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The Big Apple and Little Dougco

Last week, the nation’s biggest city and a county in Colorado went in diametrically opposite education reform directions.

On Election Day, there were several outcomes that affected how education will be conducted across the country. Perhaps the most dramatic took place in New York City and Douglas County, CO.

In New York, after several years of steady education reform gains under the 12 year leadership of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, NYC would seem to have done a 180 in electing new mayor Bill de Blasio. Peter Meyer’s Education Next headline posed the question that many reformers are asking, “Will Mayor de Blasio Turn Back the School Reform Clock?” The author wades through the troubling details of de Blasio’s reactionary education plans. Perhaps the most damaging is his promise to “kill city charter schools by a thousand cuts.”

De Blasio has said that he would cap their numbers, stop letting them share space with traditional public schools, and start charging rent for existing colocations. The Democratic candidate’s public comments against charters, among the most significant of the Bloomberg reforms, have convinced many reformers that de Blasio is a real threat to continued progress in the city’s schools.

Meyer then quotes former NYC schools chief Joel Klein, who says that stopping colocation or charging rent for space would be absolutely catastrophic. “It’s not just bad for the charters, but for the children…. Charter schools are public in every meaningful way…. The public schools don’t pay rent, the charter schools, which are serving the same kids, shouldn’t pay rent.”

Manhattan Institute senior fellow Marcus Winters adds, “Colocations are a fiscal necessity for New York’s charters … since they get no capital funds from the state.”

Also weighing in is Fordham Institute’s Chester Finn who maintains that, “De Blasio’s education agenda is full of hot air.” Finn takes the mayor-elect to task for his wrong-headed and meaningless reform ideas, such as his intention to “fix” but not close failing schools and his call for useless and expensive “across-the-board class-size reduction.”

The most shocking part of de Blasio’s agenda is his interest in appointing American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten as NYC schools chancellor. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house! (Mr. de Blasio might benefit from viewing the video of a 2010 event in Manhattan where Terry Moe, Rod Paige and I debated Weingarten and two others. The question was whether teachers unions have been the primary reason for education’s failure in NY and elsewhere. Weingarten had a very difficult time trying to defend the unions’ disastrous policies and convince the 500 or so attendees that they were a force for good in public education. Her team lost by a landslide.)

Actually, the idea of appointing the union leader as superintendent is not new. Steven Brill proposed just that in Class Warfare, claiming that if politically moderate Mayor Bloomberg chose her, it would be his “ultimate Nixon-to-China play.” But as Joy Resmovits reports

Brill doesn’t think the appointment would work in the context of a de Blasio administration. “A traditional Democrat appointing Weingarten would be seen correctly as a big step back from reform,” he said.

Is Weingarten interested in the job?

She is denying it, but there are reports that she wants it. Richard Johnson in the New York Post writes,

“She wants the job, and de Blasio’s people have been making calls, asking about Weingarten and testing the reaction,” said one well-placed source in the public education sector.

“The idea of putting a union chief in charge of a school system is mind-boggling,” said a political consultant. “It strains credulity that de Blasio would go that far.”

Meanwhile, across the country, a county just south of Denver went in the opposite direction on Election Day. AEI’s director of education policy studies Rick Hess sums it up in National Review Online:

In Douglas County, the 65,000-student school district that may be the nation’s most interesting had a crucial board election, in which the reformers earned a knockout victory. County superintendent Liz Fagen, with the support of a unanimous board, has moved to reimagine teacher pay radically, create a universal voucher program, and rethink curricula and testing. Pursuing reforms inconceivable in big cities where unions hold sway, Fagen and the board have sidelined the local teachers’ union and charged forward. This has earned the enmity of the American Federation of Teachers and Colorado Democrats. But in a crucial referendum on the Douglas County effort, the four reform candidates all won, with 52 to 54 percent of the vote, ensuring that the reformers will retain unanimous control of the seven-member board.

Hess’ comment about sidelining the teachers union has its roots in 2012 when the Dougco board cut ties with the Douglas County Federation of Teachers. This is not a possibility in all states, but Colorado has no defined state labor law, which gives school districts a lot of leeway in bargaining with the local teachers unions. As Ben DeGrow, senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, wrote in September 2012,

On Wednesday, 18 months after adopting a groundbreaking local private school choice program, the Douglas County Board of Education once again set the bold reform standard. Elected leaders of the 60,000-student school district immediately south of Denver, Colo., unanimously voted to cut ties with the teachers union, and to keep taxpayer dollars and district resources from underwriting union politics.

But is anyone paying attention to what goes on in Douglas County?

Politico reports that, “Politicians and educators from as far as Arizona, North Carolina and Texas have looked to model their own reforms on Douglas County.”

And in the Daily Caller, Casey Givens writes

Colorado has been a Petri dish for political reform for decades. From the Taxpayer Bill of Rights spending limit of the early 1990s to the innovative electioneering that turned the red state blue in 2008, conservatives and liberals alike have used the Centennial State as a laboratory for new ideas to be tested and later replicated across the country. If what happened in Colorado truly spreads to the rest of America, choice may soon be coming to a schoolhouse near you.

Interestingly, in October, the peripatetic Weingarten took time off from her busy schedule to go to Colorado and took a serious swipe at the Dougco school board. According to the Ed is Watching blog, she said that the board is

only interested in its own power. Douglas County schools used to be on the cutting edge in Colorado. But rather than respect the staff, for political and malevolent reasons the board has undermined the public education system that once was known as the jewel of Colorado.

Undermine public education?!

I’m sure that the reform-minded Coloradans weren’t exactly bothered by Randi’s hyperbole, nor were they crying in their Coors when she exited the state. Weingarten would be advised to hunker down in NYC where she has a new BFF in the recently elected mayor and her malign old-world ideas – tenure, seniority, step-and-column pay scale for teachers, anti-school choice, etc. – still have some currency. The NYC voters may deserve what – and whomever – they get as mayor and chancellor, but 1.1 million school kids surely don’t.

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.

Teachers Unions and School Boards Must Disconnect

Teachers unions’ goals are in direct conflict with those of school boards.

Two powerful entities in public education have very different agendas. The teachers unions’ goal is to derive every benefit possible and to protect every last one of its dues paying members no matter how incompetent they are. School boards are governing bodies that are mandated to be responsive to children and to the values, beliefs and priorities of its community. Together, in most states, the two bodies must join to hammer out a “collective bargaining” agreement that regulates working conditions. (A future post will go into detail about collective bargaining issues.) As former Secretary of Education Rod Paige says, “Organizations can’t serve two gods … They serve one. And in the case of teachers’ unions, it is the interests of their members.” Period.

Stanford professor and education reformer Terry Moe describes the conflict:

School-board elections are supposed to be the democratic means by which ordinary citizens govern their own schools. The board is supposed to represent “the people.” But in many districts it really doesn’t. For with unions so powerful, employee interests are given far more weight in personnel and policy decisions than warranted, and school boards are partially captured by their own employees. Democracy threatens to be little more than a charade, serving less as a mechanism of popular control than as a means by which employees promote their own special interests.

Moe then gets into the details.

The most direct evidence comes from a study of 245 California school district elections and the 1,228 candidates who competed in them during the years 1998–2001. A multivariate statistical analysis shows that, for candidates who are not incumbents, teacher union support increases the probability of winning substantially. Indeed, it is roughly equal to, and may well exceed, the impact of incumbency itself.

The comparison with incumbency is instructive. These are low-information, low-interest elections, and because incumbents tend to be well-known, effective campaigners, and relatively well funded, there is every reason to expect the power of incumbency to be considerable. My statistical estimates show that it is. That the estimates for union impact are comparable, then, says a lot about the lofty level at which the unions are playing the political game. They are heavy hitters.

Their total influence, in fact, appears to be even greater over the long haul. When the unions succeed in getting nonincumbents elected to school boards, these people become incumbents the next time around. Then their probability of victory is boosted not just by their union support, but also by the power of incumbency. When the two factors are combined, as they are when union winners run for reelection, the candidates are virtually unbeatable. (Emphasis added.)

Obviously this is a treacherous scenario. Yet Moe does offer a few bright spots:

Yes, they are powerful, but they don’t always dominate, and they can’t have everything they want. In particular:

They sometimes face opposition from other organized groups, especially in large urban districts. When this happens, business groups are the most likely to represent effective opposition.

Because incumbents have their own bases of power, they can be more difficult for the unions to defeat than other candidates. As a result, the unions sometimes support incumbents who are not as pro-union as the unions would like in order not to alienate an eventual winner.

Because voting patterns are shaped by the political culture of a district, unions in conservative districts sometimes find themselves supporting candidates who are less pro-union than they would like in order not to lose.

After election to the school board, the experience of being on the board—and part of “management”—seems to make members somewhat less pro-union over time; as a result, the unions cannot count on gaining complete control of school boards even when they are continually successful in elections.

So while the unions have way too much sway over our children’s education, the scenario is not all bleak. And there are a few other areas of light.

One solution to the unions’ natural financial advantage and ready teacher voting army is “outsider money.” This past winter New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg poured $1 million into the Los Angeles school board races, and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst added another $250,000 (but with only partial success).

In Colorado, where there is no defined state labor law, school boards have extensive discretion whether and how to engage and bargain with a union. Most districts are non-union, but they overwhelmingly tend to be the small-to-medium-sized variety. (H/T Ben DeGrow) But last September, in Douglas County, the third largest district in the state, the school board

… voted to officially end negotiations with the teachers union over their collective-bargaining agreement with the district. The board also voted to end the collection of union dues and to stop paying union leaders with district money.

The Dougco school board action predictably ruffled many a union feather. Douglas County Federation of Teachers president Brenda Smith grumbled that the policies caused teachers to feel “not valued, trusted or engaged,” and predicted that there would be a teacher “exodus” from the district. And in May, a group of discontented teachers announced they were indeed planning to leave the district because of the evisceration of the union.

But as EAG’s Ben Velderman reports, that didn’t happen.

Not only are teachers not fleeing the district in droves, but Douglas County schools’ teacher turnover rate is smaller this year (11.7 percent) than it was last year (13.2 percent), reports TheColoradoObserver.com.

The district’s current attrition rate “is normal for large districts in (Colorado),” the news site notes. Looks like the union-led revolution will have to wait …

… until November when the board members who voted to kiss off the union are up for reelection. Hence, the jury is still out in Douglas County.

In another bold move, Rod Reynolds, an Everett, Washington man, is running for school board and not playing nice with the local teachers union. Not only did Reynolds turn down the union leaders’ offer, but the

self-described watchdog and whistleblower responded to the invitation with a lengthy letter explaining why teacher unions shouldn’t get involved in school board races at all.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think your union should issue an endorsement of any school board candidate, and I don’t think any board candidate should accept one,” Reynolds writes in the June 19 letter to the union.

“The school district and its employees’ unions are natural adversaries. …You represent the teachers of the district; school directors represent (theoretically) the taxpayers-citizens who elect them. I don’t see how a school board candidate’s acceptance of a union endorsement could be anything but a conflict of interest.” (Emphasis added.)

Clearly, Reynolds gets it. It is a major conflict of interest.

Unfortunately, Los Angeles has yet to evolve. The embarrassing subhead in a recent LA Times story read: 

An L.A. school board member tells UTLA activists that the union must fight public perceptions that it protects bad teachers

These words were written by newly-elected, union-backed, “reform-minded” candidate Monica Ratliff. Please note she doesn’t say she wants the union to stop protecting bad teachers; she just wants to change the perception. In other words, we don’t have a bad teacher problem, just a PR problem.

Pathetic.

Until the public realizes that the union/school board nexus is real and very unfair to children and their families, the inequities and the failures it causes will continue. Statehouses all over the country should be thronged by an army of concerned parents and citizens demanding more bang for their buck, better education for their children and a brighter future for the country.

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.