle the k-12 education process themselves, thus avoiding divisive union dictats and strict work rules that have infected almost all other school districts in the Golden State. While state law mandates much of what happens in school districts, including union imperatives like tenure and seniority rules, everything else is left to the local district – teacher salaries and benefits, curriculum, school calendar, student safety issues, etc.
Teachers certainly have a voice and a role in governance, though. Instead of a union, they have a Faculty Senate, in which each school has a representative. The mission of the Faculty Senate is to be “an effective advocate for teachers at all levels of policy making, procedures, and expenditures, in partnership with our administrators, fellow employees, and community as a quality educational team.”
Teacher salaries are competitive in Clovis. While starting teachers make a few thousand a year more in neighboring unionized Fresno, the differences dissipate as teachers rack up more time on the job. Also, Clovis teachers pay no union dues while Fresno teachers are saddled with forced payments of $983 a year to the Fresno Teachers Association. (For under $200 a year, Clovis teachers can and do join the Association of American Educators to ensure they have liability insurance and other perks of belonging to a professional association.) Also, as Faculty Senate president Duane Goudy told me in an email, “Our health benefits plan (we are self-insured) costs less and is one of the best in the state.”
And students in Clovis are prospering. As reported by the Fresno Bee in 2014, a study by Oakland-based nonprofit Education Trust-West looked at academic performance in more than 140 school districts and showed that California generally fares poorly, with most districts receiving either a C or D grade. “Of the nine districts surveyed in the central San Joaquin Valley, including Fresno, Central, Madera and Visalia Unified’s, seven received a C or a D.” But Clovis earned a solid A, having ranked in the top 10 for four straight years. Additionally, students of color graduate at high rates and have been steadily improving on statewide tests. All this and they do it for less. As reported by Goudy, “Our district receives considerably less money per student than Fresno and 18 other districts in our county.”
The real lesson of Clovis is that good education depends not on bloated budgets, bureaucratic paper-pushers and union work rules, but rather on committed teachers and administrators who are dedicated to their students first and foremost.
Can the Clovis model be replicated? Of course. It would take a group of independent-minded teachers with moxie and tenacity to decertify their union, and thus say good-by to the one-size-fits-all regimen of the CTA and their local affiliates. No easy task, to be sure, but certainly doable.
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.