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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.

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.

Fake Teacher Evaluation Racket is Busted in Los Angeles

Parents sue the LA school board and teachers union, forcing them to obey a law that they have ignored for 40 years.

There is nothing new about unions bullying weak-kneed school districts, but this may be the mother of all abuses– for forty years, school districts and unions have collaborated to break the law in California. According to the Stull Act (Section 44660 of the state’s education code), part of a teacher’s evaluation is required to include a student achievement component, but this has not happened anywhere in the state. Last week, after consulting with EdVoice, a reform advocacy group in Sacramento, parents of some students in Los Angeles Unified School District sued the school district and teachers union for what amounts to a dereliction of duty. While the lawsuit is aimed at LA, it will have state-wide ramifications.

Originally enacted in 1971, the Stull Act, named after State Senator John Stull, was amended in 1999 to include,

“The governing board of each school district shall evaluate and assess certificated employee performance as it reasonably relates to:

The progress of pupils toward the standards established pursuant to subdivision (a) and, if applicable, the state adopted academic content standards as measured by state adopted criterion referenced assessments….”

In other words, a part of a teacher’s evaluation is supposed to be contingent on how well his students do on state mandated tests. This is hardly a radical notion, as half the states in the rest of the country now evaluate teachers in part by student performance on these tests.

But in California, what are laughingly referred to as “teacher evaluations” are anything but. A “Stull” is typically a very rare and brief visit from a principal who helps plan the lesson they will observe and lets the teacher know exactly when the observation will be. And all the while, the teacher is prepping his kids to be at their absolute best when the principal steps into the classroom for the evaluation. Invariably everything goes swimmingly. So consistently good are the results of these Potemkin Village-style “evaluations” that over 99 percent of teachers get a satisfactory rating.

Teachers unions think that linking student performance to a teacher’s evaluation is a grave injustice and have always fiercely opposed it. (In reality, holding a teacher accountable for student learning is about as unjust as holding a chef responsible for the food he cooks.) This may be an understandable position for teachers unions which have never demonstrated any real concern for students, but what about the folks who sit at the other end of the bargaining table? What is the excuse for the school boards? Are they all that easily cowed by union bullies? Or are they part of a club that has forgotten their mission? Are they corrupt? Can they be ignorant of the law? Some or all of the above?

In any event, with judicial lights shining brightly, the jig is up…sort of. What the education code does not stipulate is how much weight to give the student performance component. Therein lies the rub. Without doubt, the teachers unions will negotiate to minimize it to near zero, with little or no consequence for the bottom performing teachers. (To the unions, there is no such thing as a bad teacher, and they’ve rigged the system so that getting rid of a stinker is about as prevalent as the occurrence of Halley’s Comet.)

If the intent of this lawsuit is seriously embraced, it could have a major impact in California, where a third of all students drop out before completing high school and a great majority of those who do graduate and go on to college need remediation. Will school boards finally man up and take action to reverse a forty year shame? Or will they cower and cave, yet again, to union demands and turn their backs on the children of California.

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.