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The Big Apple and Little Dougco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Weingarten interested in the job?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And in the Daily Caller, Casey Givens writes

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

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

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

Undermine public education?!

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

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

Teachers Unions and School Boards Must Disconnect

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

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

Stanford professor and education reformer Terry Moe describes the conflict:

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

Moe then gets into the details.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pathetic.

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

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

Outsiderophobia

A mental disorder has come to California, but for the afflicted — mostly teacher union types — it manifests itself in a partisan way.

Voters were not swayed by outsiders and their millions…The public wants Board members who will listen to the community—not be beholden to their billionaire benefactors.

So harrumphed an indignant and self-righteous Warren Fletcher, president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles. This was in response to the fact that New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg poured $1 million into the LA school board races which essentially pitted reform candidates against those supported by the teachers union. And Fletcher’s was hardly a lone voice.

On the Huffington Post, John Thompson, whose bio reads “Award-winning historian and inner-city teacher,” wrote a barely coherent, paranoid black ops rant claiming that some reformers’ theories “are so silly that many teachers worry that their real plan is to privatize schools.” He then goes on to say,

Anthony Cody, in “Yes, Virginia, There Really IS a Billionaires Boys Club,” wrote recently about the influx of cash being sent to Los Angeles by billionaires like Eli Broad and Mike Bloomberg. While it may be legal for billionaires “to, in effect, buy up local school board races,” Cody argues, it is inconsistent with the spirit of our democracy’s principles of public education.

For the uninitiated, Cody is a devout anti-reformer who has joined forces with the embarrassing teacher union BFF Diane Ravitch. Together they have just launched The Network for Public Education. Proudly touting the new organization, Cody wrote in Education Week,

We will support candidates willing to stand tall for our public schools. We will help them mobilize support on the ground to make sure that, as in Los Angeles, their message is not drowned out by TV ads bought by billionaires.

He then quoted a statement released at the organization’s launch,

We have had enough of school closures, and the rapid expansion of selective charter schools…High-stakes testing takes the joy out of learning. It crushes creativity and critical thinking, the very qualities our society needs most for success in the 21st century.

So testing, charter schools and billionaires – especially the outsider genus – are the problem, you see. And of course Ravitch, Cody and their ilk are against closing any public schools no matter how awful they are, no matter how empty they are because parents refuse to send their children there. How thoughtful and compassionate! (And talk about critical thinking, Cody and Ravitch may be critical, but come up way short on “thinking.” And as for “creativity,” they are of the Luddite variety.)

Ultimately, the real issue here is not the tired “anti-outsider” shtick, but that it is very selective in nature. The whine of every status quo-loving anti-reformer who rails against outsider money neglects the 400 lb. gorilla sitting at the head of the table – the teachers unions. To wit, the American Federation of Teachers, a D.C. based teachers union, gave $150,000 to one of the anti-reformers in the same election in Los Angeles that had Fletcher’s knickers in a twist. The same AFT gave over $4 million to the successful “Yes on Prop. 30” campaign, which raised taxes on all Californians. After Governor Scott Walker and the state legislature killed collective bargaining in Wisconsin, the D.C. based National Education Association sent its chief of staff, John Stocks, to the Badger State as a lobbyist. Both NEA and AFT insert themselves into state and local politics all over the country by throwing millions of dollars at candidates, initiatives and lobbying efforts that support their self-serving agenda whenever and wherever they can. But not a peep about this from Fletcher, Thompson, Cody or Ravitch. Outsiderophobia is indeed a partisan affliction.

With all the caterwauling about “outsiders,” finding a non-hysterical POV is difficult. But alas, in a Los Angeles Daily News op-ed, former LA school board members, Marlene Canter and Yolie Flores write,

When people with no vested, personal interest in the outcome try to help elect reform-minded candidates, they are branded as “outsiders” who are trying to “buy elections.” This is perplexing. These individuals have a longstanding interest in closing the opportunity gap for poor kids and kids of color, and improving educational achievement for all students.

Personally, they stand to gain exactly nothing if the candidates they are supporting get elected. They’re willing to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to improving education, and their participation is critical for leveling the playing field and keeping these school board races competitive. Yet, when “insiders” who do have a vested, personal interest in the outcome contribute significant funding, this is somehow seen as more acceptable. (Emphasis added.)

Let us address the most obvious issue in these elections: the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles. Teachers have an absolute right to organize, to collectively bargain, and to make their case for who they believe the best candidate would be. However, they have historically often been the only voice determining who the best board member would be.

Precisely.

Mayor Bloomberg’s donation came from someone who has nothing personally to gain by the outcome of the school board election in LA. He gave the money because he is interested in furthering meaningful education reform. The teacher unions’ goal is to maintain the failing status quo, and child-centered education reforms are not a part of it. Despite the common sense shown by Canter and Flores, I’m afraid that selective outsiderophobia has taken root in California and will probably metastasize to the rest of the country.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

School Board Wars

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg donates $1 million to reform candidates in Los Angeles school board race.

School boards are powerful entities. Within the confines of state law, they typically adopt budgets, collectively bargain with the local teachers union, monitor student achievement and pick the local school superintendent. In California, there are more than a thousand school boards that rule over 300,000 teachers and 6 million students.

As you might expect, with this kind of power, the teachers unions usually have their grubby paws all over school board races. If candidates are deemed unfriendly to the union cause – maybe they want to spend less on teacher salaries or limit teacher-friendly work rules enacted at students’ expense or try to get rid of some incompetent teachers – the local and state unions will spend huge sums of cash to defeat them.

However, things have begun to change and the teachers unions now have competition in school board election spending. As writer Jane Roberts pointed out in a piece written in August 2012,

In the new era, education reform advocacy groups, passionate about their views on public education, are harnessing millions in contributions to further their work. Because many, including Stand for Children, are registered as social welfare groups under 501(c)4 laws, they aren’t bound by campaign contributions caps can spend freely on political campaigns from the money they raise for their social missions. They also do not have to reveal their donor’s identities.

“This is a new phenomenon,” said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “Many of these groups are either brand new or fairly new to education reform.”

What they have figured out, Petrilli says, is that it is not “enough to publish white papers and op-eds. They need to be engaged in political advocacy.”

On March 5th in Los Angeles, there will be an election with three of the seven school board seats up for grabs. Traditionally, the United Teachers of Los Angeles gets its way and has, if not complete control, at least a majority on the board to do its bidding. But unfortunately for the union, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has thrown a million dollar monkey wrench into the works. As Huffington Post education writer Joy Resmovits explains,

…Earlier this week, LA School Report reported that a super PAC associated with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent $1 million on a group known as the Coalition for School Reform. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has supported Deasy’s efforts, released a statement calling Bloomberg “the most important voice in education reform today,” LA School Report wrote.

The Coalition for School Reform, according to KCET, is an independent expenditure group that has also received money from reform-minded philanthropist Eli Broad. The group has endorsed school board candidates Kate Anderson, Monica Garcia, and Antonio Sanchez, LA School Report wrote last month. The Coalition is sitting on $1.2 million.

The counterweight to the reform block is, naturally, the teachers union. United Teachers of Los Angeles has about $670,000 in its war-chest, according to LA School Report. “We know we’re going to be outspent five-gazillion-to-one,” UTLA veep Gregg Solkovits told the site.

Earlier in February, Solkovits told LA School Report that he wanted to boost UTLA’s coffers with help from the national and state union bodies.

However, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel has been quoted saying that the union would not get involved in this race. But what about the other national teachers union? According to blogger Alexander Russo,

A senior American Federation of Teachers official has acknowledged the request from UTLA, but has not yet responded with details about the union’s decision or the amount of funding that’s going to be shared.

Reticence on AFT’s part is understandable; it may be a bit tapped out, having just spent $6 million on advocacy groups in 2011-2012. As Mike Antonucci reports,

A $1.2 million donation to Californians Working Together, the group formed to support Prop 30, the tax increase ballot initiative, was the national union’s largest single contribution. A host of special interest groups, charities and religious organizations also received money from AFT, including the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, the Economic Policy Institute, and the University of Colorado National Education Policy Center.

These figures do not include grants and contributions made to other unions (such as Colorado WINS) or union coalitions such as the AFL-CIO. For example, AFT contributed $1,150,000 to the AFL-CIO’s State Unity Fund.

Interestingly with just two weeks till the election, the powerful and wealthy California Teachers Association has been uncharacteristically quiet on the LA election.

Also worth noting is that reform-minded LA school superintendent John Deasy has more than a passing interest in the March 5th election: an unfriendly school board can send him packing.

While the three reform candidates running for school board in LA are not reform superstars, they are certainly preferable to their union-friendly opponents. The bigger story though, is that there are people with very deep pockets who are beginning to stand up to the mightiest political force in the country: the teachers unions. And of course, when the teachers unions start losing power, the children of America are all the richer for it.

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.