Polling looks good for Brown

It was a fine weekend for Jerry Brown. He should be elated with the first polling on his revised tax initiative. And the California Teachers Assn., a strong supporter of his first initiative, has come around to back the new version, too, and committed $9 million for the June and November elections. At least a piece of that’s expected to help Brown round up signatures to get the initiative on the ballot, though how much has yet to be disclosed.

Results of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll of 1,500 registered voters show that 64 percent of voters back a temporary quarter-cent sales tax and higher income taxes on those making at least $250,000 ­– the compromise that Brown and the California Federation of Teachers agreed to earlier this month in merging their initiatives; 33 percent of those polled opposed it. Democrats were predictably for it (80-16) and Republicans agin (38-61); however, Brown did surprisingly well with independents, three-quarters of whom said they support the initiative, with 23 percent opposed.

Voters were told the money – $7 billion to $9 billion – would go toward public schools, community colleges, services for children and older adults, and local public safety, in line with the new initiative’s title (the School and Local Public Safety Protection Act of 2012) and summary. Brown can claim that because, while the revenue will go to the General Fund, a portion will go to K-12 and community colleges through Proposition 98, while $2 billion will support realignment, in which counties will permanently take responsibility for some social services and prisoners transferred to county jails.

The poll was taken in the days immediately after the deal between Brown and the CFT, but before the teachers union decided to stop collecting signatures for its Millionaires Tax, so pollsters asked about that one, too. CFT proposed a permanent, higher tax, though only for millionaires.

CFT’s initiative outpolled the hybrid tax plan 69-27, 5 percentage points higher. But business lobbies had already come out against CFT’s plan and may have waged war against it, so Brown’s tradeoff – sticking with a small sales tax and lowering the rates on the wealthy – could prove smart if business groups end up sitting on their hands.

“Jerry Brown may have pulled off a coup. By convincing the teachers to drop their initiative, he ends up with a compromise that still draws big levels of support,” Dan Schnur, director of the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll, said in a statement.

The strong poll results on the initiative would appear to contradict Californians’ ambivalence about paying any new taxes. Asked whether the state’s $9 billion deficit should be resolved through a combination of taxes and cuts, as Brown proposed, or just cuts, 49 percent said do both taxes and cuts, while 45 percent said cuts alone. Apparently, respondents feel OK about taxes as long as they’re not getting the bill. (A full 80 percent also favor a $1 a pack tax increase on cigarettes, which is on the June ballot.)

That sentiment is reflected in the apparent opposition to the other tax proposal that may be on the November ballot, proposed by civil rights attorney Molly Munger and backed by the state PTA. It would provide $11 billion to K-12 and early childhood education by increasing the income tax across the board, though most families earning less than $50,000 would pay a negligible increase. It polls the mirror image of Brown’s new tax, with 32 percent in favor, 64 percent against. (Munger and the PTA face the challenge of explaining to voters that the increase will apply to their net incomes, after deductions, not to their gross incomes.)

The  endorsement of Brown’s merged initiative by CTA’s State Council of 800 delegates was expected, but critical nonetheless.

In a statement, CTA President Dean Vogel called the revised plan “a responsible and progressive plan that requires the wealthy pay their fair share in order to close the state budget deficit, restore funding to schools, colleges and essential public services and put California on the road to recovery.” He promised to work “with other labor unions and community groups to quickly qualify this initiative for the November ballot.” That implies that CTA will fork over some of the $4 million to $5 million it will take to get 1.2 million signatures by mid-May.

The State Council will meet again in June, at which point it could agree to additional spending on the November election.

Losing experience in teacher layoffs

California school districts should not be bound by seniority when budget cuts force them to lay off teachers, according to far-reaching report released yesterday by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office.

A Review of the Teacher Layoff Process in California also recommends changing the deadline for notifying teachers they may be laid off from March 15 to June 1, eliminating the teachers’ right to a formal hearing and giving more authority to local districts and bargaining units to determine the layoff process.

The LAO based its recommendations on responses to a survey from 230 out of about 950 school districts, although the Analyst’s Office said those responses included eight of the state’s ten largest districts.

Nearly three-quarters of layoff notices are rescinded. (Source: CA Legislative Analyst). Click to enlarge.
Nearly three-quarters of layoff notices are rescinded. (Source: CA Legislative Analyst). Click to enlarge.

One the main concerns was the huge number of “overnotifications,” or sending pink slips to far more teachers than necessary. According to the LAO, for every ten teachers given preliminary layoff notices last March, about 75 percent of them ended up keeping their jobs.

The problem lies in the timeline, which forces school districts to make budgetary decisions before the governor releases the May Revise, which contains the most current information on projected state revenues. To be on the safe side, districts issue layoff notices based on the worst-case scenario.

The report notes that lowering the number of initial layoff notices “would reduce the time and cost invested in conducting the layoff process, result in fewer teachers unnecessarily concerned about losing their job, and minimize the loss of morale in the school communities affected by layoff notices.”

Union leaders criticized that logic as overly simplistic. Shannon Brown, California’s 2011 Teacher of the Year and president of the San Juan Teachers Association, said moving the deadline for layoff notices may make sense from a fiscal perspective, but would have devastating consequences for laid-off teachers, giving them just a few weeks to find a new job.  That’s what contributes to low teacher morale, said Brown.  That and  the entire crisis in education funding in California that’s led to increasing class sizes, dwindling resources, teacher bashing, and the loss of some 32,000 teaching positions in the last four years. “The layoff notices only add insult to injury,” she said.

The high price of layoffs

It costs districts about $700 for each teacher who’s pink-slipped in the spring. Sacramento City Unified School District, which sent notices to more than 460 teachers last week, estimates the cost at $670 per teacher. That’s $308,000 for a district that’s been cut by $90 million over the past three years. Statewide, California school districts spent about $14 million last year in

Each pink-slipped teacher costs the district about $700.  (Source: CA Legislative Analyst) Click to enlarge.
Each pink-slipped teacher costs the district about $700. (Source: CA Legislative Analyst) Click to enlarge.

administrative and legal expenses, plus the costs of postage and paying for substitutes for teachers who challenged their notices before an administrative law judge.

Typically teachers will ask for a hearing if they believe the district made a mistake in their hiring date or the type of credential they hold; both factors that count when determining who gets laid off. But the LAO concluded that the hearings do not “add substantial value” to the process, and recommended that they be eliminated and replaced with a less formal review process.

San Juan’s Brown countered that the hearings in her district uncover mistakes nearly every year that result in people getting their jobs back. “If hearings were not held,” said Brown, “there would be people wrongfully terminated.”

Asked about the report at the Capitol yesterday morning, State Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said although he hadn’t had a chance to review it detail, he sympathized with the financial dilemma facing school districts and noted that unless the Governor’s ballot initiative to raise taxes passes in November, the fiscal crisis will become even more severe.  At that point, some of the LAO’s recommendations will have to be on the table.  “We need to consider an array of options moving forward,” said Steinberg.

That worries the California Teachers Association.  Spokesman Mike Myslinski said the LAO’s plan is a misguided effort that fails to address the underlying problem of the state’s inability to balance the budget.  “The bottom line,” said Myslinski, “is that the state really is in extraordinary times now, and we want lawmakers to be cautious of using these current dire circumstances to make permanent policy decisions that impact student learning.”

Layoff notices reach 20,000

Cynthia Dalmacio has a mnemonic device to keep track of how long she’s been teaching in Brisbane Elementary School District; one pink slip for each of her four years.  The latest one came yesterday, the state deadline for notifying teachers that they may not have a job in the next school year.

Brisbane teacher Cynthia Dalmacio received her fourth layoff notice in as many years. (photo by Mike Myslinski). Click to enlarge.
Brisbane teacher Cynthia Dalmacio received her fourth layoff notice in as many years. (photo by Mike Myslinski). Click to enlarge.

The small hillside city of just over 4,000 residents, overlooking San Francisco Bay, has three schools with 550 students and 30 teachers.  The district sent out eight layoff notices this week.  Previous cuts left one principal for the two elementary schools, and one superintendent for Brisbane and neighboring Bayshore Elementary School District.

“I spend the last few months of each school year in a deep depression because teaching isn’t just a job for me, it’s who I am,” Dalmacio told reporters and a handful of teachers and parents at a news conference organized by the California Teachers Association (CTA).

As of Thursday afternoon, the CTA had heard from more than 200 local unions – including the largest districts in the state – and reported that about 20,000 California teachers were facing the same uncertain future as Dalmacio.

The ten districts issuing the most layoff notices, according to the CTA, are:

  • Los Angeles Unified – about 9,500
  • San Diego Unified – more than 1,600
  • San Juan Unified – 458
  • Capistrano Unified – 392
  • Sacramento City Unified – 389
  • Moreno Valley Unified – 332
  • Long Beach Unified – 309
  • San Bernardino City – 251
  • San Francisco Unified – 210
  • Sweetwater High School District – 209

Not counted in these numbers are first- and second-year teachers who, because they’re not tenured, can be laid off without notice. That number could reach into the thousands, but it’s hard to know, because the state doesn’t keep track of it.

Skipping Seniority

This year, however, the trend is shifting and pink slips are reaching teachers way up the seniority ladder.  One Brisbane teacher who received a pink slip has been there for eight years. San Juan Unified in Sacramento sent notices to some teachers with eleven years in the district.

“Teachers with less than three years were gone the first year (of recent layoffs),” explained Ron Bennett, president and CEO of the consulting firm School Services of California. “As districts have had to ratchet down, they’ve had to go up in seniority.”

Seniority is also being sidestepped in some cases, as more districts turn to provisions of the State Education Code to prevent high turnover rates at academically fragile schools. It started on a large scale in Los Angeles Unified School District two years ago. A lawsuit, filed on behalf of students at three low-performing schools serving mostly students of color, argued that they were being denied an equal education as a result of instability caused by massive layoffs.

In big urban districts, “almost every junior teacher will be assigned to a low-performing inner city school, and as they gain seniority they move out to suburban schools,” said School Services’ Bennett. “In some low-performing schools every single teacher was getting a layoff notice and in higher-performing schools there were no layoffs.”

Since the settlement in Los Angeles Unified, several other large urban districts have used the exemptions in the Ed Code to protect some schools from disproportionate layoffs, including Long Beach, San Francisco – where the union is fighting the move – and Sacramento City Unified.  Last year, an administrative law judge allowed the district to protect jobs at nine schools under the Ed Code exemption for teachers who have undergone special training to improve academic achievement and use different teaching methodologies.

CTA Vice President Eric Heins releasing layoff numbers at news conference in Brisbane. (Photo by Mike Myslinski) Click to enlarge.
CTA Vice President Eric Heins releasing layoff numbers at news conference in Brisbane. (Photo by Mike Myslinski) Click to enlarge.

CTA Vice President Eric Heins finds the argument unconvincing and suspects it’s a political move by districts to ease out veteran teachers who are active in the union and keep younger teachers who are less involved.  “If we have schools that are so bad that nobody wants to teach there, then it’s not right to put a new teacher there or any students,”  said Heins.

This year is different

For the most part, districts have been able to rescind many of the preliminary layoff notices as the state budget picture became more clear.  Last year, the Governor’s May budget revise suggested (erroneously as it turned out) that revenues would be high enough to prevent further cuts.  But districts still had money left from the Obama Administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) which kept thousands of teachers in the classroom.

This time there’s no federal safety net, and school funding is riding on passage of a tax initiative in November. “This year may be a little bit different just because of the sheer size of the cuts combined with structural issues inside school districts,” said Arun Ramanathan, Executive Director of The Education Trust—West.  Then he chided the governor and legislators for abdicating their responsibility by focusing solely on the November election.

“The disconnect between the pain at the local level and what they’re doing in Sacramento is fundamental, and is basically what has been happening for the last four years,” said Ramanathan, “Nobody loses their job up there.”

Sacramento City Superintendent Jonathan Raymond was even more blunt in his criticism.  “We have to be honest that education is not a priority in California; if it was how come we let things get like this?” he wondered, citing cuts in everything from smaller class sizes and libraries, to music, art and athletics.

When Raymond first took the job as superintendent in 2009, he said a friend thought he was crazy.  “He said it’s like hitting the beaches of Normandy wearing an orange jumpsuit,” recalled Raymond.  It may have seemed hyperbolic at the time, but not so much today after the state has dropped to 47th in per pupil spending on education; nearly $3,000 below the national average.  “This is our Normandy today.  If we don’t educate our children what kind of society are we going to have?” he asked with exasperation rising in his voice. “For the life of me I don’t understand why these people in Sacramento don’t fix it.”

CTA’s a team player for Jerry Brown

The president of the California Teachers Association said Monday that in backing Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative, the state’s largest teachers union is agreeing to “stay at awful” for now with the expectation that more money will flow again to schools in coming years. But if voters defeat the $6.9 billion tax measure in November, the CTA will fight Brown – and go to court if necessary – to prevent the governor from exacting disproportionate cuts to K-12 schools.

The 800-member CTA State Council on Sunday endorsed Brown’s plan to use higher taxes to increase the state’s General Fund over a rival plan from the California Federation of Teachers that would split among K-12 schools, higher education, and social services an estimated $6 billion to $9 billion from taxing millionaires. CTA president Dean Vogel estimated the governor’s plan got 70 percent of delegates’ support on a voice vote.

“The governor’s initiative is the only initiative that provides additional revenues for our classrooms and closes the state budget deficit, and guarantees local communities will receive funds to pay for the realignment of local health and public safety services that the Legislature approved last year,” Vogel said in a statement.

That’s only partially true. The governor is  proposing no additional money for the classroom, including not funding a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment to which the schools would be entitled. Instead, Brown would use $5 billion in additional revenue to pay off deferrals, a form of short-term debt in which the state budgets money for schools one year but delays payment to districts until the next year.

The CFT proposal and a rival initiative by civil rights attorney Molly Munger, which CTA delegates did not seriously consider, would provide immediate increases in school spending. But Vogel said they wouldn’t  address the estimated $9 billion deficit facing the General Fund. The union’s taking the view that the financial crisis facing the state “is not just about schools but about communities” – and the need to protect preschool and the state’s university systems as well as heath and social services.

Brown’s tax would at least stabilize funding for schools, setting up the prospect for eventually repaying money to schools while building up the base for Proposition 98, Vogel said.

Brown’s plan would temporarily raise the sales tax by a half-cent and the income tax on upper-income Californians (those earning more than $250,000). If it fails, the governor would manipulate Prop 98 to impose an extra $2.4 billion cut in school spending. He would shift the burden of repaying school construction bonds from the General Fund to Proposition 98, keeping funding level while adding a multibillion-dollar expense.

Threatening schools with a $5 billion cut helps Brown sell the need for passing his tax increase, but Vogel said that the CTA would fight further tampering with Prop 98, in court if necessary.

Vogel told CTA delegates that the Service Employees International Union, the other big teachers union, will back Brown’s initiative, too, although the SEIU has yet to announce its decision. If true, that leaves the CFT the only school union holdout, with enough money to bring its initiative to the ballot but not enough to sustain a campaign. Munger, whose proposal to raise the income tax would raise $10 billion for K-12 schools and preschools,  has shown no sign of backing off putting  her competing plan on the ballot.

Vogel told Kevin Yamamura of the Sacramento Bee that the CTA would pony up an undetermined amount of money for the governor’s initiative, although the union is also facing a potentially expensive battle to defeat an initiative that would restrict the collection of union members’ dues for political campaigns. The CTA does not plan to ask members for a surcharge on dues, as it did to fight similar unfriendly initiatives  in 2005, Vogel said.

Warming up to an NCLB waiver

John and Kathy co-wrote this post from Sacramento.

For the second time in as many months, the acting Assistant Secretary of Education came to California  to call on the State Board of Education to apply for a waiver from most of the requirements and penalties of the No Child Left Behind law. All but ten states have either formally applied for a waiver or indicated they would in the next round. California is the only one of the ten that Michael Yudin has visited.

“Our effort here is to release the pressure valve of No Child Left Behind,” Yudin told the State Board on Wednesday, noting that 3,900 schools in California already face sanctions under NCLB’s Program Improvement designation. “We are creating the opportunity to create space and remove barriers to allow states to be innovative and creative.”

Yudin’s pitch seems to be working. Just two months ago, Board members were skeptical of the costs and the conditions that would come with the waiver and declined to take any action.

On Wednesday, they directed staff at the state Department of Education to start gathering information for a potential vote at their next meeting in March on applying this summer.

Even State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson now seems amenable. When Education Secretary Arne Duncan first proposed the waivers in September, Torlakson balked at what he projected to be a $2 billion cost and rigid conditions for meeting the waiver.

“If the administration understands the complexity and the diversity of the state of California, and the financial pressure we’re under, we would design a customized waiver. I believe there is opportunity here,” said Torlakson.

As Torlakson knows, without a waiver no Title I school in California will meet NCLB’s demand that every student score proficient on the California Standards Test. When that happens, they’ll also lose control over a significant portion of their Title I dollars and face a narrow range of federally prescribed improvement options.

Concern over losing that money drew nearly a dozen superintendents from around the state to Sacramento yesterday to plead with the Board to seek a waiver.

“This is a point of desperation,” said Sanger Unified Superintendent Marc Johnson, whose tiny 11,000-student district stands to lose control of $500,000. Sanger has been using that money on its own intervention programs, which he credits with increasing the district’s high school graduation rate to 94 percent.

“Children in this state will be harmed because of the failure of state agencies to take action and embrace this,” said Johnson.

He and the other superintendents said the Board needs to be aware of the demoralizing effect of having schools be labeled as failures and the burdens that come with sanctions.

Waivers wouldn’t even be an issue if Congress had reauthorized NCLB five years ago, as it was  supposed to. There’s a consensus on Capitol Hill and in the Obama Administration that the bill has major flaws that have to be fixed. Yet there’s little chance of that happening before the November election.

Strings are attached

The Obama Administration is offering states the opportunity to create their own school improvement models, but with new conditions that in some ways are more far-reaching.

  • Teacher and principal effectiveness: Every teacher and principal must be evaluated using multiple factors including, for teachers, their ability to boost student test scores;
  • A new accountability system for closing the achievement gap: The Administration wants the states to develop interventions for students in the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools and, in a new requirement, for students in schools with the largest achievement gaps – 900 schools in California.
  • Accelerated implementation of Common Core standards and career and college readiness standards: The state is well on its way to meeting these requirements.

Several of these and other factors have given the Board pause. A key concern is that these conditions – especially teacher and principal evaluations – would become mandates for all schools, not just Title I schools, which the state would have to fund.

Board members also pressed Yudin about what happens three years out when either the waiver ends or the federal government, under NCLB’s successor, seeks to impose new sanctions if they fail to meet the requirements of the waiver. Would they lose money or be reinstated in Program Improvement?

Yudin wouldn’t predict the future, given the uncertainty of possible partisan shifts in Washington, D.C.  But he did try to allay fears of the costs and stress the flexibility that California would have in designing its plan.

The California Teachers Association in particular has opposed any use of student test scores in evaluating teachers. But Yudin said that the federal government is offering a lot of latitude to the states. He noted that Massachusetts, a recipient of Race to the Top funds and one of the 11 states that has already submitted a waiver application, will only be using test scores to validate the accuracy of the other measures.

Meanwhile, Alice Petrossian, president of the Association of California School Administrators, promised the State Board that ACSA would take the lead in developing criteria for evaluating principals. For the past year, ACSA been working on the issue and potential legislation.

The cost of these programs, said Yudin, could in large part be borne by money the federal government is already providing to the state. This includes $268 million in Title II professional development money that could go toward teacher training for Common Core and teacher and principal evaluations. An additional $239 million in Title I dollars that Program Improvement schools currently have to set aside for federal interventions would be freed up for the alternative plans that the state would create.

Despite these assurances from Yudin, several Board members remained uneasy about potential costs to the state and the short two-to-three-year timeline to get all these new statewide programs up and running. “Would you relax requirements to move forward in a timely way because of the fiscal constraints facing states?” Carl Cohn asked Yudin.

Yudin said the states would have a lot of leeway in what they propose as long as the plans are implemented statewide within three years; however, he emphasized that this is not a competition where states will be scored against one another.

“I do believe that it is an iterative process,” said Yudin. “We will do everything we can to help states.”

Pushing aside reservations was Board member Yvonne Chan, the principal of a national blue ribbon charter school that is now in Program Improvement. “I strongly urge you to think outside the box,” Chan, whose term ends this week, urged her colleagues on the Board.

In Chinese, opportunity is two words, explained Chan, holding up a slip of paper on which she had written Chinese characters. “The first stands for risk, the second for success. No risk, no opportunity, folks. If we wait for everything to be absolutely perfect we’re never going to do it,” said Chan.  “If we can have this collective confidence in ourselves, then we can fix this, we can come up with new solutions for these persistent problems.”

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

Poll: Tax with ed reforms is winner

A new poll has confirmed what Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, and others in the 2012 Kids Education Plan coalition expected: An initiative coupling school reforms with a tax increase dedicated to education has a good chance of winning at the polls a year from now.

The qualifiers are important. Less than a majority of respondents said they would be willing to pay a general state tax increase to support state services, including education, but not exclusively for schools. A slight majority said they’d be willing to pay more if it’s exclusively for education. But that rose to two-thirds if paired with the general reforms that the Kids Plan has been promoting. They include giving local districts more control over spending decisions and the hiring and dismissal of teachers.

Neither a sales nor income tax increase drew a majority support when suggested as a new general state tax.
Neither a sales nor income tax increase drew a majority support when suggested as a new general state tax. Click to enlarge. (EMC Research)

“The reform piece is needed to bring folks together,” said Lempert. “It provides a clear path for voters.”

It’s also needed to pick up the financial support of the business community, which will be needed to sustain a long campaign against likely anti-tax opposition.

The Kids Education Plan coalition, which includes the Association of California School Administrators,

Support grew when the income or sales tax was proposed as a tax dedicated to education. Click to enlarge. (EMC Research)
Support grew when the income or sales tax was proposed as a tax dedicated to education. Click to enlarge. (EMC Research)

United Way of Greater Los Angeles, the advocacy group Education Trust-West, Bay Area Council, and San Francisco-based Silver Giving Foundation, commissioned the poll of 600 voters in mid-November by EMC Research in Oakland, a marketing and opinion research firm that has done polling on education issues. Lempert released a six-page summary of the results.

The coalition has not yet written its own initiative. Instead, Lempert has taken on the role of broker, trying over the next month to coax deep-pocket sponsors of several emerging tax initiatives to compromise on one proposal. And that includes Gov. Jerry Brown, who’s said to be days away from announcing a tax initiative that he has been working on with the California Teachers Association. When Republican legislators killed his plan to extend tax increases as part of this year’s budget, Brown pledged to go to voters in 2012.

Push for one tax initiative in November 2012

There is general agreement, based on past elections, Lempert said, that voters would find multiple tax measures confusing and turn them all down. “We are focused on getting one measure on the ballot,” he said.

Today, Los Angeles attorney Molly Munger and a nonprofit she co-founded, the Advancement Project, are expected to send their initiative to the Attorney General for vetting. It would raise $10 billion for preschools through high schools, primarily from the wealthy, by increasing the personal income tax by 1 percentage point. Last week, the Think Long for California Committee, led by billionaire Nicolas Berggruen, proposed government reforms and also a $10 billion tax increase by extending the sales tax to services while lowering the personal and corporate income taxes. Higher education would get half of the money, but preschools and early childhood programs would get none.

Besides differences in who would be funded, there are advantages and liabilities to both proposals. The personal income tax is volatile, so a broader sales tax would provide more revenue predictability. But businesses that provide services, from attorneys to nail salons, will fight a new tax. The CTA will likely oppose Munger’s plan, because it would not mix the new money with Proposition 98, which funds pay increases and health benefits. CTA has already condemned Think Long’s plan for wiping off the books about $14 billion owed to schools. Munger’s plan has elements of the reform favored by Lempert’s group, such as providing bonus money for low-income children and giving school sites more say over how money is used. But those reforms would apply only to new money, not existing Prop 98 funding.

Precise wording of the poll questions is important. A USC/Dornsife poll found that 64 percent of respondents said they’d be willing to pay more taxes to support education. There was no mention of making this tax contingent on reforms.

However, the EMC poll teased out the distinctions:

  • “A narrow 53% majority agree and 43% disagree with the statement The most important thing our schools need is more funding.” The support rises to 66 percent when framed, I would be willing to pay more in taxes for schools if it went along with significant reforms to our state education system.
  • Only 39 percent said they would favor, with 58 percent opposing, a 1% increase in the income tax to provide general fund revenue “for uses such as education, social services, public safety and corrections.” That rose to 55 percent supporting, 42 percent against, when proposed as a dedicated tax for education. (Poll respondents weren’t told that under the state’s progressive tax structure, those earning more than $300,000 would pay the bulk of the new revenue.)
  • 44 percent said they would favor, with 52 percent opposing, a ½ percent increase in the sales tax to provide general fund revenue. That rose to 61 percent supporting, 36 percent against, when proposed as a dedicated sales tax increase for education.

Lempert isn’t talking publicly about specific reforms that the coalition wants. Respondents were read a question citing four general reforms:

  • Create a revised K through 12 education funding system for California that gives control over spending decisions to local communities and educators instead of the state legislature;
  • Require complete financial transparency and accountability for all education spending;
  • Give local school districts more control over teacher hiring and dismissal decisions; and
  • Provide substantial new funding for California schools by implementing a fair, broad-based new statewide tax for education.

However, the pollster then got more detailed, asking respondents about specific ideas, indicating which changes the coalition is interested in:

  • 80 percent favored making it simpler to dismiss underperforming teachers while preserving their right to appeal;
  • 79 percent favored requiring local districts to adopt a comprehensive teacher quality plan governing the recruiting, hiring, training, and evaluating of teachers;
  • 74 percent favored requiring that teachers have four years of experience, instead of two, before receiving permanent tenure status;
  • 72 percent favored expanding access to quality preschool and early childhood education programs;
  • 72 percent favored requiring districts to create a teacher compensation plan, developed with public input, detailing the pay structure for teachers;
  • 66 percent favored setting a base funding level for each student, with more for high-needs students;
  • 59 percent favored allowing district tax measures (parcel taxes) to be passed by 55 percent majority instead of the current 67 percent;
  • 55 percent favored significantly increasing statewide education funding with a broad-based tax raising between $6 billion and $8 billion per year.

Ruth Bernstein, a principal with the pollster EMC, said that the 59 percent support for dropping the threshold for a parcel tax, while lower than other reforms, was higher than in the past. She said she interpreted the 55 percent support for an $8 billion statewide tax as a sign that voters want reforms if they are going to pass a tax of that magnitude.

“We are seeing heightened awareness about the need for more funding,” Bernstein said, “and awareness of structural changes that are needed.”

Battle over pension spiking bill

The California Teachers Association and the state teachers retirement system are pushing for significant changes to SB 27, Sen. Joe Simitian’s bill that would prevent “spiking,” the practice of larding on compensation near retirement to boost a public employee’s pension – a practice that is drawing increasing scrutiny. It also would limit the types of compensation that would be used in calculating a standard pension.

The late-in-coming amendments pose a new challenge to the bill, which raced through the Senate without opposition, and could spur a larger discussion on pension changes. A similar bill by Simitian passed the Legislature last year but was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger because it was tied to another pension bill that troubled him.

Simitian’s bill would apply to all current and future public workers. Any employee who received a pay increase of 25 percent or larger over the final five years of employment would automatically have the raise audited by the public pension system: CalSTRS in the case of educators. (Educators whose pay rose more than 25 percent in taking a job in another district would be excluded from an audit.)

Another provision, to thwart double-dipping – receiving a public paycheck and a pension simultaneously – would ban an employee from returning to work as a contract or full-time worker for 180 days after retirement.

The board of CalSTRS and the CTA want to limit SB 27 to future employees arguing that current workers have inviolable vested rights to benefits that have already been negotiated. Doing so, however, would substantially reduce immediate savings to the system at a time that CalSTRS is looking to the Legislature for a sizable boost in taxpayer subsidies because it has yet to recover from the stock market meltdown in 2008.

Proposed cap on pension benefits

CalSTRS and the teachers union are calling for a simpler – and more encompassing – way to deal with spiking: capping the amount of compensation that can be counted toward a defined benefit pension at $147,000 instead of requiring reviews. CalSTRS reports that, statewide, 1,600 administrators not covered by bargaining agreements earn more than $147,000; their compensation above that would be credited toward their individual defined benefit supplement accounts, which work like a 401(k) with a lower guaranteed rate of return, thus saving taxpayers money.

Doing it this way would exclude teachers, who rarely make as much as $147,000 and don’t get the kinds of perks that have led to spiking. SB 27 is aimed, in part, at school boards that have boosted the salaries of superintendents and high-ranking administrators through short-term promotions. A report in the Sacramento Bee found that nearly half of the 225 Sacramento retired educators with pensions above $100,000 got at least a 10 percent pay raise in one of their last three years. Depending on how long they’ve worked, employees’ pensions are based on either their highest-paying year or the average pay in their final three years.

Spiking has been an issue in municipal and county governments as well. In Contra Costa County, for example, two fire chiefs, ages 50 and 51, retired with pensions greater than their highest salaries.

Restrictions on qualifying compensation

Under Simitian’s bill, the value of non-salary income, like car allowances, life insurance, and unused vacation pay, would not count in determining a standard pension. This money would, however, be credited toward the supplemental program. To no surprise, the administrators’ lobby, the Association of California School Administrators, opposes the bill.

The only significant change for teachers is that unused sick pay would no longer boost years of sevice in pension calculations. It too would now be credited in the supplemental program. (Some readers will no doubt argue that, as in most private companies, unused sick pay shouldn’t count toward retirement benefits at all.)

The Pacific Research Institute estimated four years ago that pension spiking cost California taxpayers $100 million each year. CalSTRS estimates that SB 27 would yield savings of $10 million annually, but it also said that it would have to hire a dozen people to do the audits and spend $5 million to update a system to flag potential violations.

CalSTRS has been criticized recently for its failure to crack down on alleged spiking. This issue became public after CalSTRS executives fired Scott Thompson, a whistle blower whom they claimed lowered a pension without authorization and refused to restore it. Pension administrators recently told the CalSTRS board they planned to establish a new unit to review questionable compensation cases,  regardless of SB 27’s fate.

Simitian, a Palo Alto Democrat, told me that the existing system that permits padding “isn’t fair to taxpayers and to most employees who aren’t in a position to have their incomes spiked and rely on pension systems to be solvent. The status quo undermines public support for appropriate pensions that retirees rely on.”

A newly retired teacher last year earned an average pension of $49,000. Educators receiving six-figure pensions remain a small proportion of the 852,000 teachers and administrators served by CalSTRS, but the focus of public ire – or envy.

CalSTRS this month reported an impressive 23 percent return on investments for the year ending June 30, the best  in a quarter century. And it followed a 2010 return of 12.7 percent. But even so, CalSTRS, with $154 billion in assets, remains $25 billion below its peak in October 2007 – and only 70 percent funded. To become fully funded could require more than $2 billion in taxpayer subsidies, between additional school districts’ benefits contributions and the state general fund’s portion of retirement contributions.

Anti-spiking legislation, Simitian notes, “is the low-hanging fruit of pension reform. It should be easy.” He said he has not taken a position on the CalSTRS amendments.

Update: Education Week reports that other Legislatures are also curbing “double-dipping.”

Slow track for finance reform

AB 18, Assemblywoman Julia Brownley’s major overhaul of education finance, flew through the Assembly with near unanimity (74-2) last month. Passage seemed too easy, and it was. With union opposition and questions about a lack of specificity stirring, Brownley last week pulled the bill from its scheduled hearing in the Senate this week and has made AB 18 a two-year bill, with hearings to come next year.

That shouldn’t be surprising. Brownley, a Santa Monica Democrat who chairs the Assembly Education Committee, continued to describe the bill as a work in progress. It sailed through the Assembly based on its promise: to simplify a convoluted finance system, make funding more equitable, and eventually steer more money to high-needs children. On those points there is general agreement, at least in concept.

In reorganizing many funding streams and categories into three, AB 18 would vastly simplify the current system. But equity is in the mind of the beholder. In promising to hold all districts harmless, AB 18 would initially lock in disparities in legacy funding and idiosyncratic differences in special-purpose funds known as categorical programs. Some districts, for example, get much more adult education funding than others. Los Angeles Unified gets a disproportionately large allocation of Economic Impact Aid for minority children.

Equalization – the process of making similar funding streams more uniform  – was to be put off for another time. But AB 18, to its credit, would spell out the current winners and losers in ways that have not been apparent. Once districts see the differences spelled out, underfunded districts will likely push for dealing with equalization sooner than later.

AB 18, as I have explained before, would divvy up Proposition 98 funding into three large piles of money, based on student enrollment, with special education funding treated separately. Districts would have flexibility over how to spend categorical funds that would be rolled into the three funding areas:

  • Base spending, including the  current revenue limit funding and two dozen categoricals, would be the largest.
  • Quality Instruction Funding, combining the class-size reduction program and eight teacher-training-related  programs, now funded at $1.8 billion, would be spent on professional development and teacher and principal recruitment and retention.
  • Targeted Student Equity Funding would include eight categorical programs, including Economic Impact Aid. It would be aimed directly at low-income students and English learners. Brownley has said the goal of AB 18 would be to make increasing this fund over time a priority. How much hasn’t been decided.

The California Teachers Association had opposed the bill, on the grounds that there should be more time to explore the unpredictable impacts of the bill. That argument won out, in extending the bill to another year. But CTA was also unhappy to see class-size reduction, a categorical program it has championed, folded into Quality Instruction Funding, in which districts could choose not to fund smaller classes. The California School Employees Association, representing bus drivers, will lobby to have the transportation categorical fund pulled out of base spending. And other interest groups will advocate excluding other categorical funds from the mix – defeating the primary purpose of the bill – simplicity – and limiting how much will be available for needy kids.

Other issues

A finance overhaul should also consider questions not as yet covered by the bill:

  • What should be the funding differentials between unified, elementary, and high school districts?
  • Should incentives for consolidation of small districts be included?
  • Should the finance system recognize cost of living differences among regions of the state? (It costs more for teachers to live in San Francisco than Clovis.)
  • How much extra should districts get to educate a disadvantaged student: 10, 20, 25 percent?

Brownley said last week that she would look forward to “continuing our discussions” with education groups. Credit her for taking on an ambitious goal. It won’t get any easier in the second year.