Leaders who don’t protect students from predators violate public trust

As a former counselor in a facility for teenagers who had been physically and sexually abused, I witnessed the indelible impact of this abuse on young men and women. As I read the stories about the sexual abuse scandal at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles Unified, I remembered these young people and the destruction that twisted adults had wrought on their lives. Then I waited for the calls for reform from those with the power to make changes.

After all, the allegations are monstrous. The possibility that school officials may have known about the sexual abuse and done nothing is appalling. The fact that the Los Angeles Unified had to pay an alleged pedophile $40,000 to leave the school rather than spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to follow teacher dismissal laws is unbelievable. Worst of all is the knowledge that this situation could have been prevented by lawmakers in Sacramento.

Three years ago, the Los Angeles Times documented multiple cases of teachers who had abused students with little or no consequences. The articles revealed how the ten-step, state-mandated dismissal process for certificated staff including teachers (all other employees have the normal legal protections against arbitrary dismissal) protects abusive and incompetent adults from any accountability. Yet, instead of fixing these laws, most of the Sacramento power structure yawned and waited for the outrage to dissipate rather than confront their supporters in the statewide teachers unions. As a result, we have Miramonte.

Defenders of the current system like to argue that Miramonte is an isolated situation. But those who have been in school systems know that this is far from the truth. Recently, I talked with an attorney who had represented districts in dismissal cases. He shared story after story of high-cost cases to remove teachers who had either physically or sexually abused students – including male teachers who had raped impressionable female students and called their actions “relationships.” In these cases, the districts had been willing to spend millions to use the dismissal process with no guarantee of success.

I shared with him a story about a health-class teacher who was physically aggressive and sexually forward toward students. Despite student and parent complaints, nothing happened. The standard advice from our attorneys to school leaders was, “document the incidents and create an improvement plan.” For experienced school administrators who had already tried these steps, this advice was laughable. Finally, I received a report of a new problem. A female student complained that he had taught her class wearing loose shorts and no underwear so that his privates were clearly visible. Based on this complaint, our lawyers agreed to “counsel him out.”

Now, when a system has become so degraded that the threshold for “counseling out” of the profession is not job performance, but the exposure of one’s privates to a classroom of teenagers, there is clearly a need for change. This situation, Miramonte, and the earlier cases documented by the L.A. Times should raise troubling questions for those lawmakers protecting the current system. How many more teachers with similar histories have been “counseled out” and ended up in other schools? How many have had their records expunged and continued to teach? How many have been transferred or made their way to high-need schools in poor and immigrant communities where the parents may be less aware and more trusting?

Similar questions have been raised in other abuse scandals in powerful institutions such as the Catholic Church and Penn State. Like those cases, defenders of the current system talk about the importance of due process and assail anyone recommending reform for “attacking the profession.” In this instance, the accusation will be that critics are “bashing teachers.” In any context, these arguments lack credibility.

Not only is the existing system bad for students and communities, it is fundamentally bad for the teaching profession. First, the millions of dollars spent trying to remove a few bad apples and training administrators on the ten-step dismissal process could and should be spent on instructional improvement. Second, the predictable futility of the ten-step process undermines the credibility of the evaluation system overall. Most importantly, given the likelihood of similar cases coming to light, lawmakers should be making every effort to reform the system to prevent future collateral damage to the profession.

Senate Bill 1530 by Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla would do a great deal to fix this situation by modifying the existing dismissal process for teachers accused of serious misconduct including sex, violence, or drugs. (A broader bill by Republican Sen. Bob Huff that would have encompassed a wider array of misconduct and abuse accusations failed to get out of committee.) SB 1530 has the support of children’s advocates, school districts including LAUSD, and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office. Predictably, it is opposed by both statewide teachers unions. Sadly, it has the silence of many of their key allies, including our most powerful education leaders: Governor Jerry Brown, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and Speaker of the Assembly John Perez.

Now that the bill has moved out of the Senate and into the Assembly, its opponents will work hard to defeat it. They will lobby their longtime allies and the chairs of important committees. They will work to derail the bill with the aid of longtime legislative staffers who have always prioritized their friends in the CTA over any other interest. And if all else fails, they will take their case to the governor.

For the average citizen, taxpayer, and voter, it must boggle the mind that Sacramento would even be debating this; that this situation wouldn’t have been fixed years ago; and that our most powerful elected leaders won’t commit to fixing it now. Now many of these same leaders and other legislators will be stumping around the state asking the citizens of California to trust them to spend their money, fix the budget crisis, and solve a host of other problems. Of course, the average citizen might ask in return, If we can’t trust you to protect our children from adults involved in sex, violence, and drugs in our schools, how can we trust you on anything at all?

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust–West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading http://americansleepandbreathingacademy.com/cost/ specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

Persuade, not threaten, me to vote for your initiative, Governor

A few Saturdays ago, my kids and I walked through a crowd of signature gatherers for ballot initiatives outside Trader Joe’s. Some of them all but tackled me as they pitched their proposals. All of them promised more money for education and a better future for my children. Unfortunately for the signature gatherers’ bottom line, I didn’t have time to stop. My children and their school had more immediate needs. We were on our way to a Dance-A-Thon, one of many “-thons” that California parents have organized to raise money for their schools.

It’s hard not to smile when you see a hundred kids dancing the Electric Slide. They’re so happy and innocent, they make you happy, too. But after an afternoon of dancing, they started getting tired and I started wondering, “Why are our children dancing non-stop for four hours to raise a couple of hundred bucks to offset the impact of the state budget deficit? How did we get into this mess and how are we going to get out of it?”

I probably wasn’t the only parent having those thoughts. I’m sure I wasn’t the only parent who’d been hit up that morning to support an education ballot initiative. The promise of the ballot initiatives is pretty tempting for public school parents who have seen the impact of budget cuts, dipped into their pockets to pay for after-school programs, and devoted an increasing amount of family time to fundraising. After a while, you’ll sign on to anything or support anyone who promises to stop the pain. That’s what Governor Brown is counting on when his tax initiative is up for a vote in November.

Still, like many Californians, the closer it gets to November, the more I’ll be thinking about that vote and what it means – just as I thought long and hard before voting in 2010 for Jerry Brown.

More than anything, I want to know whether the funding will benefit my children’s high-poverty school. I want to know that the money will be targeted to restore all the supports and services that have been eliminated over the last five years. I’d like to hear whether the governor has a positive vision for improving California’s education system and closing achievement and opportunity gaps. I want to know if he truly cares about making sure all kids have great schools and effective teachers. I want to hear whether he understands the hopes and dreams of the parents and youth living in a majority-minority state and an increasingly globalized world.

In all of these areas, I’m not getting many answers from our governor. When he ran in 2010, I read his education plan and believed his promises to use his long experience to bridge the partisan divide, fix California’s budget deficit, and end the use of budget gimmicks. Now, after seeing him fail to cross the partisan divide or fix the budget crisis, and watching him propose a set of budgets that include some of the worst gimmicks in state history, I’m not as trusting.

This lack of trust seems warranted even when the governor appears to be doing the right thing. For example, his weighted student formula (WSF) proposal would send education funding to school districts based on student need and fix longstanding inequities between rich and poor districts. This could be beneficial for high-need schools. Yet, the governor and his advisers have failed to include basic principles of financial transparency, accountability, and school-level authority on how the dollars are spent. In practice, this means that state dollars will flow to school districts with few assurances on how they will be spent at the school level or fix funding inequities between rich and poor schools. The governor won’t even fully implement the WSF model unless his ballot initiative passes and the state has paid off other funding owed to school districts.

And that brings me back to the signature gatherers. Supporters of the governor’s initiative portray it as a way to increase education funding. But when I try to figure out how this initiative is going to benefit my children’s school, I can’t tell. The only thing I have to go by is the governor’s budget, which projects over $5 billion in cuts to schools if I don’t vote for his initiative.

Now, the billions in cuts to schools terrify me, but a couple of things disturb me about this approach. First, the governor has failed to provide any positive reason or offer any educational vision that would move me, as a parent, to want to vote for his initiative. Instead, he is essentially telling me and every other parent in California, “I will cut your child’s school funding if you don’t vote for my initiative.” Now, I’ve heard that the governor is delivering similar strong messages of pain to any major interest group that doesn’t back his initiative or shows interest in an alternative initiative being promoted by the philanthropist and civil rights activist Molly Munger. And maybe this will work for him. But telling me that you’re going to punish my children, their classmates, and our school if I don’t support your initiative doesn’t really work for me.

In contrast, Munger provides a real vision for educational improvement. Her proposal sends the money directly to schools with additional dollars to high-need students. It requires financial transparency and stakeholder involvement in decision-making at the school level. It asks for shared sacrifice from all taxpayers. And it can tell me exactly how much additional money our Oakland school will receive in the coming years. These are the very elements that Brown’s weighted student formula proposal and ballot initiative don’t include. For parents focused on their kids and schools and advocates focused on equity, it is an attractive approach. Now that it is going to be on the ballot in November, perhaps our governor should spend less time fighting it, and more time learning from it. That would be in his best interest and certainly in the best interests of the state he was elected to govern.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust-West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

San Francisco Unified blazes civil rights path for California districts to follow

As an education civil rights organization, we are far more accustomed to seeing school districts violate the rights of underserved students to a quality education than protect them from harm. But sometimes a school district’s leadership takes such a strong and courageous stance on behalf of their most vulnerable students that it takes your breath away. This was the type of courage shown by Superintendent Carlos Garcia and five members of the San Francisco Unified School Board when they voted to protect 14 of their highest-poverty schools from teacher layoffs in the coming year.

Last year The Education Trust-West published a report, Victims of the Churn, that revealed that high-poverty schools in California were far more likely to experience teacher layoffs. Because layoffs are typically based on seniority, the least senior teachers are “bumped” out of their positions by teachers with more experience. And because high-poverty schools tend to be staffed with younger teachers, they turn out to be the biggest losers in this process. The victims of this arbitrary and bureaucratic system are teachers and the vulnerable students and communities they serve.

For years it has been clear that this “churn” was disproportionally damaging high-poverty schools that were trying to improve, but few leaders were willing to risk the political damage of taking an alternative approach. Fortunately, advocates for low-income students began to see that this system was inequitable and had to change.

In Los Angeles Unified, an outcry from teachers and students in the district’s highest-poverty schools prompted the American Civil Liberties Union and Public Counsel to file a groundbreaking lawsuit to protect students from the disproportionate impact of layoffs. In these schools, students faced a constant revolving door of instructors. Teachers who designed plans for school improvement were laid off before their plans could be implemented. Students saw their dreams of college shattered as critical courses disappeared. The resulting settlement (known as “Reed”) protected dozens of schools from the impact of layoffs and has been supported by a broad range of civil rights groups.

Similarly, last year in Sacramento Unified, the superintendent and board protected five of their highest-poverty schools from the impact of layoffs. Each of these schools had a history of low performance and made extensive plans for school improvement. All of them would have been devastated by the normal layoff process with significant collateral damage to their students and communities.

These examples cracked open the door for districts around the state to take an alternative approach. With its move, San Francisco has pushed the door open. To Superintendent Garcia and the board’s credit, they did not make this decision arbitrarily. They looked at schools with a history of low performance and high turnover. They focused on schools where they had invested significant school improvement efforts, teacher training, and funding to increase student performance and close achievement gaps. These are schools that have shown improvement over the course of the past several years, where teachers and communities deserve the chance to build on their good work.

The critics of this approach argue that it will force layoffs onto other schools. These same critics often like to point out that the real problem with student and school performance is poverty. Well, if poverty is the problem, then what could be more important than creating stable learning environments for our highest-poverty students? And wouldn’t we want to make sure, in the name of equity, that we gave our low-income students every advantage they needed to beat the odds, close achievement gaps, and succeed?

For me, this is not an academic exercise disconnected from the day-to-day reality of schools. I taught in one of these protected schools. I know what it means to the students and community to shield them from further harm. As an administrator in San Diego Unified School District, I participated in the implementation of multiple layoff processes that devastated our district’s poorest schools. The process made me sick and I wished at that time that we could have done something different. Over the last several years, I have watched states such as Colorado pass laws to change their layoff processes to require districts to consider the “best interests” of students. Sadly, I know that there’s little hope of our leaders in Sacramento having the courage to make similar changes.

By taking this bold step to shield their highest-need schools from layoffs, San Francisco’s leadership prioritized the interests of their most vulnerable students. They have shown the leaders of every school district in California from Oakland to San Diego that there is another way. Let’s hope their courage is infectious.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust-West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have two children in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

A blank check to Sacramento would be a Dickens of a bad deal

Back when I was working in schools in New England, we had snow days. In California, our kids have “budget cut days.” Unlike the snow days, there’s no surprise or joy to them and they never get made up. Once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. For those kids who need them the most, like the hundreds of thousands of students in our state who are learning English, the learning time is irretrievably lost.

This November, California voters are going to be asked to vote for ballot initiatives to tax themselves and the rich to raise more money for education. In the coming months, the proponents of these initiatives will serenade us with stories of cuts to the school year, increasing class sizes, and disappearing education services while our state’s wealthiest citizens live high on the hog. I can see the commercials already ­– a sad child staring out of the screen, begging voters, “Please sir. Tax the rich so I can have a future.” Based on recent polls, Californians are poised to respond to these messages and pass the initiatives.

Maybe it’s my repeated viewings of A Christmas Carol this past holiday season (or my experience working in districts and Sacramento), but the more I learn about these initiatives, the more I’ve been shouting “Bah, Humbug!” Call me a Scrooge, but for years I’ve been hearing Sacramento insiders complain that the problem with California is that we voted for initiatives that tied their hands. Now, these same folks have decided that the best way to fix everything is to pass another initiative.

Give me a break. I’ve seen the Ghosts of Novembers past, and no matter how many of their initiatives I’ve voted to pass, things haven’t gotten better for the majority of our state’s communities and their kids.

Look at the state of education in California. It’s positively Dickensian. For the most part, the adults who’ve been in the system the longest are doing quite well. Our wealthy districts protect their schools through their foundations, parcel taxes, and excess property taxes. Our poor districts, which have the students with the greatest needs, take the brunt of the budget cuts. Our teachers, especially those who have been in the system the longest, are among the best paid in the nation. Down at the other end of the salary scale, our young teachers get laid off or bumped from school to school no matter how effective they are in the classroom. In some districts, school employees get lifetime health benefits for themselves and their families. Meanwhile the school health clinics that serve our poorest neighborhoods are shuttered and school nursing positions eliminated. Everywhere you look, the social safety net inside and outside our schools has been shredded.

Dickens was a tireless crusader against the stark income inequality of his time. A Christmas Carol is an allegory about the negative impacts of severe income inequity – with Ebenezer Scrooge serving as the original representative of the “1%.” The proponents of upcoming ballot initiatives argue that taxing California’s Scrooges will restore our education system, thereby restoring our best path to income equality. But anyone who’s spent any time at school board meetings knows that the interests of children – especially the children in poverty and their families – are down near the bottom of the list, after the interests of the adult groups who got the board members elected. Give districts more money and sure, they might restore school days, summer school, and intervention programs for our state’s millions of Tiny Tims – but only after they’ve finished satisfying pent-up salary demands, backfilling pension and benefit obligations, increasing their reserves, paying off early retirement incentives, and recalling employees by seniority.

Reforms part of the package

Let me be clear. Given the cuts over the last five years, I strongly believe that we need to pass a ballot initiative to restore school funding. But giving a blank check to a bunch of guys in Sacramento whose first response to any question of policy is “What does CTA think?” and who cut many of the deals that got us into this mess – is not the answer.

If our leaders want taxpayers to pony up, they should commit to major reforms as part of the package. They ought to have an answer to those people who have no problem paying more taxes so our children can have a better life but sure as hell don’t want to pay more taxes so a bunch of well-placed adults can have a better life than they have. They ought to be able to tell us with complete transparency where our money is going and commit to making sure that 100 percent of it flows directly to schools based on the needs of their students. They should promise to stand up to their special-interest backers and pass the reforms necessary to fix our education system and keep our best teachers in the classroom, regardless of seniority – so we know our money isn’t wasted.

The Ghost of Christmas Future told Scrooge that the future wasn’t written yet. He had the opportunity to change it by reforming how he acted in the present. The same holds true for our leaders in Sacramento and for California voters. Otherwise, the future is guaranteed to look a lot like the present.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

We should never waver from an opportunity to do what’s best for kids

It’s become pretty commonplace to bash the federal government’s role in education. Barely a day goes by without someone taking a jab at the Feds, attacking federal education policy and calling for more local control. When I hear those attacks, I remember Lynn.

I met Lynn in the hills of Western Pennsylvania. I’d come to her community to serve as a Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA). I had no idea what I was getting into. The community was a dumping ground for tens of thousands of former residents of shuttered “mental” institutions. Like Lynn, most were in their fifties and sixties and had never learned to read or even write their name. They were desperate for help from anyone in the outside world. Unfortunately for them, their needs far exceeded the limited capacity of a 23-year-old idealist with a bachelor’s degree in government. I couldn’t imagine how they could have ended up like this.

Ten years later, I found the answer to my question in a graduate school lecture on the history of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Our professor began with a short 1972 film by an investigative reporter named Geraldo Rivera (yes, that Geraldo) about the Willowbrook school. The images were grotesque and unforgettable: naked men, women, and children with disabilities packed in rooms in horrific conditions. Most of them had “intellectual disabilities” and many had been taken from their families at birth. In those images, I saw the people I’d worked with in Western Pennsylvania. They were Lynn two decades earlier.

Like the fight to end racial segregation, the fight to end the segregation of people with disabilities took the hard work of parents, lawyers, and activists. But just like all great civil rights movements, real change came after the federal government got involved and passed comprehensive legislation. During the debates over the federal role in both fights for civil rights, proponents of local control raised hell and decried federal interference in the decision making of states and local school boards.

Now, this may seem like ancient history. But I have a whole list of names I think about after Lynn. In 1995, there was “David,” the first young man with Down syndrome in his community to be included in his local high school. I was “David’s” paraprofessional and his mother used federal law to get “David” into the school and then into the classes he needed to graduate.

In 1998, there was “Juan,” a young boy from El Salvador and the focus of my first IEP (Individualized Education Program) student as a teacher in California. He could barely talk because he’d been severely physically abused but was a sweet and gentle child. Yet, neither of the two second grade teachers at his school wanted him in their class because he had a disability. They said this in front of his mother, who fortunately couldn’t understand them because she didn’t speak much English. When our principal heard about the meeting, he called us in and furiously told the teachers that no one had the right to choose whether they would teach Juan or any child.

In 2006, there was “Marcus,” a young African American student in the Los Angeles Unified School District who had been labeled emotionally disturbed and sent to a non-public school for children with behavioral problems. When we reviewed his records, we found “Marcus” had a clean behavioral record until his parents divorced and he changed schools. Yet, instead of giving him short-term counseling , his IEP team wanted him out of their school. At the time, I worked for the federal court and because of our research exposing dozens of cases like “Marcus,” the district was forced to fix its evaluation process. Two years later, there were more than a thousand fewer students identified as emotionally disturbed, many of them African American males like “Marcus.”

Most recently, in 2008, there was “Angel” and her five classmates who had just completed a post-high school diploma project. Their teacher brought them to my office to tell me, the person who supervised special education in the district, that they all had been labeled “non-diploma bound” because of their learning disabilities. I looked into the issue and found that thousands of their peers had been similarly labeled, some as early as preschool. Shortly after that, we made sure that students with disabilities couldn’t have their dreams of a high school diploma cut short at an early age by an adult decision. Again, this was 2008, not 1975.

Sometimes the need for a hammer

In each of these cases, change would not have happened without the power of federal education legislation combined with the local activism of parents, principals, students, teachers, and the courts. The proponents of local control argue that everything will be fine if they’re given the freedom to make decisions. But the fact is that these decisions are dependent on the values of the people making them.

I have known many great teachers, principals, and administrators. I’ve also known those at the other end of the spectrum and everything in between. Our state and federal education laws and the way they play out locally are a reflection of that reality. In the end, the good ones don’t need the laws. They have the moral compass to do the right thing. For those in between, the law is often the excuse for doing the right thing. And for those on the other end of the spectrum, they’re the hammer used by the first group and external advocates to stop terrible things from happening to kids.

Despite all the bashing it’s taken over the last decade, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has worked in much the same way, both for children with disabilities and other “minority” groups. NCLB did something that many states were long unwilling to do: assess the performance of their students who truly had been left behind by our education system – African Americans, Latinos, English learners, and children with disabilities. And NCLB said it wasn’t good enough to just look at school performance. It forced states and districts to work to fix the schools that were failing. And like IDEA, NCLB has armed advocates at all levels, especially leaders within school systems, to shift the focus of educators to the performance of students who had long been underserved.

The flaws of NCLB’s targets and accountability system have been well documented. But its basic principle – accountability for performance of all groups within a school system – was a major step forward from a civil rights perspective. That is why nearly every major civil rights and disability rights organization signed onto a letter criticizing the removal of such accountability from the recent revision of NCLB that emerged from the U.S. Senate. On the other side, opposition to the federal civil rights role in education and many of the recent education initiatives of the Obama Administration includes many of the original opponents of the federal role. As Kevin Chavous recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, the success of this strange marriage of interests between teachers unions and the far right would be a disaster for our children.

In contrast, by providing states with the opportunity for a waiver from NCLB under a strict set of criteria, the Obama Administration has presented a true opportunity for positive changes on behalf of students. Through a waiver, California has the chance to develop a new vision of accountability for the performance of student groups on a broader range of performance indicators that both reward school success and address persistent failure. A waiver offers the possibility for developing a vision for parental and community empowerment in fixing our most broken schools. A quality application for a waiver could put California in the forefront of national thinking on how to build a college- and career-ready education system that results in improved outcomes for all our students, particularly those who have been underserved.

To date, 39 states have signaled their willingness to take this opportunity. In contrast, California’s leaders (unlike those in these 39 states) have complained about the potential costs and the process – to the delight of waiver opponents such as our state’s major educator interest groups. It is time for our leaders to change their tune. It is time for them to become advocates for the children, not the adults, in our education system. Failing to do so would be a sad sign to millions of California students and the rest of the nation on how devoid of vision and stuck in the excuses of the past our state has become.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

California’s Greek tragedy: New lows in mortgaging our children’s future

World events sometimes display an odd connection. On June 30th, in a closely watched vote, the Greek Parliament approved a package of financial stability measures while angry protestors clashed with police in the streets. The vote stabilized Greece’s finances, reassured its creditors and calmed nervous investors worldwide.

For years, the Greeks rang up outrageous debts. Their tax system was broken and they couldn’t offset lavish spending on public sector pensions and benefits. At all levels, from the average household to the national government, the country had lived far beyond its means. When the world economy went south, Greece was forced to seek a massive bailout from the World Bank and its European neighbors. Sadly, in good times, the Greeks failed to focus on their long-term economic productivity through investments in their education system.

Two days earlier, in a not-as-closely-watched vote, the California legislature passed a 2011-12 state budget that apparently closes a $10 billion deficit – after failing to secure Republican support for a mix of budget cuts and tax extensions. Gov. Brown had vetoed an earlier Democratic version of the budget, calling it “unbalanced.”  Yet, the budget that legislators passed on a party line vote and that the governor signed is far from “balanced.” In fact, it contains financial maneuvers that would have made the most profligate Greek governments blush.

Like previous California budgets this one simply kicks the financial can into the future, forcing our children to pay for our current spending. But even worse, lawmakers adopted a new technique of balancing the budget based on $4 billion that might appear if the economy improves. And they added a series of mandates that force local school districts and county offices of education to adopt unsound financial practices in an apparent state-level attempt to protect local union jobs.

First of all, the budget bill forces districts to base their local budgets on the state’s rosy scenario, discouraging them from setting aside reserves to tide themselves over in an emergency (such as the sudden disappearance of $4 billion in optimistic revenue). Most unbelievably, the language of the bill requires them to maintain current staffing levels even if the state cuts the education budget. In essence, the bill prevents districts from making any personnel cuts if the economy gets worse and projected state revenue doesn’t materialize. And to make all of this work, it suspends the longstanding financial oversight of districts provided by county offices of education, allowing districts to pass unbalanced budgets with unsustainable personnel costs without any negative consequences.

Similar overindulgence

So, in Greece, a sober government passed a sound budget after years of financial overindulgence. In California, our leaders took financial overindulgence to a new level. Not only have they institutionalized irresponsible budgeting at a state level, they’ve mandated that local districts act in a similarly irresponsible ways and removed the authority of the folks responsible for auditing them.

In Greece’s case, the entire financial world breathed a sigh of relief after their elected leaders acted rationally. In California’s case, a small group of long-time Sacramento insiders have mortgaged the future of our children to satisfy their union buddies.

Beyond the obvious, what’s wrong with this picture?

California is the world’s 8th largest economy. Greece is the world’s 27th.  Greece has about 12 million people. California has 37 million.

Like any household, the future of our children depends on how well we spend our money and plan for tomorrow.  At the height of its boom, Greece spent money it didn’t have, treated its public sector as a giant jobs program, and failed to prioritize investments in its education system.  In California, we are spending money we don’t have, treating our school systems as giant jobs programs, and failing to invest in reforming our education system to close achievement gaps and provide greater opportunities for college and career success for our underserved communities.  In fact, one of the cuts that would happen if the projected revenue doesn’t materialize is shortening the school year by as much as seven days – eliminating vital days of instruction for our highest need students, such as our 1.3 million English Learners.

Indeed, even when it comes to unions, some interests clearly matter far more than others to our leaders. On the same day that Governor Brown struck this budget deal protecting members of the powerful California Teachers Association, he vetoed a simple bill that would have made it easier for the United Farm Workers to organize the powerless. The reality is that those in power, the Sacramento insiders that crafted this budget, have no incentive to change their behavior. Despite having run Sacramento for years, they argue that the real problem with California is its citizens and an initiative system that has “tied the hands of government”. The opposite is true. California’s problem isn’t its people but the people running our government.

As the title of this piece indicates, this is our Greek tragedy. If we want to keep this tragedy from ending in the Greek way, our elected leaders must immediately pass legislation that would restore fiscal sanity and overturn the requirements of this sordid budget deal. Then, as Californians, we should take the anger and disgust with government that we normally direct into the initiative process and direct it into the electoral process.  With open primaries and new districts, Californians will have a real opportunity to break the death grip of the two CTAs (the California Taxpayers Association and the California Teachers Association) on the Capitol and support elected officials whose special interest is California’s children and communities. The promise of California has always been its capacity for renewal. Not only do we deserve better than this, we are better than this.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional and VISTA volunteer in California, New England and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

Legislature should follow gutsy districts challenging seniority-based layoffs

When the Governor waved his May Revise wand, a lot people who were holding their breath expecting a “doomsday budget” exhaled in relief and breathed in the magic budget dust. With a sudden influx in revenue, Jerry Brown lopped $6.5 billion off the budget deficit and convinced Californians that education would be spared.

Of course, school districts and communities have been down this yellow brick road before, only to find that the great and powerful Oz doesn’t really have the power to fix the budget. In order to do anything, Brown has to steal a handful of Republicans from the clutches (or embraces, depending on one’s perspective) of the California Taxpayers Association. With a $9 billion hole left to fill and an unruly electorate tired of four years of crisis and possessing little faith in the rulers of the Emerald City, our school systems could still take a massive financial hit.

So, as school districts look to the end of June when their final budgets are due, they find themselves on the same precarious footing they’ve been on for years. Do they plan based on the best-case scenario of a final budget deal or a worst-case scenario of no budget deal? Do they keep some of the personnel cuts they’ve considered in their preliminary budgets or do they rescind those cuts and call back teachers based on the new numbers? No one really knows. What a world, indeed.

Trapped in the middle of this annual game of budget chicken are California’s students and school employees. This year, school districts sent out thousands of layoff notices to teachers and other school employees. As we at the Education Trust-West have repeatedly pointed out, these layoffs weren’t based on the effectiveness of school employees or the needs of school communities. The primary factor was seniority – with the impact of those layoffs disproportionally falling on our highest-need communities and the very students most in need of stability. With the budget still in the balance, these communities could be struck by more layoffs. Or they could experience another type of churn as employees whose positions are restored are “recalled” back to schools based solely on seniority.

If Sacramento acted on behalf of our students and communities, this law would be fixed already. But with the levers of power controlled by adult – not student – interests, Sacramento has failed to act.

Fortunately, we know that some districts have taken courageous steps to use existing authority in state law to mitigate some of the impact of seniority-based layoffs. We have posted a set of tools on our website, More Than Just Seniority: Fighting for the Rights of Students and Communities, that highlight the work of some of these districts. These tools are intended to inform education stakeholders about this existing authority, document its use in student-focused districts, highlight schools with the greatest likelihood of experiencing layoffs, and feature press coverage of the negative effects of quality-blind layoffs.

For example, in San Francisco Unified (SFUSD), district leadership used an exception in the layoff law allowing districts to “skip” teachers who have special training or experience and who are teaching specialized courses. SFUSD protected teachers with math, science, special education, and bilingual credentials, knowing that certain subject areas were critical to students gaining the credits necessary to graduate. Pasadena Unified took this authority one step further when it chose to protect teachers in its new Linked Learning pathways from layoffs, after those programs were destabilized by the previous year’s layoff process.

In another case, districts have used apparent discretion in the seniority-based layoff process to “skip” teachers in order to prevent a violation of “equal protection.” The Reed lawsuit in Los Angeles was based on this situation. The resulting legal settlement with Los Angeles Unified protected 45 high-need and new schools from the seniority-based layoff process (sadly, this ruling is being challenged by the teachers union and California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction). In a similar situation, Sacramento City Unified sought to protect six persistently low-performing schools from the destabilizing effects of teacher layoffs. An administrative law judge approved skipping teachers in the layoff process in five of the six schools for the 2011-2012 school year.

In these situations, district leaders have taken the law into their own hands to protect their students during the layoff process. But this shouldn’t have to be the case. What California needs are state leaders with the same willingness to prioritize the needs of students and school communities. This does not mean simply eliminating the law requiring seniority-based layoffs and leaving everything up to local bargaining. Instead, our leaders should stop deferring these types of decisions to enlightened local leaders willing to interpret the education code on behalf of their students. As the few examples noted above illustrate, these leaders are few and far between in a state with more than 1,000 school districts and 6 million students.

It is time for our state leaders to pass comprehensive reform that would empower our enlightened local leaders and require others to end the prioritization of seniority in layoffs and other employment decisions as a matter of state policy. Such a solution would replace existing state law on layoffs with language requiring school districts to make decisions based on teacher and staff effectiveness and subject matter needs. It would revise state law on evaluation to ensure that districts conduct multiple-measure annual evaluations (emphasizing hard data such as student performance results along with classrooms observations and other indicators) of their employees to determine their effectiveness, support their professional improvement. and quickly remove low performers. And it would give local leaders, including school principals, and communities far more flexibility to decide who teaches in their schools.

In states such as Illinois, Florida, and Colorado, legislatures have already passed such comprehensive solutions and are working on their implementation. In contrast, current efforts in California are limited and indeed may be counterproductive. For example, the Senate Education Committee quickly voted down a bill by Senator Bob Huff to allow districts to voluntarily develop new evaluation systems and use the results of these evaluations in employment decisions. Recently, the Assembly passed AB 5, a bill authored by Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes that falls far short of the bipartisan legislation passed in Colorado and Illinois in reforming their teacher evaluation systems and tying employment decisions to those evaluations. Indeed the bill’s initial promise was cut short by a series of amendments pressed by those interested in maintaining the status quo, such as requiring all aspects of evaluations to be collectively bargained to language preventing the implementation of such systems until certain funding owed to districts is paid off.

As we enter the close of yet another difficult budget year, three facts are abundantly clear:

  • Our current education system in California is not achieving the college and career dreams of the vast majority of our students.
  • There is nothing more important than teachers and other school staff in making those dreams a reality.
  • Both the funding for and the rules that govern our education system, such as our dependence on seniority, exacerbate inequalities rather than diminishing them.

In certain school districts, enlightened leaders are willing to confront all three facts. In other districts, communities are challenging the status quo on behalf of their children. What they need are state leaders willing to transform our laws on their behalf.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

Dollars for tamales: poor schools can’t get by on home cooking

For weeks, I haven’t been able to open my refrigerator without getting attacked by a bag of tamales. Our fridge is stuffed with bags of them. Two of the bags are ours. The rest were purchased by family and friends all over the Bay Area. The proceeds go to our daughter’s Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

Like schools all over California, her school faces a massive deficit – in this case over $200,000. After hearing the news, a group of mothers worked for days to prepare over a thousand tamales for sale. In the end, their efforts raised $1,000 – a drop in the bucket compared to the size of the deficit.

A few miles to the south, an affluent district in the middle of Silicon Valley also faced a deficit. There, in a few short weeks, parents raised over $2,000,000. According to the news reports, the dollars they raised saved over 100 teaching jobs and maintained 20:1 class sizes.

Here, in Oakland, the $1,000 and other donations raised over the past months might help keep the copier running for part of another year. What won’t be saved is far more critical – after-school programs and other supports for students who have fallen behind academically. Nor will the money prevent any additional cuts that will happen if the governor proposes deeper budget reductions.

We’re not as worried as some parents about the impact of these cuts on our daughter. We’re both educators and our kids have been in dual immersion since preschool. The cuts, like all the cuts in Oakland Unified, will hurt those students most in need of basic supports. Our school is mostly African American and Latino, and the vast majority of its students are low income. Without these supports, they are less likely to catch up with their more advantaged peers – the kind whose parents can raise $2,000,000 in a couple of weeks.

Two years ago, when I ran student services for San Diego Unified, I often saw the impact of this cruel equation close up. One year, after the governor released his May budget, I walked into a room of over fifty caseworkers serving pregnant and parenting teens throughout San Diego County to tell them that three quarters of them would likely lose their jobs. This wasn’t a cut to the education budget, but it might as well have been. It was the job of these caseworkers to keep young pregnant women and mothers in school; to help them manage the dual responsibilities of being both a student and a mother. The program was highly successful in keeping them on track to graduate from high school, training them on how to build their children’s social and emotional skills, and preventing future pregnancies.

When I left the room, I nearly threw up. What kind of state, I wondered, cuts these types of services? Who would deny that there is a legitimate government interest in underwriting the cost of this support  – if not for humanitarian reasons then at least from a simple financial calculus? Healthy mothers who graduate from high school are less likely to need state assistance in the future. Children who received prenatal care and early socio-emotional supports are less likely to need government services in the future. These are the types of savings a state can bank on to prevent future budget crises.

But long-term thinking isn’t incentivized among the political class in Sacramento. In good times, they handed out tax cuts to one side of the political aisle, and unsustainable pensions and benefits to the other. In bad times, our leaders like to talk about making cuts with scalpels instead of axes. But when they cut, it doesn’t matter what instrument they use – their cuts strike the programs least likely to cause them political damage. I haven’t seen the voting percentages, but I imagine that pregnant teenagers and children in high-poverty schools are pretty low on the political totem pole. School districts in the poorest parts of our state – the very districts least able to afford it – are hammered with the same cuts as those in wealthier areas. Longtime programs designed to provide funding to support low-income students are made “flexible” so the funding can be used to shore up salaries, benefits, and pensions instead of providing summer school and additional education supports. Then, as the cuts are shredding the safety net, those who have the ability to pay more in taxes, whether they are corporations or individuals, are protected from paying more by their lobbyists and political friends.

Caught in the middle are the children in our poorest communities – the very children who happen to be the majority of our state’s student population. Their parents work just as hard. They care just as much. They just don’t have enough tamales to buy friends in high places.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

Districts will lay off some of their best and brightest today; that must change

Kaitlin Donovan, Nicholas Melvoin, Emilie Smith, and Tyler Hester didn’t expect to get a layoff notice. They were the kind of teachers typically romanticized in Hollywood movies. Young, energetic, and idealistic, they sought out the challenge of teaching in high-poverty urban schools and set high expectations for their students. Yet, each of them went to their teacher mailbox and found a pink slip.

As a young teacher in San Francisco in the ’90s, I experienced a similar layoff. Reading the pink slip was a like a punch in the gut. It said to me, “Nothing you’ve done matters to us.” That feeling was echoed more than a decade later by Emilie, who said, “It was like getting an F on a paper you didn’t write. It sends the message that we don’t care about your performance in the classroom.”

Emilie is right. Because of California’s teacher layoff laws, performance in the classroom doesn’t matter. California has decreed that the most important aspect in layoff and other personnel decisions in school districts is seniority – the amount of time a person has been employed by a school district. In addition, California has mandated a layoff process for teachers and other staff that is both backwards and brutal.

As a district administrator in San Diego Unified, I watched this process unfold multiple times as we reacted to the education cuts in the governor’s January budget. In the 21/2 months before the March 15 layoff deadline, district leaders and school principals scrambled to make a series of high stakes budget and personnel cuts that were little more than stabs in the dark. Because this process was dependent on seniority, district personnel spent countless hours tracking down seniority dates and certifications in order to ensure that the least senior employees either lost or were bumped out of their jobs. And because high-poverty schools often had the least senior employees, they would often see their school staffs decimated.

I’ll always remember one particular school, Jackson Elementary. Long one of the district’s lowest performing schools, Jackson had experienced a dramatic turnaround under the leadership of its principal, Rupi Boyd, and a group of new teachers. Refusing to accept the belief that their children couldn’t learn because they were all poor and English learners, Rupi, now the chief academic officer for MLA Partner Schools in Los Angeles, and the teachers produced dramatic improvements in student learning, raising the school over 200 API points from the bottom to the middle of state school rankings. For their achievements, Jackson was recognized as one of the state’s distinguished schools. Yet, when the 2007 budget cuts came, nearly all of Jackson’s teachers received pink slips. They just didn’t have enough seniority.

For Jackson’s entire school community, this process was a disaster. Yet, with all the focus on just “preventing budget cuts,” the negative impacts of the mechanics of budget cutting and the layoff process typically attracted little attention. Now, three years of state budget cuts later, it is strikingly clear that both the education budget cuts and the state-mandated layoff processes based on seniority are disastrous for California’s future.

In “Victims of the Churn,” our most recent report, we are able to quantify these negative impacts with data from three large urban districts. The findings should be familiar to school communities across California. In all three districts, thousands of teachers get layoff notices unnecessarily because of unrealistic state-mandated deadlines and requirements to focus on seniority. When it comes to final layoffs, students in high-poverty schools are 65 percent more likely to have a teacher laid off. And in certain high-need schools more 15 percent of staff members lose their jobs.

In Nicholas Melvoin’s case, his high-poverty school in Los Angeles is now protected from this lunacy because this teacher went to the ACLU after he and nearly all of his colleagues received a pink slip. The settlement of the lawsuit against Los Angeles Unified now provides a strong measure of protection for students in some of LA’s highest-need schools.

What legislators must do

Unfortunately, one lawsuit won’t necessarily protect the students in the schools where Kaitlin, Emilie, and Tyler taught. Nor will it prevent other committed young teachers from leaving the classroom entirely. That will require courage on the part of our leadership in Sacramento to change longstanding policies.

Policymakers should start by changing the layoff notification date to prevent over-noticing; giving districts explicit flexibility to protect high-poverty schools from the disproportionate impact of layoffs; replacing California’s seniority-based layoff requirements with laws that emphasize job effectiveness and competence; and providing additional flexibility and authority to principals and school communities to maintain the stability of their school staffs in good and bad budget times.

None of these reforms are easy or politically expedient. All of them have been vigorously opposed in the past by the Sacramento special interests such as the statewide teachers unions focused on keeping things the same. But as Gov. Brown and legislative leaders approach California taxpayers with requests for vital funding, these are the reforms that Californians should expect in return for their hard-earned dollars.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.

Low science scores should shock state at the center of technology universe

Remember the old song “The Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel from the ’60s? I thought about the song last week after the results of the NAEP science tests showed that California students were at or near the bottom in our nation in nearly every measure of performance in science. The lack of outrage from our leaders in Sacramento that greeted these depressing results made me “picture the sound of silence.”

Back when that song was topping the charts, you could still graduate from high school with the possibility of making a living for your family. Back then the wage difference between a college graduate and a high school graduate wasn’t so extreme. Even a high school dropout had the possibility of a decent life with a secure job and a house. Today, those pre-computer and cell phone days are as ancient history as the one-room schoolhouse. Today’s far more diverse California student population has to compete in a global economy that places a premium on math and science proficiency.

For the state that’s supposed to be the center of the technology universe, these results should be a shocking slap in the face. You’d think our state leaders would be calling for fundamental reformation of our education system. Yet, all you hear is the same old stuff we’ve been hearing for the past 30 years. “Just give us more money.”  “The kids and their parents are the problems and when we have more money, we can fix them.”

With all due respect, Sacramento leaders, don’t you think a state that pays its teachers the highest salaries in the nation should be getting some better results for all those dollars? For nearly $50 billion a year, shouldn’t we be able to satisfy the desire of the vast majority of our parents who want their kids to perform at grade level in English, math, and science based on the tests we give them? These are parents who aren’t worrying about “narrowing the curriculum and tying the hands  of teachers” but think it’s the job of schools to educate their kids well enough to get a great score on the SAT or ACT, graduate from high school, and not have to enroll in remedial math and English courses in college.

Thank you, Governor Brown, for recognizing in a recent speech that a quality education is the civil rights issue of our time. But what new strategies – beyond just increasing funding – will your administration support to ensure that every child has the right to quality education in California? In contrast, last week, I heard your fellow Democrat, the first African American President of the United States, Barack Obama, use clear language to define the education reform that taxpayers should expect for their hard earned dollars – from adding more math and science teachers to making fundamental changes in our teacher evaluation systems. He clearly talked about identifying and rewarding successful teachers and ensuring that no child has his or her civil right to a quality education violated by an ineffective teacher.

I heard a similar speech not so long ago from another Democrat, Antonio Villaraigosa – the mayor of our largest and most diverse city, Los Angeles. And recently, I heard another Mayor – Kevin Johnson, of the very city where you now make your home, talk about education reform in the same terms as our President.

As I listen to these leaders, I have hope for California. But I also know that California’s students cannot afford long-term hope. They need a Governor and legislative leadership who can stand side by side with our President on his education reform agenda. The danger of silence is irrelevancy – both nationally in upcoming debates on ESEA and locally for the millions of California students and their parents who want to hear how our leadership will fulfill the promise of an education system that actually prepares each student to succeed in college and career.

Arun Ramanathan is executive director of  The Education Trust—West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional and VISTA volunteer in California, New England and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.