Teachers Unions Losing Long War Over Parental Choice

LAUSD school busSupporters of charter schools, homeschooling and other forms of school choice are so used to fighting in the trenches against the state’s muscular teachers unions that they often forget how much progress they’ve made in the last decade or so. Recent events have shown the degree of progress, even if they still face an uphill — and increasingly costly — battle.

The big news came from a local school-district race, although it wasn’t just any school district but the second-largest one in the nation. Charter-school supporters won two school board seats (there’s still some vote counting in one of them) in the massive Los Angeles Unified School District, and handily disposed of the union-allied board president. The race was followed nationally, and set the record for the most money spent on a school-board race in the United States, ever.

The total cost was estimated at $15 million, with charter supporters spending $9.7 million, according to estimates from the Los Angeles Times. Typically, choice supporters get eaten alive by the teachers’-union spending juggernaut. It’s usually good news if our side can at least raise enough money to get the message out, but it’s a shocker — in a pleasant way — to find the charter folks nearly doubled the spending of the union candidates.

Various reformers, including Netflix cofounder and Democrat Reed Hastings, invested serious money in the race. He donated $7 million to one charter group, the Times reported. Another top donor was former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican, who spent more than $2 million. Once again, we saw that this was not some right-wing attack on unions. Victory didn’t come cheap, but it’s hard to understate the importance, from a reform perspective, of having a major school board run by a pro-charter majority.

LAUSD’s school Board President Steve Zimmer led the board in March to make a controversial — and largely symbolic — vote in favor of one of the more noxious school-union-backed bills to get a hearing in the state Capitol. Some charter supporters say Senate Bill 808 could be the death knell for most of the state’s charter schools, yet Zimmer’s support for it appears to have badly damaged his re-election chances. That’s another good-news event.

SB 808 is a brazen attempt to bring charter schools under the total control of local school districts, many of which are hostile to their very existence. According to the Senate bill analysis, “This bill requires all charter school petitions to be approved by the governing board of the school district in which the charter school is located, prohibits a charter school from locating outside its authorizer’s boundaries, and limits the current charter appeal process to claims of procedural violations.”

If educators wanted to create a charter school within any district in California and that district is run by a union-controlled school board that hates charters, then there would no longer will be any real workaround if the bill passes. That’s because the bill would wipe out appeals to the county and state level, except for some minor procedural matters.

Furthermore, the bill would let school boards decommission or reject charter schools if they are a financial burden. As the 74 Million blog reports, “that argument could be made about any charter, as state funds follow students as they leave school districts.” The bill allows the board to revoke a school’s charter upon a variety of broad findings, including any improper use of funds or “sustained departure” from “measurably successful practices,” or “failure to improve pupil outcomes across multiple state and school priorities…”

So, one instance of improper use of funds could shut down a school. Imagine if that standard were applied to the LAUSD itself, given its scandals. Charters succeed because they have the freedom to have a “sustained departure” from the failed union-controlled teaching policies. Under this bill, the core of their success could be cause for their shut down. And no school can always improve pupil outcomes in every category. These things take time, and measurements can be subject to interpretation.

In other words, the bill would place the fate of California’s charter schools in the hands of those most committed to their destruction. Given that the makeup of school boards can change every election, it would destroy any security parents could have in these schools: one successful union board election could mean the beginning of the end for the school, as union-backed boards use these new “tools” to dismantle the competition.

But there is good news. The bill was recently shelved, turned into one of those two-year bills that is technically alive but going nowhere fast. The Democrats control the state Capitol and the California Teachers’ Association arguably is the most powerful force under the dome, but many Democrats representing low-income districts aren’t about to mess with successful charters.

In other words, charter schools have come into their own, and we’re probably well past the point that the unions could so directly stomp them. They’ll do what they can to harass and hobble them, but such frontal attacks remain symbolic. And the courts continue to have their say, and frequently end up siding with the charter-school movement.

For instance, in late April the California Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled in favor of Anaheim parents who want to use the state’s parent-trigger law to turn a traditional public elementary school into a charter school. Under the trigger law, a vote by 50-percent of the student body’s parents can force low-performing schools to change the administration or staff, or revamp themselves into a publicly funded charter with more teaching flexibility.

The school district was adamantly against the change and made various challenges to a 2015 court decision approving the trigger. This is another victory for charter schools in California, although it has to be dispiriting to parents who have to continually fight in the courtroom while their kids get older. It’s been two years since the court approved changes at the school, which already has delayed improved education for two more class years.

But the court’s decision is still encouraging news, as the cultural sands shift in favor of educational alternatives, especially for low-income kids.

California candidates already are lining up for the 2018 gubernatorial race to replace Jerry Brown, who has been friendly to charters. One of the candidates is Delaine Eastin. She’s a close ally of the teachers’ unions. In the early 2000s, when she served as the superintendent of public instruction, Eastin tried to essentially outlaw homeschooling throughout the state.

California’s education code doesn’t directly mention homeschooling. The state’s compulsory education law mentions only an exemption for “children who are being instructed in a private full-time day school by persons capable of teaching … .” Homeschooling parents have long embraced a state-approved work around: They register as small private schools with their respective county boards of education.

Under Eastin’s leadership, however, those homeschools were required to file with the state Department of Education rather than the counties. And then Eastin sent a letter to district officials explaining that homeschooling as it is generally understood (parents without a teaching credential who teach their kids at home) “is not authorized in California, and children receiving homeschooling of this kind are in violation of the state’s truancy laws.”

Yet I talked to Eastin recently and she said she recanted her position long ago after getting quite an education from homeschooling parents. She even described herself as a supporter of charter schools. As with everything, we must follow Ronald Reagan’s advice for dealing with the Soviet Union (“trust, but verify”). But what does it say when one of the most dogged allies of unionized public schools now takes a position acknowledging the importance of parental choice?

It says that we’re making progress. It’s frustrating, plodding and expensive. But such progress should keep charter supporters encouraged as they head into the next round of battles.

This column was first published by the California Policy Center.

School Choice Week Aims to End ZIP Code Mandated Education

 shocked-kid-apYou: I’m going out to dinner tonight.

Me: You are going to the restaurant down the street from where you live, right?

You: No, it’s not very good. I am going to a restaurant across town; it has food more to my liking and superior service.

Me: Uh, uh, you can’t go to that restaurant; you must go to the one closest to your home. It’s the law.

You would proceed to tell me that I am crazy. And I did make a nutty statement, didn’t I? But sadly this is exactly how we deal with education in California and throughout much of the country.

Why do we have Z MESS (ZIP code Mandated Education System) in the 21st century? Because it serves the adults in the education blob, aka, the Big Government-Big Union Complex, that’s why. There is no other reason.

The teachers unions especially are sworn enemies of choice, particularly when it involves privatization. This is totally understandable because, except in rare cases, private schools are independent and not unionized. That’s a major reason why – given a choice – parents frequently opt for private schools. In fact, school choice is really about empowering parents to pick the best school for their kids. As the Friedman Foundation’s Greg Forster points out, “School choice would be a big step toward strengthening the family. It would reassert the primacy of parents over every stage of education until the point where children leave home and gain the rights of adulthood.”

How do the unions try to sell their argument against choice? Feebly.

As a rejoinder to National School Choice Week, which began Sunday, National Education Association writer Tim Walker posted “‘School Choice’ Mantra Masks the Harm of Siphoning Funds from Public Education” on the union’s website. In a piece amazingly devoid of honesty, he rails against charter schools, claiming they are rife with “waste and fraud.” He slimes vouchers, which he refers as “an entitlement program.” (!) He dismisses education savings accounts, asserting that they come with “little or no oversight over student outcomes.” And to top it off, Mr. Walker never gets around to explaining why so many parents avail themselves of choice and eagerly flee the highly regulated, overly bureaucratized, child-unfriendly Big Government-Big Union complex whenever they get the opportunity.

Sillier still is a Huff Po entry by American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. Writing “When Unions Are Strong, Families Are Strong,” she claims that unions like hers are “strengthening our families, schools and economy – at the bargaining table, ballot box and beyond.”

Union-run schools are getting stronger? Only in a perverse sense. That “strength,” as exhibited by restrictive contracts and tenure and seniority mandates, only serves to weaken education and hurt children.

And Weingarten and her cronies show no love for schools that aren’t organized. The wildly popular and successful Washington D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, which serves predominantly poor and minority kids, has battled the union since its inception. As Michael Tanner writes in NRO, “… to preserve the program for the 2016–17 school year, Congress will have to either push through a stand-alone funding bill in the face of ferocious opposition from Democratic lawmakers and the teachers’ unions, or hope to include the funding in some future budget deal.”

Clearly, Weingarten doesn’t give a rip about “strengthening” the families that want to enroll their kids in the DCOSP program. Just the backbones of their union-owned legislators.

Celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday last week, the unions were oozing with platitudes about the civil rights leader. NEA president Lily Eskelsen García penned a piece which refers to King’s “legacy in our classrooms.” While it’s true that there is no way to know how King would have responded to charter schools or voucher programs, his oldest son is convinced his father would approve. In fact, Martin Luther King III spoke at the “Rally in Tally” where over 10,000 people converged on Florida’s Capitol building in Tallahassee to urge the state’s largest teachers union to drop a lawsuit challenging a voucher-like education program that benefits low-income families. The state teachers union, the Florida Education Association, is claiming that “the tax-credit scholarships divert state money away from a quality public education system the state is required, under the Florida Constitution, to provide.”

MLK III said, “I just find it interesting that in our country we have the gall to debate about how our most precious resource – our children – are treated.” He cautioned that he couldn’t say with certainty how his father would feel today, but insisted that he “would always stand up for justice. This is about justice.”

The union, undeterred by the rally, plans to forge ahead with the lawsuit, claiming that the “voucher scheme is not legal.” Matthew Ladner, senior advisor at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, snapped, “If there is a moral difference between redneck governors standing at the school house doors to keep kids out of school with a baseball bat, and union bosses wanting to go into schools to kick kids out of schools with legal baseball bats, the distinction escapes me.”

It escapes me too. But what is inescapable is that we are in the middle of a war which pits parents and kids against teachers unions, at the heart of which is our failing, antiquated way of providing education. It is now time to ignore the teachers unions, straighten up Z MESS and give parents the right to choose the best education for their kids … traditional public, charter or private.

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.

Teachers Union Leaders Want to Kill Off Thriving Charters and Voucher Schools

shocked-kid-apJust last week it was announced in New York City that three failing public schools would be closing. With a total enrollment of 217 students, there really was no other choice. Indeed, it was such a no-brainer that even United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew didn’t threaten anyone with bodily harm over the decision. But Mulgrew’s acquiescence is a rarity for him and other teacher union leaders.

Like a failing business, when a school goes bad it should close. This phenomenon is occurring more and more in big cities, especially when families are given choices. If there is a charter school available that suits their needs, parents will yank their kid out of the failing traditional public school the first chance they get. But the teachers union bosses’ default position is that a failing school should never be closed; a piece on the National Education Association website tries feebly to make that case. Penned by in-house writer John Rosales, “Closing Schools: Privatization Disguised as ‘Accountability’” is typical union claptrap in which shibboleths and lies predominate:

When they close schools, they are closing hospitals, grocery stores and police stations … . This is a human rights issue … . School closings are not isolated incidents but rather a movement toward privatization.

In reality, a public school closes when parents stop sending their kids there because it doesn’t live up to its mission, which is to educate students in a safe environment. In fact, a recent study conducted in Ohio by the Fordham Institute shows – not surprisingly – that displaced students typically receive a better education in a different setting.

Three years after closures, the public-school students had gained, on average, what equates to 49 extra days of learning in reading — gaining more than a year of achievement growth, as measured by state reading exams. In math, they gained an extra 34 days of learning, as measured by state math exams. In the charter sector, displaced students also made gains in math — 46 additional days.

But then again, there are schools that union leaders do think should be shut down – charter schools, especially the non-unionized ones, and especially those run by one Eva Moskowitz. In fact, New York’s UFT has begun that process by calling for a moratorium on new Moskowitz-led Harlem Success Academy charters. The unionistas are ecstatic because they think they finally have something on the operator of 34 extraordinarily successful schools. In late October, it was revealed that one of her schools’ principals had a “to go” list of undesirable kids. The principal was reprimanded by Moskowitz, which should have ended the story. But the unions continue to act as if they’ve discovered the mother lode, which, of course, is silly. Even if Moskowitz is guilty as charged, it should be noted that traditional public schools – with the blessing of the unions – have a long history of removing and transferring undesirables, either to other public, continuation or opportunity schools.

Another example of teachers unions fighting a successful education enterprise is in Washington, D.C. where the Opportunity Scholarship Program has been a raving success. The federally funded program, which has been in the NEA’s crosshairs since its inception in 2004, has led to greater parental satisfaction and school safety, as well as higher graduation rates and test scores than those of the public schools the voucher students had escaped. But despite the program’s success, the DCOSP schools are private and not unionized, and that is what matters to organized labor. The NEA claims that vouchers are not “real” education reform and that “opposition to vouchers is a top priority for NEA.” In 2009, NEA president Dennis Van Roekel wrote a threatening letter to every Democratic member of Congress advising them that NEA “strongly opposes any extension of the District of Columbia private school voucher … program.” And just last week, due to strong union-fueled Democratic opposition and undemanding Republicans, the program was not reauthorized, although its funding has been retained for another year.

So the union fights to knock out successful charters and privatization programs but keep traditional public schools open no matter what miserable failures they are. And they are doing this for the children, of course.

This piece was originally published by UnionWatch.org

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.

Why California is Losing the Competitiveness Race in Education

California’s education establishment dislikes competition but the most recent research shows that, in the education marketplace, competition works.  A March 2011 study by the Foundation for Educational Choice (FEC) analyzed the results of all empirical studies that used the best scientific methods to measure how school-choice vouchers affect the academic outcomes of participating students.  The results should serve as a beacon as California policymakers debate ways to improve the state’s poorly performing government-run school system.

Under voucher programs, a state attaches funding to a student, which he or she can take to the public or private school of his or her choice. The study concluded, “Contrary to the widespread claim that vouchers do not benefit participants and hurt public schools, the empirical evidence consistently shows that vouchers improve outcomes for both participants and public schools.”

According to the FEC study, nine out of the 10 studies found that vouchers improved student outcome measurements such as test scores in the core subjects and graduation rates.  In addition, by increasing competition between public and private schools, voucher programs forced public school systems to improve.

Eighteen of the 19 empirical studies that looked at how vouchers affect public schools found that public schools improved their performance in the face of the increased competition fostered by vouchers.  In fact, every empirical study conducted in states with voucher programs, such as Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida, has found that “voucher programs in those places improved public schools.”  The FEC study said that while there are a variety of reasons why vouchers might improve public school performance, “The most important is that competition from vouchers introduces healthy incentives for public schools to improve.”  Yet, California has erected barriers to widespread competition in education.

Over the last few years, voucher and other pro-school-choice legislation have died in the state Legislature.  Now, with Democrats controlling the Assembly, Senate and the governor’s office, liberal legislators have unleashed a flood of anti-choice bills.  For example, AB 401 by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) caps the number of charter schools, deregulated public schools started by parents, teachers and community organizations.  Ammiano’s bill targets charters despite the reality that they are four times more likely than regular public schools to be among the top 5 percent of schools statewide in student achievement.  Current California regulations also block students from choosing online and virtual education alternatives.

[Read more…]