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September 30, 2014 standard

The American Federation of Teachers just filed its latest filing with the U.S. Department of Labor — and its efforts to preserve its declining influence over education policy continue unabated. The nation’s second-largest teachers’ union spent $29.1 million on on political lobbying activities and contributions to what should be like-minded groups; this, by the way, doesn’t include politically-driven spending that can often find its way under so-called “representational activities”. This is a eight percent decline from spending last year.

The AFT clearly has its eyes on the 2016 presidential campaign, and more-importantly, on ending the sway school reformers currently have over education policy within the Democratic National Committee. The union gave $250,000 to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, the philanthropic arm for the perpetually-campaigning former president and his wife, who will likely run for the Democratic presidential nod in the next two years. The AFT also gave $200,000 to the Clinton Global Initiative, which is the other non-explicitly political wing of the Clinton family’s always-political efforts. Expect the National Education Association to give plenty to the Bill and Hillary Clinton empire, when its annual financial filing comes out in November. School reformers better be ready to pony up as well.

The union’s backing for Hillary will likely go beyond pay-to-play. The AFT has paid $378,833 to political consultancy Adelstein Liston, which helped the union back Clinton’s 2008 Democratic president nomination run. You can expect that Adelstein Liston is working on behalf of the union, along with other longstanding clients such as the American Federation of State County and Municpal Employees, to get Clinton the nomination if she runs again.

The AFT is also stepping up its funding of progressive outfits it, along with NEA, has worked hard to co-opt. These progressive groups will play key roles for the union in getting activists within the Democratic Party to support its aims (and that of the NEA) on education policy. There are the usual suspects such as the Progressive States Network, which collected $25,000 from the union, Progress Majority, which was given $5,000 from coffers filled by dues teachers are forced to pay, and the Nation Institute (an arm of the bible of the progressive left) which received $10,000 from the union. Netroots Nation, another longstanding beneficiary of AFT funding, picked up a $25,000 check, while Progress Michigan collected $20,000 from the union. And the Center for Popular Democracy’s Action Fund, which has campaigned against the expansion of charter schools and so-called “privatization” of American public education, got $60,000 in AFT dollars.

But there were new recipients. This includes In the Public Interest, the anti-privatization outfit that has launched a series of reports supposedly uncovering scandals involving public charter schools; it picked up $25,000 from the union. There’s also the publisher of Dissent, a progressive magazine that occasionally makes The Nation seem conservative in comparison; it got $25,000 from the AFT Then there’s Demos, the progressive think tank, which got $8,333 from the union. Another new recipient of AFT funding: The Movement Strategy Center, a San Francisco-based outfit whose managing director, Rachel Burrows, is a veteran of now-defunct AFT beneficiary ACORN. Harvard University’s Initiative for Responsible Investment, which advocates for so-called corporate social responsibility activities, got $10,000 from the union.

Meanwhile the AFT has been doling out plenty to allies focused on living wage and other labor issues. This includes $20,000 to Good Jobs First, a Beltway-based outfit which focuses on ending corporate welfare for the so-called one percent (a group that would include many within the AFT’s leadership), and $11,200 to Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, which aims to bring Latino workers into unions. The AFT also gave $13,625 to the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, $10,000 to the Jewish Labor Council, $5,000 to Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and $5,000 to Coalition of Labor Union Women.

The AFT has been stepping up its funding of black and other minority outfits. It gave $80,000 to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the power group within congressional and Democratic Party politics, and $35,000 to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. The National Board of Hispanic Caucus Chairs, the lobbying arm for Latino state legislators, and the NALEO Educational Fund each picked up $5,000 from the union; while the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, the National Council of Negro Women, and the National Council on Educating Black Children each got $5,000. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition, which has long ago decided to ride in the pockets of the AFT, received $25,000 from the AFT; so did Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, likely this time for supporting efforts by the union’s Big Apple local to oppose efforts to end tenure (as well as to get the union to back its efforts on police brutality).

As for the NAACP? It got $45,000 from the AFT last fiscal year, nearly double the money the union gave to it last year. The National Alliance of Black School Educators, another group that is supposed to be concerned about the futures of black children, picked up $25,200 from the union; the National Association of Black Journalists also got $15,000. The National Coalition on Black Civic Participation got $5,000 from the AFT, while the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators also received $5,000. The League of United Latin American Citizens, which has been a prominent supporter of reform, got $15,000 from the AFT for its convention and another $10,000 in general support; the National Council of La Raza, another group that has backed reform, has also garnered $15,000 from the union.

The AFT is pouring $550,000 into likely Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her ex-president husband’s political empire in order to get them on its side.

Meanwhile the AFT has given heavily to groups geared toward helping the union defend the traditionalist policies and practices that sustain it. The biggest recipient: The Schott Foundation for Public Education’s Opportunity to Learn Action Fund, which picked up $150,000 in exchange for its efforts to oppose systemic reform efforts; Schott itself picked up another $30,000. The AFT also gave $75,000 to the Florida-based Alliance for Public Schools, which has been working to push for additional school funding in the Sunshine State. Meanwhile the AFT gave $40,000 to ACTION United, the so-called grassroots group in Philadelphia which has served as an ally of its Philadelphia local in its efforts against the financially-strapped district to keep it from closing half-empty schools and overhaul how it compensates teachers.

The AFT also gave $50,000 to Alliance for Quality Education, the New York outfit which, along with New York Communities for Change, took aim at former CNN anchor-turned-school reformer Campbell Brown for her efforts to end near-lifetime employment privileges at the heart of its patron’s influence and financial sustenance. New York Communities, by the way, picked up $10,000 from the union for its efforts. Common Good Ohio, an outfit which is working with the AFT’s Cleveland local on beating back Mayor Frank Jackson’s reform efforts, also got $50,000. And the Annenberg Institute, whose efforts on weakening charter schools dovetail nicely with that of the AFT, got $24,963 from the union for its troubles.

As for the usual suspects? The Economic Policy Institute, the virtual mouthpiece for the AFT and other labor unions on various policy issues, picked up $275,000, while the Learning First Alliance got $53,964 from the union. The Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, which was formed by last year’s merger of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council, received $69,330 from the union. And through the University of Colorado Foundation, the AFT dropped another $50,000 into the National Education Policy Center, the group run by Kevin Welner that has been a reliable flack for AFT and NEA positions against systemic reform.

What about salaries? The AFT’s president, Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten, collected $557,875 in 2013-2014, a three percent increase over the previous year. Secretary-Treasurer Loretta Johnson made $352,307, a slight decrease over the previous year. Meanwhile Executive Vice President Francine Lawrence, who got a sizable increase in 2012-2013, collected $$345,513, a three percent increase. Altogether, the AFT’s Big Three collected $1.3 million last fiscal year.

The AFT’s apparatchiks also did well. Michelle Ringuette, a former operative with the Service Employees International Union (who is infamous for her role in that union’s ouster of the leaders of its California healthcare affiliate that set off one of the nastiest labor feuds), made $210,266 as Weingarten’s assistant (and replacement for Hartina Flournoy) in 2013-2014; while Michael Powell, who handles Weingarten’s communications activities, earned $248,249. David Strom, the union’s general counsel, made $205,762, more than the $201,288 earned in the previous year; while Kristor Cowan, the AFT’s chief lobbyist, earned $179,564, slightly more than the $178,040 in 2012-2013. And Kombiz Lavasany, who oversees Weingarten’s money manager enemies’ list, earned $183,547, a whopping increase over the $146,427 earned in the previous year.  Altogether, 219 AFT staffers made more than $100,000 a year, 21 more than in 2012-2013.

Dropout Nation will provide additional analysis of the AFT’s financial filing later this week. You can check out the data yourself by checking out the HTML and PDF versions of the AFT’s latest financial report, or by visiting the Department of Labor’s Web site.

September 22, 2014 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle discusses the three things school reformers are as people before they are members of a moral movement charged with helping our children succeed.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle Radio or download directly to your mobile or desktop device. Also, subscribe to the podcast series, and embed this podcast on your site. It is also available on iTunesBlubrry, Stitcher, and PodBean.


September 19, 2014 standard

Dropout Nation‘s writers are enjoying a day off with family and friends. A new piece, along with the Dropout Nation Podcast, will be up this weekend. But there is still plenty to do, especially in keeping 120 kids from dropping out each day into the abyss long before they reach that point. As seen in Chicago, where the traditional district has improved its graduation rates by helping kids struggling in ninth grade, intervening on behalf of academically-struggling children before they drop out is key to helping them succeed.

In this Best of Dropout Nation from 2012, Editor RiShawn Biddle discusses why states must develop systems that identify and aid children on the path to dropping out before it is too late. Read, consider, and take action.

A sixth-grader with a failing grade in math has only a one in five chance of graduating from high school six years later. This data from Robert Balfanz, the Johns Hopkins University researcher who revolutionized our understanding of the nation’s education crisis with his Promoting Power (or Balfanz) Index — and Lisa Herzog is absolutely sobering. And at the same time, the fact that we can actually identify students who are falling behind before they head into middle school (and even before they reach sixth grade) explains why we must use data in identifying and solving the broken windows that lead to so many kids falling into despair.

One of the dirty secrets in the battle over the reform of American public education is that so many of the issues that lead to kids failing in the classroom (and eventually, outside of it) can be easily identified long before it is too late. Thanks in part to the No Child Left Behind Act, the emergence of standardized and formative testing, and the early efforts of school reformers to improve data, researchers such as Balfanz can clearly identify when students fall off the path to high school and higher ed graduation. As Balfanz points out, 43 percent of potential dropouts can be identified by sixth grade, meaning that schools and districts can intensely intervene and help these kids before they reach high school. And while the conversations about dropouts tend to stem around the immediate issues that trigger students to finally drop out such as teen pregnancy, the reality is that the path to departing school before graduation is one that usually starts in elementary grades.

We now know that a sixth grader missing 36 or more days of school during the year has less than a one-in-five chance of graduating on time, and the same is true or a peer with discipline issues, while those students missing 18 days will also struggle to graduate. The data indicates that the students are struggling in their academic studies and have started tuning out of school; after all, no child wants to admit that they are illiterate or innumerate. Meanwhile the likelihood of a sixth-grade student with a failing grade in English graduating is even lower — just a one in eight shot. Essentially, these are signs that the kids have not mastered the basic skills needed to tackle harder reading and math subjects such as word problems. More importantly, those problems also manifest in tandem with truancy and other signs of dropping out. A sixth-grader missing 36 days of school, a failing mark for discipline, and failing math and English grades, will only have a one-in-10 shot of graduating on time.

Then there are indicators that come into view before sixth grade. For example, there is data on early childhood illiteracy, which can be measured through third and fourth grade reading tests. Twenty-three percent of third-graders who were functionally illiterate failed to graduate on time nine years later, according to an analysis of Peabody Individual Achievement Test Reading Recognition subtest data by the Annie E. Casey Foundation; one in six third grade students failing to read at proficient levels overall didn’t graduate on time nine years down the line. The data is culled from sample reports on some 4,000 students from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 — and thus not the best or most-reliable indicator of student achievement. But it does show the importance of identifying functional illiteracy during the first four years a child is attending school — and immediately providing struggling students intensive reading remediation before they reach fourth grade.

Thanks to tools such as the Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy Skills (or DIBELS) test, struggling students can be identified even before they reach first grade. There are also ways to help these students get on the right path before it is too late. Given that 40 percent of all kindergarten students can only learn to read if they are specifically taught syllables, words, letter sounds and spelling — and that boys, in particular, struggle because the area of their brains in which language and literacy is developed lags behind that of their female schoolmates, identifying these students and using new ways to help them improve their reading before fifth grade would keep them on the path to graduation. It would also help prevent the disciplinary issues that begin to crop up among students struggling with functional illiteracy by third grade (and help reduce the overuse of suspensions and expulsions that exacerbate the education and dropout crises).

Some districts are actually putting together their own early warning systems, albeit still on a small scale. New York City has taken some steps courtesy of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Interagency Task Force on Truancy, Chronic Absenteeism, and Student Engagement; but that effort so far targets just a smattering of the one million students who attend the nation’s largest district. A few other cities, notably the Diplomas Now project, which is working in Chicago and Philadelphia, are also developing early warning systems. States such as Indiana and Colorado have also done plenty of work on the early warning system front. But most traditional districts do little to identify children on the path to dropping out (much less offer any sort of intensive remediation or help dropouts return to high school and get on the path to college), while many states have done equally as little.

One reason lies with the problem of scale inherent in the traditional district model. Size can have many benefits, but not in improving the quality of education for students. As seen with the Los Angeles Unified School District, which evaluated just 40 percent of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s veteran teachers and 70 percent of new hires (who attain near-lifetime employment, and thus are far too difficult to dismiss, after two years on the job) during the 2009-2010 school year, districts already struggle in simply handling the human capital functions critical to improving student achievement. The fact that traditional districts struggle in the area of developing and managing data systems — with some systems storing data on FileMaker and Excel spreadsheets — also makes the development of early warning systems difficult to put together.

States haven’t helped in this regard. While statewide school data systems are becoming more robust, just three of them — Arkansas, Texas, and Florida — meet at least eight of the ten standards set by the Data Quality Campaign for being longitudinal and useful; and even those three states don’t provide access to data in a timely manner. Few states collect attendance data in any meaningful way, essentially providing little information on whether kids are attending school at all. Just 12 states collect attendance data daily (which students are actually in school), according to Balfanz’s Everyone Graduates Center, while a mere 11 states collect enrollment, attendance, and discipline data daily.

The fact that so much of school data remains compliance-oriented instead of being oriented toward accountability and usefulness in solving problems, is also an issue. That the measures aren’t useful also plays a part. Most states, for example, calculate attendance by dividing the total number of days missed by students by the total number of days they are supposed to attend (usually 180 days multiplied by enrollment); this hides the levels of truancy plaguing a school because it includes all unexcused absences, not just the set number of days under which a student is considered by law to be truant. So far, only California, Indiana, and Georgia provide breakdowns of levels of chronic truancy – and even those measures can be flawed because each of the states has their own definition of chronic truancy.

The federal government has proven helpful in the past in setting some standard for data through No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress measures. But thanks to the Obama administration’s effort to allow states to waive the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, that progress may be lost.. All but two of the 10 states granted waivers in the first go-round essentially ditched subgroup accountability by placing all poor and minority students into a super-subgroup that takes them off the radar, while other aspects of the waiver effort allow those states to let merely mediocre schools off the hook for student failure — and at the same time,  denying reform-minded teachers and school leaders the data they need to make smart decisions.

Then there are the cultural realities within traditional districts. An early warning system involves using data in order to make decisions, and extensive collaboration within schools in order to put students back on the path to success; and thanks to No Child and other reforms, more teachers and school leaders are becoming savvy in using data. Yet there are still too many school leaders and teachers who don’t have the sophistication (or the desire to use data) needed to use do so properly; the fact that many school leaders still aren’t using Value-Added data in structuring teams of teachers who can address student needs (when they have that information available) makes clear the trouble of using early warning systems.

As for collaboration? Teaching remains largely an autonomous effort — and many veteran teachers like it that way; few instructors want to work together with colleagues in teams, much less working with guidance counselors and others on helping at-risk students succeed. This lack of teamwork has consequences. As Dropout Nation  noted in its podcast profile of Harlem Link Charter School founder Steve Evangelista — who learned that a student he once taught as a teacher landed in New York City’s infamous Rykers Island jail — a struggling student loses contact with the one teacher that may have reached him, and further disengages from school. It also means that a teacher taking on a student with a long history of academic failure doesn’t know the particular issues facing that child and will have difficulty in getting her on the path to success.

Finally, there is the reality that far too many in education have low expectations for poor and minority kids. As Smith College professor Tina Wildhagen presented in her Teachers College report on the role of teacher expectations in student grading, African-American high school seniors were more-likely to get lower grades than their scores on 10th-grade math and reading standardized tests. From where some teachers and school leaders may sit, developing early warning systems to help struggling students would take time away from attending to those kids they deem worthy of their time and effort.

Certainly these challenges make developing early warning systems difficult. But it doesn’t make them impossible. There are charter schools and traditional districts and schools that are using data proactively in turning around the performance of struggling students. More importantly, developing systems to identify struggling students will not only help kids succeed, it can even help taxpayers save money in the long run — especially in stemming the number of dropouts on unemployment lines. And from a moral perspective, it is the right thing to do. There’s no way we can knowingly allow so many young men and women to continue into poverty and despair when we can identify their issues early on.

One critical step in making early warning systems more common starts at the state level with the development of more-robust longitudinal data systems that are geared in part toward identifying struggling students. Districts may need to join together on developing such systems in order to yield cost savings; this would be one of the few times that scale actually makes sense. This is also an area in which the private sector could do plenty of good; after all, companies can develop those early warning systems and then market them to the districts that need them. Because it makes far more sense to help kids succeed long before they reach third grade, formative diagnostic and summative standardized tests must be given as early as first grade just for diagnostic purposes.

The Obama administration could also take key steps towards this goal by ending its No Child waiver gambit — which will do far more harm to children than either the president or U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan realize — and actually move to expand accountability and data; this includes developing a uniform chronic truancy rate of ten days of unexcused absence similar to what is already in place in Indiana. Expanding the Race to the Top initiative to include reform-minded districts that focus on developing early warning systems as part of their efforts would also help.

Ditching the traditional district model — and embracing the Hollywood Model of Education — would also help. But that is a long-term goal. Until then, districts will exist, and so we must do more to push districts to embrace the early warning system approach. One way lies with overhauling school funding itself; besides essentially taking over school funding and turning those dollars into vouchers that follow each student, states can also reward or punish district by the number of students they help improve achievement and turn around performance. This would encourage districts to use data in more-efficient ways.  Those districts that are already making moves in this regard need to do more to encourage leaders on the ground in identifying student learning issues and in restructuring how teachers work (especially in the elementary grades, in which instructors are jack of all trades and specialists in none). Collaborative teams would certainly allow for teachers to focus on particular student needs, meaning that they will have to learn how to use data in more-sophisticated ways.

Finally, we must address the cultures of low expectations that make some teachers and leaders unwilling to actually help the students in their care reach potential. It means a whole revamp of how we recruit, train, evaluate and compensate teachers. Addressing those issues would do plenty toward giving our children the kinds of instructors and principals who make fixing the broken windows around them the top priority.

September 17, 2014 standard

Save for its prominent role in helping to oust Richard Iannuzzi from his perch as head of New York State United Teachers and being a key force in keeping NYSUT from endorsing Andrew Cuomo’s bid for a second term as governor, few people in education circles pay much mind to the New York State Public Employees Federation. Though one of the larger affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers, the union is little known outside of Albany, where it is the mandatory bargaining agent for 50,596 civil servants forced to pay into its coffers.

But based on its 2013-2014 annual financial filing with the U.S. Department of Labor, reformers, both in the Empire State and the rest of the nation, may want to pay attention to NYSPEF. This is because the AFT affiliate’s political donations are a key part of the efforts of the union and its two other powerful units, NYSUT and the United Federation of Teachers, to preserve influence over education policy.

NYSPEF doled out $2.3 million in political contributions last fiscal year. While this represents a mere 6.4 percent of the union’s $35 million in spending, this was money well spent. Among the beneficiaries of its largesse: State Sen. Dean Skelos, who as the majority leader of the Empire State’s upper house, is the third most-powerful person in state government after Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Skelos’ campaign committee collected $10,300 from the AFT affiliate. His fellow Republicans in the state senate also got some NYSPEF love, picking up $10,000 from the unit.

The big dollars, naturally, went to Democrats, especially those on the state senate’s powerful education committee. This included State Sen. George Latimer, the Ranking Democrat on the committee, whose political action committee collected $10,300 from NYSPEF. Latimer is a particularly important recipient; if Democrats regain control of the state senate this November, he will likely assume chairmanship of the education committee, and be one of the two most-powerful players in shaping policy governing New York State’s public education clusters. Another $10.300 of NYSPEF money went to the PAC of Latimer’s colleague on the committee, Cecilia Tkaczyk.

Meanwhile the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee collected a whopping $127,300 from the AFT affiliate. That should ensure the unit, along with its counterparts within the AFT, that Democrats will  listen closely to their concerns. The union is also a big backer of Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, putting $30,000 into his campaign committee. Given that Schneiderman is dealing with the Vergara lawsuits filed by the New York City Parents Union and Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice, there’s a chance that he will work diligently on behalf of the AFT to keep the state’s tenure laws from being overturned. Even the Working Families Party, a virtual subsidiary of the AFT and its public-sector union allies in the Empire State, got some love; NYSPEF gave it $43,750, likely more than enough to persuade it to not name Zephyr Teachout, the academic-turned-anti-Common Core challenger to Cuomo’s bid for re-election, its standardbearer on the ballot this year.

This spending follows a path set by NYSPEF in 2012-2013, when it poured $1.9 million into explicitly political activities. In 2012-2013, for example, NYSPEF donated $9,850 to Andrew Lanza, one of the key Republicans on the Senate Education Committee, and gave another $9,300 to his Democrat counterpart, Joseph Addabbo Jr., the son of the famed New York congressman. The PACs for Latimer and Tkacyk each picked up $10,300.  NYSPEF made sure to take care of Senate Democrats off the education committee; the AFT affiliate donated $8.300 to Diane Savino, a state senator who is also the girlfriend of Senate Democratic leader (and possible majority leader) Jeff Klein. The New York State Democratic Committee also got $35,000 from NYSPEF, ensuring that the AFT can keep some of its influence in state government; Schneiderman’s campaign also picked up a $5,000 check.

What is clear is that NYSPEF is acting as a stealth donor for the AFT’s efforts to keep what’s left of its influence over education policy. Latimer has already proven his worth to the affiliate — as well as to NYSUT, UFT, and the national AFT — earlier this year when he announced that he would vote against renominating four members of the Board of Regents, the body that oversees education policy; he apparently paid attention to their complaints about the reform agenda undertaken by the board and Education Commissioner John King (who, along with Cuomo, is the leading player on overhauling public education), as well as their desire to weaken teacher evaluations using data from tests aligned with Common Core reading and math standards.

You can expect more of the same for 2014-2015. Expect the AFT affiliate to pour even more money this fall into state Democratic efforts to win control of the senate, and if successful, put even more money into the hands of Latimer, Tkaczyk and their colleagues. They, in turn, will likely challenge Cuomo, King, and the board (including chairman Meryl Tisch), over their reform efforts. Given that the state senate, regardless of Republican or Democrat, has been more-friendly to advancing systemic reform, there is a slight chance that NYSPEF’s efforts (along with that of its fellow AFT affiliates) make the chamber less so. But this still depends on Democrats gaining the majority (problematic, but possible), and more-importantly, on maintaining enough of a united front to actually take control. Given past history (including the splintering of several Democrats two years ago to join Republicans in a governing coalition that kept Skelos in control of the senate), don’t count on it.

It wasn’t always this way. Before 2013, NYSPEF’s political donations were far less focused on education policymaking. Save for a $5,000 donation to Hugh Farley, a Republican on the Senate Education Committee in 2010-2011, the AFT affiliate donated heartily to the key Democratic and Republican legislative campaign committees. In fact, the union even gave $5,000 to Cuomo’s political campaign. What changed? Start with the emergence of current NYSPEF President Susan Kent, who fought a successful campaign to oust predecessor Kenneth Brynien after he struck a collective bargaining deal with the state that gave rank-and-file no raises. Though Kent promised to focus on tough bargaining with Cuomo, she instead built close ties to national AFT President Randi Weingarten, who always likes to have a little extra help in advancing her agenda; the two appeared together last June in one of the events held as part of the national union’s Reclaim the Promise effort to preserve its influence over public education.

For Weingarten, along with UFT President Michael Mulgrew and NYSUT President Karen Magee (the last of whom owes her job to Kent’s and Mulgrew’s efforts), NYSPEF’s political donations will likely yield some fruit. Especially for Weingarten. For all the focus of reformers and education policy wonks on the AFT’s national profile (and that of the National Education Association), the reality is that the key to teachers’ union influence lies in the nation’s statehouses (as well as in school districts), where their affiliates can leverage their coffers and rank-and-file members on behalf of their agendas. This is especially true in the case of New York State, which is to the AFT what California is to the NEA: The most-important base of its political influence. NYSPEF’s efforts help Weingarten and Mulgrew, her possible successor once she decides to step down, preserve the declining-yet-considerable influence the AFT has left.

As for NYSPEF itself? Not so much. After all, its primary focus is bargaining for state employees. These days, it has fewer of them in its fold. Between 2009-2010 and 2013-2014, the AFT affiliate’s membership declined by nine percent, resulting in an eight percent decline in revenue. Thanks to the economic malaise plaguing the nation as a whole (and weighing heavily on New York State’s budget), there are fewer public employees working on the state government payroll. Given that the long-term fiscal burdens the Empire State bears — including the subsidies it provides to New York City for its virtually-busted pensions — it is unlikely that NYSPEF will recover those lost members. There’s also the fact that the far-larger Civil Service Employees Association, the affiliate of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, may end up trying to raid NYSPEF of remaining members in order to stave off its own decline in rank-and-file numbers. [The Service Employees International Union, to which NYSPEF is also an affiliate, may not appreciate the union being more-devoted to AFT matters than to its concerns.]

In fact, by devoting so much of its dollars to education politicking, NYSPEF could easily be accused of not doing more to gin up more support among legislators for hiring more state workers who can join its rank-and-file, or working harder to increase the rather comfortable compensation packages given to existing rank-and-filers. This, along with the union’s decision to not back Cuomo for his second term (and thus, shutting NYSPEF out of opportunities to influence the governor), could lead rank-and-filers to toss Kent out for an insurgent promising to be more-aggressive on their behalf. As is, she is dogged by complaints about the union’s decision to award $250,000 in contracts to Inspired Marketing Solutions, a Cohoes, N.Y.-based firm whose owner worked on her successful campaign to become AFT affiliate boss two years ago.

This should also be worrisome to Weingarten. After all, the AFT’s rank-and-file membership no longer consist mostly of public school employees, but nurses, United Nations workers, and public employees too. Keeping NYSPEF and other units going (and keeping the dollars flowing into national coffers) may force the AFT to spend less time on defending the grand bargain it struck decades ago with teachers. That won’t be good, either.

What happens with NYSPEF in the coming years will be interesting for reformers — and everyone else — to watch.

Featured photo: Susan Kent, the boss of the AFT’s New York State Public Employees Federation, is a key player in the union’s effort to preserve influence over Empire State education policy.


September 16, 2014 standard

These days, Bobby Jindal is grasping at every straw he can to help his all-but-dead campaign for the Republican presidential nomination gain traction. From demanding today at a Heritage Foundation event that House and Senate Republicans ditch the Affordable Care Act and implement an alternate healthcare plan, to floating a quixotic plan to end the nation’s dependence on oil on Monday, to his continuing desperate effort to halt execution of Common Core reading and math standards he once strongly supported, the once-respectable Louisiana governor is doing all he can to win over movement conservatives and moderate Republicans needed to gain the nod.

Yet you won’t find Jindal talking much about addressing the long-term defined-benefit pension and unfunded retired civil servant healthcare costs that are now burdening the balance sheets of every state government. For good reason. Jindal has done almost nothing to address the Bayou State’s massive pension deficits. Two years ago, the Pew Center on the States reported that the Bayou State’s collection of pensions were only 56 percent funded. Because of the state’s fiscal fecklessness — along with the high costs of the deals it made with local governments and public-sector unions — the state was faced with paying down $51 billion in unfunded pension liabilities, along with another $10 billion in unfunded retired civil servant healthcare costs (for which Jindal and his predecessors have put away no money to cover). Moody’s Investors Service determined last year that the state’s pension shortfalls, when accurately determined, were 30 percent greater than revenue. Even with such high-profile spankings, Jindal, along with his colleagues in state government, have still done nothing to address the problem.

To see how badly Jindal has handled the Bayou State’s long-term fiscal woes, just look at the latest comprehensive annual financial report for the Teachers Retirement System of Louisiana, the defined-benefit pension for teachers and other school employees.

The pension officially reports an underfunding of $$11,.3 billion for 2012-2013. Based on the official numbers, the insolvency is 72 percent higher than the $6.6 billion it reported in 2007-2008, the year Jindal took office. Just on these numbers alone, it is clear that Jindal, along with his colleagues in the state legislature and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, have done little to reverse the pension’s tenuous status as a going concern.

But as with most state pensions, TRSL is understating the level of its insolvency. For one, thanks to the pension’s smoothing efforts (which allow it to recognize gains and losses over a five year period), only a fifth of its losses were recognized and counted against liabilities. More importantly, TRSL assumes an overly inflated rate of investment growth of eight percent. This in spite of its own admission that it has only achieved a five-year return rate of just 4.8 percent on its investments, which, by the way, is lower than the 5.2 percent five-year return rate Wilshire Associates says has been experienced by the financial markets. The pension admits that its assets (on an actuarial basis) decreased by 5.4 percent between 2008 and 2013, even as its benefit payouts increased by 30 percent (from $1.4 billion to $1.8 billion) in that time.

To get to the true level of TRSL’s insolvency, Dropout Nation uses a version of a technique developed by Moody’s Investors Service, which assumes a more-realistic 5.5 percent rate of a return. [Moody's bases its rate of return on the performance of a bond index, which can range between four and six percent.] Based on those numbers, TRSL’s true insolvency is likely $15.4 billion, or 36 percent higher than officially reported. If Louisiana state government was forced to make up the shortfall over 17 years, taxpayers would have to contribute an additional $905 million a year, or 92 percent more than the $984 million paid into the pension last year. This, in turn, would have meant that the state would have had to carve out an additional three percent of its $29.7 billion budget just to shore up the pension.

For Louisiana, addressing TRSL’s insolvency is especially critical because more Baby Boomers in the teaching ranks are heading into retirement. Each year, 1,602 Bayou State teachers covered by TRSL have retired every year between 2004 and 2013, according to a Dropout Nation analysis. Each retiree, on average, collects an annual annuity of $24,358. [Four-point-eight percent of them, or 2,899 retired teachers and school leaders, are collecting annual annuities of $54,000 a year or more.] So TRSL can easily expect to pay out at least an additional $39 million a year — and even that is an understatement: The pension paid out $92 million in new annuities last year thanks to the retirement of 3,095 teachers and other school workers.

Certainly Jindal, who only holds one seat on TRSL’s 17-member board through the state department of administration, can’t take all the responsibility for its woeful condition. After all, the Bayou State legislature holds two seats on the pension’s board (as well as exercise ultimate control over its finances through appropriations and budgeting), while State Treasurer John Kennedy also sits on the board. They, along with Supt. John White, who sits on the board (as well as predecessors including former state education boss Paul Pastorek), must join the governor in taking responsibility for its virtual insolvency.

Yet Jindal can’t be let off the hook. As seen in his effort to halt Common Core implementation, as well as with his more-laudable efforts to expand the Bayou State’s school voucher program, Jindal has been more than willing to aggressively take on issues, especially if it also helps his ambitions of higher elected office. The fact that Jindal has done little more than sign into law House Bill 61, which would have put new state’s higher ed employees into a cash-balance pension plan before it was struck down by the state supreme court, shows how little Jindal cares about addressing the very fiscal issues that, along with education, can make the difference between Louisiana emerging as a leading state and it continuing its woeful position as the worst in everything that matters.

Jindal still has a little time left in office to take on pension reform in a meaningful way. One solution must start with increasing the contributions paid by current workers into the pension. Teachers contribute just 25 cents out of every dollar contributed into TRSL in 2013; this is eight cents lower than the contribution level in 2008. Increasing teacher contributions to at least 37 cents of every dollar put into the pension — the level of contribution made by teachers a decade ago — would at least be a good start.

But it won’t be enough because increasing contribution levels alone doesn’t reduce the growth in unfunded liabilities that comes with additional retirements. This will only come if Louisiana takes an even bigger step: Moving existing and new teachers out of TRSL and putting them into a hybrid plan that features a defined-contribution element into which they can save as much as they choose for retirement. Certainly Jindal will have to work hard to rally the two-thirds support in the legislature needed for passing such a plan. But he could work with his likely successor as governor, U.S. Sen. David Vitter, to make it a reality.

For Louisiana, school districts, and ultimately, taxpayers and children, this move would immediately slow the growth in TRSL’s liabilities. It is also beneficial for younger teachers. Given that half of them are likely to leave the profession within their first five years, moving to a portable hybrid retirement plan would actually allow them to reap the full rewards of their work.

The Bayou State faces a pension crisis nearly as daunting as its educational woes. But if Jindal is serious about leaving office with some kind of a legacy worth having, especially in light of how his counterproductive battle to halt Common Core implementation has ruined him politically, he should tackle it with vigor.