If the signs reflecting stagnant student achievement in the US were only coming from the Program for International Assessment, I might not be as worried as I am. You know the argument: Since our standards are not generally aligned with those of PISA and our teachers thus don’t teach to them, PISA results may not be an accurate measure of teaching and learning in these United States.
The problem is that PISA trends have begun to mirror – at least broadly – what we have seen in the last decade in our own National Assessment of Educational Progress. From 2009-2015, we saw absolute stagnation in the NAEP. One can see this generally in both national and state trends. Shockingly, even in the vast majority of states that were deemed as “doing things right” by the federal government and given additional funds under the Race to the Top program, there were no gains. This is contrast to the gains we made from 1999 to 2009, especially during the full implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act.
While one wants to be very careful about asserting cause or correlation, there are similar patterns in the PISA results. The 15-year-olds in the US who were assessed in science and math on the PISA improved from 2006 to 2009 by 13 points. Had our students made similar gains in subsequent years, we would have passed PISA averages and the results of many nations that have been ahead of us in the past.
Yet, from 2009-2015, US students fell back on PISA, by a depressing 18 points in math and 6 points in science. Thus, over the decade, we lost half our earlier gain in science and the entire gain and another 5 points in math. This backward motion is no way to catch up against our competitors. It certainly is no way to excel.
There are – to be sure – some data in PISA that show a decade-long improvement in the achievement of our lowest-performing students. This could be a sign that the No Child Left Behind Act’s emphasis on addressing achievement gaps continued to provide great benefits beyond the years of full implementation. But we don’t see a positive impact at any percentile level or in the overall achievement data. So, this little piece of progress is positive but of too little comfort to overcome the significant losses we experienced in the past six years.
The big question arises: what caused this recent stagnation in both NAEP and PISA?
We must be modest in trying to answer that question. There are no scientific studies that are definitive. We do not know causality with certainty. But we can suggest hypotheses, based on earlier research and reason that merit consideration.
We know that, as indicated in abundant research, that accountability drives improvement in student achievement. Accountability in the states and the nation reached its high point in the late 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century. And student achievement gains in that period far exceeded those of both prior and subsequent years.
But starting in 2009, the Obama Administration began weakening the accountability measures contained in No Child. Instead of addressing aspects of the law that could have been fixed with simple tweaks (or with a full reauthorization), the administration’s leadership at the U.S. Department of Education granted waivers that allowed states to water down accountability requirements in numerous important ways. Tragically, the waivers that brought about the weakening proved to be a true pig in a poke. Accountability was significantly lost, and the “reforms” for which it was waived either have never materialized beyond the paper they were written on or have gradually dissipated.
It’s particularly sad that the only “good news” that’s cited in the midst of these awful recent trends is the improvement in graduation rates. Yet, grad rates are the consummate lagging indicator. All the graduates who walked the stage since 2009 and by 2015 were 7th graders or older in 2009. There’s little evidence that policy in recent years improved the graduation of these students – and even worse, there is some evidence that states are once again gaming graduation rates. Instead of unjustified high fives, we ought to worry that our reduced accountability since 2009 will actually retard further improvements in graduation rates as today’s students approach high school.
I regret being pessimistic. But the truth is I see things getting worse in future years.
Awful recent policy decisions, such as the so-called Every Student Succeeds Act, will weaken accountability and slow progress even more. Unbelievably, the newest ideas flowing from this past election cycle may portend a less coherent and more harmful policy going forward. All this has yet to be “baked in the cake.” So, is it possible that we’ll see greater deterioration in future NAEP and PISA results? I believe we will.
There has been plenty of discussion about U.S. Secretary of Education Nominee Betsy DeVos in the weeks since your editor wrote a series of commentaries about why reformers shouldn’t support her, much less anyone in the incoming Trump Administration. The resulting discussion and sparring among reformers over DeVos exemplifies the splits that have been developing within the movement for some time. Just as importantly, the discussions around DeVos’ efforts to oppose the closing of failing charter schools is another reminder of why the movement must rally around strong accountability for all schools serving our children.
The latest example of the split came yesterday when Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights, a prominent champion for the kind of strong accountability measures promulgated by the now-abolished No Child Left Behind Act, issued a letter calling out DeVos for her support for anti-gay rights measures and her opposition to holding charters in Detroit and the rest of Michigan accountable for poor performance.[Leadership Council also wrongly chastised DeVos for supporting vouchers. It should rethink its position on that aspect of choice.]
Naturally, Leadership Council was able to get the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, and their vassals to sign on to the letter. But Leadership Council also got support from Stand for Children and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, two of the other key players among civil rights players in advancing systemic reform. That three key players within the civil rights wing of the movement have explicitly declared opposition to DeVos — and joined hands with traditionalists to boot — won’t make conservative and even some centrist Democrat reformers very happy. As it is, your editor’s commentaries, along with a piece cowritten by Democrats for Education Reform President Shavar Jeffries, comments from Catherine Brown of Center for American Progress, and the pronouncement last month by Teach For America has rankled them.
Conservative reformers have come out of the woodwork to back her. This included Jason Crye of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, who complained that arguments that DeVos’ place in the Trump Administration tarred school choice with bigotry were “simplistic and unfair”; and Philip Stutts, a public relations man who works for outfits such as the DeVos-funded American Federation for Children, who took to Fox News to tout her school reform bona fides. [Among other conservatives, DeVos has already won the endorsement of National Review.]
Former CNN anchor-turned-reformer Campbell Brown, who wrote a valentine to in her news outlet (which is funded by DeVos’ family foundation). After reformers and traditionalists criticized the column, Brown later announced that she wouldn’t write again about DeVos and stay out of coverage of the incoming federal official. Harvard Professor Paul Peterson, the former editor-in-chief of Education Next, wrote approvingly of DeVos in the Wall Street Journal.
Meanwhile Daniel Quisenberry, who runs the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, the lobbying group which DeVos helped cofound, took to the pages of Education Next to defend her and her record on advancing systemic reform in Michigan. Declaring that “DeVos has put kids before adults, parents before institutions, and students’ success before politics”, Quisenberry proclaimed that she would do the same as head of federal education policymaking. Expect even more public support from conservative reformers in the coming days, especially as some (most-notably the American Enterprise Institute) are reminded that the DeVos family is among their most-important donors.
But even more questions from civil rights-oriented and centrist Democrat reformers about DeVos will likely come today after they read Kate Zernike’s New York Times report detailing how the Amway heiress worked zealously this year to oppose efforts by a cadre of reformers (including Gov. Rick Snyder and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan) to overhaul oversight of Motown’s traditional district and charter schools. The plan, which would have created an oversight board, called the Detroit Education Commission, which would have developed an A-F grading of performance for all Detroit schools, shut down failing charters, and pushed for high-quality options to be opened in sparsely-served parts of the city, was scuttled by Republicans who control the Wolverine State’s legislature after DeVos and her family reminded them who finances their campaigns. [The A-to-F grading eventually made it into final legislation that included other reforms for charters statewide.]
Some conservative reformers have already criticized Zernike’s report. Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli argues that Zernike failed to mention that DeVos opposed the creation of the school oversight board because of fears that it would end up being captured by the AFT’s local there. [Zernike responds by noting that the local lacked the influence needed to make that fear a reality, though, of course, politics can always change.] Others argue that DEC was worrisome because the board would be appointed by the mayor instead of elected. This is a strange concern given that many charter school authorizers are neither elected nor even politically appointed. A few even note (reasonably) that Duggan, who supported the legislation, also signed a measure restricting charters from acquiring city-owned property, thus making him unreliable on advancing school choice. You can also expect MAPSA and Jeanne Allen’s Center for Education Reform, both of which have strongly defended Michigan’s charter school sector from criticism, to offer more strongly-worded polemics.
As you can imagine, Zernike’s report is another reminder of a point that folks such as Robin Lake of Center for Reinventing Public Education have been making for some time: That strong accountability is key to expanding school choice throughout the nation.
Certainly over the past three decades, charter schools (along with vouchers and other choice programs) have proven that its schools help kids succeed academically and economically in their adulthoods. As Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes determined in its study of charters in 41 cities, the average child gained more than 28 additional days of learning in reading than peers attending traditional district schools. Other data has shown that charters and other form of choice improve the chances that poor and minority kids will graduate from higher education and attain lifelong success.
But as seen in Michigan, not every charter school does the job. As CREDO notes, the average child in a Michigan charter gained 36 additional days of learning in reading over a traditional district peer. More than likely, that is because of the high-quality operators within the sector; as CREDO reported in a special study on the state, 65 percent of charters in the Wolverine State perform either at the same level or worse than traditional districts, making the sector among the lowest-performing in the nation. That 14 percent of Michigan’s charters are both low-performing and do little to improve student achievement is especially troubling.
DeVos’ allies argue that Michigan has closed more charter schools than the national average. What they fail to note is that few charters close because of academic failure. Just one of the 11 charters shut down in 2015-2016 were closed because of academic failure, according to data from the Wolverine State’s Department of Education. The rest were shut down because of financial problems, low enrollment, lost its contract, or were never opened in the first place. [Meanwhile the state is looking to shut down some of the 100 district-run failure mills in coming years.]
Charters in Detroit perform better on average than counterparts in the rest of the state. On average, children in Detroit’s charter schools gain 50.4 days of additional learning in reading over their peers in the failing traditional district, according to CREDO in its urban charter schools study. But as in the rest of Michigan, the performance is driven by the high-quality schools. Fifty-three percent of charters in Detroit either keep pace or do significantly worse in reading than district schools. Just as importantly, because children in Detroit are struggling academically compared to peers in the rest of the Wolverine State, the need to replace failing charters with higher-quality options becomes ever more necessary.
Meanwhile, as CRPE has noted, Detroit also has a charter distribution problem. Most of the high-quality charters in Motown are located in the city’s downtown core, far away from the neighborhoods where the poorest children and families reside. Because Michigan doesn’t require charters in Detroit or elsewhere to provide transportation — and authorizers don’t make that a condition of approval (something that the mayor of another Midwestern hub, Indianapolis, has done for the past two decades) — poor kids are often kept from the highest quality options. What this means is that the mission of the school reform movement to help all children succeed isn’t being fulfilled for those in the most need.
The key problem lies with charter authorizers — including traditional districts — who have been far too willing to allow shoddy charters to remain in operation long after it is clear that they should be shut down. Traditional districts such as Detroit Public Schools are allowed to be charter authorizers even though they lack the manpower (and, given their awful performance, even the credibility) to do a good job of it. But as Education Trust-Midwest noted in its review of charter authorizers in the Wolverine State, even the independent oversight groups do poorly in keeping tabs on charter school performance. One key reason why: They derive revenue from charters, especially through the provision of services to schools that effectively lead to conflict of interests; it’s hard for an authorizer to provide proper oversight to schools if they also collect money from them for providing services.
Some of these issues could have been dealt with through the creation of the oversight board. In fact, the DEC could have actually made it easier to increase the number of charters serving Detroit children by assuring taxpayers and others that high-quality operators would come in to serve children still bereft of choice. But DeVos and her allies among hardcore school choice activists were far less concerned about addressing legitimate issues facing children in Detroit than with ideological opposition to any accountability (as well as the possibility that some charters would be shut down, reducing revenue for authorizers and operators alike). By successfully opposing the creation of the DEC, many of the problems remain in place.
Certainly there are reasonable concerns about putting in accountability measures for charters that can end up being regulatory strangulation of choice by traditionalists opposed to them. That failure clusters such as Detroit’s district continue to operate partly justifies some of the skepticism about holding failing charter counterparts accountable.
But as your editor noted two years ago, support for choice cannot continue without assuring taxpayers that the programs will be operated effectively and that they will do a better job than traditional districts of improving student achievement. Otherwise all we are doing is creating a second system of public education that fails children as badly as the traditional system already in place. The fact that failing districts continue to operate doesn’t justify keeping equally laggard charters open for business.
It is bad enough that DeVos is undercutting support for expanding choice by incoming President and administration that engages in race-baiting, religious bigotry, and anti-immigrant sentiment. Even worse is that DeVos has continually remained quiet and not disavowed Trump’s bigotry. But the report on her opposition to reasonable accountability for charters adds another strike against her possible tenure overseeing federal education policy. DeVos doesn’t merit much of a defense.
Your editor isn’t exorcised, as some reformers and charter school advocates seem to be, about Friday’s New York Times report that fewer homeless children attend the Big Apple’s public charter schools than traditional districts. Nor do I think that Kate Taylor’s report is some sort of “hit piece” on the charter operators such as the deservedly-controversial Success Academy, as those reformers, as well as editorialists at the New York Post, think it is.
Save for a brief mention of one of Success’ charter schools, as well as a quote from the operator’s public relations staff noting its outreach to 30 homeless shelters throughout the city, Taylor didn’t give the outfit much consideration at all. What she did do was honestly note that there was some pretty legitimate reasons why only homeless children made up seven percent of enrollment versus 10 percent for the Big Apple’s traditional district. One reason: The lottery system of charter admissions which often disadvantages homeless children and their families. Based on that reason alone, reformers can actually make a strong case for expanding the number of charters serving children in the Big Apple; more charters equal greater opportunities for all families, especially those who are homeless, to choose high-quality schools fit for their kids.
But that point, of course, got lost amid the rancor that once again, Taylor, who broke news over the last two years about Success Academy’s woeful overuse of harsh school discipline, once again mentioned the outfit in her reporting. The chain’s public relations chief, Ann Powell, unsuccessfully tried to argue that homeless children make up nine percent of overall enrollment, a point shot down by Taylor (who came bearing receipts). As you would expect, traditionalists also tried to weigh, including American Federation of Teachers President Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten, who discreetly tweeted out the Times piece to her rabid band of followers.
Yet the much more-interesting story, one that both traditionalists and reformers have danced around, isn’t about whether or not charter schools are serving fewer children. It’s about whether homeless children are being served properly at all by traditional and other public schools within American public education. The sobering answers should force all of us who care about the futures of children to help more of our most-vulnerable gain the high-quality education they need and deserve.
Two-point-five million children, or 3.4 percent of all children 17 and younger were homeless in 2013, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data conducted by the American Institutes for Research. Of them, 1.2 million of them (or 49 percent of all homeless children) attending America’s traditional district and charter schools, making up 2.4 percent of all children attending public schools that year.
More often than not, the parents of these children themselves are poorly-educated. As Angela R. Fertig of the University of Georgia and David Reingold of Indiana University noted in a 2006 national study of homelessness in 21 cities based on data from the federal Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, one out of every two homeless mothers surveyed a year after entering the survey were high school dropouts (as were 40 percent of mothers who were “doubled-up” or sharing residences with other households). Four out of every ten homeless men and women in Los Angeles were high school dropouts, according to a 2004 study by the Weingart Center.
Seven percent of homeless children are considered “unaccompanied” or without a parent or guardian. As with children in foster care, this group of kids especially struggle in American public education because there is no caring adult who can advocate for them, much less care for them outside of schoolhouse doors. Another 15 percent are English Language Learners; these children end up being especially vulnerable because of their struggles with English fluency and literacy.
What happens to these children once they get into American public education? They often end up on the path to academic and social failure.
Just 77 percent of homeless children were regularly enrolled in school. Even when they can register for school, showing up can be an arduous task. Thirty-six percent of homeless children attending New York City’s public schools were chronically absent (or missing more than 18 days of the school year) in 2013-2014, according to a study by the Institute for Children, Poverty & Homelessness.
The result for homeless children is condemnation to the worst public education offers. As Amy Dworsky, a researcher at the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, pointed out in a 2008 study, 22 percent of homeless children in Chicago were labeled as special ed cases, often at twice the rate of students from more-stable homes depending on grade level. Nationally, 20 percent of homeless children are labeled special ed cases, seven percentage points lower than the national average, according to the National Center for Homeless Education. The condescension experienced by families with greater levels of affluence is magnified for mothers and fathers struggling to find housing and with getting better education for their kids.
In turn, these children are less-likely to get the high-quality education they need for lifelong success. Seventy five-point-three percent of all homeless children in grades three-through-high school read below proficient (or grade level) as measured on state tests, according to NCHE. Given that proficiency cut scores on state tests are usually far lower than the standards set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, it means that even more homeless children are struggling with literacy.
Even worse, the likelihood of these children graduating from high school (or even being ready for success in the traditional colleges, technical schools and apprenticeships that make up American higher education) is slim to none. In the Big Apple, just 52 percent of homeless high schoolers in the Class of 2015 graduated on time, 18.5 percentage points lower than the city’s overall graduation rate.
As with other aspects of poverty, homelessness doesn’t have to be academic or social destiny. As ICPH points out, 89 percent of homeless high school students in New York City who are put into stable housing and school conditions graduate on time. This is 37 percentage points higher than the average. So why do so many homeless children struggle?
One reason why: Zip Code Education policies that require families to prove residency in a traditional district, something that homeless families cannot possibly provide. The rules violate the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (part of what is now the Every Student Succeeds Act), which requires schools to allow children to attend school in their “school of origin” so long as they remain homeless (and allows for the child to remain in school, whether or not he lives with their parents or “has been temporarily placed elsewhere”).
But districts such as that of Hawaii (the only one that serves an entire state) and Steelton-Highspire in Pennsylvania often violate the law with impunity — and few families have the resources to file suit to hold them accountable. [That the federal government spends just $49.35 for every homeless child through McKinney-Vento, versus $1,743 for each kid condemned to special ed, ensures that districts will focus their time on where the money’s at.]
As mentioned earlier, the lack of high-quality charter schools and caps on the expansion of them essentially mean that homeless children end up being bereft of options. But it isn’t just about expanding choice. McKinney-Vento requires all public schools to provide transportation so that homeless children can attend school. Yet just 15 of the 42 states in which charter schools are allowed to operate require either the operators (or the district that authorizes it) to provide transportation. For homeless children in New Orleans (in which charters serve 92 percent of all students) and Detroit (where 53 percent of students attend them), this means choice is illusory.
Another problem lies with the failure mills that often serve homeless children (and in many cases, served their parents long ago). In New York, just 26 percent of third-graders in districts with high levels of homeless children read at proficient levels on the Empire State’s battery of standardized tests in 2013-2104, worse than the already-abysmal 34 percent level for districts with low levels of homeless children, according to ICPH. The lack of high-quality teaching and curricula combine with the instability at home to foster academic disengagement.
Meanwhile the very lack of nurturing school cultures for children in the nation’s foster care ghettos — a subject of a Dropout Nation commentary five years ago — is also a problem for homeless youth. The lack of teachers with both empathy for all children as well as strong subject-matter competency that damages all poor and minority children is especially tough on those without homes. That districts, including New York City, as well as charter schools, struggle mightily with addressing the particular needs of these children means that homeless children find themselves isolated from peers who don’t have to worry about sleeping in shelters or “double-up” in temporary housing.
Certainly, as your editor noted four years ago, systemic reform can’t address all of the issues that feed into homelessness. The issues of mental illness, housing policy, and even welfare play prominent roles in making the lives of homeless children even less secure than they should be. As with so much about poverty, homelessness is explained by neither the Poverty or Personal Responsibility myths perpetuated by so many hardcore progressive traditionalists and conservative reformers.
At the same time, there are concrete things school reformers, both in New York and in the rest of the nation, can do to help our most-vulnerable.
One critical step starts with districts and charters working together (as well as on their own) to meet their obligations under McKinney-Vento. The common school applications now being used in Newark and other cities can be used to get much-needed information on the needs of homeless children. Another step lies with transportation. Last year, Center for Reinventing Public Education highlighted the need for charters to address transportation; the obligations under McKinney-Vento make it paramount that charter operators to team up with districts or with each other to improve the ability of homeless families and others to exercise choice for their children.
As your editor mentioned, expanding charters and other forms of choice is critical to providing homeless children with high-quality and caring school cultures. At the same time, they should team up with organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union to ensure that all public schools serve homeless children. As you can expect, such suits won’t be welcomed by conservative and centrist Democrat reformers within the movement for various reasons. But reformers can’t claim to work zealously for all children if they won’t use all the tools available to help them get justice in and out of classrooms.
Reformers can also team up with the grassroots organizations, churches and even courts who deal with homeless children on improving the quality of instruction, leadership, curricula, reading remediation, and school cultures in schools. Working with advocates for homeless children to ensure that unaccompanied children are given support is also important. These steps would also further the other reforms that the movement has been advancing for so long. Especially at a time in which federal action will be limited at best (and, given the incoming Trump Administration, corrosive at worst), such activities build alliances for transforming the futures of all children.
Homeless children, both in New York City, and the rest of the nation, deserve better. The bickering over news reports would be better-utilized toward actually helping our most-vulnerable at all times.
Featured photo courtesy of the New York Times.
One of the bigger stories with the National Education Association is the loss of rank-and-file. Thanks to efforts by governors and state legislatures in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Michigan, Indiana, and Alabama to end collective bargaining and compulsory dues payments, the nation’s largest teachers’ union and its affiliates has seen declines in rank-and-file, putting strain on its finances in the process. As a result, NEA’s rank-and-file declined by 6.3 percent between 2010-2011 and 2014-2015 (from 3.3 million to three million), resulting in a 2.2 percent decline in dues collection within that same period.
But as the union reported in its 2015-2016 financial disclosure to the U.S. Department of Labor, the declines have stopped, at least for the time-being. The bad news? The finances of its affiliates, along with the long-term loss of rank-and-filers to come, continue to weigh heavily on the union’s future prospects.
NEA sustained no declines in rank-and-file this past fiscal year. That’s the good news. But it didn’t significantly increase them, either. NEA added just 8,804 rank-and-filers and agency fee-payers to the rolls in 2015-2016, which led to a mere two-tenths of a one percent increase over the past year.
As a result of stemming those losses, as well as a $1 average increase in annual dues (from an average of $119.05 per member in 2014-2015 to $120.05 in 2015-2016), NEA collected $367 million in dues last fiscal year, a 1.1 percent increase over the previous period.
NEA’s overall revenue of $388 million was a slight decline from levels in 2014-2015. This included $8.4 million in revenue from NEA Member Benefits Corp. the financial scheme the union runs to peddle annuities to its rank-and-file (which also gets kickbacks from the Wall Street firms that sell through it); that is 13.6 percent more than revenues generated from the outfit last year.
Meanwhile the union generated a surplus of $1.4 million for 2015-2016. That’s a 95 percent decline from the $27 million in surplus generated in the previous period. Why? A 30 percent increase in general overhead costs (from $51 million to $66 million), and a 65 percent increase in asset and investment purchases (from $8.3 million to $13.7 million) offset declines in benefit expenditures. A five percent increase in payments to its pension (from $19.7 million to $20.7 million) also led to the lower surplus. At least none of the lowered surplus can be blamed on poor internal controls or embezzlement.
But the good news on rank-and-file numbers, such as it is, doesn’t hide the reality that NEA’s future, financial as well as political, is quite bleak.
The union’s affiliates affected the most by the abolition of compulsory dues are still taking hits. The union’s virtually-insolvent Michigan Education Association, for example, had just 127,785 rank-and-file in 2015-2016, according to its filing with the Department of Labor, a 2.5 percent decrease over the previous fiscal year; its rank-and-file declined by 16 percent over the past five years. Meanwhile a 59 percent decline in rank-and-file has forced the Wisconsin Education Association Council into a merger with the American Federation of Teachers’ hard-hit affiliate as well as pushed it to sell its sweet headquarters in Madison.
But the problems lie not only with NEA’s state affiliates in right-to-work states. The end of class size reduction regimes in many states, the lingering effects of the last decade’s economic meltdown, the virtual insolvencies of defined-benefit teachers’ pensions, and the retiring of Baby Boomers from classrooms, has resulted in growth being slim to none for many affiliates.
Rank-and-file numbers for NEA’s still-influential units in Illinois, and Ohio barely budged between 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 — and almost no growth at all for either within the past five years. Rank-and-file numbers for union’s Florida affiliate (which is also affiliated with AFT) barely budged; in fact, membership declined by 5.6 percent between 2011-2012 and 2015-2016.
One of the few bright spots for NEA is its Education Minnesota unit, whose rank-and-file numbers increased by 2.7 percent between 2011-2012 and 2015-2016. But it barely added members during this past fiscal year. If Republicans who just took control of the Land of Nice’s legislature have their way, the union’s ability to forcibly collect dues will eventually go into history’s ashbin. But thanks to the presence of Democrat Mark Dayton in the governor’s office, that’s not likely for now.
The lack of rank-and-file growth is troubling for NEA because the long-term financial woes of many of its affiliates are worsening.
Unfunded defined-benefit pensions and retiree health liabilities have long-damaged the balance sheets of some key affiliates. The union’s Michigan affiliate, for example, reported $296 million in unfunded pension and retiree healthcare liabilities in 2015-2016, a 3.1 percent increase over the previous year. If the affiliate was forced into bankruptcy, its $67 million in assets (a 9.8 percent decline over 2014-2015) couldn’t cover these and other liabilities.
The NEA’s Illinois unit reported $46 million in unfunded pension and other retiree liabilities in 2015-2016, a whopping 44 percent increase over levels in the previous fiscal year. [Its $63 million in overall liabilities is a 25 percent increase over 2014-2015.] If it ever landed in bankruptcy court, the Illinois unit’s $53 million in assets couldn’t cover any of what it owes to retired employees and other creditors. The union’s Pennsylvania State Education Association reported $75 million in pension and retiree health liabilities in 2015-2016, a staggering 37 percent increase over the previous year; the only good news is that the unit’s $102 million in assets can cover those and other liabilities.
Even NEA’s most-influential and wealthiest affiliate, the California Teachers Association, is struggling with pension and healthcare liabilities. In a memo to its staff union CTA revealed that its Retirement Trust has unfunded liabilities to the tune of $105 million. While CTA can cover those shortfalls with $183 million in assets (as of 2013-2014, according to its filing with the Internal Revenue Service), the growth in those liabilities (along with reasonable long-term fears that it will no longer be able to forcibly collect dues from classroom teachers) has forced the affiliate to play hardball with its staff union during its most-recent contract negotiations.
[As Dropout Nation reported last month, the virtually-busted New York State United Teachers (which is an NEA affiliate despite being controlled by AFT) has $503 million in unfunded pension and other retiree healthcare liabilities, a 31 percent increase over 2014-2015.]
For these affiliates, along with three under NEA receivership — Indiana State Teachers Association, Alabama Education, and South Carolina Education Association — the subsidies from NEA are more-welcome than ever.
NEA subsidized WEAC to the tune of $2.1 million in 2015-2016, an 11 percent increase over the previous year; based on the affiliate’s reported revenue of $13.2 million in 2013-2014 (the latest year available), NEA subsidies likely account for 16 percent of its money stream, and given the unit’s flailing finances, likely more than that. NEA also poured $5.5 million in subsidies into its Michigan affiliate, a 15 percent decline over 2014-2015; even with those declines, NEA dollars accounted for 4.9 percent of the unit’s revenue of $111.8 million.
The union subsidized its Illinois affiliate to the tune of $4.5 million in 2015-2016, an 8.2 percent drop from the previous year; the subsidies accounted for six percent of the unit’s revenue of $75.5 million. As for Pennsylvania? NEA provided $5.3 million in subsidies to the unit, barely budging from levels in 2014-2015; those dollars account for 5.2 percent of PSEA’s revenue stream.
What about ISTA? NEA provided $1.3 million in subsidies to the busted Indiana affiliate in 2015-2016, a 24 percent decline from the previous year. ISTA also managed to whittle down its debt to national by another $1 million in the last year, leaving it with $11.5 million in arrears. The national union has subsidized ISTA to the tune of $6.9 million in the last five years alone, not including the millions it has had to pour into the Hoosier State unit since 2009, when its VEBA went insolvent amid a $67 million deficit and spectacular financial mismanagement.
As for NEA national? The union’s defined-benefit pension plan reduced its insolvency by 18 percent to $91 million (as of 2014, the most-recent year reported), according to its annual notice to retirees. The good news is that NEA could liquidate some of its $377 million in assets to address that insolvency if needed. On the other hand, the union’s retiree healthcare trust remains well-funded, with just $55,480 in liabilities compared to $117.6 million in assets (as of 2015, the latest year available, according to its filing with the IRS).
Meanwhile the long-term threats to NEA’s clout and finances loom larger and more-immediate than ever. The union’s big bet on Hillary Clinton to win the presidency blew up badly, while its support for Senate and Congressional Democratic candidates also went pear-shaped. With the incoming administration of Donald Trump being hostile to public-sector unions and an even less-sympathetic Republican-controlled Congress, NEA has even less influence on Capitol Hill than it did two years ago. The institutional Blanche DuBois will have to depend on the kindness of outfits such as National School Boards Association (whose ties to Republicans are cozier thanks to suburban districts in its membership) and that’s not a great place to be.
Trump still has to fill the Supreme Court spot vacated earlier this year through the death of the legendary Antonin Scalia. This likely means that the next justice will finally overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the five decade-old ruling that allows NEA and AFT affiliates to force teachers to pay into its coffers regardless of their desire for membership. The union likely already expects a version of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (which the court shot down in a 4-4 ruling after Scalia’s demise) to work its way through the courts.
Based on the struggles of NEA’s state affiliates in Wisconsin and Michigan, it is clear that neither national nor its other affiliates are ready to adapt to the end of compulsory dues laws and workplace monopolies. The union hasn’t even followed AFT’s steps and hired staffers from the Service Employees International Union, which has long been the nation’s most-successful labor organizer, in order to prepare for the future.
In short, long days ahead for NEA’s guitar-slinging president, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, and the rest of the union’s leadership.
Dropout Nation will provide additional analysis of the NEA’s finances down the road. You can check out the data yourself by checking out the HTML and PDF versions of the NEA’s latest financial report, or by visiting the Department of Labor’s Web site. Also check out Dropout Nation‘s Teachers Union Money Report, for previous reports on NEA and AFT finances.
On the debut edition of The Moment, Editor RiShawn Biddle discusses the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s new report on teacher dismissals and explains the underlying reasons why it is so hard for districts to get rid of laggard and criminally abusive teachers.
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