California’s Public School Chief Says Education No Place For Competition

School educationThe state’s public schools superintendent didn’t hold back in a wide-ranging discussion Thursday night: He raised doubts about the value of charter schools, criticized school districts for the state’s wave of teacher strikes, questioned the severity of public pension debt and insisted the state must spend more to educate its students.

Two months into the new job, Tony Thurmond seems to be exactly the man that his most loyal backers hoped (and his opponents feared) he would be.

In a conversation with CALmatters’ education reporter Ricardo Cano at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, Thurmond talked about how his mother, an immigrant from Panama, died when he was 6, leaving him to be raised by a cousin he never met. He says his family benefited from many government programs to get by, but that “a great public education” was the most vital.

“If it were not for the education, my cousin who took me in, countless mentors, I would easily have ended up in California state prison instead of serving as California’s superintendent of public instruction,” he said. “We owe this to all the students in our state.”

That philosophy, he said, informs his fairly dim view of charter schools, which he characterized as benefiting certain students as the possible expense of others.

“I think there’s a role for all schools,” Thurmond said, including charters—publicly funded but privately managed schools that supporters say offer valuable educational alternatives to children, but which critics say undermine traditional public education. “But I do not believe that the state should ever open new schools without providing resources for those schools. I do not believe that education is an environment for competition.

“Here’s my concern: you cannot open charter schools and new schools to serve every single student in our state,” he continued. “If you take the competition approach, that means some students, a lot of students, will be left behind. And again, I don’t believe that that’s what our mission is. I believe that the promise that we make to each other in society is to provide opportunity to get an education, to live a better life, to be able to acquire what you want through your hard work for yourself and your family. So for me that means that competition is OK in some environments, but when it comes to education we’ve got a responsibility to make sure that every single student gets an education.”

In the 2018 campaign, Thurmond and challenger Marshall Tuck tried to convince voters that they were not as extreme as their opponents sometimes portrayed them to be.

Tuck, with a background in charter schools and over $30 million of charter-backing dollars behind him, stressed his progressive credentials, while Thurmond, supported by teachers’ unions, insisted that he would not be beholden to organized labor.

Thurmond won by 2 percentage points.

Following the teachers’ strike in Los Angeles, where charter school growth has exacerbated tensions in the district, new Gov. Gavin Newsom asked Thurmond to put together a task force to study the fiscal impact that charters have on school districts. Because schools receive state funding on a per-pupil basis, charter skeptics argue that when students transfer to a charter, it leaves traditional schools unable to meet various fixed costs, such as building maintenance and debt.

The task force is composed of public school district superintendents, union representatives and charter school groups. But Thurmond made his position clear.

“There has been, for many districts, a significant fiscal impact and loss of revenue directly attributed to the growth of charter schools,” he said, citing a report from the left-leaning research center In The Public Interest, which estimated that San Diego Unified School district has lost $66 million while Oakland Unified has lost $57 million. “We have to have tough conversations including the fiscal impact of charter growth on the traditional districts and come out in a way where we can do what’s best for all of our students in the state.”

Carlos Marquez, from the California Charter Schools Association, said afterward that allowing districts to deny charter applications based on financial criteria creates “a backdoor moratorium on new schools” and a “blunt instrument for school districts to methodically close down existing high-quality charter schools.”

Disputing the numbers Thurmond citied, he said the underlying problem facing districts is not charters, but insufficient funding.

“I have to believe that part of the debate around fiscal impact and the appropriate role and the appropriate rate of growth for charter schools is mostly being dictated by the environment of scarcity that we’re all living in,” he said. “We have not met the challenge in California of fully funding our public schools—and that’s a place where we can call agree.”

True enough, Thurmond pointed to insufficient state funding as the source of virtually all that ails the state’s public school system.

“We are still 41st in the nation in per-pupil spending,” he said, a number that takes into account the cost of living in each state. “No matter what you do, until you resolve that, we’re going to continue to see challenges.”

Among the challenges he blamed on a lack of funding:

  • The achievement gap between disadvantaged and privileged kids. As CALmatters has reported, less than a quarter of black and Latino students in California are meeting state math standards on statewide tests.
  • The decline in enrollment in unaffordable districts like Palo Alto. When a public school board member from East Palo Alto asked what the state could do to help the district cope financially with declining enrollment rates, Thurmond pointed to the need for workforce housing and magnet schools, but ultimately, he said “clearly we need more funding.”
  • The disparity in the ability of local school districts to borrow. According to a CALmatters analysis, the wealthiest school districts are in some cases able to borrow more than 300 times as much as low-income districts to fund the repair and expansion of buildings. Thurmond’s response: “I don’t know that districts can do it all by themselves,” arguing that the state should kick in more to even things out.
  • The recent teachers strikes in Oakland and Los Angeles, as well as the ongoing financial difficulties at the Sacramento City Unified School District. “There’s not much to cut,” he said of Sacramento. “Unless something miraculous happens, that’s a district that is also going to need a financial bailout from the state.”

But Thurmond also blamed the recent flare-up of labor action across the state on a longstanding lack of trust between teachers’ unions and the school district administrators. And the fault primarily lies with the administrators, he said. Before serving in the state Assembly, Thurmond was a West Contra Costa Unified school board member, and he helped mediate the recent strike in Oakland.

“There is a history in the state, and maybe in the country, of times when school boards would sort of hide the revenue that was available…as a way of avoiding having to negotiate salaries,” he said.

“That is not representative of the conduct of the vast majority of the roughly one thousand school districts across the state,” said Troy Flint of the California School Boards Association. But he also agreed with Thurmond that the primary issue is funding.

“The battle is not between labor and management. The focus needs to be on our legislators and leaders in Sacramento, and forcing them to confront the fallout from being 41st in the nation in school funding,” he said.

On the issue of pensions and health care costs for retired teachers—a growing source of financial stress for many districts—Thurmond insisted the solution was not to cut the benefits owed to employees.

“Everyone deserves a pension,” he said. “I think we’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to pay for it.”

He added that he has formed a task force to identify new sources of funding. One idea: reform the state constitution so that commercial property owners pay property taxes based on the market value of their property, rather than the purchase price.

That tax tweak to Proposition 13, known as “split roll” will be on the ballot in 2020.

Listen to the full discussion here.

This article was originally published by CalMatters.org

Teachers Unions Not Yet Hobbled by Supreme Court Ruling

Charter schoolThe U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision in the Janus v. AFSCME case that public employees couldn’t be compelled to pay union dues was widely seen as a game-changing moment in U.S. politics.

The coverage on The Atlantic website was typical. It called the decision, which stemmed from a lawsuit brought by Illinois state employee Mark Janus, a “huge blow” to public sector unions and suggested the decision had the potential to “end” such unions in America.

But five months later, the experience of the most powerful public employee union in the nation’s largest state undercuts the assumption that Janus would take a quick toll on unions’ clout. In supporting Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, for state superintendent of public education against Marshall Tuck, the California Teachers Association spent $16 million as of Oct. 31 – $5 million more than it did in the entire 2014 superintendent election, where the union supported incumbent Tom Torlakson over Tuck, a former Los Angeles school executive with deep support from charter school advocates and a loose coalition of tech billionaires.

Torlakson narrowly defeated Tuck. This election, Tuck and Thurmond have been trading the lead in recent days. With millions of votes yet to be counted, no journalism organization has called the race.

The CTA does not issue regular updates on its membership status. But a recent Sacramento Bee analysis suggested that the union, as in previous years, had 90 percent membership among the 325,000 teachers it represented. So while it’s lost dues from the 10 percent of teachers who reject union membership, the CTA still collects more than $150 million in dues annually – making it the most powerful force in the California Democratic Party.

Union clout to be tested in coming fight over funding

The extent of the CTA’s clout is likely to be tested soon – whether Thurmond or Tuck is elected. That’s because both have said they oppose one of Torlakson’s most controversial, union-favoring decisions: His 2015 announcement that the extra funding going to schools with disproportionate numbers of English learners, foster children and impoverished students could be spent on general needs, such as raises for teachers.

Torlakson’s decision, which overrode a directive from a lower-ranking official in the state Department of Education, spurred outrage in education reform circles. The Local Control Funding Formula – the 2013 state law changing how districts were allocated state dollars – had been pitched as creating a lock-box of dollars that would be spent only on helping underachieving students.

But Torlakson’s decision had the effect of turning the local-control funding into a de facto block grant. Many districts have used the funds for employee raises.

If Thurmond or Tuck revive the lock-box theory of how the funds can be spent, that’s likely to create huge headaches for most school districts, which have received an average of $8 billion a year in local-control dollars since the law took effect.

Newsom close with both teachers unions and reformers

A key factor in the coming fight over funding is the position taken by Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, who was strongly backed by the CTA but is also friends with the tech tycoons who want education reform. The governor’s control over parts of the Department of Education’s budget gives him a powerful lever to use on the state superintendent.

On the campaign trail, Newsom said teachers are underpaid and schools are underfunded. But he’s also rejected Gov. Jerry Brown’s claim that education reform is a “siren song” in which trends come and go but schools never get better. In interviews, Newsom has noted the success of education reform in union states like Massachusetts and New Jersey.

It’s unclear when the count of the Thurmond-Tuck vote will be complete. But the recent statewide election with the most parallels to the race offers encouragement for Thurmond, a former social worker.

In the 2010 attorney general’s race, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, a Republican, took such a substantial early lead over San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris that the San Francisco Chronicle pronounced him the winner on election night. But as millions of provisional and late ballots were counted, the tide turned steadily toward the union-backed Democrat. Three weeks later, Cooley conceded when Harris’ lead topped 50,000 votes. Harris ended up winning by more than 74,000 votes – about 1 percent of total voters.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

California school superintendent race: Democratic reformer vs. union ally

Marshall TuckThe 2018 race for state superintendent of public instruction may not have an incumbent but is likely to feel like an encore of the 2014 race, pitting a Democrat aligned with the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers against a Democrat who backs reforms opposed by the unions.

In 2014, Tom Torlakson – a former teacher and state lawmaker – won a second term, touting higher graduation rates and somewhat better test scores. He defeated former Los Angeles charter school executive Marshall Tuck 52 percent to 48 percent in a race in which $30 million was reportedly spent, triple the campaign spending in that year’s quiet governor’s race.

With the strong support of wealthy Los Angeles area Democrats who have been fighting for changes in L.A. Unified and who remember the job he did running Green Dot charters, Tuck is running again.

Subbing for termed-out Torlakson is Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, who has worked closely with teachers unions on many fronts – most notably joining in maneuvering last summer that helped kill a tenure reform bill that had gotten off to a strong start in the Legislature. He has also opposed efforts to more closely monitor how education dollars are being spent under the Local Control Funding Formula. The law was supposed to be used specifically to help districts with high numbers of English language learners, students in foster care and students from impoverished families to improve their academic performance. But civil rights groups say the extra dollars often have been used for general spending, including for teacher raises.

Thurmond was also among lawmakers who expressed interest in helping teachers deal with California’s high housing costs, proposing legislation to award $100 million in rental grants to teachers in need. It didn’t advance.

Tuck may have better shot than when he challenged incumbent

The conventional wisdom is that Tuck has a better chance than in 2014 because Thurmond has much lower name recognition than Torlakson. But that could be erased with a heavy television ad run by the teachers unions using the same anti-Tuck themes as in 2014: Making the argument that the charter schools he led are part of a corporate scheme to take over public education.

If Tuck, 44, gets his way, the debate will focus on his reform agenda – the idea that charters serve as healthy competition for regular schools; the need for much better oversight of how the Local Control Funding Formula is used; adopting teacher tenure reform; and accountability standards that make it easier to judge whether a school is improving.

Thurmond’s website emphasizes his view of California educators doing battle with President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over what he describes as their intent to “gut” and “defund our public schools.” Thurmond, 49, a military veteran who was a social worker before running for office, also said teachers need “bonuses and other incentives” to address the shortage of qualified instructors.

Complicating the Tuck-Thurmond race is the likelihood that for the first time in the 21st century, a prominent Democratic gubernatorial candidate is running as an anti-union reformer – which could make schools a more prominent issue in the 2018 election cycle than is normal.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who repeatedly tangled with the United Teachers Los Angeles while seeking authority over L.A. Unified, has already won the endorsement of the state Democratic lawmaker recognized as the leader of education reform efforts: Assemblywoman Shirley Weber of San Diego.

The CTA endorsed Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom in the governor’s race and Thurmond for superintendent in October. The CFT did as well in December.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com