What should teachers unions do to remain effective and relevant?

Today we launch “Yes, but…”, an engaging conversation among California’s leading thinkers in education. We’ll feature a new topic regularly, if not weekly, and bring together policymakers, teachers, scholars, and advocates for a spirited dialogue.

We begin with thoughts on the future of teachers unions. Our sages are Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa; California Teachers Association President Dean Vogel; consultant and researcher Julia Koppich; special education teacher KC Walsh, who’s a board member of the CTA and the National Education Association; Stephen McMahon, president of the San José Teachers Association; and Los Angeles high school English teacher Lisa Alva Wood. We’re asking our contributors to check comments during the week to continue the discussion.

Our next topic, to be published next week, will address the topic, “How should we measure our schools, if not by current API scores?”

Antonio Villaraigosa: Unions should advance agenda for change

Antonio Villaraigosa
Antonio Villaraigosa

As a former teachers union organizer, I have seen firsthand the dedication and long hours that teachers put in to ensure their students’ success. Thanks to that hard work and commitment, we have seen a steady increase in student achievement in California – including recent gains here in Los Angeles.

But despite these gains, California’s education system still faces enormous challenges. Our eighth graders rank 46th in math on national assessments and California is ranked 46th in per-pupil funding. And here’s the figure that should keep us all up at night: 1,000,000. That is the number of additional college graduates we need by 2025 to keep our economy afloat.

Education is arguably the most important issue facing our state, and the relevancy of teachers and their union on this issue is without question. I appreciate this opportunity to weigh in with TOPed and its thoughtful community on this topic.

For real change to occur at our schools, teachers’ voices need to be heard loud and clear. Without teacher input, we will not be able to build the education system that will place California among the best in the world. Teachers know what works and what doesn’t. And it is through their unions that these teachers’ voices will be raised at the negotiating table, the legislative floor, and the ballot box.

California’s schools need more funding to restore and expand early education, arts, music, and physical education and to bring modern technology to our classrooms. To successfully run these programs, we need not only to restore the teaching positions we’ve  lost – we need to take the lead in offering competitive salaries that will help attract top talent from around the country and keep quality teachers in the classroom.

But we won’t improve our schools with money alone. Funds must be linked to progressive efforts such as robust data systems, Common Core standards, and aligned assessments. They also must be linked to a multiple-measure evaluation system that ensures accountability, compensation, professional development, and career opportunities for teachers. Lastly, California needs a more transparent funding system where money follows the student and where allocations are weighted, so we are putting our dollars where they are needed most.

As a mayor, and as a parent, it is my hope that unions will advance an agenda such as this to improve our schools by working with leaders in Sacramento, parents, and local school administrators. If they do, teachers and their unions will not only stay relevant, they will lead California to a state of education excellence.

Since becoming mayor of Los Angeles in 2005, Antonio Villaraigosa has made education a priority.  Working to  elect and re-elect pro-reform candidates for Los Angeles Unified  School Board,  he helped to advance Public School Choice.  In 2007, he founded The Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, a school turnaround project serving more than 20,000 students across 22 schools. Its goal is to transform LA’s lowest-performing schools and create a model for district-wide change.

Dean E. Vogel: Fight for future of neighborhood schools

Dean Vogel
Dean Vogel

Teachers believe in opportunity for all children, not just a few. And we believe quality public education is essential to building better communities and a better future for America. This is the mission and work of the California Teachers Association (CTA).

Founded in 1863, today’s 325,000-member CTA is one of the strongest advocates for educators in the country.

Our effectiveness as a democratic organization is a matter of record – from billions of dollars secured for renovating and building new schools, to the landmark passage of the 1988 minimum school funding law. These resources made things better for our students. CTA also backed innovative reform with the landmark Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA) of 2006, which provides $3 billion over eight years to at-risk schools for proven reforms like smaller class sizes, collaboration, and more counselors. These at-risk students are making good progress. When we improve the learning conditions for our students and the teaching conditions for educators we create sustainable progress. This is part of union work, and CTA is a vital part of the union movement.

But current economic conditions challenge our schools daily. A new report warns that California ranks 46th in per-pupil spending and dead last in teachers and librarians per student. That’s why our union work includes urgent community coalition discussions about a progressive ballot measure for next year to generate new revenues for schools and all essential public services.

We are also working more with coalitions to expose the billionaire reformers like Bill Gates and Eli Broad who seek to privatize public education. We are demanding that corporations pay their fair share of taxes. And we are asking Congress to rewrite the federal No Child Left Behind law based on CTA principles that would protect students and schools from being labeled by test scores.

CTA and its members are driven by learning, not by profit. We are the classroom experts and we know what works. Stopping those wealthy few who would silence our political voices will be key in the months and years ahead in the ability of public education unions to protect neighborhood schools, rebuild the middle class, and help provide a rebirth of the American Dream.

Dean E. Vogel is the president of the California Teachers Association, which is affiliated with the 3.2 million-member National Education Association.

Julia E. Koppich: Listen to voices of new teachers

Julia Koppich
Julia Koppich

Teachers unions are education’s favorite punching bag these days. Books and blog posts sound the theme: Teachers unions stand in the way of higher student achievement.

It makes good copy. But there’s not much empirical evidence to support it. Research shows that the evidentiary base for concluding that unions hinder (or for that matter, help) student achievement is thin.

Nevertheless, teachers unions’ influence is undeniable. Teachers are the most important in-school influence on student learning. State and federal education policy agendas focus on better teacher evaluation and new forms of pay – both negotiable – as central to ensuring teaching effectiveness. Union impact made manifest.

Yet change must come. Too often unions just say “no” when it comes to reform. This serves neither their members nor, more importantly, the students their members teach. What should unions do?

1) End the siege mentality. In the face of attacks, unions have hunkered down. Not surprising, perhaps. One reaction to attack is to head for the bunker. But the attack on unions is part of a broader attack on public education. In this fight, union and management are on the same side. They need to fight the forces arrayed against them, not each other.

2) Mind the demographics. The future of unions hinges on its members. Just a few years ago, the average teacher had taught for at least 15 years. Now it’s fewer than 10. This is a different population.

Research shows that these new teachers want a union (many say they worry about arbitrary district actions), but they want a different kind of union, one that helps them get better at their jobs. And these teachers like differentiated pay and more rigorous evaluations (though they’re not keen on using test scores for these purposes). Unions need to catch up to them.

3) Make improving teaching effectiveness the union agenda. We have examples of putting this precept into action in California. My colleague, Dan Humphrey of SRI, and I recently completed a study of Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) in Poway (San Diego County) and San Juan (near Sacramento). Skilled teachers provide intensive support to then evaluate the performance of colleagues. A joint union-management governing board oversees the program.

Unions are integral to PAR. They don’t shy away from tough decisions. PAR support is intense. But if support isn’t enough, the union has no qualms about recommending dismissal. These unions have taken labor-management collaboration to a new level. Union and management act as partners. Agreements center on high stakes issues. Improving teaching effectiveness to improve student learning is union work.

No magic bullet will cure what ails California’s schools. Problems are complex and multifaceted. Unions can be part of the solution by adopting new mental models, implementing new ways of acting, and being more open to new ideas, even – maybe especially – those that challenge long-held traditions and assumptions.

Julia E. Koppich is president of J. Koppich & Associates, a San Francisco-based education consulting firm. Her work focuses principally on teacher effectiveness and education labor-management relations. She recently completed (with Dan Humphrey of SRI) a study of peer assistance and review in California, serves as technical assistance lead for the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, and is working with the Memphis City Schools to redesign their teacher evaluation and tenure review systems. Dr. Koppich holds a Ph.D. in education policy analysis from the University of California Berkeley.

Lisa Alva Wood: Tone down rhetoric and reorganize

Lisa Alva Wood
Lisa Alva Wood

Earlier this year, in Los Angeles, teachers from various schools met with some representatives from the federal Department of Education. Two teacher-fellows and the facilitator shared the Dept. of Ed’s “vision” for the teaching profession. The main thrust was to “professionalize” teaching by having us work “professional” days, weeks, and hours (250 days vs. the 180 we work now) and to front-load the income-based rewards; newer teachers could earn up to $65,000 per year upon earning tenure, and master teachers could earn up to $100,000 per year for exemplary performance. So, the idea is that we save for our own retirements, saving the government millions of dollars in pension costs. Yes, but… what does that say about the perceived futures of our unions?

Younger teachers only know that the union has not protected them in time of pink slips; unions, in their minds, are the guardians of older teachers who coast through semesters on the cushions of sinecure. Mid-term teachers who have come halfway through their career spans see their unions as bastions of bombast, feeling alienated by the old-school fire-and-brimstone organizers who took cuts in pay and actually walked out on strikes. The senior teachers are frustrated by charter schools bleeding away membership – in Los Angeles this year our union membership numbers 30,000, down from 44,000 ten years ago. As troubling as this is, it’s not nearly as worrisome as the federal government seemingly planning for the demise of the teachers unions, as appears to be the case. What do they know that we don’t? (That was a naive question.)

Pundits and columnists are fond of saying that the Los Angeles teachers union is one of the largest, most powerful lobbies in the state, that together with the California Teachers Association, we control enough votes and influence to keep things exactly as we want them. Yes, but our own leadership in Los Angeles embarrassed us by terming out and then taking a principal’s position with “the enemy,” a charter school.

Some of us mid-career teachers have formed our own caucus to tone down the rhetoric. We are trying to convert more teachers to the cause, encouraging them to participate, build the faith and strength in our union that the future will require. Without a revival, we stand to fulfill the government’s prophecy: every man for himself. We cannot let this happen.

Lisa Alva Wood has been been teaching high school English  for 15 years, the last 10 at Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles. She has been on the Board of Directors for the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools and spearheaded many school-based projects. She is a National Board Certified Teacher.

KC Walsh: Organize parents and fight for proven reforms

KC Walsh
KC Walsh

Educators and their unions have been subjected to an incredible amount of scapegoating lately – ranging from biased movies like Waiting for Superman to multimillion-dollar foundations that think they know how to teach children better than the educated professionals in our classrooms. California leads the nation in education cuts — slashing more than $20 billion from our public schools and colleges in the past three years.

Noted labor leader Pat Dolan says unionism begins with a moral imperative to provide a voice for those who don’t have one. Our students benefit when we use our collective teacher voices as a union to fight for the quality education they deserve. To remain effective at this, teachers unions must listen to and organize more colleagues, parents, and communities in this mission. And we must continue our fight for proven reforms, like smaller class sizes, which studies show actually work in our classrooms.

From my vantage point in Silicon Valley, one major difficulty is that educators are not being listened to, but are being handed unrealistic mandates from the federal government. We are speaking out to Congress about flawed efforts like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top that are handcuffing educators from preparing tomorrow’s creative workers with their single-minded focus on standardized testing, rather than fostering creativity and critical thinking.

The California Teachers Association and the National Education Association are leading voices in education reform. CTA led passage of legislation that focused $3 billion over eight years toward helping at-risk schools; the Quality Education Investment Act of 2006 is making a difference for those students as test scores have increased and achievement gaps have narrowed. California teachers are working with administrators and parents to focus curriculum and professional development to improve student learning. NEA is working in a similar fashion to assist schools across the country to implement best practices. CTA is developing teacher evaluation systems that will help educators improve.

Changes are needed in education, and teachers unions will continue to work with parents and others in the school community to ensure that kids come first in that debate. As the leading voices in this conversation, CTA and NEA will remain relevant – and vigilant about the battles ahead.

KC Walsh is a special education teacher on leave from Bernal Intermediate School in Oak Grove Unified in San Jose. She is also on the  board of directors for the California Teachers Association and the National Education Association.

Stephen McMahon: We’re leading the classroom transformation

Stephen McMahon
Stephen McMahon

As president of the San José Teachers Association (SJTA), I experience the whole spectrum of public education on a daily basis, from the breathtaking to the reprehensible. I constantly think about the role of teachers unions in all that is public education. I also constantly think about district offices, boards of education, county offices, county boards, state departments of education, the U.S. Department of Education, publishers, consultants, advisers, contractors, researchers,  and everything else that consumes the well over $500 billion annually invested in educating our nation’s primary and secondary students1.  Among those institutions, teachers unions are far and away the most critical for anyone who genuinely puts students first.

The justification for teachers unions is straightforward. The magic of education happens in the classroom. It is all about teachers and students. No citations, research, or position statements are necessary to confirm that teachers and the work they do in the classroom are paramount. Yet only 58% of California’s K-12 education expenditures make it to the classroom2. Teachers know that the bureaucracy does not educate children – teachers do. Teachers know that the system does not inspire children – teachers do. Teachers know that the more than 40% spent outside the classroom does not change lives – teachers do.

SJTA’s mission is to “empower teachers to educate, inspire, and change lives through public education.” We in San José Unified are leading the way on: implementing a transformational evaluation process, offering different methods for compensating teachers for the work they do, exploring nontraditional approaches to the student instructional day and year, delivering instruction to students in a manner that reflects the dynamic and innovative environment of Silicon Valley, and how we measure and validate the success and achievement of both our students and our workforce. We are also transforming what it means to have strategic stakeholder partnerships that support all students.

SJTA is the natural leader in all of these areas because the daily work of its members is teaching and learning. That unmatched knowledge base has the teachers of SJTA primed with ideas, solutions, and willingness. We are taking progressive actions because we are committed to ensuring that every student receives the finest educational opportunities and experiences. We are a beacon for what is possible when the collective voice of more than 1,700 teachers is valued and respected.

All of the institutions within public education have things to be proud of and each is responsible for changes that must be made. When student learning and achievement are at the forefront, nothing exceeds the classroom in importance. Teachers are the heart of the classroom. A teachers union is its teachers. That places working with teachers unions at the top of the list for anyone seeking to truly enhance public education.

Stephen McMahon is president of the San José Teachers Association. SJTA represents the more than 1,700 teachers in Santa Clara County’s largest school district.

1:  U.S. Department of Education
2:  An Analysis of K-12 Education Expenditures in California, Davenport Institute, Pepperdine University, July 2010

Support for teachers over unions

For all the talk of teacher bashing, a big majority of Californians think highly of public school teachers; most believe they’re underpaid. But they also have issues with their union, a new poll has found.

According to a survey of 1,500 Californians by the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll, 52 percent said that teachers unions are too powerful, while 36 percent disagreed; 45 percent said unions are resistant to reforms that would improve schools, while 37 percent disagreed. Parents in the survey were the most critical of the unions. (For the full results, go here. )

But at the same time, by a 45-40 split, respondents agreed with the statement “Unions help teachers succeed in a very tough profession,” and in this case, parents, with first-hand knowledge, agreed even more: 49 percent to 37 percent.

Sixty-two percent agreed with the statements that teachers unions had too much influence over policy, compared with 54 percent who said that for-profit organizations cared more about making money than improving education, including those that operate charter schools.

Student test scores for evaluations

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan generally will be pleased and the California Teachers Association disconcerted with the poll results. Nearly seven in 10 (69 percent) of those surveyed say that teachers’ evaluations should be made public; those surveyed say that students’ progress and performance on standardized tests scores should count, on average, for almost half of teachers’ evaluations, with classroom observations and parent feedback included as well.

Giving test scores that much weight puts Californians in fundamental agreement with the Obama administration, which has made using test scores as a significant factor a condition in the Race to the Top competition and the latest waiver for the No Child Left Behind law. The California Teachers Assn. doesn’t want scores used at all, arguing that the tests weren’t designed for evaluating teachers and are fraught with errors. What respondents overwhelmingly don’t like is the status quo of basing pay on seniority (10 percent agreed with that) or advanced degrees and training (only 13 percent agreed).

Other finds in the poll:

  • Years of budget cuts for schools have gotten to the point where a solid majority of Californians would be willing to pay more school taxes, even if that meant an increase in their own taxes: 64 percent were strongly or somewhat in favor; the percentage didn’t change significantly for those who were told that California ranks 42nd in the nation in per student funding;
  • As for factors that would improve the quality of public schools, the poll found greatest support for reducing class size and increasing parental involvement; two-thirds would support putting more money into economically and socially disadvantaged schools, a percentage that drops to 57 percent when told that doing so would involve taking money from wealthier schools. (Update: Respondents also give high marks to providing aspiring teachers with a one-year apprenticeship under a high-performing teacher.)
  • 52 percent of the 308 parents in the survey said they’d consider enrolling their children in a charter school, compared with 38 percent who said they wouldn’t.

The third chair at the bargaining table in Los Angeles

Sometimes the most interesting political commentary is found in the comics … or in the ads.

Monday’s editions of the Los Angeles Times, Daily News, and La Opinion carried a full-page ad from a coalition of civic and community organizations aimed at influencing the negotiations between the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers, represented by United Teachers Los Angeles.

The ad itself is pretty bland. “Don’t hold us back” is not exactly a searing catch phrase. But the underlying issues are explosive: teacher evaluation, employment security, and school-site determination of work rules.

Essentially, the ad’s sponsors are drawing up a third chair to the bargaining table. They are attempting to influence both labor and management, but clearly they are in line with the positions and issues articulated by Superintendent John Deasy last summer. The increasingly bold and strident parent and community voice, amplified and modulated with foundation money, changes the politics of collective bargaining and challenges the union’s historic claim on parent loyalty.

In terms of Los Angeles politics, Monday’s ads are at least a semi big deal. Usually, collective bargaining holds little interest for parents and their organizations. It’s thought to be too boring and technical, something best left to the experts to sort through. But historically, when parent and community voice is activated, it tips the political balance. Decades ago, in The Changing Idea of A Teachers Union, my research colleagues and I examined scores of contract negotiations. We found that the usually silent parents were powerful when they got riled up. Thus, the admonition of political analysis: “When a fight starts, watch the crowd.”

So, looking at the ad’s sponsors tells us something about how those on the sidelines enter the fight. Although technically leaderless, the coalition grew from a report issued by the United Way and financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In addition, the ads were sponsored by the Alliance for a Better Community, Families in Schools, Inner City Struggle, Community Coalition, Asian Pacific Legal Center, the Los Angeles Urban League, and Communities for Teaching Excellence. Former school board member Yolie Flores heads the latter. Each of these organizations has been at least somewhat aligned with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the now-thin school board majority.

Like the mayor, the heads of these organizations have ties to ethnic communities, roots in civil rights struggles, and sometimes experience in labor activism. Virtually all are Democrats. So, their opposition to the current state of teacher labor relations is significant. “We need to push both sides,” said Veronica Melvin, of Communities for Teaching Excellence.

UTLA President Warren Fletcher doubts both the representativeness of the ads’ sponsors and their political clout. “They are reflective of the capacity to purchase a display ad,” he said with reference to the foundation and school district support that the ad’s sponsors have received.

Fletcher also thinks that the union better understands what parents want. He points to the recent school board race between retired educator Bennett Kaiser and Luis Sanchez, chief of staff to board president Monica Garcia. Sanchez lost despite the mayor’s support and substantial contributions from unions other than UTLA.

Explosive issues

On the sponsors’ web page one finds a minefield of issues that not only divide management from union but also challenge traditionalists within the union and school district.

The ad’s sponsors want to maintain and protect the Public School Choice program, which Flores sponsored, in which the operation of both newly constructed schools and schools that have failed to meet test score benchmarks are put out to a request-for-proposal process. Groups, including teacher collaboratives and charter schools, can write a proposal to run a school. UTLA would love to have the whole thing go away, and it is particularly opposed to putting newly constructed schools up for bid. There are several issues surrounding Public School Choice that the district and union are supposed to resolve by Nov. 1. But the ad sponsors’ proposals go well beyond what will be negotiated in the next two weeks.

The ad’s sponsors also want to lift the cap on autonomous schools, such as Pilots and Expanded School-Based management structures that were embraced by both the school board and UTLA under former president A.J. Duffy. They also want to further open up areas in the city where parents can choose among schools as opposed to having their children assigned to a school, so-called Zones of Choice.

Regardless of whether a school is run by a charter or the district, regardless of whether it is management or worker dominated, the more autonomy given a school, the larger the threat to the traditional contract. LAUSD is well down the road toward autonomous schools, regardless of what happens with Public School Choice. Nearly a quarter of public school students attend charters, Pilots, magnet schools, and other deviations from a conventional district school. Opening up more teacher-led schools, more schools with distinct academic themes — such as the bilingual immersion schools being designed under Public School Choice — creates a stronger teacher interest in controlling who works there and under what conditions.

The more autonomy is granted to schools, the stronger the pressure to eliminate “must place” hiring processes in which a teacher, through seniority or other means, is sent to a school regardless of whether his or her skills and interests match the pedagogy and ethos the school is trying to develop and maintain. The more autonomy granted to a school, the greater the pressure for elect-to-work agreements in which the school’s faculty make up many of their own work rules and new hires agree to be bound by those rules.

These are huge changes from the tradition of a central contract in which one set of rules governs all teachers. So are the issues surrounding teacher evaluation.

Like most of those who call themselves reformers in education, the ad’s sponsors want to tie teacher evaluation and compensation to student outcomes. This notion of just rewards and strong incentives has gained so much face validity that it is hard to oppose, even when most merit-pay plans in public education have proven unworkable and short-lived.

The problem is that UTLA has been largely mute about alternatives to the current system, which virtually everyone, including Fletcher, agrees doesn’t work. But UTLA’s lack of a strong viable alternative and opposition to any use of student test score data for evaluation puts it on the defensive. Fletcher says internal work on developing an “intellectually honest and durable” system is under way, but that it takes time. But time is short because both the school administration and the newly attentive public have approached this round of bargaining with a righteous urgency.

There is good news for unionism in Monday’s ad. The organizations behind it see collective bargaining and the contract as a vehicle toward better public education. In this, they differ from the Republican forces that have limited or eliminated public sector bargaining in several states. The cautionary news for UTLA is that these organizations have brought their own demands and their own chair to the bargaining table. And they are impatient.

Charles Taylor Kerchner is the co-author of Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education and United Mind Workers: Unions and Teaching in the Knowledge Society. He is a professor at Claremont Graduate University.

Praise for peer evaluations

Contrary to the common belief that teachers cannot evaluate their peers objectively – and shouldn’t try to – in San Juan Unified “consulting teachers” do just that for a teacher who received a principal’s unsatisfactory review. In Poway Unified, specially assigned teachers not only evaluate struggling tenured teachers but also new, probationary teachers.

In both districts the teachers pass on their findings to a board composed of teachers and administrators whose recommendation whether that teacher should be retained or fired has invariably been accepted by the superintendent.

The programs in Poway and San Juan, known as Peer Assistance and Review, not only “give the lie to critics who assert that unionized teachers will never judge a colleague’s performance.” But – legislators take notice – they also “provide clear evidence that PAR can be a rigorous alternative to traditional forms of teacher evaluation and development,” according to “Peer Review: Getting Serious About Teacher Support and Evaluation, the findings of an intensive study of the two districts by SRI International and J. Koppich and Associates.**

Unions have been adept in gumming up the process of firing even the worst  performers in order to protect members from potentially arbitrarily and poorly done evaluations. But, with incentives and pressure from the Obama administration, change to evaluations is spreading nationwide and it’s inevitable in California. (AB 5, the primary evaluation bill sponsored by Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes, will get serious attention next year.)

Some state legislatures have adopted crude test-score-based evaluations. Though that’s not likely here, the choice facing the California Teachers Assn. and the California Federation of Teachers is whether to resist and weaken or to embrace and lead.

PAR, according to the report, presents a chance to turn the standard, top-down model of evaluation on its head.

PAR is not a new program. Poway Unified adopted it 25 years ago, based on the first PAR in Toledo, and San Juan Unified added it in the late ’90s. Other districts did, too,  after Gov. Gray Davis put money behind the program. But many districts abandoned PAR after the state cut funding, and few districts have remained as true to PAR’s intent, despite its costs, as San Juan and Poway.

“We’re proud of the program and have worked hard to keep its integrity” and its purpose of using “one’s peers to contribute collectively to improve teaching and learning,” said Tom Alves, executive director of the San Juan Teachers Association.

Balance between remediation and evaluation

California had one of  the highest ratio of administrators to students in the nation before the latest round of state K-12 cuts. The common complaint of teachers is that principals do drive-by evaluations, and many don’t know the pedagogy of the courses or grades they’re evaluating. Adding serious, regular evaluations with more extensive observations and conversations will prove daunting.

From a practical standpoint, peer review can ease the burden. But the study found that there’s a different orientation. “Given the limited amount of time the principals actually spent with the participating teachers, the focus of their evaluation was often primarily to identify deficiencies but not to develop a strategy to correct them,” it said.

Consulting teachers are released from other duties to work intensively over the course of a year with poor performers (plus beginning teachers in Poway’s case), suggesting better teaching methods while measuring teachers’ improvement. The double goals of evaluation and remediation require a delicate balance, and the selection of consulting teachers is critical. They must be respected for mastery in the classroom and have people skills to gain the trust of the referred teachers and principals. In San Juan, the eight consulting teachers, serving a 41,000-student district, serve four-year assignments.

Governing board members must work closely with consulting teachers and each other. Teachers comprise the majority (four out of seven in San Juan, two out of five in Poway), although recommendations require a supermajority, and board discussions haven’t broken down along union-management lines, said principal researcher Julia Koppich. Because the consulting teachers’ reports are detailed and extensive, and the board usually decides by consensus, superintendents have not disputed the boards’ recommendations, Alves said.

Teachers maintain their rights under the contract to contest the evaluation process. But when consulting teachers and boards build what one union president called “an airtight case,” teachers rarely contest the findings.

Teachers are referred to PAR if they fail two, and occasionally one, of the five categories of the California Standards for the Teaching Profession. In the years covered by the study, 13 of the 20 Poway veteran teachers referred to PAR completed remediation and continued teaching; the other seven left the district. Of the 28 San Juan teachers in PAR, 16 returned to the classroom, four were recommended for dismissal, five left voluntarily, and three remain in the program.

The report noted the low number of PAR referrals (an average of only 1 per year in Poway), which it attributed both to the reluctance of many principals to build the case for an unsatisfactory rating, and in Poway’s case, to the fact that 60 percent of the district’s teachers already had been screened when they were novice teachers. (About 95 percent of novice teachers have gotten favorable recommendations so far – a high rate.)

Poway is the only district to use PAR to evaluate beginning teachers in each of their first two years. It has had to do so carefully – and possibly illegally – because state law technically prohibits PAR for nontenured teachers. The Legislature created BTSA (Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment) for coaching novice teachers. The report recommends the elimination of the prohibition.

Can PAR be expanded?

Officials in both San Juan and Poway have indicated an interest in extending PAR to broader evaluations. Alves said the union has requested that the section of the contract relating to evaluations be reopened for discussion. Already, it has agreed to extend PAR to evaluate preschool teachers in the district.

The PAR process would have to be tweaked to shift from strictly remediation to evaluation and professional development. The cost of freeing up additional teacher time, with budgets so tight, would be a complication. (If AB 5 passes as a state mandate, some costs would be reimbursed.)

Koppich expressed optimism. “There is no reason why you can’t do evaluations with observations using this type of program for all teachers. It’s an analog for a new system.”

And, she said, the collaboration and problem-solving in the governance board will spill over to other labor-management relations.

** The study was funded by the Stuart Foundation, one of the underwriters of this blog. In coming days, I’ll be writing about The College Ready Promise, a project of four charter school organization to implement a new teacher evaluation system. To take an advance look at what they’re up to, go here. You can contact me at john@svefoundation.org.

Baker’s dozen bills before Brown

(Kathy and John combined efforts on this post.)

It all comes down to one person. Dozens of education bills passed in the final days of the legislative session are now in Gov. Brown’s hands. He has until October 9th to sign or veto. Here are highlights of some of the most controversial and comprehensive measures.

SB 611 (Darrell Steinberg, D- Sacramento): The University of California has approved thousands of Career Technical Education courses as qualifying for admission to UC and CSU campuses under the A-G requirements. But nearly all of them have been approved only as electives, not as core subjects. This bill would authorize a new UC institute to work directly with high school teachers to develop dozens of CTE courses that would qualify as math, English, and science courses for UC and CSU admission – a big shift in UC’s approach to CTE and potentially a boost for partnership academies and programs that stress career and college readiness.

SB 547 (Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento):  This bill would replace California’s long-standing school rating system, known as the Academic Performance Index, or API, with an Education Quality Index, or EQI. It would also fulfill the original intent of California’s Public Schools Accountability Act of 1999 by requiring the State Department of Education, in consultation with an advisory committee, to develop multiple measures for the EQI rating that include graduation rates, a college preparedness index, and a career readiness index in addition to the STAR test and High School Exit Exam. A similar bill, AB 400, passed the Legislature in 2007, but was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger.

AB 1330 (Warren Furutani, D-Long Beach): High school students would be able to substitute a year-long career technical course (CTE) for either a year of foreign language or of visual/performing arts as one of 13 courses needed to graduate from high school. Supporters of the bill say it would give students at risk of dropping out an engaging alternative to keep them interested in school. Opponents, who include those who want to qualify more students for four-year colleges, worry districts will cut back courses in arts and foreign languages, making it harder for students to qualify for CSU and UC campuses. Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill last year.

AB 47 (Jared Huffman, D-Marin): Under the 2-year-old Open Enrollment Act, students in the state’s 1,000 lowest-performing schools are theoretically eligible to attend better schools outside of their own district (it’s too soon to see how often it’s been used). This bill would tighten eligibility rules to weed out schools that, because of quirks in the law, are not among the lowest-performing 10 percent. It would  exclude schools with over 700 API, among the new requirements. Open Enrollment was passed to strengthen the state’s Race to the Top application. Republican senators strongly opposed loosening the law.

SB 300 (Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley): California’s science standards haven’t been touched since their adoption 13 years ago. This bill, written by the California Science Teachers Association, would establish a process to revise them by 2013. Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson would appoint a committee of science educators that would do the work under a tight timeline; the State Board of Education would have to approve the new standards. The standards would be based on Next Generation Science Standards, a multistate effort that would become the science version of the Common Core standards. Traditionalists who created the current standards are skeptical.

AB 131 (Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles): Undocumented students who meet certain requirements have been allowed to pay in-state tuition at California’s public colleges and universities since 2002. But efforts to provide them with public financial aid have failed for years. That began to change this year when Gov. Brown signed AB 130, the first of two bills by Assemblyman Cedillo collectively known as the California Dream Act. While AB 130 allows undocumented students who meet the in-state tuition requirements to apply for private financial aid offered through state colleges and universities, AB 131 is a harder sell. It would open CalGrants to these students. Opponents say that in a time of steep budget cuts it’s unfair to legal residents to give money to undocumented students, and they warn that it could create an incentive for more people to come here illegally.

AB 743 (Marty Block, D-Lemon Grove): Nowhere is the disjuncture between high school and college expectations more pronounced than in the state’s 112 community colleges. Between 70 and 85 percent of students who take a community college placement exam aren’t ready for college-level math or English. But there’s no consistency in the tests, because there are nearly as many different exams as there are community colleges. AB 743 would establish uniform placement exams in math and English.  They wouldn’t be mandatory, but colleges that continued to use their own placement tests would miss out of big savings from the volume discount.

SB 161 (Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar): Children who suffer severe epileptic seizures risk brain damage or even death unless they receive emergency medical care within five minutes. SB 161 would allow school staff to voluntarily take a course to learn how to administer Diastat, a an emergency anti-seizure medication, with parents’ written consent. State law already allows teachers and staff to administer other emergency medications, but Diastat is different because it’s given rectally. Although the bill has strong bipartisan support, it’s been targeted by major labor unions, including both teachers unions and the nurses association, which tried to use it as leverage to reverse the loss of school nurses in recent years due to budget cuts.

Foster youth

AB 194 (Jim Beall, D-San Jose): Assemblyman Beall has been a strong proponent of legislation to help foster youth complete their education. AB 194 requires the 112 community college campuses and California State University campuses to grant priority enrollment to current and former foster youth up through age 24, and urges the University of California to do the same. Supporters hope the bill will help keep foster youth in college by making it easier for them to get the classes they need to graduate, especially as budget cuts have forced public colleges to reduce the number of course sections they offer. Currently, about 20 percent of foster youth enroll in college, and barely 3 percent graduate. The bill would sunset July 1, 2017.

AB 709 (Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica): It’s not uncommon for foster children to be moved to different schools many times during their youth.  This bill would add a section to the state’s Health and Safety Code, bringing it into conformity with provisions of the Education Code requiring schools to immediately enroll foster youth even if they can’t provide the school with all their medical records, including proof of immunizations. This bill has no opposition and passed the Senate and Assembly without any no votes.

Common Core

Three bills before the governor would combine to place California on a timeline to prepare for the implementation of Common Core standards and assessments.

AB 250 (Julia Brownley, D-Santa Monica): The State Board of Education approved Common Core standards in math and English language arts a year ago. The state belongs to a multistate consortium that is developing the Common Core standardized tests that will be aligned to the new standards. This bill would start the process of filling in the gaps. It would require the State Board to adopt new curriculum frameworks, which flesh out standards into a detailed road map, by May 2013 for math and a year later for English language arts. It would require the state Department of Education to work with the State Board on developing training for teachers in Common Core subjects. It also would extend STAR, the current standardized tests, until the replacements are introduced in 2015.

SB 140 (Alan Lowenthal, D- Long Beach): California has postponed any new textbook adoptions until after Common Core standards are in place. But with those new standards come the new student achievement tests. In order to make sure that students are prepared for those Common Core assessments, this bill would require the State Department of Education and the State Board of Education to develop criteria for evaluating supplemental instructional materials that include Common Core content standards, and then to compile a list of those materials for kindergarten to eighth grade for English language arts and kindergarten to seventh grade for math. (Eighth grade math isn’t included because of a disagreement about whether the state’s math standard should include Algebra 1 in that grade.) Schools wouldn’t be required to choose from the list, or to use any supplemental materials. SB 140 has no organized opposition; however, votes in the Assembly and Senate were almost entirely along party lines.

AB 124 (Felipe Fuentes, D-Sylmar): Fuentes’ bill ensures that the Common Core standards extend to English learners. It would require the State Superintendent of Public Instruction to convene a group of experts in English language instruction to revise and align the curriculum, materials, and assessments for Common Core so they’re appropriate for English learners.

A labor icon’s thoughts on education

On this Labor Day, in lieu of our regular column, we leave you with some words from Albert Shanker, who served as president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974 to 1997.

Albert Shanker speaking at the 1968 United Federation of Teachers Delegate Assembly, Local 2, AFT.(Courtesty Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.)
Albert Shanker speaking at the 1968 United Federation of Teachers Delegate Assembly, Local 2, AFT.(Courtesty Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.)

Professionalization of Teaching: In a speech to the National Press Club on January 29, 1985, Shanker called for a national exam for beginning teachers and a national board to improve the teaching profession.

It would be a group which would spend a period of time studying what is it that a teacher should know before becoming certified, and how do you measure it? And it would seek to have instruments established.

Before someone finally gets the ticket, [there] ought to be an internship program. Teaching is the only profession that I know of where a person begins the first day with the same responsibility that he or she will have the last day – a profession in which practice and performance are certainly as important as intellectual knowledge, but it’s just assumed that you can take someone who’s been to college for four or five years and throw him into a classroom the first day to sink or swim. I know of no major corporation, I know of no law firm – and certainly not the medical profession – that introduces people that way. Any other profession which involves any complexity is quite different.

Unless we make that investment, we will be getting people who don’t know their subject matter. We will be getting people who have no knowledge of what is known in education or how to apply it. And we will not really be giving anyone any help in terms of practical and performance matters. And in a few years we will grant them tenure and they will be with us for a long, long time.

Tuition Tax Credits and Union Power: Shanker spoke against tuition tax credits and explained the necessity of a strong union in his “State of Our Union” address at the August 21, 1978 AFT Convention in Washington, D.C.

Tuition Tax Credits: There is no doubt in my mind that if tuition tax credit passes, it is the end of public education in this country as we know it. Yes, first, it will be the wealthiest children who will take it and move out; and the next year another group will move out. And each year there will be more and more.

When we’re all finished, we will still have some children in the public schools. They will be the difficult to educate. They will be the ones who were not accepted by the private schools. They will be those who were accepted and then were kicked out. So there will always be a public school system, but it will become sort of the “charity ward;” it will become the “clinic, ” it will become the “poor house” of education in the country. It will become a national scandal, as private schools flourish.

Tuition tax credits is not just another bill, it’s not one of those things where, if it doesn’t pass, that’s good, and if it does, well, we don’t like it. It’s not like another $500 million won or lost. Tuition tax credits is the whole ballgame, it’s the whole existence of public education in this country, it’s the existence of the union, it’s the existence of equal opportunity. Do you just count that as one of the pieces of legislation in a long list?

Power of the union: More and more our problems are national, and our problems are political.

And the only way in which we’re going to succeed in defeating the Proposition 13’s, in getting labor law reforms through, in permanently defeating tuition tax credits and vouchers, is to continue making our organization more and more powerful, more and more members within our organization, so that political figures know that when they do something that hurts us or that’s a question to the life or death of public schools, they have a huge group of politically active and sophisticated people who are going to be working against them.

Now, look around this hall. Many of us are from locals that were very small locals five years ago, and 10 and 15 years ago, 20 years ago, very small and struggling. Most of us at one time or another believed that we have joined an organization which was a permanent minority. We belong to the union, and we joined at a time when it was dangerous, and at a time when it was very unpopular. We joined at a time when we were sure that maybe we could have advanced and been promoted in the school system, but joining the union would probably mean that whatever opportunities we had in that direction were considerably reduced if not completely killed.

Most teachers who join the union join because of some little or bit problem that they had in their own pocketbooks or in their own schools. But, you know, the people who founded this union were people who saw beyond that. They had a belief and a dream that some day teachers within our society would not just be fighting for a livelihood at the local level or handling a grievance, but that some day the teachers of this country would be organized and powerful enough to be able to influence national policy and national decisions, because, who knows better than the teachers of this country what’s good for schools?

Charter Schools: Albert Shanker didn’t invent the idea of charter schools, but he helped launch the movement in a landmark speech before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1988.

I would like to make a proposal today. The proposal is based on the notion that we have not moved reform fast enough …

How would this work? The school district and the teacher union would develop a procedure that would encourage any group of six or more teachers to submit a proposal to create a new school. Do not think of a school as a building, and you can see how it works. Consider six or seven or twelve teachers in a school who say, “We’ve got an idea. We’ve got a way of doing something very different. We’ve got a way of reaching the kids that are now not being reached by what the school is doing.” That group of teachers could set up a school within that school which ultimately, if the procedure works and it’s accepted, would be a totally autonomous school within that district.

It’s a way of building by example. It’s a way not of shoving things down people’s throats, but enlisting them in a movement and in a cause. I believe that this proposal will take us from the point where the number of real basic reform efforts can be counted on the fingers of two hands to a point where, if  we meet here again a few years from now, we’ll be able to talk about thousands and thousands of schools in this country where people are building a new type of school that reaches the over-whelming majority of our students.

Standards and Assessment: Shanker was a champion of high standards and rigorous but appropriate assessments and testified for the need to strengthen both on July 21, 1989 before the House of Representative’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations Committee on Economic and Educational Opportunities.

The subject of what students should know and be able to do is about as basic to education policy and practice as one can get. Every one of the advanced industrial democracies with which we compete has grade-by-grade national or regional curriculum frameworks, and in so doing makes clear its expectations for students, school staff, textbooks and other instructional material, and the professional preparation of prospective teachers. We do not. Every one of these nations also administers student tests that are based on its content standards, that complement curriculum and instruction and that students can study for and have strong incentives to do so; their class and test performance during their school careers will determine whether they go to college and whether they get a good job at good wages. We do none of these things.

Many of Albert Shanker’s papers are available online through the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University which houses the AFT archives.

Parent Trigger stirs AFT’s ‘kill mode’

Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles-based group responsible for California’s Parent Trigger law, did something rare in education politics: it outmaneuvered a powerful teachers’ union.

The American Federation of Teachers basically admits as much in a guide used last month at the union’s TEACH conference to describe how the Connecticut chapter diluted that state’s version of the parent trigger. There, on page four, third bullet point down, it reads: “We learned from mistakes made in CA.” A few pages later, under the heading “Plan A: Kill Mode,” is list of lobbying strategies.

The guide had been posted on the union’s website along with all the other presentations from the conference. It was quickly taken down, however, after RiShawn Biddle, author of the blog Dropout Nation, posted it on his site. A note where the link used to be states, “We have posted all the presentations from the sessions to make the information available to all the attendees. However, we have received complaints about these materials and have removed them because they do not represent AFT’s position.”

The loudest complaint came from Parent Revolution at a press conference earlier this week. Executive Director Ben Austin called it a “cynical strategy to disempower parents” and released a letter sent to AFT president Randi Weingarten demanding an apology. As of this writing, there was no response from Weingarten.

Austin felt especially betrayed by the AFT because he says Parent Revolution has long supported and lauded Weingarten’s progressive approach to negotiating contracts. “She has really demonstrated that teachers union leadership can simultaneously advocate for teachers and children.”

Are you a good shift or a bad shift?

Whether you agree with them or not, there’s no question that Parent Revolution took parent power to a new level. Until now, grassroots organizing around education has remained local. Even the historic, game-changing 1968 New York City teachers strike was a battle over control of local schools in the City’s Ocean Hill-Brownsville neighborhood.

“The more traditional grassroots community-based organization model is one where they’re putting pressure on school boards, mobilizing in microcommunities around micro issues, like the closing of a school,” said Jeffrey Henig, a political science and education professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “This is a group that is working at the state level, which I think you have to do these days.”

Henig stops far short of Ben Austin’s claim that Parent Revolution is creating a new paradigm in the way we think about education. During a phone call after the press conference, Austin told me that support for the parent trigger from members of the State Board of Education (SBE) and California School Boards Association “speaks to the fact that the political tectonic plates are shifting underneath us.”

“It’s too grand to say it’s the wave of the future,” responded Henig.

Parent Revolution did lose its first takeover bid, in the Compton Unified School District, when the judge rejected the petitions (which we reported here).  But, that was before the State Board of Education drafted regulations.  Austin doesn’t expect that to happen again.  In fact, he says, they may not even have to submit the petitions; just the threat of having them may be enough to force change.

“It has more to do with giving parents leverage to bargain,” said Austin.  “The reality is that when parents have organized 50% of the parents in the school, they do have the ability to sit at the table and look the leadership in the eye and say, ‘For all intents and purposes we have the ability to fire you,’ and to look at the teachers and say, ‘We have the ability to cancel your contracts.'”

If it is a trend, Harold Levine, dean of the UC Davis School of Education, worries that another outside group pushing its agenda adds to the confusing pile of reforms foisted upon superintendents and principals.

“How do they prioritize? What’s the right thing to do? I think it actually makes the business of running schools on a day-to-day basis very difficult, and it’s already very difficult,” said Levine. He argues that California needs to commit to a single strategy for the next five years “to try to change the trajectory of low-performing schools.”

Grassroots vs. ‘Astroturf’

Parent Revolution isn’t the only parent group focused on statewide change. Over the past few years a number of organizations have emerged, including Educate Our State and Parents for Great Education, with an eye on Sacramento. As we reported here last spring, Educate Our State launched a campaign during the budget negotiations that generated more than 35,000 letters to state lawmakers urging them to support Gov. Brown’s proposal to extend the temporary taxes.

Although they weren’t successful, the effort was more organically grassroots than Parent Revolution.  There were no major donors, no professional educators, and no former elected officials. Parent Revolution, on the other hand, was started by Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot charter schools, out of his frustration with Los Angeles Unified School District. [Update:  Barr founded LA Parents Union which evolved into Parent Revolution in 2009 under the leadership of Austin]. Ben Austin worked in the Clinton administration, served as deputy mayor in Los Angeles, and sat on the State Board of Education.

But the key difference between those other organizations and Parent Revolution is money. The group is funded by the biggest players in education reform – Gates, Broad, and Walton – giving opponents something more filling to criticize.

“They’re much less grassroots; they’re Astroturf,” said California Federation of Teachers spokesman Fred Glass, using the new tag for groups allegedly doing the bidding of wealthy business leaders. “We see Parent Trigger as just one little piece of the overall assault on education by the billionaire boys club,” said Glass, barely containing his irritation.

What he didn’t say is that Parent Revolution has a $1 million annual budget, or that the AFT has also been a beneficiary of Gates largesse. The union received three grants in recent years totaling nearly $4 million, and is a partner to a $335 million grant to support intensive training programs to improve teacher effectiveness. Ironically, Green Dot is also one of the partners.

The larger question, however, is whether parents know enough about teaching and school administration to decide which schools live and which schools die.  Loving your children and having attended school, doesn’t make parents – or legislators – experts.

“Schools can, like all institutions, be improved,” said UC Berkeley education historian and professor Daniel Perlstein. “But allowing parents, rather than educators, to direct inadequate resources simply will not revolutionize the education of children living in an increasingly unstable and unequal society.”

Ben Austin said he never intended for parents to have all the power, or even most of the power.  “At the end of the day,” said Austin, “all we’re saying is parents should have some power and that power should be real.”

Out of frustration, they’ll march

Like no other, Diane Ravitch – author, polemicist, historian, Twittermeister – has galvanized classroom teachers to oppose the Obama administration’s vision of ed reform. And if she’s the James Madison or Thomas Jefferson of the rebellion, Anthony Cody is the movement’s Sam Adams.

With bulldog tenacity, the 24-year Oakland Unified science teacher and teacher coach has challenged teachers to speak out and take action – and put his organizing talents behind his words. Later this month, his two-year campaign will culminate in the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action on Saturday, July 30 in Washington, D.C., with a rally at the Ellipse followed by a march to the White House.

“We have really tried over the last two years to engage the administration in dialogue .. ,” Cody told me. “So, yeah, we do feel like we need to protest at this point, because, you know, we really expected much better from this administration, and we still do.”

In a recent video interview (here for the transcipt), Cody laid out his grievances – chiefly Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s embrace of the chief tenets of No Child Left Behind – and his goals for the march. He hopes that at least a few thousand teachers and sympathizers (he’s low-balling the number) will brave the potentially swampy Washington weather to attend. He and other volunteer organizers have lined up Ravitch, author Jonathan Kozol (Death at an Early Age), actor Matt Damon, and activist Deborah Meier (co-blogger with Ravitch in Bridging Differences) as speakers. Bookending the rally will be a conference on July 28 and 29 and a congress on July 31 to plan future actions.

The protesters will make four demands: equitable funding for all public school communities; curriculum developed for and by local school communities; teacher and community leadership in forming public education policies; and an end to high-stakes testing for student, teacher, and school evaluation. It’s clearly the last point that has fired up teachers and motivated them to travel to Washington. Cody argues, as do others, that fear of having their schools labeled as failures under NCLB has created an obsession with standardized tests, particularly in low-income schools where the curriculum has been narrowed to exclude subjects other than those that are tested, primarily math and English language arts. Low-income students, he says, “are losing the rich education that they really need. They’re losing the chance to be challenged, to think critically, and we’re developing a split education system” in which wealthy schools escape NCLB sanctions and can do the deeper learning denied poor schools.

Teachers who are feeling under siege are furious over the requirement in Race to the Top that states include student scores on standardized tests to evaluate teachers. Duncan and Obama have made more conciliatory statements this year, talking about the need for a richer curriculums  and multiple measures to evaluate teachers. But Cody says he hasn’t seen their more nuanced positions reflected in policies.

“I see them making rhetorical nods to how much they honor teachers; but you do not honor us by tying our pay to test scores, by tying our teacher evaluations to test scores,” he said.

In an explanation “A One-sided Dialogue on his popular blog “Living in Dialogue,” Cody lays out his disappointment and grievances. Eighteen months ago, he started a Facebook group Teachers’ Letters to Obama, in which he encouraged teachers to vent their frustrations in writing, for personal delivery to the White House. More than 100 did.

Then he and others pushed for a conference call with Duncan for them to explain their problems with NCLB. It did happen, after months of planning with a dozen teacher representatives from across the nation. But the call left Cody and others dissatisfied, with most of the half hour, Cody said, spent listening to Duncan instead of the other way around. The idea of a march took off.

Over the past two years of back and forth, Cody and I have sometimes agreed to disagree, but I admire his energy and savvy in creating his grassroots effort. He said he created Letters to Obama for less than $500. The Save Our Schools March has a $150,000 budget, with more than half raised from donations of $25 to $100. Both national teachers unions have kicked in $25,000 each. On Thursday, Ravitch will participate in  a fundraising webinar with a goal of raising $5,000.

“For the last decade, ‘education reform’ has been defined as No Child Left Behind, and the current administration picked that up, and is continuing to run with it,” Cody said. “We  are determined to show a different face for education reform.”

Retirement oversight in budget bill

Collective bargaining usually involves some give and take. Even in times of extreme financial pain, labor can find something to grasp, like… well, saving their jobs. Finding the good may be more challenging for teachers if California’s projected revenues aren’t met and the state imposes midyear budget cuts on schools.

Currently, districts can’t fall below 175 days of school in an academic year or they lose some state funding.

What AB 114, the state budget bill, means for the teacher retirement system. (click on image to enlarge)
What AB 114, the state budget bill, means for the teacher retirement system. (click on image to enlarge)

When lawmakers passed California’s new budget bill, AB 114, they created a one-time suspension of that limit of up to seven days if projected revenues fall $2 billion short and the state needs to make mid-year cuts to education.  Of course, the teachers’ union must agree to this reduction.

What the legislature failed to do in AB 114 is approve a concurrent fix to another section of the Education Code, which requires teachers to work 175 days in order to receive a full year service credit with CalSTRS, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System.


That’s a significant omission for teachers, explained Suzanne Speck with School Services of California, Inc. “I will tell you that teachers are just not going to agree to work a full year and not a get a full year service credit.”

While seven days may not seem like too many, the way that CalSTRS works it could put a teachers’ retirement plans into turmoil.  According to CalSTRS, there are three primary groups of teachers that would affected at various stages of their careers.

  • A member approaching her five-year vesting date could be delayed in reaching it due to potential service credit cuts. If she becomes disabled before her vesting date, she would not receive disability coverage under CalSTRS.
  • A member approaching the 25-year mark in her career, at which time she would be eligible for the one-year final compensation for the defined benefit pension, would be delayed in reaching that milestone.
  • A member approaching the 30-year mark in her career could be delayed in reaching it for the purposes of achieving the career factor, a 0.2 percent increase in the age factor calculation if a member retires with 30 years or more years of earned service credit up to the maximum age factor of 2.4 percent. [Example: if you are 61 years 3 months old at retirement without the career factor, your age factor is 2.167 percent. If you have the career factor (30-years or more) your age factor is 2.367 percent.]

That scenario puts local bargaining units in the position of pushing their districts closer to the financial abyss or accepting a reduction in school days. In the latter case, they’d be giving up both salary and service credits in CalSTRS.

“This is what happens when you pass bills in the middle of the night and don’t make phone calls and ask people, ‘If we do this, what are the consequences?'” said Speck,  referring to the legislature’s eleventh-hour vote on the state budget bill. “That’s just an assumption on my part; I’m trying to give the legislature credit that it was an unintended consequence.”

Teachers already gave at the office

While Speck wants to give lawmakers the benefit of the doubt, William Habermehl, Superintendent of the Orange County Office of Education, is too angry to be munificent.

“This the stupidest piece of legislation I’ve seen come out of Sacramento,” said Habermehl, suggesting that it was an easy way for lawmakers to put a balanced budget bill on the table so they could get paid.

He said with all that teachers have already agreed to, including furlough days, reduced medical benefits, and increased premiums, no cost-of-living increases, and larger class sizes, expecting them to approve shortening the school year is probably non-negotiable. So if the state does withhold up to seven days of school funding, districts will have to borrow, dip into reserves, or go bankrupt.

“When they called it a trigger they did the right thing,” said Habermehl, “because we have a gun to our head with this legislation.”

CTA supports AB 114 despite CalSTRS

In an odd twist, however, the California Teachers Association (CTA) is giving its full support to AB 114 because it prohibits teacher layoffs in August, which the union says is of more immediate concern.

In addition, says CTA spokesman Mike Myslinsksi, the situation is too hypothetical at this point. “We’re aware of this concern about service credits,” he said, “but this would only come into play if projected revenues do not materialize. That’s speculation; we believe the revenues will be sufficient.”

Try telling that to Superintendent Gary Thomas of the San Bernardino County Office of Education. He’s cautiously optimistic, as they say, but also realistic. “The economy right now has not been bouncing back. I don’t know whether or not we can count on these projections,” he said.

Thomas said the legislature can help by passing legislation to change the CalSTRS service credit law so it conforms to any changes in the instructional days in the school year.

Using the CalPERS law as an example for creating similar legislation for teachers. (Click on image to enlarge)
Using the CalPERS law as an example for creating similar legislation for teachers. (Click on image to enlarge)

CalSTRS officials say they’ve already written some language for a bill to address the discrepancy.  The legislature approved similar legislation last year for CalPERS, the state employee pension system. AB 1651 gives teachers aides, janitors, cafeteria workers and other classified school employees their full service credits if the school year is cut.

In order to provide similar protection for teachers, lawmakers will have to act on a CalSTRS bill as urgency legislation or it will be too late to help teachers before the next school year is over.