California’s New, Big, Nonpartisan Political Tent

“In politics, a big tent or catch-all party is a political party seeking to attract people with diverse viewpoints and thus appeal to more of the electorate. The big tent approach is opposed to single-issue litmus tests and ideological rigidity, conversely advocating multiple ideologies and views within a party.

–  Wikipedia, “Big Tent”

Something is happening in California. An unstoppable movement for reform is building, attracting support from conscientious Californians regardless of their age, income, race, gender or political ideology. The metaphor of a “big tent” aptly describes the approach that reform leaders are finally embracing.

The fabric of this big tent is supported by two poles, one representing restoring quality education, the other representing restoring financial health to California’s public institutions. But the big tent metaphor breaks down somewhat if it describes a political party. Because most of California’s reform leaders no longer care who gets it done, or what political party takes credit. They just want to Californian children to get quality educations, and they just want to restore economic opportunity to ordinary citizens.

For years, the powers that oppose education reform and fiscal reform have painted reformers as either Republican fanatics, bent on dismantling government, or Democratic traitors, beholden to “Wall Street Hedge Funds.” But this argument is wearing thin. On the topic of education reform, here are three reasons why Californians, all of them, are waking up:

(1) The Vergara Decision:  This case pits nine Oakland public school students against the State of California, arguing that (a) granting tenure after less than two years, (b) retaining teachers during layoffs based on seniority instead of merit, and (c) the near impossibility of dismissing incompetent teachers, is harming California’s overall system of public education, and is disproportionately harming public education in low income communities. Earlier this year, in a Los Angeles Superior court decision, the judge wrote: “The evidence of the effect of grossly ineffective teachers on students is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” In return, the California Teacher’s Association had this to say in an official press release:

“All along it’s been clear to us that this lawsuit is baseless, meritless, and masterminded by self-interested individuals with corporate education reform agendas that are veiled by a proclamation of student interest” (ref. CTA press release).

Watch the plaintiff’s closing arguments in the Vergara case. Note how the plaintiff’s legal team was actually able to use the testimony of the defendant’s expert witnesses to support their own case.

(2) Parent Trigger Laws:  In 2010, the California State Legislature signed into law the “Parent Empowerment Act.” This law enables parents in failing schools to (a) transfer their child to a higher performing school, (b) permits parents to change policies at an underperforming school if 50 percent of parents sign a petition, and (c) requires the California Dept. of Education to regularly publish a list of the 1,000 worst performing schools in the state. Former State Senator Gloria Romero, the liberal Democrat who is largely responsible for getting passage of the Parent Empowerment Act, writes this week in UnionWatch about how the Los Angeles Unified School District tried and failed to exempt themselves from the law. But government employee unions in California are incredibly powerful, collecting and spending over two billion dollars in taxpayer funded dues per two-year election cycle. They literally can be in all places at all times. Read the slime job someone sympathetic to the union machine entered on Romero’s Wikipedia profile:

“Romero leads the California chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, an interest group funded by Wall Street hedge fund managers who support charter schools.”

(3) Charter Schools:  Here is an example of why claims that “Wall Street hedge fund managers” are somehow hoping to profit from private schools or charter schools (which are not private) are absurdly unfounded. The Alliance College-Ready Public Schools in Los Angeles is a network of 26 high schools, located throughout Los Angeles, which, like nearly all charter schools, consistently delivers superior educational outcomes at a fraction of the cost of union controlled public schools. But the Alliance network is a nonprofit. The capital investments necessary to launch these schools are funded by donations. There is no return on investment. And the benefactors of these schools have no political agenda – they are Democrats, Republicans, and independents. They are a perfect example of California’s new, powerful, big tent.

Financial reform issues are the other pole that supports the big tent. Despite accusations of “hedge fund managers” and “Wall Street” getting behind allegedly phony reform proposals for public education along with fiscal issues such as runaway pension costs, it is actually corrupt financial interests that join with government bureaucrats to perpetuate the abuse and prevent reform. The reason government services are being cut and infrastructure spending is neglected is because unionized government workers receive excessive pay and benefits, crowding out funding for everything else. Wall Street firms underwrite the bonds to cover the deficits and finance deferred maintenance. Wall Street firms (including hedge funds) invest the pension fund assets. People are connecting the dots.

The behavior of powerful government unions, opposing education and fiscal reforms that virtually everyone else supports, is finally exposing them – along with their partners, corrupt financial interests and crony corporations – as the root cause of the most severe challenges facing Californians. This issue is nonpartisan and transcends ideology. The big tent is filling up.

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

The Unapologetic Teachers Unions

The cover of the November 3rd edition of Time Magazine set off a firestorm among union leaders and many their acolytes. The offending picture is of a judge’s gavel about to smash an apple, while the accompanying text reads, “It’s nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher; some tech millionaires may have found a way to change that.”Time magazine cover teachers

The story behind the photo, “The War on Teacher Tenure,” is mostly about the Vergara decision – in which a judge found that the tenure, seniority and dismissal statutes in the California education code are unconstitutional. The article focuses on Vergara’s benefactor – David Welch, a tech titan who has found a second career as an education reformer. It’s an even-handed piece, and one certainly worthy of discussion.

But instead of addressing the merits of the article, teacher union leaders and supporters went ballistic over the mildly provocative cover. American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten said she “felt sick” when she saw it. She promptly organized a protest and circulated a petition demanding an apology from Time Magazine. The AFT claimed the cover “casts teachers as ‘rotten apples’ needing to be smashed by Silicon Valley millionaires with no experience in education.”

To its credit, Time refused to cave in to the protesters, inviting aggrieved parties to respond online instead. The teachers union claque complied, many expressing outrage at the magazine and at education “outsiders” as well. The president of the behemoth National Education Association, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, attacked the “wolves of Wall Street.” Some members of the Badass Teachers Association – a group that claims to represent 53,000 teachers – solemnly intoned, “The gavel as a symbol of corporate education, smashing the apple – the universal symbol of education – reinforces a text applauding yet another requested deathblow to teacher tenure.”

But the regnant themes of outrage and apology demands are a bit much. In fact, maybe it’s the teachers unions that need to do some mea culpas. For example:

  • Maybe AFT’s Weingarten should apologize to Marshall Tuck, who ran unsuccessfully for California School Superintendent. Her union financed a slanderous TV ad showing a businessman stealing a child’s lunch, and because some rich businessmen donated to his campaign, ridiculously asserted that Tuck would allow corporate fat cats to take over our schools. (Because there has been an influx of money from businessmen who are concerned about failing schools, the unions have concluded that school privatization is nigh. It’s a silly argument, but one that the unions try to use to rally teachers.)
  • Maybe the California Teachers Association should apologize for spending teachers’ dues money on union bosses’ personal political choices. CTA ended up spending over $10 million to defeat Tuck. But as teacher union watchdog Mike Antonucci pointed out, with the millions CTA invested in the race, only 31 percent of union households supported Tom Torlakson, while 23 percent backed Tuck and 46 percent were undecided. But the union didn’t seem to care. As Antonucci said, “The answer is that CTA practices representative democracy in reverse. Decisions are made by the small handful of officers and shop stewards who participate in union activities. Then they justify, promote and sell these decisions to the membership-at-large – using the members’ own money to do so.”
  • Maybe Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, should apologize to critics of the Common Core State Standards, which include many teachers. Doing his best thug impersonation at a recent AFT convention, he threatened, “If someone takes something from me (control of the standards), I’m going to grab it right back out of their cold, twisted, sick hands and say it is mine! You do not take what is mine! And I’m going to punch you in the face and push you in the dirt because this is the teachers’!”
  • Maybe CTA should also apologize to the children of California for appealing the Vergara decision that rendered the seniority, tenure and dismissal statutes in the state’s education code unconstitutional. In California, due to the union-inflicted tenure and dismissal statutes, on average just of two “permanent” teachers a year lose their job due to incompetence. That’s two bad apples out of about 300,000. In my almost 30 years in the classroom, there were always at least two teachers (out of 50 or so) at my school alone who shouldn’t have been in the classroom. This is not an anomaly; if you were to go into any school and ask who the incompetents are, you would hear about the same few teachers from faculty, students, their parents, the principal, the assistant principal, guidance counselors, janitors, bus drivers, school secretaries and lunch ladies.

But don’t count on teachers unions to apologize for anything. And don’t expect them to ever willingly surrender any of the onerous work rules that they have foisted on our public schools. Instead, they try to divert attention by whining about a mildly controversial magazine cover, while the rest of us – including parents, serious teachers, community members, Democrats, Republicans and yes, corporate types and tech gurus – must revert to the courts to force reforms on our failing system. American children can’t wait a minute longer for the unions to mend their ways, let alone apologize for them.

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.

Obama Admin Plots New Teacher Training Regulations

Fed up with teacher education programs it believes routinely underperform, the Obama administration wants to compel states to start rating the programs programs based on how well they prepare students for the profession.

And teachers are not happy about it.

Recently, more focus has given to the perceived need to boost the quality of America’s teachers, especially in the country’s most struggling schools. Activists on every side of the debate have pushed a variety of solutions, from restricting tenure so that ineffective teachers can be easily fired to greatly boosting teacher pay so that better teaching candidates are attracted to the profession.

A new rule announced by the Obama administration on Tuesday night attempts to influence teacher quality at the source, in the country’s hundreds of different teacher education programs. The rule will, for the first time, compel each state to establish standards for evaluating and rating training programs for teachers. Programs that are found lacking in each particular state will in turn be punished with the loss of certain federal funds.

Currently, the federal government dispenses TEACH grants to education students who agree to begin teaching in disadvantaged schools after graduating. The grants are up to $4,000 per student and amount to over $150 million per year. Under the newly announced rule, TEACH grants will no longer be universally available, but will instead only be granted to aspiring teachers attending programs that are found to be performing well by their state.

Whether a teacher-training program is up to snuff will be based on a variety of factors, including what percentage of its graduates quickly find jobs, how well the program is evaluated by graduates, and, critically, how well graduates’ students perform on standardized tests.

The proposal to incorporate testing into the evaluation of teacher programs has many traditional Obama allies up in arms. Since students in disadvantaged schools almost always perform worse on standardized tests, they argue, the rule could end up cutting off funds to the programs that are sending the most new teachers into disadvantaged schools.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the country’s second-largest teachers union, swiftly released a statement condemning the plan, saying it showed a lack of vision.

“By replicating the K-12 test-and-punish model…the administration is simply checking a box instead of thoughtfully using regulations to help craft a sustainable solution that raises the bar for the teaching profession,” said AFT president Randi Weingarten. Weingarten added that the administration’s action would be ludicrous if applied to any other field. ”Would you rate the dental school programs that serve low-income communities, where patients come in with a high number of cavities, unsatisfactory? No,” she said.

The National Education Association (NEA), the country’s largest teacher union, was more charitable in its outlook, lauding the desire to improve teacher education but also noting that they “are opposed to the use of flawed tests and value-added measures to make high stakes decisions about students, teachers, or teacher preparation.”

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan defended the government’s proposal, telling the press that test scores are necessary to see whether students are improving under certain teachers. More broadly, he said, a federal nudge was needed because many states are failing to hold teacher education programs accountable in any way.

Foes, however, might be able to use the Department of Education’s own rhetoric against it. In a press release announcing the planned rule, the Department lauded recent efforts in over ten states to either collect more information on their teacher prep programs or hike the admissions requirements at the schools themselves. If so many states are making progress as-is, opponents might reasonably suggest that a federal intrusion is unnecessary and could potentially hinder further innovation at the state level.

Unhappy teachers will have ample time to work against the proposed rule if they so choose. While the final rule publication is planned for 2015, states would only be expected to start gathering the relevant data in 2016, and full implementation with the potential loss of federal funding will only arrive at the end of the decade, as Obama is leaving office.

This article was originally published by the Daily Caller News Foundation

Teachers Now Lack Faith In Common Core Too

One day after a poll showing that a plurality of parents split opinions on Common Core, another survey by Gallup shows that public school teachers are having major doubts about the new multi-state education standards as well.

According to Gallup’s survey, only 41 percent of teachers view Common Core very or somewhat positively.

That’s less than the 44 percent who view it very or somewhat negatively (16 percent have no opinion). After accounting for the margin of error, the poll essentially measures a tie between supporters and opponents of the standards.

That’s a bad sign for Common Core supporters, however, who have fought to defend the standards from a rising tide of opposition by emphasizing their popularity with professional educators. Those who know the most about the standards, they say, are the most enthusiastic about them. If teachers are no more upbeat on Common Core than parents, that claim holds less water.

Supporters can take heart, however, that in states that have progressed the farthest in implementing Common Core, teachers are more likely to view it favorably. In states where Common Core has been fully implemented already, 61 percent of teachers are favorable to it, and just 35 percent view it negatively.

Where the implementation is still a work in progress, only 37 percent think positively of the Core, while 43 percent dislike it. In states that have never used Common Core or have abandoned it, only 26 percent view the standards positively and 59 percent view them negatively.

Those numbers have supporters of the standards sticking to the narrative that familiarity with Common Core breeds support rather than contempt.

“Teachers who have implemented the standards like the standards,” Michael J. Petrilli, president of the pro–Core Thomas B. Fordham Institute, told the Daily Caller News Foundation.

However, it is also possible that Common Core’s stronger reception in states with full implementations simply reflects political realities, with states that are more enthusiastic for the standards also adopting them more swiftly.

Interestingly, opinions differ sharply based on teachers’ grade levels. Elementary school teachers are the most positive on Common Core, with 43 percent viewing it positively and 41 percent negatively. Among high school teachers, however, the situation is reversed, with only 39 percent happy with Common Core and a hefty 49 percent viewing it negatively.

Respondents to the poll had the opportunity to explain in a free response what they thought Common Core’s best and worst aspects were. While Common Core has been touted by supporters for allegedly being more rigorous or encouraging greater critical thinking, 56 percent of teachers said the best aspect of Common Core has nothing to do with its content at all. Instead, they say Common Core’s supreme feature is that it makes standards identical between states, something they view as good regardless of what the standards actually are.

On Common Core’s negative aspects, teachers were far more divided, with five different criticisms garnering between 10 and 15 percent of responses. Teachers faulted Common Core for being unrealistic, for being badly implemented, for placing too much emphasis on standardized tests, and for creating a “one size fits all” approach that hurts student achievement.

The survey was conducted from Aug. 11 through Sept. 7, and had a sample size of 854 public K-12 teachers. The margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points.

This piece was originally published at the Daily Caller News Foundation