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Teachers’ union president obsesses about billionaires at California Democratic convention

Let’s Deep-six Prop. 30

The signatures for an initiative that would extend 2012’s “temporary” tax increase in California are due today.

Four years ago Californians voted in Prop. 30, a “temporary” tax, to pay back schools “from the years of devastating cuts.” But as I show here, there was hardly any devastation; in fact, our spending had continued to be quite robust. The measure jacked up income tax on people with incomes exceeding $250,000 through 2018 and increased sales tax on all of us through the end of this year. But, the Beholden State teachers unions are trying to get an initiative on the 2016 ballot that would continue the higher income tax through 2030. (The sales tax increase would expire as scheduled.) Earlier this month, California Teachers Association president Eric Heins told the union’s State Council that “…we need to gather 900,000 signatures to get our measure on the ballot. We are about 60 percent there, and we only have about three more weeks.”

Today, in fact, is the deadline. If enough signatures are gathered, the extension has a good chance of success. As reported by EdSource’s John Fensterwald, a Public Policy Institute of California poll found, “…among all Californians, 64 percent support the extension, 32 percent oppose it and 4 percent are undecided. Among likely voters, 62 percent back it, 35 percent oppose it and 2 percent haven’t decided. By party affiliation, 82 percent of Democrats support it while only 32 percent of Republicans do.”

When I read poll numbers like this, I always wonder if the people questioned know what we actually spend on education. My guess is that many don’t. A recent Education Next poll, which included a question about that issue, is instructive. The school districts in which their survey respondents resided spent an average of $12,440 per pupil in 2012 (the most recent data available). But when asked, the respondents estimated per-pupil expenditures in their local school district, they guessed, on average, just $6,307 – about half of what was actually spent. (By the way, these dollar amounts would be considerably higher if expenditures for transportation, capital expenses, and debt service were included.)

Should Prop. 30 (or any future such tax increases) make it on to the ballot, I would ask voters to consider the following:

  • The unions will tell you that the tax is only on the wealthy, whom they claim don’t pay their fair share. But a look at the actual numbers tells a different story. A report issued by the Congressional Budget Office in 2012 shows that the top one percent of income earners across the nation paid 39 percent of federal individual income taxes in 2009, while earning 13 percent of the income. Hence, it’s clear that the rich are already paying considerably more than their “fair share.”
  • Courtesy of Cato Institute’s late, great Andrew Coulson, we see that between 1972 and 2012 California’s education spending (adjusted for inflation) has doubled, while our students’ SAT scores have actually declined.
  • The latest study on the relationship between spending and achievement, recently conducted in Michigan, found no statistically significant correlation between how much money the state’s public schools spend and how well students perform academically. Mackinac Center Education Policy Director Ben DeGrow, who coauthored the study said, “Of the 28 measurements of academic achievement studied, we find only one category showed a statistically significant correlation between spending and achievement, and the gains were nominal at best.” He added, “Spending may matter in some cases, but given the way public schools currently spend their resources, it is highly unlikely that merely increasing funding will generate any meaningful boost to student achievement.”
  • Unconditional money poured into public education from the private sector doesn’t help either. In 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to the Newark public schools, which was matched by another $100 million from unnamed donors. As documented in The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools, a book about the gift, the money went up in smoke, with the teachers union playing a big role in vaporizing it. As reported by the New York Times, Newark Teachers Union leader Joe Del Grosso “demanded a ransom of $31 million to compensate for what he felt members should have received in previous years — before agreeing to discuss any labor reforms.” The new labor contract accounted for almost half the $200 million. In a review of the book, Cato Institute’s Jason Bedrick wrote, “The union boss… made the back pay a condition for even holding the negotiations. ‘We had an opportunity to get Zuckerberg’s money,’ Del Grosso later explained, ‘Otherwise, it would go to the charter schools. I decided I shouldn’t feed and clothe the enemy.’” But it wasn’t only the unions that abused the gift. As Bedrick says, “The Prize demonstrates in depressing detail just how difficult it is to reform public schooling in the United States. Laws, regulations, and labor contracts favored adult jobs over kids’ education and this entrenched bureaucracy was difficult to change—especially because reforms met opposition from special interests and their political allies.”

With a debt of over $1 trillion and counting, California clearly has a spending problem, not a too-little-tax problem. The taxpayers must take action. First, we all need to know specifically where our edu-bucks are being spent. You can start at the Ed-Data website for general expenditures. Do some digging to find out how teacher union (and all public employee union) pensions are bankrupting cities across the state. For that kind of information, Pension Tsunami is an invaluable resource. Perhaps most importantly, communicate with legislators and demand school choice. Among other things – just as in business – competition lowers prices while increasing product quality. And God knows we would benefit from both.

Randi Weingarten and other union leaders have a prized talking point: “You can’t fire your way to a teaching force.” It’s a ridiculous claim, which I debunked last week. And at the same time, they erroneously believe we can spend our way to success. But they make no real case for this, because there isn’t one. It’s time for all of us to stop falling for the feel-good fairy tales. Just saying “No!” to the Prop. 30 extension – should it get to the ballot – would be a great place to start.

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.

Vergara Update: Virtues and Villainy

The union and media reactions to the appeals court decision in the Vergara case had me going through a whole can of room deodorizer.

In 2014, the plaintiffs in the Vergara trial claimed that several California education statutes – all of which are on the books at the behest of the teachers unions – cause greater harm to minority and economically disadvantaged populations because their schools “have a disproportionate share of grossly ineffective teachers.” Judge Treu ruled in favor of the plaintiffs on every issue, removing five statutes concerning tenure, seniority and teacher dismissal rules from the state’s constitution, adding, “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” Well, it’s now 2016 and last week the Court of Appeals shocked the plaintiffs by overturning the original decision.

Some of the wording in the ruling was quite interesting: “Critically, plaintiffs failed to show that the statutes themselves make any certain group of students more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers than any other group of students.” Also, Justice Roger Boren, wrote in his opinion that it was the court’s job merely to determine whether or not the statutes are constitutional, not whether they’re “a good idea.” As Reason’s Brian Doherty points out, “The core of the new decision, which seems to this non-lawyer (and non teacher, and non student) to be saying that if the crummy policies are as near as we can tell causing equal harm to all California students rather than special harm to an identifiable group, then the Court feels powerless to overturn them.” Or in plainer English, “All kids are hurt by crappy teachers, so get over it.”

The justices are of the mind that much of the problem falls on administrators. While this certainly may be true to some degree, the path for principals to get rid of a rotten apple is currently so onerous and time-consuming that many, understandably, choose to stick with the poor performers and try to place them in positions where they do the least damage. Also, getting rid of bad teachers is very costly. Recently in Los Angeles, it took $3.5 million just to try to get rid of seven tenured teachers who were deemed incompetent and only four of them were actually removed.

Needless to say, much has been written about the successful appeal, but not all the reporting has been accurate. Unsurprisingly, the teachers unions’ responses were ecstatic, and laden with mounds of bunkum.

I will attempt to separate reality from fantasy.

First of all, the case is not over. This is a three-round fight and to be sure the unions were victorious in Round 2, but the plaintiffs won the first round and will appeal to the California Supreme Court which will ultimately decide the winner. (Don’t hold your breath, however; it could take a year before there is a final decision.)

The Los Angeles Times reported, “In a major victory for unions, a California appeals court on Thursday reversed a lower court ruling that had thrown out tenure and other job protections for the state’s public school teachers.” (Emphasis added.)

No, not really. Judge Treu did not say teacher tenure is detrimental per se; rather, he stressed that the probationary period for teachers is too short. California is one of only five states where schools reward teachers with tenure after only two years or less. In 41 states, the probationary term ranges from three to five years and four states don’t allow tenure at all. In any event, the decision was never about “throwing out tenure,” but rather extending the probationary period.

The National Education Association crowed that the verdict was a “major victory for due process.” Again, wrong. It’s not “due process.” In fact it’s not even really “tenure.” What teachers achieve after two years on the job is “permanent status.” Think about it. Other than the SCOTUS Justices, who else in the world has a permanent job? Do you? Of course not, and for good reason. If you do well, you keep your job; if you don’t perform well you lose your job. Why do we have this awful law for people who deal with our most precious commodity – our children?!

Regarding seniority or “last in, first out,” the unions claim that this is the only way to determine layoffs because it is “objective.” Well, it is indeed “objective” and that’s exactly the problem with it. It makes about as much sense as retaining teachers by alphabetical order. So if layoffs are necessary and your surname is Allen, you are in good shape. But if your last name is Zygmond, adios!

California Teachers Association president Eric Heins was jubilant. “I consider this a victory for teachers and a victory for students. What these statutes have done is…bring stability to the system.” Stability, of course, is not in and of itself a bad thing, but when permitting thousands of poorly performing teachers to stay on the job, it stinks for kids.

In praising the decision, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten dredged up every cliché in the book, including this golden oldie, “You can’t fire your way to a teaching force.” Randi, I would urge you to read what Eric Hanushek, an economist who writes extensively about education issues, has to say on the subject. After doing detailed research, he wrote that by getting rid of as few as 5 to 7 percent of bottom performers, not newest hires, and replacing them with just average teachers, education achievement in the U.S. could reach that of Canada and Finland. So yes, Randi, getting rid of bad actors can do wonders for thousands of educationally abused kids.

Coincidentally, the very day that the Vergara appeal decision was announced, a similar lawsuit was filed in Minnesota by Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice, which has also filed a parallel suit in New York in 2014. Regarding the litigation, Weingarten huffed, “It’s not surprising that Campbell Brown continues to do the bidding of her monied donors—particularly when the weight of the evidence is so clear that you cannot fire your way or sanction your way or test your way to children’s educational success.” (Here, she manages to slam arch-enemy Brown, rich corporate types and get in her golden oldie in a single sentence.)

It’s worth noting that with all the judicial wrangling, the courts have rightfully not “legislated from the bench.” Regarding the dismissal statutes, the California legislature made a gesture toward sanity by passing Assembly Bill 215 in 2014. That bill makes it somewhat easier for administrators to remove teachers accused of “egregious behavior,” such as sexual abuse. And now we have Assembly Bill 934 written by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord. According to the Sacramento Bee, “Under this bill, teachers who are doing poorly would be placed into a program that offers them extra professional support. If they receive another low performance review after a year in the program, they could be fired via an expedited process regardless of their experience level.” Also, permanence would not always be granted after two years and seniority would no longer be the single overriding factor in handing out pink slips. Teachers with two or more bad reviews would lose their jobs before newer teachers who have not received poor evaluations.

While I think Bonilla’s bill doesn’t go far enough, it is a heck of a lot better than what we have now. Of course, CTA disagrees. It opposes the bill because the changes “would make education an incredibly insecure profession.”

And so the beat goes on. As the teachers unions dig in, hundreds of thousands of school kids – poor and otherwise – are victimized by their work rules which have been enshrined into state law. Our only hope is that the State Supreme Court makes these rules “impermanent” and that parent and kid-friendly laws take their place.

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.

The DivIdes of March

My latest battle against a teacher union leader….

Last month, Rebecca Friedrichs, lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the California Teachers Association that was recently heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, and I were invited to talk about her case on Inside OC, a public affairs TV show in Orange County. Rebecca was given the first half of the show solo and the second half would see me debating her case against an unspecified union representative. I agreed to participate and was stunned a few days later when the show’s host, Rick Reiff, told me in an email that my sparring partner would be none other than CTA President Eric Heins.

After years of debunking teacher union spin, it’s always a pleasure to go face to face with these folks and expose their distortions. My first opportunity in this realm came in New York City in March, 2010 when Terry Moe, Stanford professor and expert-on-all-things-teachers-union, captained a debate team which included former Secretary of Education Rod Paige and me. Our opponents were Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a school superintendent from Southern California and a teacher from Massachusetts. In the town where the modern teacher union movement was hatched, we won the debate handily; in fact we clobbered them. In a review of the debate, University of Arkansas professor and esteemed education reformer Jay Greene referred to it as a smackdown.

Three years later in March, 2013, I shared a stage in Mountain View with Moe again, former California State Senator Gloria Romero, who regularly battled the teachers unions during her time in Sacramento, and Heins’ predecessor at CTA, Dean Vogel. Though not a debate, the event sponsored by the Conservative Forum of Silicon Valley, saw sparks fly at various points as the three of us refused to let Vogel get away with any of the usual union bromides.

Now, three Marches later, I am going face-to-face with yet another union leader. The always articulate Rebecca kicked things off, talking for 15 minutes about the lawsuit – the tragedy of Justice Scalia’s death, her hope that the case will be reargued, the problems she had trying to make her dissident voice heard as a union member, the immorality of teachers unions protecting bad teachers and the fallacy of the free-rider argument.

Then Heins, who had a dislocated shoulder and had flown in from Burlingame to be a participant, got five minutes which he used to note what he claims to be the positive aspects of teachers unions – how teachers like Rebecca benefit from collective bargaining, that teachers unions benefit kids, etc.

At about 20 minutes in, I appear and do my best to refute Heins. I asked him why, if the union is so beneficial to teachers, they must be forced to pay dues. He claimed that it is because the union must represent all teachers. I had to remind him that exclusive representation is something demanded by – not foisted on – the unions.

When Heins again glorified the value of collective bargaining, I was tempted to rebut him, but refrained, and emphasized that the case is not at all about collective bargaining but rather about teachers’ freedom of choice. Heins then brought up the old “labor peace” argument, which to me is akin to Al Capone negotiating with Elliot Ness, with the Mafia Don explaining that, “You want peace? Let us partner with you.” Bad argument, because it makes the unions sound like extortionists, but then again….

The subject of tenure came up, and of course Heins immediately used the softer sounding phrase “due process,” though he did let its accurate name “permanent status” slip in once. He then extolled the virtue of the three man panel that considers and decides the fate of teachers accused of wrong-doing. But I countered that the panel is made up of two teacher-union members and an administrative law judge – all hand-picked by the union. Hardly a fair process.

At the end of the segment, Heins just had to dredge up the Koch brothers, signaling that the discussion has jumped the rails. The program came to an end at that point and there was only time for me to respond with an eye-roll. Fortunately, however, we were able to continue our discussion for another nine minutes, which is available on YouTube. We picked up on Heins’ Koch-bashing and I pointed out that the biggest political spender in California is not the Kochs or some large corporation, but rather CTA, whose political gifts are about double the second largest spender, also a union – the California State Council of Service Employees, a branch of SEIU.

Heins then veered into how democratically union decisions are made and that they respect minority views. I asked him if the union respected a Republican minority view and he assured me it did. I mentioned that his predecessor claimed that CTA membership was about 65 percent Democrat and 35 percent Republican. I asked Heins what proportion of their political giving goes to Republicans. He insisted that all their spending “is based on education policy” and that they support some Republicans. This is mostly a crock, but I did not bring up the following to refute him as we got side-tracked. What I wished I had said, was that about 97 percent of CTA political spending goes to Democrats, with the remaining crumbs going to the GOP. More importantly, I did not bring up where so much CTA spending goes. Despite Heins’ insistence that it based on education policy, it is not. For example, CTA has spent millions on initiatives to get drug discounts for Californians, to regulate electric service providers, to raise the corporate tax rate in the Golden State, etc. (The last one is especially hypocritical as CTA doesn’t pay one red cent in taxes.) The union also spent well over $1 million of teacher union dues fighting for same sex marriage.

I suggested that the union regularly buys politicians at which point Heins smiled and said that my comment was “cynical spin.” Hardly. We then discussed seniority which Heins thought was quite fair, while I, along with many other reformers, think it is an abominable way to make staffing decisions.

At the end of the session, Reiff said, “We needed an hour!” and he was right. There was way too much ground to cover in such a brief time. The following day I sent a message to Heins telling him I would be willing to do an hour with him anytime, anywhere. I have yet to hear back.

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.

$MORE

CTA press release reveals the union’s agenda toward education spending…and its utter disregard of reality.

Last week California Teachers Association president Eric Heins issued a press release that shows the union’s ignorance – or avoidance – of facts. It begins with, “Educators are encouraged to see the Governor use his proposed state budget and revenues generated by Proposition 30 to continue paying back schools from the years of devastating cuts – especially those serving our most at-risk students.”

Hence, we are led to believe that our education spending has declined sharply, especially for at-risk kids. One need not venture far to learn that Heins is, quite simply, full of it. Via EdSource, using California Department of Finance data (H/T Antonucci), we can see the “devastation” graphically:

Prop 98 fundingSo over the last five years our education spending – for all kids, at-risk and otherwise – has actually increased about 40 percent. Hmmm. Devastation sure ain’t what it used to be.

Heins then gets to his real agenda, which is campaigning to extend Prop. 30, the “temporary” tax that was passed in 2012. The measure, which jacked up income tax on the wealthy and sales tax on all of us, is due to sunset in 2018. But in a move that has Texas dusting off its welcome mats, CTA is trying to get an initiative on the 2016 ballot that would continue the “temporary” income tax through 2030. (The sales tax increase would expire next year as scheduled, however.)

And just what good has California’s education spending done for us? Courtesy of Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson, we can see that between 1972 and 2012, our students’ SAT scores have gone down a bit, while our spending (correcting for inflation) has doubled.

Coulson - CA spending

And since 2012? According to the latest NAEP (aka the nation’s report card) results released in November 2015, California’s scores are pathetic. The state’s fourth-grade math scores place us at the bottom of the nation, just one point above New Mexico, Alabama and Washington, D.C. In fourth-grade reading, only New Mexico and D.C. fared worse than the Golden State.

Nationally, how does our education spending stack up against other countries? Quite well, according to recently released information by the National Center for Education Statistics, which expanded its biennial Comparative Indicators of Education Report beyond the G-8 to encompass the G-20 countries. In fact, the U.S. ranked #1 in spending. (Page 75.) But our high school graduation rates do not place us within spitting distance of first place. Whereas Germany, South Korea, the United Kingdom and Japan all had rates of 93 percent or more, ours was just 77 percent. (Page 79.) And the graduation rate in California has become something of a joke. Having done away with the high school exit exam, diplomas are now being distributed to anyone who failed the test but completed their coursework, dating back to 2006. Stating the obvious, Los Angeles Daily News’ Thomas Elias writes, “The exit exam’s demise cheapens high school graduation.

So whatever your metric of choice is – SAT, NAEP or grad rates – our state and country are doing a poor job of educating our young. But we are quite proficient in one area – spending – despite what Eric Heins and other union bosses try to con you into believing. If asked, how much should we spend on education, their dollar amount is $MORE. Please keep this in mind should the Prop. 30 extension make it on to the ballot this November.

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.