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Beyond DeVos

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.

 *   *   *

Ed Ring is the president of the California Policy Center.

Progressivism, Unionization and Political Correctness Are Destroying Public Education

Even a brief glance at the 1908 7th and 8th grade reading lists or the 1895 Salina, Kansas 8th grade exit exam graphically illustrates the profound decline in public education produced as a consequence of the progressives who dominate our academic institutions and federal government. Less obvious is the threat this presents to the future of the American Republic.

The purpose of public education in the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries was the development of scholarship, critical analysis and citizenship. Students needed to be schooled in the Three R’s (plus geography, science, history and biology), comportment and citizenship. They needed to develop the solid foundation needed to become informed, responsible, self-sustaining citizens.

Teachers were tasked with a singular mission: the development of intellect and character. Politics and social indoctrination had no place in that mission. They were, in fact, anathema to and destructive of it.

Teaching in that era was viewed as a noble profession, not unlike medicine. The workload for pupil and professor alike was considerable. Class size was large, often thirty or forty students packed into a one-room schoolhouse. Complaints about hate speech, safe spaces, test scores or discrimination were not even contemplated, much less tolerated. Education was serious business.

In the early days, the tools for reading in the primary grades were very limited: the Holy Bible, McGuffey Readers, issues of the Farmer’s Almanac, maps and globes, newspapers and magazines, and whatever Latin and Greek texts teachers and local folk made available. That barebones framework provided a solid education for generations of Americans. It produced thousands of physicians and scientists, and scores of Presidents.

Eight years of school in 1850 sufficed to produce literacy and numeracy for the majority of the citizenry. America enjoyed one of the highest rates of literacy in the world. Eight years was often all the time many parents could afford to spare before their children had to find work to help support the family.

Students crammed the equivalent of twelve years of schooling into eight. Their exit exam, required to gain admission to high school, was far more difficult than today’s high school exit exam (eliminated by Governor Brown last year) and many college level achievement tests.

How can we explain the erosion of the curriculum and declining SAT scores? They are inter-related. Today’s curriculum has been dumbed down and diluted. Under the new Common Core requirements reading lists will be even more abbreviated as will curriculum content. This will adversely impact the intellectual development of the country’s students even further.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that despite rising amounts of employees and rising costs towards education the scores of U.S, remains relatively stagnant.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that despite rising amounts of employees and costs towards education the scores of U.S. students remains relatively stagnant.

A second factor is teacher qualifications. America’s educators are no longer chosen from the top quartile of their graduating class. They are now culled from the lowest third, unlike teachers in Singapore, South Korea or Finland.

They also are no longer required to have graduated with a major in the subject they teach. In fact, half of the math and physics teachers have only a minor in the subject. Little wonder students don’t excel.

There is a pervasive attitude of anti-intellectualism today as evidenced by the plethora of light-weight subjects now being offered in colleges and universities. Academic excellence is discounted and mocked, even as it is envied.

Huge sums in federal and state education budgets are siphoned off for the disadvantaged (emotionally handicapped, disabled, non-English speaker or slow learner). These programs are well-intentioned, but often are funded at the expense of programs for the gifted or highest IQ (advantaged). Should there not be equal expenditure to assist our most gifted students, even as we endeavor to train those who are disadvantaged?

There are countless programs for the gifted in athletics and the fine arts. There are no federal programs for the highly intellectually gifted. They are already considered “privileged.” Those students are compelled to sit idly for hours with little to challenge their minds.

This represents a tragic waste of the country’s most valuable human capital. Progressives consider wealth and genius unfair to those with less. With all too few exceptions, the gifted get the same books as their grade-level peers. That is today’s reality in America.

This neglect is compounded by the consequences of another well-intentioned policy: The greater the gap between ethnic or racial differences in achievement, the greater the sums siphoned away from “advantaged” students. As a consequence of these policies, the average as well as the bright do not acquire needed skills and knowledge. Their intellectual growth remains stunted.

This is in contrast to the early 20th century when graduates of Dunbar High School, the first all-Black high school in America, performed as well as their White peers and included the first Black graduate of West Point, the first Black general, first Black admiral, the first Black cabinet secretary and the first Black female physician.

Benjamin O. Davis, the first Black graduate of West Point Academy and General of The United States military.

Benjamin O. Davis, the first Black graduate of West Point Academy and General of The United States military.

As it is, this egalitarian system punishes excellence everywhere, at all levels of intellect and across all categories of ethnicity and gender. America’s public schools fail all students. Affirmative action, multiculturalism, political correctness, social indoctrination and unionization, all part of the progressive prescription for public education outlined by John Dewey 100 years ago, have dumbed down, homogenized and weakened the country and culture.

Power has been wrested from the hands of the public and now rests in those of politicians and academic and union prelates. This paradigm needs to be upended to have power restored to the citizenry.

Despite benevolent intentions, it is vital to understand the malevolent effect of these policies and the urgent need to change them. Time is running out. Nothing less than the country’s future is at stake. Reform public education and restore academic excellence and, with it, opportunity for all.

About the Author: R. Claire Friend, MD, is the Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, UC Irvine Medical Center, and the editor of the UC Irvine Quarterly Journal of Psychiatry. She is a retired psychiatrist and frequent commentator on the psychological dimensions of education and social welfare policies.

The Real Cost of K-12 Education

The annual cost of K-12 education in the United States has increased steadily for decades. For 2015, the cost is about $600 billion. Fiscal reality has not diminished the demand by politicians and their powerful union cronies for even more money, a substantial portion of which would be earmarked to fund the high salaries of over-staffed administrators and trillions in retiree pension obligations.

Reported per pupil spending data vary widely across different studies. Because the figures represent only classroom instructional costs, they significantly understate the actual costs, sometimes by several thousands of dollars as a 2010 study by CATO institute notes. [1]

Actual per pupil spending must also include total operational costs such as capital expenses, transportation costs, administrative, clerical and support staff wages and benefits as well as debt service, which significantly increases the reported baseline figure.

States differ in the amount budgeted for education, often with little to no apparent correlation between number of dollars spent and graduation rates or scores on achievement tests. For example, New York spends about 80% more per student than the national average. Public schools in New York City spend $20,331 per pupil. Their 61.3% graduation rate is lower than the national as well as the state average. NYC charter schools spend considerably less per pupil and have a 70% graduation rate.

The District of Columbia rivals New York for per pupil spending. DCPS average per pupil spending is $19,847. The class of 2014 graduation rate reported by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education was 58%, significantly lower than the national average. The graduation rate from charter schools was 69%.

Large urban centers with powerful political and union lobbies spend significantly more per pupil as Fox Business Network reported. [2] Per pupil spending is $23,356 in Camden (NJ), $20,663 in Trenton and $22,267 in Newark. The inflated costs produced a disappointing 40% graduation rate.

The poor outcome suggests a need for reform, not increased funds. As a recent California Policy Center study notes, per pupil spending by public schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District ($15,372) was 44% higher than per pupil spending by Alliance Charter Schools ($10,649) yet Alliance had higher SAT scores and graduation rates. [3] Alternative education options can reduce costs and increase benefits.

Education represents the largest share of any state’s annual budget. It generally ranges from 20-40%. California voters passed Proposition 98 in 1988 which established a minimum level of funding for education at 43% of general tax revenues. Proposition 111 in 1990 amended that mandate which now guarantees additional funds every year.

In his 2015 California state budget, Governor Brown designated $68.4 billion for education. Only 40% is earmarked for teachers’ salaries. The balance is divided between salaries for administrative and support staff and employee benefits.

Because of the lack of transparency, the public remains in the dark about the truth and dutifully votes to approve nearly every ballot measure for additional funds to educate our children. In every instance, it burdens taxpayers with higher income and sales taxes as well as local property taxes.

Inflated school payrolls and paychecks for top administrators account for much of the increased costs. School superintendents, in fact, are among the highest paid government employees. The average salary for a superintendent is $162,000. Benefits such as cell phones, cars, vacations, membership fees to fitness clubs and costs to obtain a doctorate or pay for a child’s college tuition can pad the base salary by as much as 80%.

In California, New York, New Jersey and nine other states, school superintendents make more than their governors, sometimes more than twice as much. In NJ, 80 superintendents take home over $200,000. Governor Christie earns $175,000.

In Long Island, two superintendents take home over $500,000. Governor Cuomo’s annual salary is $179,000. The superintendent for Los Angeles’ huge LAUSD is paid $330,000, double what Governor Brown is paid.

Another costly scam is double dipping, an increasingly common practice. Educators retire early, collect a pension, get rehired elsewhere and pocket a second paycheck. The practice further balloons budgets. California has 5,400 CALSTRS retirees who double dip.

The teachers’ unions lack transparency as well, making it difficult to get data on salaries and benefit packages of their top executives. Dennis Von Roekel, head of the National Education Association, earns $362,000. He actually takes home $460,000 after perks and benefits have been added.

Randi Weingarten, executive director of the American Federation of Teachers, takes home $493,000, significantly more than her $407,000 base pay. Teachers might think twice about paying hefty union annual dues if they knew more than 600 NEA employees were getting six-figure paychecks.

The disconnect between reported and actual costs for student spending raises troubling questions about accountability and financial mismanagement. Equally troubling is the striking difference between the costs for public compared to private schools. Public education’s steep price tag should be sufficient impetus to establish markedly increased numbers of charter as well as private and parochial schools.

The author of the CATO study cited earlier in this article proposes legislation that would require school districts to create and maintain a revenue and expenditure website with detailed data on exact spending per pupil. The online data must be easily accessible and understandable to the public and updated on a monthly basis. A template for the proposed Financial Accountability in Education Act can be found in Appendix B. It is a valuable piece of work.

Poor student performance despite the escalating cost of public education is unacceptable. It is a situation in need of vigilant oversight. 10 separate agencies currently share oversight responsibility for public education in California. Consolidating the bureaucracy would result in significant savings for taxpayers as well as lessen the likelihood of mismanagement or fraud as would trimming bloated salaries and benefits.

The bill for K-12 public education in America is $600 billion. Taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth. They should demand greater transparency and accountability and not settle for less.

A psychiatrist might say taxpayers, not unlike children, have obediently acceded to the demands of their political fathers. Their passive acquiescence has been costly and destructive, particularly to the institution of public education. The need to end this regressive behavior is long overdue. It is time to take charge and start the process of reversing a tragic situation. Americans deserve better.

 

About the Author: R. Claire Friend, MD, is the Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, UC Irvine Medical Center, and the editor of the UC Irvine Quarterly Journal of Psychiatry. She is a retired psychiatrist and frequent commentator on the psychological dimensions of education and social welfare policies.

FOOTNOTES

1. http://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/pa662.pdf

2. http://www.foxbusiness.com/government/2013/03/19/superintendent-pay-at-top-class/

3. http://californiapolicycenter.org/analyzing-the-cost-and-performance-of-lausd-public-high-schools-and-la-alliance-charter-high-schools/

Lessons for Reformers from Governor Scott Walker

Certainly there are scores of Beltway conservative reformers (and movement conservatives disinterested in education policy) who are dismayed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s decision yesterday to halt his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. After all, the onetime state legislator and former Milwaukee County Executive-turned-governor has been highly-touted by them for his success in abolishing collective bargaining for NEA and AFT affiliates (along with other public-sector unions) in the Dairy State, as well as for surviving efforts by those outfits and progressive groups to oust him from office. So to see him leave the presidential campaign trail — and leave the stage to the likes of oft-unsuccessful real estate developer-turned-politician Donald Trump and famed surgeon Benjamin Carson (even with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former House Budget Committee Chairman-turned-Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the field)  — is distressing to them.

Yet there are at least two lessons that reformers of all stripes can learn from the collapse of Walker’s campaign. Not one of them is comforting.

20150924-UW-Biddle

Being president is different than being a governor — and voters know it: Back in 2007, a year before the presidential campaign that would come, then-American Spectator Assistant Managing Editor Jeremy Lott and I speculated that competence in managing government would be the top issue on the minds of voters. After all, the complaints about outgoing President George W. Bush’s handling of Hurricane Katrina and the economic malaise that was just beginning to manifest were fresh on the minds of pundits and other commentators. Based on that thinking, your editor thought that either former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney would ultimately face off against a Democrat, possibly former Indiana governor-turned-U.S. Senator Evan Bayh or Iowa’s Tom Vilsack, with substantial experience as a governor.

But both Lott and I were wrong. As it turned out, the presidential nominees for both parties,were two senators, Barack Obama and John McCain, with no experience running states or municipalities, while the experiences of Giuliani, Romney, Bayh, and Vilsack amounted to nothing. One of the lessons your editor learned: What voters turned out to be concerned about had nothing to do with competence in running government, as prognosticators see it. What they wanted was a president who understood that his key role has less to do with running a federal bureaucracy that is far larger than any state or municipal operations. This means setting a political agenda for the nation, selecting political appointees who also understand that their job is to set agendas within their own respective bureaucracies, serving as the ambassador for the world’s most-important superpower on the foreign policy front, being a constant charismatic-yet-even tempered campaigner for the agenda he is setting, interfacing with state governments over which the federal government has little real direction outside of subsidies, and exuding confidence and hope even during times when circumstances seem hopeless.

The best way to measure how well any presidential candidate can be president is not by looking at the gubernatorial record. This is because the role of governors — which can differ greatly from state to state — fundamentally different in substance (if not in form or style) from being Commander-in-Chief. It is hard to know how well the governor of a state in which the role is constitutionally weak like Texas or Indiana will compare to counterparts from New York or Florida, where the governors have strong control over every aspect of the executive branch. In general, there’s little about being governor that compares to being president. This is something voters, who have picked chosen governors to become president with mixed success for most of the past 40 years, have come to learn the hard way. The only way you can know how well a presidential candidate may govern is by actually watching them run for the top job. This is because running a billion-dollar campaign for the nation’s highest office is the closest approximate to actually being president.

On that test, Walker failed miserably. From Walker’s poor performance in two Republican presidential debates, to his failure to pick campaign managers and other staffers who could properly set agendas, to his own inability to cast a profile that measured up to the men who had (and currently) occupy the Oval Office, Walker showed that he wasn’t presidential material. This was especially problematic for the governor because, as New York Timescolumnist Ross Douthat points out, his greatest success — abolishing collective bargaining rules that wreak havoc on state governments, municipalities, and traditional school districts — is rather meaningless at the federal level, where public-sector union influence is limited largely to lobbying Congress and agencies. Unable to prove the relevance of his work as a state chief executive to the presidency, and incapable of demonstrating his fitness for the job through an effective national campaign, Walker had little choice but to stop running.

For reformers, Walker’s failures on both fronts may serve as harbinger of what will happen over the next few months. If Jeb Bush doesn’t improve his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, his success in overhauling public education in the Sunshine State won’t matter at all. Same is true for the remaining governors in the field, as well as for Hillary Clinton, whose second run for the presidency is faring just slightly better than the last one. This could mean that federal education policy could be a secondary (though important) issue on Election Day next year. Which, in turn, may lead to an ally of traditionalists setting the direction of federal education policy to the detriment of systemic reform.

Flip-Flopping on Common Core has done little to help Walker or his counterparts gain traction:
One of Walker’s key talking points during his campaign was the fact that he had pushed to halt implementation of Common Core reading and math standards after having supported their implementation five years ago. From ordering the state education department to stop rolling out the standards two years ago, to promising to stop the implementation during his successful re-election bid for governor last year, to trying to cut funding for the use of Common Core-aligned tests provided by the Smarter Balanced coalition, Walker worked overtime to prove that he shared cause with movement conservatives unconcerned with education who wrongly view the standards as a federal takeover of public education.

But as it turns out, Walker’s backtracking on Common Core implementation won him no supporters. Movement conservatives (including a branch of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum) and hard-core progressive traditionalists (the latter of which never would have voted for Walker or any Republican) issued a letter last July demanding the governor to take a clear stand against Common Core implementation and standardized testing in general. As Walker’s now-former colleague on the presidential campaign trail, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal found out the hard way, movement conservatives opposed to the standards, who know that the Wisconsin governor has flip-flopped on the issue, see him as just another cheap-suit politician. For them, Walker is hardly presidential material. As for moderate Republicans concerned about education policy who are divided on the standards? His performance on the campaign trail, along with the flip-flopping on Common Core, simply make him a less-compelling candidate.

That’s when Republicans, along with Democrats, are giving any thought at all to education policy. For most Republicans, reversing the Obama Administration’s legacy (along with that of George W. Bush) on almost every front, and tackling immigration policy, are far more-pressing issues than education. As a result, Common Core implementation hasn’t been a subject of conversation outside of the pages of education policy journals and political punditry. For all the energy Walker and his peers in the Republican presidential field exercised on reversing themselves on rolling out the standards, they would have been better off standing by their support for the efforts while focusing more time on building strong campaign operations.

For reformers, Walker’s failure to capitalize on what Common Core foes claim to be widespread opposition to the standards is another reminder that transforming American public education is not an exercise in winning popularity contests. As civil rights activists and other social reformers learned long ago, rarely has any change that benefits children and people ever been popular. Just as importantly, the fact that federal education policy discussions hasn’t been a defining issue during this election should be humbling.

About the Author:  RiShawn Biddle is Editor and Publisher of Dropout Nation — the leading commentary Web site on education reform — a columnist for Rare and The American Spectator, award-winning editorialist, speechwriter, communications consultant and education policy advisor. More importantly, he is a tireless advocate for improving the quality of K-12 education for every child. The co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era, Biddle combines journalism, research and advocacy to bring insight on the nation’s education crisis and rally families and others to reform American public education. This article originally appeared in Dropout Nation and is republished here with permission from the author.

How Government Unions Are Destroying America

Not one presidential candidate, apart from Gov. Walker’s last-ditch rhetoric prior to dropping out, has discussed the problems with unionized government as a major issue. That’s too bad, because these problems are bigger than even most critics acknowledge.

When people discuss the need to reform, if not eliminate, public sector unions, the only reason typically cited is that their demands are bankrupting our cities and states. And reformers also usually fail to communicate the fundamental differences between government unions and private sector unions, or emphasize the bipartisan urgency of public sector union reform. Government unions don’t merely drive our cities and counties into service insolvency if not bankruptcy, they are distorting policy decisions of fundamental importance to the future of America.

With a focus on California, and in no particular order, here is an attempt to summarize how this is occurring:

(1) The Economy

California has the highest taxes and fees in the U.S., and is consistently ranked as the worst state in America to do business. California also has the highest paid public employees in the United States, and with state and local debt and unfunded retirement obligations now hovering around $1.0 trillion – nearly half of the state’s entire GDP – virtually all new state and local taxes and fees are to pay for services that have already been performed. The uncontrollable political power of state and local government unions, combined with their insatiable appetite for more pay, more benefits, and more members, has – across all areas of policy – shifted political priorities from the public interest to the interests of public employees. The primary reason for excessive taxes and fees, as well as fewer services and less infrastructure investment, is because California’s unionized state and local government workers receive pay and benefits that are twice what the average private citizen earns.

(2) Cronyism and Financial Special Interests

When government unions control the government, big business either gets out of the way or gets on board. The idea that government unions protect the public interest against big corporate interests is absurd. Government union backed policies create deficits that bond issuers earn billions underwriting. Excessive pension benefits create additional hundreds of billions in pension fund assets invested on Wall Street. Excessive regulations are enforced by additional unionized government employees, to which only the biggest corporations can afford to comply. Government unions enable and enrich the largest corporate and financial interests at the expense of small independent businesses and emerging competitors.

(3) Environment

When it comes to cronyism, the “clean-tech” sector has risen to the top of the list. Government unions are partnering with “green” venture capitalists to carve up the proceeds of California’s carbon emission auction proceeds, a tax by any other name that will eventually extract tens of billions each year from California’s consumers to fund investments that wouldn’t make it in a normal market. From high speed rail to side loading washers that tear up fabric, strain backs, and require expensive maintenance, “green” projects and products are being forced on Californians in order to enrich investors and corporations. But it doesn’t end there. A bad fire season isn’t because of normal drought recurrence, no, the cause is “man made climate-change,” so fire crews have a claim on CO2 emissions auction proceeds. A heat wave isn’t a heat wave, it’s global warming – and since crime is statistically known to increase during hot weather, police agencies also have a claim on CO2 emissions auction proceeds. Code inspectors and planners? Climate change mitigation via enforcing “additional” energy efficiency mandates and higher housing density. Transit workers whose conveyances replace cars? Ditto. Teachers who insert climate change indoctrination into curricula? Ditto.

An entire article, or book for that matter, could be written on the synergistic symbiosis between environmental extremists, big business/finance, and government unions. What about the artificial scarcity environmentalism creates by restricting development of land, energy, water, and other natural resources? When this happens, the wealthiest corporations and developers make higher profits while their smaller competitors go out of business. Utilities, whose margins are fixed, raise revenues which increases their absolute profits. Union controlled government pension funds, whose entire solvency depends on asset bubbles, ride investments in these artificially scarce commodities to new heights. Property tax revenues rise because home prices are artificially inflated.

(4) Infrastructure

California’s deferred maintenance on existing infrastructure – roads, bridges, rail, port facilities, utility grid, dams and aqueducts – has been assessed in the hundreds of billions. New infrastructure to solve, for example, water scarcity, would include toilet-to-tap sewage reuse, desalination, enhanced runoff capture, and – dare we say it – a few new dams. But none of these projects get off the ground, not only because environmentalists oppose them based on mostly misguided principles, but because artificial scarcity enriches established special interests, and because all the public funds that can possibly be found are instead perpetually needed to pay unionized government workers. More pay. More benefits. More government workers. Infrastructure? It’s environmentally harmful.

(5) Immigration

No matter where one stands on this sensitive and complex issue, they must recognize that government unions win when immigrants fail to prosper or assimilate. While American culture retains a vitality that is almost irresistible to newcomers and may overcome all attempts to undermine and fragment it, if government unions had their way, that’s exactly what would happen. Because the more difficulties new immigrants encounter, the more government workers are required. If immigrants fail to find jobs, if they become alienated and traumatized, if they turn to crime or even terrorism, then we need more welfare and social workers, we need more multilingual teachers and bureaucrats, we need more police, and we need more prisons. The unpleasant truth is this: If we import millions of destitute immigrants into America – people with marginal skills from cultures that are hostile to American values – it is a meal ticket worth billions of dollars for government unions, and for every crony business who services the programs they administer.

(6) Authoritarianism

By over-regulating all activity that so much as scratches the earth, whether it’s to develop land, water, energy, minerals; to farm, transport, build, manufacture; to enforce these rules, more government powers are required. Similarly, by upending the cultural fabric that’s nurtured a social contract in America so strong that volumes of law never had to be written, but were instead the stuff of mutually understood courtesies and customs, we invite strife. To manage this, more rules and referees are necessary, enforced by more government. As society loses its cohesion, and as ordinary honest citizens rebel against excessive taxes and regulations, government unions benefit from training their members to mistrust the fractious and rebellious public. After all, unionized government workers are now a special class. As society fragments, they become more cohesive. As the middle class dissolves, they retain their economic privileges. Perhaps more than any other factor, government unions impel the growth of a police state.

(7) Education

To consider education is to save the most important for last. Because everything that is wrong with where our culture is headed can either be magnified or mitigated by how we educate our young students, regardless of their income or gender or culture or faith. As it is, in California’s public schools, students are taught that open space is sacred, that energy development will destroy the planet, that capitalism is innately flawed if not irredeemable, and that the legacy of Western European culture is a primary cause for most problems in the world. Instead of teaching children to develop functional skills in reading and math, they are being indoctrinated to believe that any failure or disappointment they ever encounter is the result of discrimination. Given the demographics of California’s youth, the union fostered educational environment currently imposed on them is nothing short of a catastrophe.

The reader may not agree with all seven of these assessments, but regardless of the scope of anyone’s reform advocacy, they must confront government unions. Because reform in all of these areas is stopped by government unions. Do you want to unleash California’s economic potential? Do you want to reduce the power of the financial special interests and crony capitalists? Do you want to restore balance to environmental policies, and build revenue producing infrastructure that eliminates scarcity and lowers the cost of living for ordinary people? Do you want to stop importing welfare recipients and instead admit highly skilled and highly educated workers who will enliven our economy and our culture with spectacular success? Do you want to avoid living in a police state? Do you want California’s children to be taught lessons that build their character and give them useful skills?

Reformers must recognize that government unions have a natural interest in preventing any of these reforms from ever happening. Addressing any of these issues without also taking on the government unions is futile. Conscientious members of government unions can play a vital role in reforms, by the way, if they are willing to make their personal interests secondary to their duties as a public servant. If California can be rescued from the grip of government unions, eventually everyone will benefit. And as goes California, so goes the nation.

*   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

Palm Lane Reform Activists Win Court Ruling – District Immediately Appeals

The yearlong battle with the Anaheim City School District and Anaheim City Board of Education has ended. The parents of the 733 students enrolled at Palm Lane Elementary School have finally been granted the right to restart their decade-long failing school as an independent charter school.

Judge Andrew P. Banks, Orange County Superior Court, issued his 9-page ruling July 16th on the written and oral arguments that exposed the lengths to which the district bureaucrats went to deny the parents their legal rights to free themselves and their children of union control.

The parents submitted valid signed petitions to ACSD in January. They filed a Writ of Mandate after the Board of Education rejected their petition and requested the Court to order the District to accept the petition. The parents asserted they had gathered valid signatures from more than 50% of the parents as required by the Parent Empowerment Act.

The District responded that the parents failed to submit the correct number of valid signatures and failed to include a separate list with the names of the lead petitioners. They also asserted Palm Lane was NOT a subject school and parents failed to exhaust all of the available administrative remedies before filing the writ.

Judge Banks refuted all of the respondents’ arguments, ruled in favor of the parents and rebuked ACSD for their unseemly conduct. On multiple occasions he chastised them for acting in bad faith by their failure to work cooperatively with the Palm Lane parents as they were legally required to do by the Act as well as a formal California Teachers’ Association Advisory on Parent Empowerment Act Regulations dated 1/5/2012. [1]

The Act instructs school districts to collaborate with parents to verify the collected signatures, granting them 60 days to do so in questionable cases and to request a personal appearance by a parent at the district office if need be.

Judge Banks censured ACSD for making no attempt to collaborate, contact or meet with the lead parents on even a single occasion. He also rebuked them for the process they employed to verify signatures, calling it “unreasonable, arbitrary, capricious and unfair.”

To verify signatures, ACSD hired a temporary employee whom they failed to educate in the specifics of the Parent Trigger Law, failed to train, supervise or provide with a written script for the telephone contacts with parents. They also restricted her calls to parents to the normal 8:30-4:30 workday, thereby insuring many parents would not be contacted. The unverified petitions, designated pending, were subsequently all discarded as invalid.

At its 2/19 meeting, the AC Board of Education rejected the petition, declared the parents had failed to meet the 50% requirement, falling 12 short of the necessary 355 signatures. Judge Banks personally reviewed the signatures and found a minimum of 378 to be valid.

Despite being labelled a subject school by the district superintendent in her letter to Palm Lane parents last October and in multiple internal memoranda, ACSD maintained Palm Lane was not a subject school in court testimony. The designation is determined by the Average Yearly Progress score, a number the State uses to assess a school’s improved performance.

Because California did not issue AYP scores for 2014, another test was used to measure yearly performance which ACSD insisted disqualified Palm Lane from being considered a subject school. Judge Bank disagreed.

Citing a memo from State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson in which he orders school districts to use the most recent AYP in place of a 2014 result, Judge Banks stated ACSD should have used Palm Lane’s 2013 AYP, a test result that capped a decade-long record of failure. Relying on the Torlakson memorandum, Judge Banks determined Palm Lane qualifies as a subject school.

The Court questioned the district’s credibility. One witness asserted under oath that she affixed her signature to an essentially blank page that lacked the text contained in every other copy of the petition.
Refusing to withdraw or correct her testimony, it highlights the persistent lack of integrity exposed during the court proceedings and the basis for Judge Banks’ repeated rebukes of the district’s conduct, calling the superintendent’s comments “troubling”.

The most credible witness in the case was Alfonso Flores, a decorated war veteran hired as a consultant to educate and train the parents in the petition gathering process.

Judge Banks ordered the school district to accept the petition and allow parents to solicit charter school proposals. As the Wall Street Journal noted in its July 21st editorial, “the case shows how far the union and administrative bureaucracy will go to preserve their monopoly, even breaking the law.” [2]

The civility of Court’s language stands in stark contrast to the deliberate misrepresentations in the district’s communications with the parents and the bullying and intimidation their union representatives employed to frighten the parents.

Cecilia Ochoa and the lead parents, Mark Holscher and the pro-bono Kirkland and Ellis legal team and Senator Gloria Romero and her Center for Parent Empowerment are to be congratulated for their persistence.

The school district, elected school board members and the powerful teachers unions have been handed a well-deserved public rebuke. We hope it is the first of many. They have been exposed as acting in their own self-interest, not in the interest of the students or their parents. Congratulations to Judge Banks for taking them down a few pegs.

Not unsurprisingly, ACSD almost immediately announced they will appeal Judge Banks’ decision. Unions do not relinquish money and power until they’ve exhausted all options and are forced to do so.

About the Author: R. Claire Friend, MD, is the Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, UC Irvine Medical Center, and the editor of the UC Irvine Quarterly Journal of Psychiatry. She is a retired psychiatrist and frequent commentator on the psychological dimensions of education and social welfare policies.

FOOTNOTES

1. http://avpeta.org/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/parenttriggeract.pdf

2. http://education-curriculum-reform-government-schools.org/w/tag/palm-lane-elementary-school/

Exposing Teachers Union Front Groups Against Minority Kids

Hope remains eternal — at least among those who want Congress to pass a reauthorized version of the No Child Left Behind Act being considered by the Senate this week. Even as the likelihood of passage remains as unlikely as it was back in March, when House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline’s plan was kiboshed amid opposition from movement conservatives within the Republican majority, there are still some who think that the version under consideration now could pass if Kline’s colleague, Lamar Alexander, can get his plan into conferencing. The fact that conservative Republicans are no more interested in supporting Alexander’s plan than that of Kline (and that there will be pressure on House Speaker John Boehner to reject the entire measure without a single thought) doesn’t seem to factor into their thinking.

But the low likelihood of No Child reauthorization hasn’t exactly stopped Beltway players from the usual gamesmanship that has been a feature of past efforts. This includes the American Federation of Teachers, with the help of another group of so-called social justice players to lobby against the accountability and standardized testing measures that have helped more children gain high-quality education.

Three minority children

Earlier today, a group calling itself Journey for Justice Alliance released a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democrat leader Harry Reid demanding that they pass a version of No Child that eliminates “regime of oppressive, high stakes, standardized testing”. Echoing arguments made last month in the pages of the Hill by Schott Foundation President John Jackson, Judith Browne Dianis of the Advancement Project and wishy-washy education professor Pedro Noguera, Journey for Justice declares with no evidence that testing and accountability has somehow harmed poor and minority kids as well as supposedly “narrowed curriculum” (an argument that has been proven false by research from the likes of the U.S. Department of Education and Quadrant Arts Education Research’s Robert Morrison). As far as the group is concerned, the Senate should pass a version of No Child that eliminates any kind of accountability and spend even more money on a grab-bag of programs that includes “restorative justice coordinators” to reduce overuse of suspensions and expulsions.

Certainly Journey for Justice hasn’t paid much real attention to the Alexander plan for No Child. If they did, they would know that Alexander’s plan would all but solidify the Obama Administration’s move over the past few years to eviscerate No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress provisions, which have exposed the failure of traditional districts to provide high-quality teaching, curricula, and school cultures to poor and minority children (as well as those condemned to the nation’s special ed ghettos). One can easily argue that the Alexander plan, like the one offered up by Kline, is a roll-back of strong federal education policy back to the bad old days when states and districts were allowed to educationally abuse children black and brown with impunity. For families, especially from poor and minority households, the Alexander plan’s evisceration of accountability makes it harder for them to gain high-quality data on how schools (and the adults who work in them) are serving the children they love.

But none of these points matter much to Journey for Justice’s signatories. Why? Because they are acting on behalf of AFT. This is because nearly all of them are dependent on the union’s financial largesse. And as you expect, this inconvenient fact goes all but unsaid by Journey for Justice in its letter.

As Dropout Nation noted last month, AFT, along with National Education Association, is struggling to gain support for its efforts against accountability (and, more-importantly, standardized testing) from civil rights groups such as Education Trust and NAACP. In order to buttress support for its goals, the union and other traditionalists have had to cobble together a motley crew of progressive groups and social justice outfits almost-totally dependent on its dollars.

The list of AFT vassals signing onto Journey for Justice’s letter such main members of the group as Alliance for Quality Education, which picked up $200,000 from the union and its New York State affiliate, NYSUT, in 2013-2014 alone. Other members include the Philadelphia Student Union (which collected $20,000 from AFT last fiscal year and whose board includes Anissa Weinraub, a flunky with the union’s City of Brotherly Love local), Youth United for Change (another Philadelphia-based outfit which picked up $60,000 from the union last year), and ACTION United, the beneficiary of $49,120 in AFT largesse for helping the union stall systemic reform of the traditional district there. The Annenberg Institute for School Reform, a recent beneficiary of AFT largesse (in exchange for opposing the expansion of charters) to the tune of $49,963), is one of Journey for Justice’s “allied organizations, as is AFT.

Look further down the list of signatories and you see AFT dependents all over the place. One of them is Center for Popular Democracy, which not only received $60,000 in 2013-2014 from the union, it even has union president Randi Weingarten serving on its board. As Dropout Nation readers already know, Popular Democracy has helped AFT in its effort to weaken efforts to expand public charter schools (as well as conceal the fact that the union’s opposition to them is spurred in part by the failures of its Big Apple affiliate to run one properly). Other AFT dependents include the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (which picked up $5,000 from the teachers’ union last fiscal year), Pride at Work ($5,000 in 2013-2014), New York Communities for Change ($10,000 in AFT funding within the last year alone), and Pride at Work.

Remember: Many of these groups do little when it comes to education policy, advocacy, and institution building — other than feast upon the dues AFT often-forcibly collects from teachers regardless of their desire for membership.

As you would suspect, Schott Foundation, which has become the favored ally of AFT (as well as NEA) in its efforts to condemn poor and minority kids to low expectations, is also a signatory on the letter. Befitting its eagerness to earn every one of the $480,000 it has collected from the Big Two in 2013-2014, Schott’s Opportunity to Learn campaign is also heavily promoting the letter through social media, calling the signatories civil rights groups even though just three such outfits — all affiliates of NAACP (which is supporting accountability and testing) — have signed onto the document. But hey, why let some inconvenient facts get in the way of spin?

Also signing the letter: Ten of AFT’s affiliates and locals — including the United Federation of Teachers and United Teachers Los Angeles. As you probably guessed, they also corralled their vassals to sign onto the claptrap. Chicago Teachers Union, for example, managed to convince its cadre of dependents — including the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and Pilsen Alliance — to back the anti-accountability letter. UFT brought along the A. Phillip Randolph Institute (to which the union gave $6,550 in 2013-2014), Citizen Action of New York ($5,500), and Make the Road ($5,000 from UFT to the outfit’s political action wing).

The closer you look at the list of signatories, the more you realize that Journey for Justice is just another AFT front group for the union’s other villeins, giving the union (and other traditionalists) cover. All of this for the union on the cheap. Sadly, this isn’t surprising. Given that many of these nonprofits lack the financial wherewithal (even such resources as printers, copying machines, and conference space) to hold meetings and conduct business — and that reformers often fail to extend their considerable resources to help them — it is easy for them to go to AFT and its affiliates for help and even easier to support the union’s agenda in return. That some of these groups are led by middle-class black political and social leaders, who are often more-concerned about defending their pockets and their allies within teachers’ unions (while often refusing to send their kids to the failure mills they are protecting) also factors into their willingness to do work for AFT and other traditionalists.

Yet by supporting AFT’s efforts to eviscerate accountability and standardized testing, these groups are essentially declaring that they care not one bit about the futures of the very black, brown, and poor children for whom they proclaim concern. By siding with AFT, these groups are perpetuating the educational genocide that has wrecked havoc on our children and communities, and have hobbled efforts to end the racialist policies such as overuse of suspensions and expulsions (which many AFT locals, along with those of NEA, vigorously defend).

Your editor would say that Journey for Justice and AFT should be ashamed of themselves. But that would be a waste of breathe. After all, shame requires having a conscience and being willing to turn down money for advocating against poor and minority children.

About the Author:  RiShawn Biddle is Editor and Publisher of Dropout Nation — the leading commentary Web site on education reform — a columnist for Rare and The American Spectator, award-winning editorialist, speechwriter, communications consultant and education policy advisor. More importantly, he is a tireless advocate for improving the quality of K-12 education for every child. The co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era, Biddle combines journalism, research and advocacy to bring insight on the nation’s education crisis and rally families and others to reform American public education. This article originally appeared in Dropout Nation and is republished here with permission from the author.

A Challenge to Moorlach and Glazer – Build A Radical Center

On March 22, 2015, John Moorlach was officially sworn in as state senator for California’s 37th District. On May 28, 2015, Steve Glazer took the oath of office as state senator for the 7th District. Moorlach is a Republican serving mostly conservative constituents in Orange County. Steve Glazer is a Democrat serving mostly liberal constituents in Contra Costa County.

Different parties. Different constituents. You wouldn’t think these two men had much in common. But you’d be wrong.

John Moorlach and Steve Glazer have both distinguished themselves as politicians and candidates by doing something that transcends their political party identity or conventional ideologies. They challenged the agenda of government unions. As a consequence, both of them faced opponents who were members of their own party who accepted money and endorsements from government unions.

It wasn’t easy to challenge government unions. Using taxpayers money that is automatically deducted from government employee paychecks, government unions in California collect and spend over $1.0 billion per year. These unions spent heavily to attack Moorlach and Glazer, accusing – among other things – Moorlach of being soft on child molesters, and accusing – among other things – Glazer of being a puppet of “big tobacco.”

This time, however, the lavishly funded torrent of union slime didn’t stick. Voters are waking up to the fact that the agenda of government unions is inherently in conflict with the public interest. Can Moorlach and Glazer transform this rising awareness into momentum for reform in California’s state legislature?

Despite sharing in common the courage to confront California’s most powerful and most unchecked special interest, Moorlach and Glazer belong to opposing parties whose mutual enmity is only matched by their fear of these unions. With rare exceptions, California’s Democratic politicians are owned by government unions. Fewer of California’s Republican politicians are under their absolute control, but fewer still wish to stick their necks out and be especially targeted by them.

The good news is that bipartisan, centrist reform is something whose time has come. Democrats and Republicans alike have realized that California’s system of public education cannot improve until they stand up to the teachers unions. Similarly, with the financial demands of California’s government pension systems just one more market downturn away from completely crippling local governments, bipartisan support for dramatic pension reform is inevitable.

There are other issues where voters and politicians alike realize current policy solutions are inadequate at best, but consensus solutions require intense dialog and good faith negotiations. An obvious example of this is water policy, where the current political consensus is to decrease demand through misanthropic, punitive rationing, when multiple solutions make better financial and humanitarian sense. Supply oriented solutions include upgrading sewage treatment plants to reuse wastewater, building desalination plants, building more dams, increasing cloud seeding efforts, and allowing some farmers to sell their allocations to urban areas.

Imagine a centrist coalition of politicians, led by reformers such as Moorlach and Glazer, implementing policies that are decisive departures from the tepid incrementalism and creeping authoritarianism that has defined California’s politics ever since the government unions took control. How radical would that be?

Ultimately, forming a radical center in California requires more than the gathering urgency for reforms in the areas of education, government compensation and pensions, and, hopefully, infrastructure investment. Beyond recognizing the inevitable crises that will result from inaction, and beyond finding the courage to stand up to government unions, Moorlach and Glazer, and those who join them, will have to manifest and pass on to their colleagues an empathy for the beliefs and ideologies of their opponents.

Ideological polarities – environmentalism vs. pro-development, social liberal vs. social conservative, libertarian vs. progressive – generate animosity that emotionalizes and trivializes debate on unrelated topics where action might otherwise be possible. The only solution is empathy. The extremes of libertarian philosophy are as absurd as those of the progressives. The extremes of social liberalism can be as oppressive as an authoritarian theocracy. Economic development without reasonable environmentalist checks is as undesirable as the stagnant plutocracy that is the unwitting consequence of extreme environmentalism. And while government unions should be outlawed, well regulated private sector unions play a vital role in an era of automation, globalization, and financial corruption.

Despite being inundated with a torrent of slime by their opponents, John Moorlach and Steve Glazer took the high road in their campaigns. They are worthy candidates to nurture the guttering remnants of empathy that flicker yet in Sacramento, and turn them into a roaring, radical centrist fire.

*   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

Union Controlled Anaheim School Board Forces Parent Activists to Fight in Court

Over 40 years ago, California’s Supreme Court recognized that a child’s access to an adequate education – regardless of race, ethnicity or wealth – is a fundamental right of the highest order. In Serrano v. Priest the Court affirmed “education is a major determinant of an individual’s chances for economic and social success in our competitive society”, “the lifeline of both … individual and society.”

Resolved to secure a better education for their children, parentsof Anaheim’s Palm Lane Elementary School united. On January 14 they became the first Orange County parents to use California’s Parent Trigger law to bring meaningful reform for the school by restarting it as an independent charter school. They filed their Parent Trigger petition – signed by almost 70 percent of school parents – on the eve of the national holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a symbolic gesture of their pursuit of education as the cornerstone of the American Dream.

Palm Lane had been classified as a failing school for over a decade. Sixty-two percent of Palm Lane students are not proficient in English-language arts, and 47 percent are not proficient in math. The school suffered from the constant reshuffling of principals, causing disorganization and disruption of student learning extending beyond the elementary years.

Indeed, Anaheim’s city schools were even cited in a civil rights lawsuit filed by the ACLU seeking dismantling of its at-large electoral system. The lawsuit underscored growing acknowledgment that the foundation of great cities and economic prosperity begins with great schools and student achievement.

But a quality education is precisely what Anaheim City school officials have denied Palm Lane students for over a decade. Rather than accept the parent’s petitions, the District rejected 133 signatures as “invalid” or “unverifiable,” leaving parents an mere 12 names short of the 50 percent threshold. But the District’s inability to verify petitions does not make them invalid. Despite clear requirements that the District reveal which signatures were found to be invalid or unverifiable so that parents can correct and resubmit, they purposefully withheld details – either in an insidious attempt to delay determination that the law’s legal requirements had already been met, or to deprive the parents of their right to correct and resubmit the petitions.

Hence, last week Palm Lane parents filed for court intervention to enable them to transform the school. Explained attorney Mark Holscher, “at every turn the district has done everything it can to try to block the petition in violation of the law.”

Not only do the parent actions open a new chapter in the parent empowerment movement nationally, but they follow in the footsteps of another set of parents who, eight decades ago, similarly filed in an O.C. courthouse demanding equality of educational opportunity. That case, Mendez v. Westminster, was the precursor of Brown v. Board of Education.

The Anaheim District officials are behaving shamefully – at taxpayer expense – and shortchanging their own pupils. They initially tried to prevent parents from gathering the needed signatures, but when that tactic failed, they subsequently concocted a claim that their school is not even subject to the law. In claiming exemption, the District negates clear precedent from federal and state authorities. Ironically, they now seek to ignore their own admission to the contrary in a letter they mailed to parents last October – prior to the parents’ petitions – informing them that the school is not performing well and even writing that “Parent Empowerment” is an option that parents, “dissatisfied with their children’s struggling schools,” may employ to affect change.

Apparently, District officials thought parents would not understand or care. Not only did they understand, they cared enough to act – in the proud tradition and history of the Mendez parents preceding them.

About the Author:  Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles resident, served in the California Legislature from 1998 to 2008, the last seven years as Senate majority leader. Romero is the director of education reform for the California Policy Center. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission from the author.

NEA’s Sorry Spin

The latest teachers union PR ploy is pure cowplop.

“Persuading the People on Public Schools,” a National Education Association document posted by the The Daily Beast’s Conor Williams, details the union’s new communication strategy. Subtitled “Words to avoid … Words to Embrace,” the previously internal “research brief” gives us a look into the mindset of an entity that is losing the national debate with school choicers and other reformers. To be sure, a political body like NEA needs jargon, mediaspeak, spin, whatever, to sell its message, but if its latest effort – with the help of two progressive communications outfits – is any indication, the hole it has dug for itself could become an abyss in no time. Just a few examples….

Instead of using the word inequality, NEA is now advising its people to use living in the right zip code. This of course plays right into the hands of reformers who constantly and correctly make the point that throughout much of the country we have a rigid government-run monopoly by zip-code education system. As RiShawn Biddle writes, “NEA leaders will then have to explain why their affiliates, along with that of AFT,  fight vigilantly throughout the nation against the expansion of public charter schools and other forms of choice that have proven to improve graduation rates for black and Latino children.”

The brief suggests dumping educational equity and replacing it with the squishy committed to the success of every child. I guess the monopolists at NEA aren’t comfortable with equity, because using that term leaves them open to blame for keeping poor and minority kids in urban failure factories by waging war on policies that would help them escape.

NEA wants to change the narrative from meaningful, rigorous evaluations to the argument that testing takes time from learning. The union really doesn’t loathe testing per se, but it cannot abide the fact that a teacher’s evaluation should reflect – at least in part – how well students perform on a standardized test. (We really need to lose the test-phobia that seems to be gripping the nation these days. Unionistas and others keep carping that we have “too much testing.” Maybe we do – and of course, too much of anything is not good. We need food to live but too much of it will make us obese and possibly send us to an early grave. But we don’t want to do away with food; we just need eat better and more moderately. Same mentality should be applied to testing.)

Perhaps most telling is that the union wants to use get serious about what works and avoid research driven practices. Sounds as if the union knows that it is getting clobbered by a parade of studies which show that charter schools, privatization and other forms of school choice are effective, and it is trying to divert us from this reality.

The rest of the communiqué is riddled with euphemisms that the union hopes will fool the public. But, mercifully, people have gotten hip to teacher union twaddle and a majority now sees the unions as a stumbling block to school reform.

In a sense there is nothing new about the document. For a while now, the unions have been aware that much of its language has been losing favor with the general public. Tenure and seniority both have received black eyes of late – due, at least in part, to California’s Vergara case – and have been replaced with the kinder and gentler due process and importance of experience.

In another example of pre-document union wordplay, Tennessee Education Association president Gera Summerford, talking to supporters in March 2014, explained, “This march to corporatization – that’s the word that we’ve been trying to use because it does sound a little more ‘evil’ than privatization.”

Maybe some will be taken in by this nonsense. But thousands of kids and their families who have won the lottery (literally) and have been given a shot at a good life via a good education by the likes of Eva Moskowitz’s Harlem Success Academies, KIPP Schools and the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program undoubtedly won’t. The union’s “evil corporations taking over education” meme has quickly turned into a tired old cliché.

Like teacher union spin, manure comes with many different names – dung, fertilizer, cowplop, etc. But whatever you call it – it still stinks.

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.

Education Reform: #1 Issue on the Ballot in California

Reformer battles with teachers union darling for top education position in Sacramento.

“Teachers Unions Are Putting Themselves On November’s Ballot” was the headline in a recent article by Haley Edwards in Time Magazine. Okay, this is hardly news, but the extent of the largess is eye-opening. Considering that this is not a presidential election year, the political spending is noteworthy.

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, is on track to spend between $40 million and $60 million this election cycle, while its smaller sibling, the American Federation of Teachers, plans to throw in an additional $20 million – more than the organization has spent in any other year.

The reason for the spending orgy is easy to understand: education reform – at long last – has become an important issue with voters across the country. As Edwards writes,

While the issues at stake vary by state, a number of elections this cycle will hinge on a variety of education-related questions, including recent cuts to public schools, growing class sizes, Common Core State Standards, access to pre-K education and the availability of state-funded student loans for college. A June Rasmussen report found that 58% of total expected voters ranked education as “very important,” while local polls indicate that voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Kansas and Illinois rank education as among the top three most important issues this cycle.

In California, perhaps the most ballyhooed contest is not for a legislative position, but rather the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction.  As Fox & Hounds Joel Fox points out, the election is a referendum on teachers unions, pitting reformer Marshall Tuck against incumbent Tom Torlakson, the bought-and-paid-for choice of the California Teachers Association. The SPI’s various responsibilities include acting as chief spokesperson for public schools, providing education policy and direction to local school districts, and working with the education community to improve students’ academic performance.

Typically, in a race that pits union guy vs. reformer, organized labor gets its way. But maybe not this time.

First off, Tuck is passionate, articulate and a pit-bull on the issues. He worked on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley before serving as president of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school management organization. He then became CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s collaboration with the Los Angeles Unified School District to operate 17 struggling public elementary, middle, and high schools.

Torlakson was a teacher before entering politics as a city councilman in 1978. He served as a California State Assemblyman and Senator before becoming SPI in 2010.

Perhaps the difference between the two is best exemplified by their responses to the Vergara ruling, which saw a judge throw out the state’s teacher tenure, dismissal and seniority laws. Tuck saw the decision as a victory for kids, while Torlakson claimed it was unfair to teachers. Moreover, the incumbent asked the California attorney general to appeal, which she did.

As writer Steve Greenhut points out, the challenger has direct experience dealing with issues raised by the Vergara case. After Tuck took over some of LA’s most troubled schools as CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, “about half of his teachers received layoff notices because of the system’s seniority based layoff system, which protects older teachers regardless of job performance.” Tuck explains,

The CTA should always be part of the equation because teachers are so important but their influence is too large right now. … The state superintendent is a nonpartisan position, right? Not Republican, not Democrat … and it’s supposed to just be focused on advocating for kids, yet the state superintendent has never disagreed with the CTA. It’s insane.

As a result of this ‘undue influence,’ the state ends up with ‘laws like two-year tenure and seniority based layoffs, laws that we know are not good for kids; they stay on the books for year after year. … Our kids are harmed dramatically by them to the point where the judge said the evidence shocks the conscience.’

Additionally, he refers to California’s behemoth educational code as

… the ‘visual definition of bureaucracy’ and wants to help public schools — traditional ones and charters — receive waivers from the red tape and allow more local control and flexibility. He wants to give parents a seat at the table in determining school policy.

Torlakson and his CTA friends are losing the battle of ideas, basically because they don’t have any. Instead, they disparage Tuck’s previous work as a “Wall Street investment banker.” They also idiotically claim that the challenger wants to turn schools over to “for-profit corporations” and “sell off our schools and sell out our kids.” The October issue of CTA’s magazine, California Educator, is full of anti-Tuck blather, including an editorial by union president Dean Vogel in which he solemnly proclaims that the challenger is a “well-funded corporate education reformer who supports the privatization of public schools and efforts to obliterate due process for teachers.” Also, in a talk a few months ago, Vogel asserted that, “We know who Tom is. He is one of us….”

He sure is.

Invariably in races like this, CTA manages to outspend the reformers. This one, however, may be an exception, as Tuck’s donations have been keeping up with Torlakson’s. The challenger has found some deep-pocketed backers whose donations have matched the free-spending CTA. As reported by EdSource,

Nine wealthy backers of Marshall Tuck – led by $1 million donations each from William Bloomfield of Manhattan Beach and Eli Broad, a longtime funder of reform efforts in Los Angeles – seeded a new independent expenditure committee with $4 million. That brought outside fundraising for Tuck nearly even with outside fundraising by the California Teachers Association, the biggest financial backer of Supt. Tom Torlakson. The CTA contributed an additional $1.4 million this week to the $5.7 million it has already contributed to Torlakson. The new donations, as of Oct. 10, will push expected spending by groups not affiliated with the candidates to about $14 million, split about 40 percent for Tuck and 60 percent for Torlakson.

The two candidates themselves have raised about $4.4 million in direct contributions as of Oct. 10 … That combined total is already more than twice the total raised by the candidates in the 2010 election, in which Torlakson defeated a retired school district superintendent, Larry Aceves. As of the latest campaign finance disclosure period, which ended Sept. 30, Torlakson had about $608,000 left in the bank, while Tuck had close to $700,000.

Money, however, isn’t the only important factor in elections. Teachers unions have a great advantage in races like this. In California, they have easy access to 300,000 teachers who are being told, in no uncertain terms, that Torlakson “is one of them” and that Tuck is the corporate reformer from Hell.

But interestingly, Tuck is getting a major boost from the mainstream media. Just about every major daily in the state, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times has come out – forcefully – in favor of Tuck. The Sac Bee editorial board endorsed the challenger because it believes that “teachers unions have a chokehold on the state’s public education system and that’s been detrimental for everyone, including teachers.”

With two weeks to go, polls show an even race with many still undecided; it’s anybody’s guess as to who will ultimately prevail. I suspect that the teachers unions will ramp up their spending down the home stretch because they know that if Torlakson loses, the status quo is history. And for a reactionary bunch like CTA, that is a fate worse than death.

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.

Race for California Governor Should Emphasize Education Reform

On Thursday, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown will face off against Republican challenger Neel Kashkari in their only scheduled debate. Although Kashkari asked for 10 debates, Brown chose to do just one.

Undoubtedly, a slew of issues will be discussed, from economic policy, including taxation and tax credits, to border security and immigration, earthquake preparedness, California’s death penalty and even the ethical lapses of legislators.

Somewhere in that one-hour debate the candidates also will be asked about their views on education policies and practices in the Golden State. After all, education consumes almost half the state budget, and a new funding formula has recently been enacted. The Legislature has also suspended its testing of students as California prepares to adopt the Common Core curriculum, amid some public souring on its implementation.

The perennial debate over the quality and expansion of independent public charter schools continues to dominate discussion. An increasing number of local education agencies are tying to curtail their availability, even though at least 50,000 children remain on waiting lists to get into a quality charter school.

Like many other Californians, I will, most likely, watch the debate on television. Not all questions can be asked – much less thoughtfully discussed – in the scant allocated time of 60 minutes. Nonetheless, let me suggest a few questions:

(1) Nationally, we’ve seen a parent empowerment movement demanding greater parental rights in school choice options. Do you support ending school assignment by ZIP code, enabling parents to bypass their “local” school, particularly if it is chronically underperforming?

(2) In 2010 the Legislature enacted the Parent Empowerment Act, which allows parents to turn around chronically underperforming schools if 50 percent of the parents sign a petition choosing a transformation option, such as converting to a charter school. Recently, the Los Angeles Unified School District shocked many when it claimed “exemption” from the law due to a federal Department of Education waiver combined with suspension of state testing. Do you concur that these “reform” districts are exempt from the law, and can any district self-proclaim exemption from state laws?

(3) In a school near Disneyland, a group of mostly Latino mothers are using the Parent Trigger law to transform their school, which has chronically underperformed for 10 years. They are being met with resistance from the teachers union and some elected officials. If you could meet with them, what would you say you could do to help realize their educational dreams for their children?

(4) Nine students sued the state of California, claiming that teacher employment and dismissal laws, including tenure and seniority, deprive students of equality of educational opportunities. L.A. Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu sided with the kids, ruling the statues unconstitutional, and the decision is being hailed nationally as a significant education and civil rights victory. What is your position on the Vergara ruling, and do you support an appeal of the decision or settling it and calling the Legislature into special session to rewrite these laws?

Many more questions could be asked of the candidates. But these are worth posing to Brown and Kashkari, for one of them will govern California’s 6 million public school kids, impacting their parents and utilizing half the state budget for the next four years.

Of course, one hour to debate all the issues is not enough time. Another debate is needed. Democracy thrives when the citizenry is educated. Californians deserve to know.

About the Author:  Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles resident, served in the California Legislature from 1998 to 2008, the last seven years as Senate majority leader. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission from the author.

The Looming Bipartisan Backlash Against Unionized Government

Whenever discussing politically viable policy proposals to improve the quality of life in California, the imperative is to come up with ideas that strongly appeal to moderate centrists, since that is how most Californians would describe themselves. And there are two compelling issues that offer that appeal: making California’s system of K-12 education the best in the world, and restoring financial sustainability to California’s state and local governments.

While these two objectives have broad conceptual appeal, there is a clear choice between two very different sets of policies that claim to accomplish them. The first choice, promoted by public sector unions, is to spend more money. And to do that, their solution is to raise taxes, especially on corporations and wealthy individuals. The problem with that option, of course, is that California already has the highest taxes and most inhospitable business climate in the U.S.

The alternative to throwing more money at California’s troubled system of K-12 education and financially precarious cities and counties is to enact fundamental reforms. And these reforms, despite the fact that each of them arouses relentless, heavily funded opposition from government worker unions, are utterly bipartisan in character. They are practical, they are fair, and they are not ideologically driven.

Education Reforms:

  • Faithfully implement the Vergara Ruling – abolish the union work rules that (1) grant teacher tenure well before new teachers can be properly trained and evaluated, (2) protect incompetent teachers from dismissal, and (3) favor seniority over merit when implementing workforce reductions.
  • Streamline permitting for charter schools. These independent enterprises allow far greater flexibility to teachers and principals, creating laboratories where new best practices can rapidly evolve. Poorly performing charter schools can be shut down, successful ones can be emulated.
  • Enable school choice, so parents can move their students out of bad schools. Start by aggressively promoting and supporting California’s 2010 Open Enrollment Act, that empowers any parent whose child attends one of the state’s 1,000 lowest performing schools to move them to the school of their choice.

Financial Sustainability Reforms:

  • Roll back defined benefit pension formulas to restore viable funding and protect taxpayers. Adopting “triggers” that prospectively lower pension benefit accruals for existing workers and suspend COLAs for retirees, will preserve the defined benefit. One more market downturn will make this choice unavoidable – the sooner this reform is accepted, the more moderate its impact.
  • Reform public employee compensation. The average total compensation for California’s state and local government workers (taking into account all employer paid benefits including retirement benefits and annual paid vacations/holidays) is now more than twice the median compensation for private sector workers. Typically, approximately 70% (or more) of local government budgets are for personnel costs. Public sector compensation needs to be frozen – or even reduced – until the private sector can catch up.
  • Modernize and streamline public agencies. Introduce flexibility to job descriptions and eliminate unnecessary positions. Upgrade and automate information systems.
  • Improve financial management and accountability. The public sector needs to adhere to the same accounting standards that govern the private sector. If anything, public sector reporting should be more standardized, and faster, than what is required in private industry – currently the opposite applies.
  • Eliminate exploitative financing mechanisms: Outlaw capital appreciation bonds, revenue anticipation bonds, and pension obligation bonds, for starters. Nearly all of the “creative” financing instruments being foisted onto relatively unsophisticated city councils are short-term solutions that create long-term financial nightmares.

There are many other fundamental reforms that could rescue California’s K-12 educational system and rescue California’s state and local finances. But the ones listed here would be a very good start. And while there is plenty of room for debate over the particulars of each of these proposed reforms, there is only one powerful interest group that vigorously opposes all of them – public sector unions.

The reality of California’s unacceptable educational results and insolvent cities and counties will compel concerned citizens of all political persuasions to examine these issues over the next several years. And in that process, the inherent conflict between public sector unions and the public interest will become increasingly obvious. To survive, public sector unions will have to accept reforms that challenge their agenda. They will have to accept meaningful pension and compensation reform. They will have to accept smaller, more efficient workforces. They will have to embrace individual accountability and reward individual merit in public education and throughout public agencies. They will have to abandon their symbiotic relationship with financial predators that pump cash into bloated, unionized public agencies on terms that are usurious to taxpayers.

To the extent public sector unions are not willing to attenuate their power and adapt their agenda to the public interest, their recalcitrance will invite a bipartisan fury from a betrayed people. Even in California.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

California's "Open Enrollment Act" Empowers Students to Transfer Out of Underperforming Schools

Have you ever wanted to know if your child is attending a chronically underperforming school?

Well, start spreading the word: the list is out. Due to a law I wrote while serving in the California Senate, the 2010 Open Enrollment Act identifies the 1,000 chronically underperforming schools in California and empowers parents of kids enrolled in these to be able to seek enrollment in any higher performing California public school. The Act is particularly important for the hundreds of thousands of students who are trapped in chronically failing schools – yet their own school officials fail to exert turnaround efforts.

I wrote the bill because year after year I continued to see unpublicized lists of schools identified as underperforming. Yet, nothing was ever done. Even worse, parents of kids attending these schools had no knowledge of their school’s status. Unless a parent is wealthy and can send their child to a private school, most parents are forced to stay in their government assigned school – even when state officials have identified it as a chronically underperforming school.

But what happens when some schools are nothing more than dropout factories and school officials dare not restructure the contracts of the adults employed in them? Where else do we use geographic assignment – ZIP code – in vital aspects of American life?

Racial restricted housing covenants were barred long ago, freeing us to buy homes in any neighborhood. It’s unthinkable that a “local” health department official would assign your child to a “local” dentist based on your address. Have you ever driven across town to worship at the church or temple of your choice – imagine if your ZIP code was checked at the entrance? As families, we can pack up the car or get on the bus and go to any park we choose for a Sunday outing. Imagine the controversy if officials barricaded the entrance, telling you that this was not your “local” park: admission denied!

Yet in our American education system, a government bureaucrat who does not know you or your child, each school year designates your child to a school based on five digits – your ZIP code – regardless if it’s been failing for years. Even when school bureaucrats know that a school to which a student is assigned is failing, kids, and unknowing parents, keep being assigned to them. Indeed, ZIP code is the new five degrees of separation that can influence whether a child today will be one of tomorrow’s doctors or drop outs, inventors or illiterates.

The just released “Romero” Open Enrollment List for the 2014-15 school year can be viewed at 1000schools.org. The new Foundation for Parent Empowerment will work with parents to teach them about the law. The current list identifies schools from 515 school districts – some with an Academic Performance Index as low as 374 (the state targeted goal is 800). Almost every Orange County school district has schools listed. Some schools, due to formulaic pressures, should be excluded; many are “repeat offenders” necessitating radical transformation.

Romero-2HOct2013

In writing the law, I didn’t just want to “name names.” But absent a spotlight on failing schools, too many have simply been abandoned. Compilation of the list is a revealing opportunity for Californians to begin to publicly identify chronically underperforming schools and finally exert pressure to use existing state and federal laws to transform them.

Automatic assignment by ZIP code is the complete absence of parental choice. Parents now have the choice: keep waiting for change, like the fictional characters Vladimir and Estragon wait endlessly and in vain for the mythical Godot, or they can empower themselves and begin to vote with their feet and enroll their child in a school of their choice. That’s parent power – and it’s now the law.

Gloria Romero is an education reformer from Los Angeles. Romero served in the California Legislature from 1998 to 2008, the last seven years as Senate majority leader. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission.

Announcing the Prosperity Forum

One of the overwhelming challenges facing fiscal conservatives is how to cut government spending without harming economic recovery. It may seem obvious that governments eventually have to stop relying on borrowing to finance their deficits, but eliminating government spending deficits can only partly rely on spending cuts. Economic growth is the other essential element.

To explore and catalog worthy prescriptions for economic growth, the California Policy Center has launched a new project, the California Prosperity Forum. We seek informed and constructive policy ideas and analysis from any source, guided by our core belief that prosperity and opportunity will return to California through a combination of common sense reforms in Sacramento, greater freedom for the private sector, and innovation in our public schools.

Opponents of austerity are not only concerned about the potentially negative impact of reduced government spending on the economy, but also the ability of individual government workers or beneficiaries of government entitlements to pay their bills. This concern is particularly acute in California, which has the highest overall cost of living in the United States. But the way to address this concern is not to abandon a measured reduction in excessive pay and benefits for government workers, but to simultaneously enact policies designed to lower the cost of living for all Californians.

To this end, another core belief that must inform any prosperity oriented policy forum is competition. To accelerate innovation and lower prices requires competition between businesses in a free market. California’s Silicon Valley coined the phrase “better, faster, cheaper,” to describe spectacular advances in information technology. But that phrase applies to innovation throughout history, describing how lowering the cost of living has continuously raised the standard of living for humanity.

Lowering the cost of living in California through competition requires dramatic shifts in policy priorities. For example, lowering the cost of energy requires responsible development of California’s massive shale oil and shale gas reserves. Lowering the cost of housing requires easing California’s draconian restrictions on land development. And lowering California’s overall cost of living also requires California to step back from having the highest tax rates of any state in the U.S. And to propel these reforms through California’s state and local governments will mean taking on powerful monopolies who benefit from high prices and minimal competition.

The theme of fostering competition to rejuvenate California’s economy applies to commerce, but applies equally to education. California’s former Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero has called the inadequate performance of public schools the civil rights issue of our time. Educational outcomes have been consistently found to improve when students and their parents have alternatives. When students can opt-out of attending a failed school, this not only immediately benefits those students, but impels the failed school to try new solutions and make tough decisions to improve. Needless to say, improved education translates into a more employable workforce.

Critics of free-market policies often point to the Wall Street meltdown of 2008 and the growing wealth of the so-called “one-percent” as an indictment of free market capitalism. But they are mingling together what are two very distinct versions of capitalism. Productive capitalism, the ecosystem of corporations, entrepreneurs, investors and inventors who compete and collaborate to create affordable products and services that improve our lives, is the engine that has produced virtually all of the material amenities we enjoy today and take for granted. Speculative capitalism – for want of a better term – is a globalized casino of high-frequency trading and market manipulation that produces nothing. In its currently grossly overbuilt iteration, speculative capitalism is an economic parasite. It may be comforting to equate productive capitalism with speculative capitalism, but they are vastly different.

Successfully advancing a prosperity policy agenda requires championing productive capitalist efforts. It requires unlocking California’s vast reserves of energy and land, rescuing our public schools, and restoring California as a business-friendly state. But a prosperity policy agenda also requires opposing the monopolistic financial interests who make billions issuing bonds to finance state and local government deficits. It requires opposing the financial interests who make billions in commissions and management fees to collect and invest unsustainable public sector pension funds.

Austerity should appeal to any fiscally responsible citizen as tough, necessary medicine. But prosperity is the other side of the coin. It deserves equal if not greater attention from anyone determined to see California recover its historic reputation as a land of great opportunity and promise. To that end, we offer the California Prosperity Forum.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

Will Silicon Valley’s Elite Take On Public Sector Unions?

The San Francisco Bay Area is probably the most liberal in America. Democrats are typically favored over Republicans in elections by an 40 to 50 percent margins. The SF Bay is also perhaps the wealthiest region in America, with a GDP of over $500 billion, and more than 10% of the nation’s billionaires. Not least, as the global center of information technology, attracting top talent from around the world, the SF Bay region probably has one of the smartest populations in America.

So when are they going to take on their public sector unions?

One of the Silicon Valley’s newest billionaires is Mark Zuckerberg, who burnished his liberal credentials a few years ago by hosting President Obama at a town-hall meeting at Facebook headquarters. But earlier this year Zuckerberg committed to raising funds for embattled New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has vaulted to the national stage because of his refusal to bow to the demands of public sector unions.

Could it be that public sector union reform is a bipartisan issue? A lot of Democrats agree with that thought, mostly in private, but they aren’t billionaires, and they aren’t raising funds for Gov. Christie.

It’s important to reflect on what this could represent, because the Silicon Valley has been relatively absent from politics until recent years. As a source for political fundraising, it is probably the biggest ATM machine in the nation, but in terms of aggressively lobbying to influence policy in California, its been punching way under its weight. At the risk of being presumptuous, one might argue the two primary reasons the Silicon Valley leadership are almost all Democrats is because they are social liberals, and because they have never encountered serious attempts at union organizing at their companies. But unions are alive and well in the Silicon Valley, in the public sector, and the high-tech billionaires are starting to take notice.

The first example of this is public education, where the teachers unions exercise veto power over virtually any innovations affecting education policy in California. This has already led to clashes between teachers unions and members of the business community, nearly all of them faithful Democrats, who want a better trained workforce.

The second example is more recent, and concerns the troubled finances of local governments. Public sector unions have been unrelenting in their push for higher tax revenues to sustain services, which in turn is calling attention to the pay and benefits of unionized civil servants. Here are calculations from a recent California Public Policy Center study showing the median total compensation for San Jose city employees, using detailed data provided by their payroll department:

San Jose police officer, 2011 median total compensation = $189,411
San Jose firefighter, 2011 median total compensation = $205,557
San Jose other city employees, 2011 median total compensation = $120,092

By contrast, the average 2010 household income in San Jose was $76,495.

A veteran firefighter who (taking into account vacation) works two 24 hour shifts per week before overtime, and makes over $200,000 per year in total annual compensation, may not seem extraordinarily well compensated to a billionaire. But to a self-employed veteran of Silicon Valley start-ups, who enjoys no job security, no pension, struggles to maintain continuity of health insurance, and pays (including “special assessments”) property taxes at a rate of 1.5% on homes that cost over $500 per square foot, it is unfair, extravagant, expensive overkill.

The billionaire business leaders of Silicon Valley are smart enough to know it is economically impossible to pay every skilled worker total compensation averaging between $150,000 and $200,000 per year. And the information technology industry is itself living testimony to the power of innovation to lower the cost of living. The irony is real; if public sector employees made less, and if their unions didn’t ceaselessly lobby for inefficient work rules designed to increase headcount, they could afford to make less. Implementing measures to lower the cost of living through increased private sector competition and more efficient government is the solution – and a big part of doing this requires confronting public sector unions.

Mark Zukerberg parlayed world-class talent, a brilliant vision, hard work and fortuitous timing to build one of the most spectacular success stories the Silicon Valley has ever seen. But for every start-up entrepreneur and the employees who join them to achieve such glory, there are thousands more whose ventures languish or fail. This is the harsh but necessary essence of Silicon Valley culture, the rich innovation ecosystem that the world tries to emulate.

For Silicon Valley’s wealthiest citizens not to confront the public sector unions who control our cities and counties, perpetually raising taxes to sustain themselves, is to turn their backs on the vast majority of workers who helped get them to where they are today.

Forming a coalition to reform public sector unions will not be easy. In California’s current political landscape, consultants who take on anti-union campaigns risk being blacklisted. Donors risk harassment at their homes and businesses. Companies risk being targeted with a “corporate campaign,” where the unions launch a multi-pronged attack directed at employees, shareholders, clients, vendors, and the media. In private meetings, union operatives openly threaten the leadership of business associations to follow their agenda. But even California’s all powerful public employee unions cannot withstand a sustained and determined reform effort led by Silicon Valley’s elite.

For Democrats, advocating for union reform is problematic. Unions provide much of their financial support, even in the wealthy, Democratic Silicon Valley. But reform is inevitable because without it, schools will continue to deliver sub-optimal results and more cities and counties will go bankrupt. Democrats are destined to be as bitterly divided over the public sector union question as Republicans currently are over social issues.

Along with declaring his support for Gov. Christie, Zuckerberg has reportedly formed a political organization to promote education reform, immigration reform, increased spending on research, and economic growth. He may wish to consider adding to his political list public sector compensation reform, and public sector union reform. It is an innately bipartisan imperative on which liberals and conservatives alike may find common cause.

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UnionWatch.org is edited by Ed Ring, who can be reached at editor@unionwatch.org

Battleground Louisiana: Jindal vs. the Teachers’ Unions

Summary:   In Louisiana, a tough and savvy governor has succeeded in enacting an impressive package of school reforms. The teachers’ unions are horrified and using every legal trick to stop changes. But citizens—and legislators from both parties—are pleased. Could this portend similar reforms in other states?

The battle for education reform in Louisiana has major implications both for the future of the nation’s schools and for the future of American politics. Reform legislation pushed through the state’s legislature by Gov. Bobby Jindal promises to remake Louisiana’s educational system, freeing schools from the chains of bureaucracy, corruption, and union dominance. First, though, the Jindal measures must survive a series of union-backed legal challenges. (More on that later.)

How significant are the reforms?

  • The Economist noted that Jindal’s “bold plan weakens teacher tenure, and therefore the teachers’ unions, while greatly expanding the use of school vouchers and the reach of charter schools.”
  • Education Week reported: “Over the objections of teachers’ unions and many Democrats, Louisiana’s Republican governor and GOP-controlled legislature have crafted one of the most exhaustive education overhauls of any state in the country, through measures that will dramatically expand families’ access to public money to cover the costs of both private school tuition and individual courses offered by a menu of providers.”
  • The Wall Street Journal pointed out that, under the reforms, parents “can keep their children in their local public school, but they can also try to get Johnny into a more demanding charter school, or a virtual school, or into special language or career-training courses, among other options…. Louisiana is also making life easier for charter schools, with new authorizing boards, a fast-track for high-performing networks, and access to facilities equal to that of traditional public schools. The new laws seek to strengthen superintendents and principals over local school boards, which are bastions of bureaucratic and union intransigence.”

Future president?

Jindal, who recently became head of the Republican Governors Association, is at or near the top of most lists of future GOP presidential prospects. If he wants to run for president, he has lots of time: In 2040, he’ll still be younger than President Reagan was when he was elected. But if he ever runs, Jindal’s chances for the Oval Office depend to a great degree on his performance as governor, especially his record in improving Louisiana’s schools.

His main selling point as a possible president is his image as an überwonk—someone whose knowledge and understanding of politics, public policy, and government operations is far beyond that of most mortal politicians. A critical goal for Jindal is to combine that image with real achievements in standing up to, and beating, powerful anti-reform forces such as the teachers’ unions.

A Rhodes Scholar and the son of immigrants from India, Jindal became head of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals in 1993 at age 25. He has served as executive director of a national commission on education reform, as president of the University of Louisiana system, and as an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. After losing the governor’s race in 2003 (when Democrats played the “race card”), he ran for and was elected to Congress. He ran for governor again in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when the people of Louisiana—a state known for bribery, vote fraud, and other forms of political corruption—were eager for reform-minded, competent leadership. Jindal won the governorship in 2007, defeating his closest opponent 54% to 17%. When he ran for re-election in 2011, he defeated his closest opponent 66% to 18%. Prior to Jindal, only three Republicans had been elected governor of Louisiana in 125 years.

In a manner unusually savvy for Republicans, Jindal used his political capital to have his allies elected to key offices and moved them into critical positions in the state legislature. Largely due to the governor, Republicans now control both houses of the legislature and all seven nonfederal statewide offices. Jindal campaigned to get reformers on the state school board, and they won 10 of the 11 seats.

A mess, and a plan to fix it

The Governor’s political success made his reforms possible, but what made them necessary was the sorry state of Louisiana schools. According to Blueprint Louisiana, a nonprofit group based in Baton Rouge that prioritizes “student success over traditional practices,” Louisiana was ranked 48th of 50 states for K-12 student achievement in 2011, with one-third of the state’s students performing below grade level and 44% of schools classified as failing. Louisiana ranked last in the number of fourth graders who read proficiently and had the highest drop-out rate in the country.

In New Orleans before Katrina, it was so bad that, in one school, the 2003 valedictorian—the valedictorian—failed the state’s high school exit exam (the test required before graduation) five times and, on the ACT, placed in the first percentile, that is, at the absolute bottom. Serious reform efforts actually began on a small scale that year, when the Louisiana legislature created the Recovery School District (RSD) to take over failing schools. Reform accelerated after Katrina in 2005, when most of the city’s schools were under water and the city was largely depopulated. The RSD was then expanded throughout the city, and student choice was greatly expanded.

Today, most public-school students in New Orleans attend charter schools, and test scores and graduation rates are rising.

About 1,800 students in New Orleans were taking advantage of the program when Jindal proposed expanding it vastly to cover as many as 380,000 students, or some 54% of the state’s student population.

That proposal covers students who attend a school with a low grade (C, D, or F, about 72% of state schools) and whose family income does not exceed 250% of the official poverty line (some $58,000 for a family of four). These students would be eligible for a voucher to attend a nonpublic school. The state currently spends between $8,500 and $12,000 a year on each public school pupil, depending on how you count, while private and parochial school tuition is usually much less. Thus, voucher supporters argue, the public schools would end up with more money on a per-pupil basis than they now enjoy. The average “scholarship,” as the vouchers are called, is projected at $5,300.

Another provision of the reform plan allows students in low-performing schools to use a portion of the voucher for individual courses at colleges, or for technical or vocational programs, or for online courses, or for a high-performing public school.

Although a majority of students statewide may be eligible for the voucher program, the number who would actually take advantage of it would be smaller, of course. Implementing such reforms takes time, including the time necessary to expand the number of seats in charter, private, and parochial schools. By last September, state officials said 4,944 students had taken advantage of the newly expanded voucher program. (About 10,000 applied, but the number of available seats was limited.) Of those who took advantage, some 14% came from schools graded C, 69% from schools graded D, and 17% from schools that were officially failing (grade F). Some 125 private and parochial schools participated. Notably, one public school in Saint Landry Parish (Louisiana calls its counties “parishes”) was so high-performing that 20 students used their vouchers there.

Of the students initially benefitting, 86% were classified by the government as African-American. When teachers’ unions filed a lawsuit to overturn the reforms on technical grounds that involved voting procedures in the state legislature,

Eric Lewis, state director of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, said such suits are “just another tool” in the unions’ “arsenal” against reform.

Freedman against the status  quo

The late Milton Friedman, a Nobel prize-winning economist who died in 2006, was the father of the school voucher movement, promoting the idea as far back as the 1950s. Today, the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, named in honor of Milton and his wife and collaborator Rose, fights America’s educational status quo, calling it immoral for sticking the poorest kids from the worst neighborhoods in the worst schools. “It is immoral that the quality of schooling is based on the value and location of your home,” the Foundation declares. “School choice gives parents the freedom to choose a school based on its quality and their child’s needs, not their home address.” Last year the Foundation estimated that, across the country, more than 212,000 students were using vouchers or tax-funded scholarships in 30 such programs. So Jindal’s voucher proposal is part of a nationwide trend.

But the Jindal reforms go far beyond vouchers. One aspect that hits unions directly is the reform of tenure, the system that prevents teachers from being fired except under extraordinary circumstances. Previously, teachers in Louisiana received this protection—they “earned tenure”—after just three years in the classroom. Under the reforms, teachers would receive tenure only after being rated as “highly effective” for five years in a six-year period, while teachers rated as “ineffective” would lose tenure and be required to re-earn it. (One estimate is that roughly 10% of teachers would fall into the “ineffective” category, which would be based in part on students’ test scores.) Unions oppose the use of test scores to measure teachers’ effectiveness. Instead, they favor a system of peer review, which critics call a “popularity contest” that favors union members.

Patrick Brennan of the National Review Institute observes that “after just three years of their contract being renewed by their school district, teachers are made almost entirely immune from firing. There is no plausible justification for any teacher tenure at all; the policy is just the seigniorage teachers’ unions have extracted with the strength of collective bargaining combined with affection for public education.”

Jindal’s reforms would also scrap the statewide salary schedule. Teachers would continue to be paid at their current levels, but future raises would be tied to decisions by principals and other officials. The current system of last-hired-first-fired, which often forces newer and better teachers to be the first to go in layoffs, would be scrapped. Another reform would allow a majority of the parents at a failing school to vote to trigger a state takeover of that school.

Charter schools would also be easier to expand under the reforms. Various groups, including universities and nonprofits with an “educational mission,” would be able to authorize new charter schools, which are public schools that are autonomous from state and local school boards. The state board of education could authorize up to five authorizers in each of the state’s eight regional labor markets.

Another section of the reforms removes the requirement that 75% of teachers at a charter school be “certified”—that is, be certified as qualified to teach by the education establishment. Certification provisions often restrict the quality of teachers. For example, certification provisions often reward teachers just for taking college courses in education that amount to little more than exposure to left-wing propaganda, while people who are highly qualified in a particular subject are denied the opportunity to teach. (Albert Einstein would not have been “certified” to teach physics to high schoolers.)

Teachers’ unions claim certification ensures that teachers know what they’re doing in the classroom, but plenty of teachers who have taken education courses seem unable to raise students’ performance.

Another provision in the plan increases the use of online education, which gives students access to some of the best teachers in the world via the Internet. That’s a twenty-first-century idea that teachers’ unions find particularly galling.

Union reaction

The unions reacted predictably to the Jindal proposals. One day, as the legislature considered the measures, an estimated 4,000 teachers came to the state Capitol in Baton Rouge to protest. About 750 were allowed in the building, and some of those were allowed into the committee hearings, while others watched the proceedings from other rooms hooked up with video. Outside the Capitol, protesters accused the Governor of conducting a “war against teachers” and held a Cajun-style “funeral for education reform” that a commentator called “raucous.”

Four school systems were forced to shut down during the protests because so many of their teachers took the day off. Most of the missing teachers claimed personal days rather than sick days. Nevertheless, in a sign that Baton Rouge Republicans lack the timidity associated with Washington, D.C. Republicans, one of the legislative committees passed a rule that required teachers testifying before the committee to declare whether they were using sick leave. Simply asking the question served to highlight the fact that the teachers were abandoning their jobs for the day. An anti-reform state representative called this transparency rule “intimidation” and “an attempt to embarrass people.”

Another sign of the determination of Jindal and his allies: the howls of protest that teachers’ unions made over the speed with which reforms were enacted. For example, the state’s House Education Committee approved the charter/voucher measure after a marathon 11-hour hearing on the third day of the legislature’s almost-three-month session. The entire package was signed into law just three months after it was proposed. “Educators couldn’t help but walk away feeling blindsided by the Governor’s intense rush to pass his package,” complained Joyce Haynes, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators. Yet in fact the measures were so popular that, in four separate votes, a quarter to a half of Democrats voted aye, and the reforms passed overwhelmingly.

Union officials treated reformers with disdain. For example, a top union official, Dr. Michael Walker-Jones, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Educators (LAE), suggested that pro-reform groups such as the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) and the Council for a Better Louisiana (CABL) had no business getting involved in the education issue. “I don’t see anyone with LABI or CABL with the experience to accurately gauge the work teachers do in the classroom. I would never put myself up as someone who understands the complexities of business. Number One, schools are not a business, Number Two, classrooms are not a business, and Number Three, we are trained professionals in what we do. They can sit down with us anytime they are interested in learning how a classroom works.” (Perhaps Walker-Jones is overly modest regarding his group’s understanding of business complexity. Its most recently available tax return, for 2010, puts the salary of its president at $137,401 and its executive director at $125,480, with $2.4 million out of the LAE’s $3.8 million gross receipts spent on salaries.)

In their anger at Jindal and his allies, teachers’ unions pledged to emulate unions in Wisconsin that sought to recall Governor Scott Walker in retaliation for his reforms. A campaign was launched to recall Jindal and House Speaker Chuck Kleckley.

The Jindal recall would have required more than 950,000 petition signatures statewide, equivalent to one-third of registered voters and collected within a 180-day period, while Kleckley could have been recalled with approximately 13,000 petition signatures from his House district. The recall campaigns featured websites, Facebook sites, yard signs, T-shirts, and door-to-door campaigning. But the state Republican Party fought back, running thousands of dollars in TV ads in support of Kleckley (who, because of the small size of his district, was seen as a more likely recall victim than Jindal).

Both recall attempts failed. Supporters of the recall effort refused to file the petitions or otherwise release them to the public; so it’s not known how many signatures they obtained. Critics said they failed so badly that the unions didn’t want to embarrass themselves by releasing the signatures, but the campaign’s spokesmen said, “It was determined that there is no need to expose anyone to the ugliness of possible retribution from the governor’s office for having signed the recall petitions.”

For his part, Jindal called teachers’ unions “Stone Age” and said, “Were it not for the teachers’ union’s Herculean efforts, every low-income family would probably have the opportunity to enroll their child in a better-performing school.”

As much as unions seethed over the passage of reform, supporters of better education were jubilant. Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, called the reforms “both politically savvy and good public policy” and important both “as an individual event and part of a trend.”

The pro-reform website Dropout Nation noted that “the passage of the plan, along with one that would allow for the opening of more charter schools, is another reminder of the important shift that is happening, not only within Louisiana’s public education system, but throughout American public education as a whole. Families once relegated to the sidelines are taking more-powerful roles in shaping education decision-making. It’s past time for this to happen. It is absolutely immoral and unacceptable to deny families, especially those from the poor and minority households, the ability to reshape education for their kids and keep them out of the worst education in this nation has to offer.” The education reform organization Students First ranked Louisiana first in the nation “for policies that prioritize the interests of children.”

The Friedman Foundation, along with Louisiana’s Pelican Institute for Public Policy, conducted a poll which indicated that over 60% of Louisiana voters favored the Jindal reforms. Other polls found similar results.

Judicial roadblocks

Louisiana’s two major teachers’ unions (the LAE and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers or LFT), along with many of their local affiliates and 63 local school boards, have filed lawsuits to block the reforms. In November, U.S. District Judge Ivan Lemelle ruled that the voucher program in Tangipahoa Parish was unconstitutional because it interfered with the school district’s ability to comply with a desegregation order. Brian Blackwell, a lawyer representing the LAE, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “I think it’s hard for the local school system … to plan equal school ratios by race [if] they don’t know whether next year those kids are going to be in voucher schools or not.” In other words, the program is illegal because it would complicate the government’s efforts to practice racism.

Judge Lemelle issued an injunction to stop the program. But in January the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the state to continue, on the ground that the state is likely to win its appeal of Lemelle’s ruling. Meanwhile, a state judge, Tim Kelley, declared in December that the program violates the state constitution, mainly because of its funding mechanism. Judge Kelley allowed the program to continue while the case is on appeal, and even if the state loses the appeal, it appears the legislature will be able to fix the problem by changing the way the program is funded.

Still, Jindal reacted angrily. “Today’s ruling is wrong-headed and a travesty for parents across Louisiana who want nothing more than for their children to have an equal opportunity at receiving a great education. That opportunity is a chance that every child deserves, and we will continue the fight to give it to them. The opinion sadly ignores the rights of families who do not have the means necessary to escape failing schools. On behalf of the citizens that cast their votes for reform, the parents who want more choices, and the kids who deserve a chance, we will appeal today’s decision, and I’m confident we will prevail.”

Jindal added:

“At first they tried to challenge us at the ballot box by voting for status quo candidates for the state board of education, but Louisianians voted for reform candidates.

Then they tried in the Legislature, but Democrats and Republicans voted for reform legislation. They tried recalling the reformers and failed. They even said that poor parents “have no clue” how to choose a school for their children. And now they are making a last-ditch effort to stifle our reforms in court. We expect reform to prevail again in court this week.

The opponents of reform want to go backwards. They want to go back to the days of more schools failing and they want to disenfranchise the thousands of students who are already taking advantage of our reforms to get a chance at a great education. To take from students an opportunity they so badly need, and thoroughly deserve, would certainly be unjust.”

U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D), who is up for reelection next year and whose brother is the mayor of New Orleans, expressed opposition to the reforms and support for the judge. “It is no surprise that State District Judge Tim Kelley today ruled the unnecessarily aggressive and overreaching statewide voucher program unconstitutional,” Landrieu said. “A strategic use of state-funded vouchers could be appropriate, but this diversion of public education dollars was a step too far and diminishes resources for meaningful reform efforts already underway at the local level.”

Eric Lewis of the Louisiana Black Alliance for Educational Opportunities disagreed. “Sadly,” he said, “the court’s ruling represents a major loss, not only for the parents and their children, but for our community as a whole. When our children are denied a quality education, our entire community suffers.”

In an Associated Press story, Melinda Deslatte reported: “Tirany Howard, who has three children enrolled in a Baton Rouge private school through the voucher program, said she was disappointed by the judge’s ruling but was trying to remain hopeful that his decision will be overturned…. Howard said she couldn’t afford to send her children to Hosanna Christian Academy without assistance. Without the state covering tuition, she said her children would end up in a public school deemed failing by the state.”

The state’s high court is scheduled to hear the case March 19. Either way, its ruling will profoundly affect not only the lives of thousands Louisiana families, but also millions of other American children who could be rescued from failing schools if powerful school reforms continue to gain momentum across the land.

Sidebar:  Can Louisiana teachers’ unions stay relevant?

With the Louisiana legislature set to convene again in a few weeks, both of the teachers’ unions remain a potent force. The Louisiana Federation of Teachers’ PAC has 12,000 members; the Louisiana Association of Educators PAC, 15,500, according to documents filed with the Louisiana Board of Ethics.

The failed recall effort and the unions’ weakness (at least at the legislative level) in stopping education reform raise questions about the unions’ real level of support. Critics note that, of the state’s 50,000 teachers, some 7,000 belong to the non-union association, Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana. That’s a remarkable number for a counter-union group.

And last November, voters in all New Orleans-area parishes and East Baton Rouge Parish overwhelmingly supported a measure holding school board members to three consecutive terms. This means unions will have to vie for control of school boards every 12 years instead of maintaining control indefinitely.

But the real coup de grâce may come in the form of payroll protection. Opinion polls show that rank-and-file teachers do not support the union leadership’s liberal political agenda. Yet current Louisiana law allows public school officials to automatically deduct worker dues for political purposes. Two payroll protection bills that were introduced last year are expected to be re-introduced in April. One would prohibit “political uses of public payroll withholdings and deductions” from public employees’ paychecks, while the other would prevent organizations with a history of political activism from receiving funds from public employees. An LAE official called the bills “an attempt to shut down the voice of public employees totally.”

Sidebar:  The “wall of separation” concept vs. the First Amendment

Religion also plays a role in the debate over the Jindal reforms. When he ran for governor in 2007, Jindal, a Catholic convert from Hinduism, was attacked in Democratic Party ads as “anti-Protestant.” When, as governor, he proposed school vouchers that would enable students to attend parochial schools under certain circumstances, anti-Catholic sentiments were raised again, often couched in terms of “separation of church and state.”

Rachel Tabachnick, an anti-“Religious Right” blogger, wrote that voucher programs such as Jindal’s “drain tax dollars from public into private schools, including into religious schools with fundamentalist curricula.” Some opponents of traditional Christian beliefs complain that church schools participating in the program will teach skepticism or opposition to certain ideas, including the notion that the New Deal saved the country from the Great Depression, the belief that sexual orientation is set before birth, and theories related to evolutionary biology. The magazine of Americans United for Separation of Church and State complained that “Catholic schools are expected to be the main beneficiaries of the voucher program. Louisiana has a long tradition of Catholic education, although fundamentalist Protestant academies are popular in some areas.”

On the other hand, State Rep. Valarie Hodges (R-East Baton Rouge) came to regret her vote for the reforms because, she said, the Jindal program might end up funding Islamic schools. “I actually support funding for teaching the fundamentals of America’s Founding Fathers’ religion, which is Christianity, in public schools or private schools,” Hodges told the Livingston Parish News. “I liked the idea of giving parents the option of sending their children to a public school or a Christian school.” She said she had “mistakenly assumed that ‘religious’ meant ‘Christian.’”

The idea of a “wall of separation between church and state” was initially invoked against anti-slavery preachers, and was used later to justify an anti-Catholic approach to the law—most famously by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in the 1947 Everson case. Justice Black, who had been a Kladd, a Ku Klux Klan initiation leader, knew well that the Klan oath pledged support for the “eternal separation of church and state.”

In contrast to the idea of a “wall,” the U.S. Constitution forbids Congress to make any law “respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, the Constitution requires government neutrality between religions, not a impenetrable barrier that would prohibit government aid to students who may or may not choose to attend religious schools. That is just what the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 2002 when it ruled in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris that an Ohio voucher program could permit students to choose religious schools.

Dr. Steven J. Allen (JD, PhD) is editor of Labor Watch. This article originally appeared on the website “LaborWatch,” a project of the Capital Research Center, and is republished here with permission from the author.

Bipartisan Solutions For California

When Governor Jerry Brown, back in the 1970′s, suggested that California should have its own aerospace program, he was dubbed “Governor Moonbeam,” and the moniker has stuck to this day. That’s too bad, because at the time Gov. Brown made that statement, California had the most robust aerospace infrastructure in the U.S. The nexus of companies in Los Angeles – Northrop, Hughes, Rockwell, TRW, plus the branches of dozens of others – the launch complex at Vandenberg, the vast resources of land in the Mojave including Edwards AFB – made California a natural location to further America’s space efforts.

Today half of the companies noted above have been driven out of California by over-regulation, and instead of talking about mining the asteroids for platinum, Jerry Brown is talking about bullet trains to nowhere. Before you laugh at the Gov. Moonbeam’s original idea, consider California-based entrepreneur Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX. This private aerospace company, which is already supplying launch vehicles to NASA, is now rolling out their “Falcon Heavy,” the largest launch vehicle since the Saturn V moon rocket.

The asteroids will be explored and mined by robotic spacecraft within a few decades. And much of the ingenuity and entrepreneurship, risk capital, and high technology will be coming from California. Imagine if California’s dawning recapture of the lead in aerospace technology, following her existing lead in biotech and info-tech, were encouraged by California’s laws and regulations instead of occurring in spite of them?

There are two steps towards putting California back on track. Both relate to public policy: One, reform California’s government and make it more business friendly, two, set a government project agenda that emphasizes infrastructure over pay and benefits for government workers. These steps will lower the cost of living for all California residents.

It would be an ironic blessing if California’s bloated, dysfunctional state and local governments were to financially implode sooner than anywhere else in the U.S., because it would mean Californians would be the first to come out recovered on the other side. It will be a painful transition, but manageable if investments into projects that lower the cost of living are made at the same time as austerity measures are imposed on government workers and recipients of government entitlements. Here are solutions for California:

(1) Balance State and Local Government Budgets:

(a) Lower the wages of all state and local government workers by 20% of whatever amount they make in excess of $50,000 per year. Lower the wages of all state and local government workers by 50% of whatever amount they make in excess of $100,000 per year. Include in “wages” ALL forms of compensation.

(b) Impose special tax assessments on state and local government pensions in the amount of 50% of all pension payments in excess of $60,000 per year and 75% of all pension payments in excess of $100,000 per year.

(c) Require 75% of all school employees to be teachers in a classroom. Raise average class size to 30 students per classroom by abandoning the failed policy of “mainstreaming” virtually all students, and by separating students into classes based on their academic performance.

(d) Faithfully implement the welfare and entitlement policies already adopted by most other states during the Clinton administration.

(2) Change the Rules in Sacramento:

(a) Implement fundamental curbs on the rights of public sector unions, including:  Grant all public sector workers the right to opt-out of union membership and payment of any union dues including agency fees. Prohibit government payroll departments from collecting union dues. Allow all public sector employees to negotiate their own wages and benefits and not be bound by collective bargaining terms if they wish. Prohibit public sector unions from negotiating over long term benefits, and require all current wage and benefit agreements to expire at the end of the term for the elected officials who approved the agreements. Prohibit public sector unions from engaging in political activity of any kind.

(b) Discontinue the planned “CO2 auctions,” which are nothing more than a way to redistribute money from middle class ratepayers to bankers, phony green entrepreneurs, and public sector payroll departments. Repeal AB32. Crucially, lift the crippling burden of land use regulations that keep the prices of homes and commercial property ridiculously high in California.

(c) Revisit all business-friendly recommendations made by business associations such as the bipartisan California Chamber of Commerce. This would not include compromise positions in support of public sector unions and crony capitalist environmental regulations. This would include banning mandatory project labor agreements or requiring union only contractors on government funded projects.

(3) Use government surpluses to engage in public works, and streamline permitting for private infrastructure investments, that LOWER the cost of living for everyone:

(a) Rebuild California’s aqueducts and develop additional aquifer and surface storage for runoff harvesting. Build desalination plants on the southern California coast. Upgrade existing dams and pumping stations. Permit farmers to contract with California’s urban water districts to sell their water allocations. Create water abundance and make water cheap.

(b) Build new power stations. Whether this is a joint project with Nevada to establish nuclear power stations in the vicinity of Yucca Mountain, or building new natural gas fired power plants, the immediate establishment of an additional 20%+ of generating capacity in California would allow a lowering of utility rates and make California a net exporter of electricity.

(c) Enable development of offshore oil and gas using slant drilling from land. It is no longer necessary to develop offshore drilling rigs to extract energy reserves. There are cost-effective ways to bring this energy onshore without the risk of an oil spill from an offshore platform.

(d) Enable development of natural gas reserves in California.

(e) Enable development of mines and quarries in California.

(f) Build additional pipeline capacity into California to import and export natural gas to and from elsewhere in North America.

(g) Permit development of a liquid natural gas terminal at least 10 miles off the California coast. Get California onto the global LNG grid to import and export natural gas and further diversify sources of energy and income. Create energy abundance and make energy cheap.

(h) Upgrade existing roads, bridges, and freeways. Begin working on “smart lanes” that will facilitate cars driving on autopilot.

(i) Instead of developing a bullet train – something that might be worth experimenting with once everything else on this list is done and Californians have money to burn – upgrade California’s existing freight and passenger rail infrastructure. When practical, integrate passenger and freight service on common rail corridors in large cities where high population densities make passenger rail economically viable. Complete a passenger rail link from Bakersfield to Los Angeles. Increase the speed of intercity passenger rail to 100+ MPH, which can be done on upgraded but already existing track.

Implementing policies designed to lower the cost of living is a perilous undertaking. Because it involves increasing the supply of all basic commodities and services including taxes, housing, energy, water and transportation, it lowers profits and can contribute to a deflationary economy. But by lowering the cost of living, despite the fewer dollars earned by our public sector workers, or by our private sector workers employed by corporations competing in the global economy, the overall standard of living may actually improve.

The solution for California is to develop infrastructure to lower the cost of living at the same time as deregulation is encouraging economic growth. Because California enjoys so many gifts – natural resources of staggering abundance and diversity, and an economy that is the technological leader in the world – the solutions described here, though painful, will ensure California survives and thrives during what are sure to be challenging years ahead.

During the 21st century there are two competing models of economic growth. The path we’re on involves artificially inflating the prices of all basic commodities. Staying on this path will reduce global competition, empower entrenched global elites, and consolidate the power of public sector unions, monopolistic corporations, and global bankers. Economic growth will be slow, and in terms of genuine productivity, it will be an anti-competitive age of control by the few over the many, and a sad utilization of the great technological advances we have seen in recent decades.

The alternative economic model for California is to adopt policies that dismantle monopolies, nurture competition, and encourage new development of land and resources. If costs for basic commodities are lowered instead of raised, capital is released to finance completely new industries, from space commercialization and development to life-extension and other fundamental advances in medicine. This will cause rapid and sustainable economic growth, unprecedented per-capita prosperity, even faster technological advancement, and a renewed golden age.

Povertism

A word that is not in the dictionary but should be, “povertism” aptly describes the philosophy of the “povertists,” aka the “poverty is destiny” crowd.

It is claimed by many that poverty leads to a myriad of personal and social ills. The regnant theme of these poverty cultists is that until we eradicate poverty, unemployment, family dissolution and general ignorance will continue to be a problem. As with any myth, it gains currency because it sounds good.

But a peek below the surface demonstrates that that this belief is just plain wrong. If poverty causes crime and divorce, the Great Depression – the most devastating economic disaster this country has faced – would have seen an upsurge in lawlessness and family break-ups. But in reality, crime and divorce rates went down. In fact, the 1920s – a boom time in America – saw much higher crime rates than the 1930s, a decade when many families fell into abject poverty. And even during the latest recession, many sociologists predicted an uptick in crime, but in fact crime rates actually went down.

Could the opposite be true? Is it possible that poverty is not a cause, but rather a result of crime and family instability? Yes. High crime in a given area chases businesses and jobs away, which in turn leads to an impoverished neighborhood.

In the same vein, government largess, via welfare, has made things worse for children. For decades now, the povertists have contributed to the destabilization of families by incentivizing women not to marry which greatly increases the likelihood of poverty. As economist Walter Williams has pointed out, “The welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn’t do. . . . And that is to destroy the black family.”

When we get to the subject of education, the povertists are light years from reality. The teacher union elites and their fellow travelers – poverty pimps at heart – are relentless in banging the povertism drum. They believe that poverty could be eradicated by pouring money into early childhood education and other sound-good, yet self-serving and failed schemes. “No Education Reform Without Tackling Poverty, Experts Say,” an article on the National Education Association website, typical of the mentality, claims that cuts in education spending will doom many-a-child to a life of poverty. (Never mind that education spending is at an all time high!)

Using an Education Week exchange with former teacher Anthony Cody and the Gates Foundation as his focus, edu-pundit RiShawn Biddle eloquently lays waste to the povertist argument. Several examples of Biddle’s wisdom on the subject:

As with so many traditionalists, Cody would rather ignore the fact that reformers actually do talk plenty about addressing poverty, just not in the manner that fits his impoverished worldview on the role education plays in addressing those issues. He also ignores the reality that the education spending has continued to increase for the past five decades, and that much of the troubles with American public education has little do with money than with the fact that so much school funding is trapped by practices such as degree- and seniority-based pay scales for teachers that have no correlation with improving student achievement. But those are matters for a later day. Why? Because Cody’s puts on full displays the problems of the poverty mythmaking in which he and other traditionalists engage.

…the biggest problem with Cody’s piece lies with its rather unjustified contention that anti-poverty programs are the long-term solutions for fighting poverty. One only needs to look at the history of government-run anti-poverty efforts, and pay attention to today’s knowledge-based economy, to understand why this version of the Poverty Myth of Education has no standing.

If anything, many of the anti-poverty programs (including welfare) has helped foster what Leon Dash would call the pestilences of gang warfare, drug dealing and unwed motherhood that have plagued Black America and Latino communities. Federal welfare rules barring married women from receiving benefits, for example, is one reason why marriage among poor blacks has gone from being the norm to being extraordinarily rare since the 1950s — and why 70 percent of black children are born out of wedlock.

But anti-poverty programs and quality-of-life efforts aren’t going to address the reality that 1.4 million fourth-graders who are functionally illiterate are likely to drop out in eight years. More importantly, we cannot ignore the consequences of American public education’s failures on the very communities at which its schools are the center of the lives of the children who live in them. This can only be addressed by overhauling how (we) educate all children — especially our poorest. They deserve better than last-class schools.

The bottom line here is that the government needs to stop wasting taxpayer dollars by throwing money at poverty. In the world of public education, we have seen a tripling of edu-dollars over the last 40 years and have nothing to show for it. There is an obvious (although politically difficult) solution to our education problem, which Biddle addresses.

…Overhauling American public education is critical to fighting poverty for the long haul. Revamping how the nation’s ed schools recruit and train aspiring teachers, for example, would help all children get the high-quality instruction that is the most-important in-school factor in student achievement. Just as importantly, reforming education can even help address the immediate problems that stem from poverty. After-school programs and extensions of the school day (and year) — the latter of which is a hallmark of the Knowledge Is Power Program and other successful schools and systems — can help poor families address child care issues by providing healthy, crime free, and nurturing environments in which kids can continue learning. Expanding high-quality school choices, including charter schools and school voucher programs, can help revive communities by bringing schools into communities that can appeal to both the poor and middle class. And Parent Trigger laws can empower poor families to take over and lead the overhaul of failure mills in their own communities (and help them take the next step of taking on other challenges in their own neighborhoods).

While we are making some progress in the reform direction that Biddle suggests, we are still too much in thrall to the trappings of povertism and the lies that prop up this sound-good, feel-good philosophy that is destroying our children’s future in the name of saving it.

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.

The Second American Revolution

If education reformers stick to principle and don’t back down, all other obstacles to victory can be overcome.

Recently, Andrew Rotherham wrote a short piece in The Atlantic in which he describes “The 3 Main Obstacles in the Way of Education Reform”. The first obstacle he mentions is that currently “We buy reform.”

Or at least we try to. Some politicians really think that throwing money at the problem will help and the less principled ones do it because they are trying to pay back certain political allies. The result is that untold billions are taken from taxpayers to support giant bureaucracies on the federal and state levels and to prop up programs that do little or nothing to help the students who desperately need it. Rotherham writes,

The result is the current Byzantine system of programs and rules that characterize education policy — the 82 separate federal programs to improve teacher quality recently documented by the Government Accountability Office — and a continuing lack of strategic ability to make hard decisions at any level of education policymaking.

This bears repeating – there are 82 separate federal programs to improve teacher quality! Improving teacher quality is important, of course, but ultimately it’s just one small piece of the education reform picture. While one can find some good in the Bush era No Child Left Behind and Obama-Duncan’s Race to the Top, in the grand scheme of things both programs end up creating as many problems as they solve, and do so at an unbearable financial cost.

Rotherham’s second obstacle is “Schools lack for an adequate way to measure teacher performance.” I disagree with Rotherham here. We have adequate ways to measure performance. They are not perfect, but what we have is good enough to work with in the meantime while we continually strive for improvements. As I wrote in January,

In perhaps the most in-depth study on the subject to date, three Ivy League economists studied how much the quality of individual teachers matters to their students over the long term. The paper, by Raj Chetty and John N. Friedman of Harvard and Jonah E. Rockoff of Columbia, tracked 2.5 million students over 20 years, and using a value added approach, found that teachers who help students raise their standardized test scores have a lasting positive effect on those students’ lives beyond academics, including lower teenage-pregnancy rates, greater college matriculation and higher adult earnings. (The authors of the study define “value added” as the average test-score gain for a teacher’s students “…adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores.”)

While using value added is important, this measure is not the only way to evaluate teachers. Observations by principals and outside evaluators are important components as is feedback from parents and students. These hybrid evaluation plans are being used now in New York and elsewhere. In Harrison, CO, School Superintendent Mike Miles has used a combination of standardized tests and classroom observation to come up with a tiered system of teacher effectiveness. (Miles, who has been called “an icon in educator effectiveness,” is apparently on his way to Dallas to head up its school system.)

Rotherham correctly bemoans “last in, first out,” the horrific seniority system that too many school districts still use. Seventeen states, including California, do not leave staffing decisions of this nature to individual school districts – they are state mandates. Seniority, a teachers union favorite, is like our tailbones, a vestigial remnant from another era. In this rigid system, no weight is given to an employee’s effectiveness, just to length of time on the job. So on a regular basis we have “Teachers of the Year” being laid off, while far less effective colleagues get to keep their jobs. The union claims this is a fair way to make staffing decisions.

Fair? Hardly. It’s highly unprincipled – horrible for children, grossly unfair to good teachers and taxpayers and must be done away with in toto.

In fact, the National Teacher of the Year award has just been given to a teacher in California. On its website, NEA proudly proclaimed her “an NEA member.” The irony is that this terrific teacher could have been laid off, with no exception made for her teaching ability, if she had been hired a few years later. So you might say that she is still on the job in spite of the teachers unions and their insistence on a seniority-based system.

Rotherham’s third obstacle is, “Education policy is by its nature political, conservative, and change-averse.”

All too often educrats, school board members and the teachers unions selfishly fight to maintain the status quo – and the kids be damned. Unless the current state of affairs is rigorously and unapologetically challenged by reformers, our country will suffer irreparable damage.

Rotherham could have added a fourth and overarching obstacle – that there is squishiness in parts of the reform movement. For example, “partnering” with the industrial style and self-absorbed teachers unions and searching for “best practices” are diversionary and ultimately pointless exercises, yet there are some who embrace them in the name of reform. In an exceptional essay, RiShawn Biddle makes a case for “The Importance of Being Divisive in Education.” He notes that many significant historical figures like Winston Churchill and Thomas Paine were considered divisive because of their standing on principle and their unwillingness to compromise. He claims that for education to undergo a necessary transformation, we need to have more divisiveness, not less. Teachers unions and other members of the educational establishment have derisively referred to Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee as divisive. But as Biddle says,

… school reformers should accept — and fully embrace — being divisive. Because it is the only way we can transform American public education.

The situation is somewhat akin to the founding of our country. I suppose that King George looked upon George Washington as divisive, as well as the aforementioned Paine, and Madison, and Jefferson. Biddle goes on to state,

Being divisive about challenging a failed, amoral system that condemns 1.2 million children a year to poverty and prison is at the heart of the school reform movement. And this is a good thing. There is nothing wrong with actively opposing a traditional system of compensation that has fostered teacher quality policies that subject our poorest children to the worst American public education offers. And, more importantly, there is nothing terrible about pushing to end policies that do little more than harm the futures of children who deserve better.

In short, education reformers are at war with those who, for their own selfish reasons, are fighting to maintain a failed system. Because a revolution in education must occur if we are to regain our status as a great nation, playing nice with the enemy will not get the job done. In a time of warfare, divisiveness is a virtue. Without it, and a principled spine of steel, the war will be lost and our country along with it.

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.

Visitors from Outer Space and Their Strange Ideas About Education Reform

There are those among us who think that teachers unions, collective bargaining and peer assistance review are the way to a better education for kids. They look like earthlings, but in fact are extraterrestrials.

As the year draws to a close, newspapers, magazines and blogs are filled with best of and worst of lists that deal with everything imaginable. The Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force got on the bandwagon early and posted Best and Worst in American Education, 2011 in November. All solid stuff. Can a reformer not be happy about the Parent Trigger being raked over the coals, yet surviving, or that many of Michelle Rhee’s reforms are still in place despite leaving her post as D.C. Schools Chancellor after a major push from the American Federation of Teachers? On the worst list, the Task Force includes the Atlanta teacher cheating scandal and the union-orchestrated overturn of Ohio’s recent anti-collective bargaining law.

Then lo and behold, we received a dispatch from Planet Ravitch on December 23rd. (Most people are not aware that shortly after astronomers ruled that Pluto was not a planet in 2006, a new planet would be identified. And it is inhabited!) The people who live on this celestial body (named after Diane Ravitch, a former reformer who turned into a champion of the failing status quo) are afflicted with a dyslexic-like condition: they have the entire education reform picture exactly backwards. The way to true reform is to hold their ideas up to a mirror with the resulting image revealing the best way to proceed.

Washington Post education “reporter” and blogger Valerie Strauss, whom Whitney Tilson rightfully refers to as Diane Ravitch’s mouthpiece, gave over her space last week to fellow Ravitchian Richard Kahlenberg. According to his bio, he is, among other things,

“…an authority on teachers’ unions, private school vouchers, charter schools, turnaround school efforts, and inequality in higher education.”

An authority on teachers unions? Maybe on Planet Ravitch, but he made a bad mistake when in Education Next he engaged especially wise earthling Jay Greene on unions and collective bargaining.

As you would expect, Kahlenberg gets everything backwards in his post. On his worst of list, he accused Terry Moe, author of Special Interest, a brilliant study of the teachers unions, of making “little sense.” (Kahlenberg apparently can’t tell the difference between a teacher and a teachers union.) Additionally, he is dismayed over the proliferation of charter schools because, according to his cherry picked data, most are mediocre. He fails to mention that charter schools have been the saving grace for many inner city kids who have escaped from the union dominated zip code schools they had been forced to attend. While proclaiming to have children’s best interests at heart, he is clearly more concerned that “some charter schools…save money by offering teachers no pensions whatsoever.”

On the plus side, Kahlenberg – surprise! – likes the teachers unions. For example, he writes,

“…the very positive role they can play on national policy was underlined in December, when the National Education Association announced an effort to establish 100 new peer assistance and review programs to better train and, if necessary, weed out ineffective teachers.”

The only problem is that peer assistance programs have been a flop wherever they have been tried. And NEA’s weeding process does not stand much of a chance of seeing the light of day because for it to work at all, it will have to be implemented by union locals. It’s hard to imagine local union bosses talking this one up to the rank and file.

Not surprisingly, Kahlenberg is a fan of collective bargaining, which may benefit mediocre and poor teachers but does very little for the good ones. Moreover, it has been damaging the education process (and therefore children) for about a half-century now. Collective bargaining agreements are nothing more than a top down, collectivist way to ensure that teachers have to do the least amount of work in idealized working conditions with no accountability for the most money. As Jay Greene states,

“Until the ability of teachers unions to engage in collective bargaining is restrained, we should expect unions to continue to use it to advance the interests of their adult members over those of children, their families, and taxpayers.”

In any event, the good news as we look toward 2012 is that for Kahlenberg, Strauss, Ravitch and their fellow aliens, their day has come and gone. We live in a time when change is happening. In July, due to major reform efforts in statehouses all over the country, the Wall Street Journal proclaimed 2011 The Year of School Choice. As Bob Bowdon, director of The Cartel so aptly put it,

“Large entrenched bureaucracies like public education have something in common with aircraft carriers: they never turn around quickly. What’s important is the direction they’re moving, and in this regard the education news is good. Of the 180 degree reversal that’s needed for public schools, we’ve only turned three or four degrees so far, but all the recent trends are taking us in a better direction. The turnaround has begun.”

Happy New Year everyone!!

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.

The Route to Teacher Union Extinction: Is the Other Shoe Dropping?

In addition to online learning, Democrat’s abandonment of their traditional union allies could put an end to the educational status quo and decimate the teachers unions.

In my October 18th post, I wrote about Terry Moe’s book Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools. I specifically addressed that part of the book in which he builds a scenario for the eventual undoing of the teachers unions. One of the two ways he claims this will happen is via technology, in the form of online learning. The other route to marginalization is the realization by Democrats that education is really a civil rights issue and that they are morally bound to get on board with reform and choice. By adopting this position, they will be abandoning their longtime political allies – the teachers unions.

As with the rapid ascent of online learning, Moe’s second nail in the unions’ coffin is picking up speed. In a recent Huffington Post entry, Joy Resmovits addresses the “new education lobby.”

“It’s ambitious, expansive and, in some cases, modeling itself after sprawling single-issue lobbying organizations like the National Rifle Association and AARP. The groups, which have in large part been created by hedge fund managers and lapsed government officials, count political operatives inside state legislatures and even the Democratic National Committee among their ranks. And they’re using the power of their fundraisers’ purses and sophisticated messaging outfits to push their agendas in local and school-board elections across the country.”

Traditionally, education reform and school choice have been conservative/libertarian causes. Starting with vouchers, a creation of libertarian Milton Friedman in the 1950s, the ideas for education reform, with few exceptions, have come from right leaning think tanks like Pacific Research Institute, Hoover Institution, Goldwater Institute, Reason Foundation, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, etc. The policy ideas put forth by these and other similar organizations have formed the basis for many of the education reforms that are in place today.

What is perhaps most interesting about this “new education lobby” that Resmovits writes about is that many of them are Democrats. Yes, Democrats are essentially picking up the ideas put forth by the right and taking them to statehouses all over the country. And the teachers unions are definitely not enthralled with this new development.

Democrats for Education Reform, founded in 2007, has become a potent lobbying force in just a few years. They have set up shop in ten states and their reform efforts are essentially indistinguishable from those on the right. Consequently, they have not escaped the wrath of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City. The union claims that DFER:
• doesn’t sound like Democrats.
• hates teachers.
• knows nothing about education.
• is made up of hedge fund managers (Whitney Tilson, John Petry, et al) and billionaires (Eli Broad, who funds DFER’s sister organization Education Reform Now.)
• is comprised of narcissists.

(Note to reform-minded Democrats – welcome to the world that those on the right have lived in for many years!)

Another example of the Democrat-as-reformer-lobbyist phenomenon is Michelle Rhee, who is a self-described “lifelong, card-carrying, dyed-in-the-wool Democrat.” After a short, successful and highly publicized reign as Chancellor of D.C. public schools, she left her position after the American Federation of Teachers donated over $1 million to unseat Rhee’s boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, in 2010. Shortly after Fenty’s loss, Rhee founded Students First, an advocacy organization whose goal is to raise $1 billion in ten years. The AFT’s response to Ms. Rhee’s efforts was to put up a smear website called RheeFirst.

Whereas DFER is out to reform the Democratic Party, Rhee will work with anyone or any organization that shares her reform vision.

There are many other Democrats working hard for reform and incurring the wrath of the unions. Kevin Chavous, cofounder of DFER and Chairman of the Board of Black Alliance for Educational Options, Davis Guggenheim, director of Waiting For Superman and Ben Austin, who fathered the first Parent Trigger law, are just a few examples of Democrat’s joining the education reform movement.

Even with this new bipartisan reform effort, the teachers unions are not about to fold their tents and give up any time soon. It’s going to be a long bloody war with some battles being won (Wisconsin) and some lost (Ohio.) In fact, just last week, Dropout Nation’s Rishawn Biddle wrote about the recent release of the National Education Association’s 2010-2011 LM-2 filing, a required Department of Labor annual report. revealing recent political expenditures.

“The numbers are spectacular. The nation’s largest teachers’ union spent $133 million in 2010-2011 on lobbying and contributions to groups whose agendas (in theory) dovetail with its own. This included $255,000 to the Economic Policy Institute, the progressive think tank cofounded by Robert Kuttner and Robert Reich, whose education reports generally take a pro-NEA slant….”

“Among the big recipients of the NEA’s largesse this year were ProgressNow’s affiliates in Michigan and Colorado, each receiving, respectively, $10,000 and $125,000, for education policy advocacy and legislative advocacy activities. ProgressNow, by the way, was one of the key players in ousting school reform-minded Michigan legislator Paul Scott from his statehouse seat earlier this month and has decried Gov. Rick Snyder’s efforts to allow for the expansion of charter schools and school choice….”

“The usual suspects are also on the list: Communities for Quality Education, which has long been subsidized by the NEA, collected $1 million in 2010-2011. Anti-testing group FairTest picked up $35,000 this time around. So are some leading education traditionalists: Parents Across America co-founder) Leonie Haimson’s Class Size Matters picked up $25,000 from the union last fiscal year, while Western Michigan’s Gary Miron (whose rather flawed study on KIPP’s charter schools earlier this year was the subject of Dropout Nation‘s analysis) picked up $5,000. Meanwhile the NEA directly poured $43,000 into the Save Our Schools rally held this past July; this doesn’t include dollars poured in by state and local affiliates.”

With the ability to throw this kind of money around, NEA’s effect on maintaining the status quo with its attendant failing educational policies cannot be exaggerated. So those of us involved in reform will have to be satisfied as long as the ball is being advanced, even if it’s slower than we would like. As writer Louis L’Amour once said, “Victory is won not in miles but in inches. Win a little now, hold your ground, and later, win a little more.”

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.

Reform Unionism: A Wolf by Any Other Name….

Despite good intentions, efforts to reform teachers unions and make them partners in education reform will not work.

Last week, the typically sane and sage Andrew Rotherham wrote a provocative article for Time Magazine entitled “Quiet Riot: Insurgents Take On Teachers Unions.” The main thrust of the piece is this:

“But perhaps the biggest strategic pressure for reform is starting to come from teachers themselves, many of whom are trying to change their unions and, by extension, their profession. These renegade groups, composed generally of younger teachers, are trying to accomplish what a generation of education reformers, activists and think tanks have not: forcing the unions to genuinely mend their ways.”

He spotlights three organizations he claims are leading a movement to reform teachers unions and make them partners in an attempt to improve the quality of public education — NewTLA, a dissident faction in the United Teachers of Los Angeles, Educators for Excellence, a reform group in New York started by two young Teach For America graduates, and Teach Plus, an organization that has gained traction in several states, whose goal is to “engage early career teachers in rebuilding their profession to better meet the needs of students and the incoming generation of teachers.”

In addition, Steven Brill (whose new book Class Warfare has received much acclaim) wrote “Super Teachers Alone Can’t Save Our Schools,” a provocative article in the Wall Street Journal this past Saturday. As the article’s title implies, teachers need help. But from whom? After describing the burnout of a young assistant principal at a charter school in Harlem, he says,

“The lesson that I draw from Ms. Reid’s dropping out of the race at the Harlem Success school is that the teachers’ unions have to be enlisted in the fight for reform.”

If only Rotherham and Brill were being realistic in their reform-the-union proposal.

Long time teacher union watchdog, Mike Antonucci, addresses the writers’ flawed prescriptions in “Let’s All See the Plan.” While praising NewTLA’s efforts, he says,

“The teacher union reform field is littered with the bodies of those who sought to alter the union’s primary mission – protecting teachers – and found themselves ousted in favor of challengers who promised to get tough with administrators.”

A day after Antonucci’s post, Terry Moe, another veteran teacher union critic, posted “Will Young People Reform Teachers Unions? Dream On.”

“There are well over 3 million active teachers in this country, and the groups Rotherham points to are a drop in the bucket. In unions all across the country, young teachers barely participate in union affairs–which are entirely dominated by their senior colleagues. In any event, if we look at young union members as a whole–not just those from TFA or insurgent groups, but all of them–the evidence suggests that their attitudes on basic issues are very similar to those of senior unionized teachers: they are highly satisfied with their union locals, they are highly supportive of collective bargaining, they believe that collective bargaining has benign effects for kids and schools, and they have similar positions on most matters of education policy….

“The argument that young teachers are going to transform the unions is just as fanciful, and just as wrong…. Unions are unions. They are in the business of protecting jobs: that is why their members join, that is what their members expect them to do, and that is what they actually do. If you expect them to do something else–to represent children or to represent the public interest–you will be wrong. Don’t expect a cat to bark.”

Over time, teachers tend to get very comfortable with all the perks that unions provide, even though they’re bad for kids – collective bargaining, seniority, tenure, a job that is virtually guaranteed for life, etc. (In Special Interest, Moe’s excellent new book about teachers unions, Chapter 3 and Appendix C deal with young teachers.)

Coincidentally, scholarly journal Education Next has just released its fifth annual survey in which teachers and the general public are interviewed about a variety of reform topics including the unions.

When the public was asked if teachers unions have a generally positive or negative effect on the nation’s public schools, 33 percent said “negative,” while 29 percent said “positive” and 38 percent were neutral – numbers almost identical to the 2009 and 2010 polls.

However, it’s a different story with teachers,

“Among teachers themselves, opinion is moving in precisely the opposite direction from that of the public at large. Only 17 percent now say that unions have a negative impact on the nation’s schools, down from 25 percent in 2010. Fifty-eight percent think they have a positive impact, up from 51 percent the previous year.”

As we see from these statistics, over the past year, teachers are becoming more in sync with their unions. Only one in six teachers thinks that the unions in their present state are harmful to education.

Assuming these numbers are accurate, the union reform crowd, no matter how noble their intentions and dogged their efforts, has little chance to accomplish much, if anything, meaningful. The traditional unionistas may give a bit here and there to seem fair-minded, but with a great majority of their members on board, their mission and game plan will remain essentially unchanged.

If meaningful change is going to happen, it will come from the citizenry via the ballot box. Within the past year, a shift in voting patterns has enabled reform-minded governors and legislatures to greatly restrict collective bargaining, increase school choice opportunities, modify tenure rules, etc. in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and elsewhere. One can only wonder what could be accomplished if a majority of the voting public would realize the pernicious effect that teachers unions have on education and act accordingly.

But in any event, change will not come by reforming the teachers unions. As Little Red Riding Hood learned, a wolf in granny’s clothing is still a wolf.

About the author: Larry Sand 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.