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January 29, 2015 standard

There has been even more happening in New York State in the days since Dropout Nation analyzed the steps the American Federation of Teachers would take to help its three affiliates deal with the departure of scandal-tarred soon-to-be-former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and oppose efforts by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and school reformers to continue transforming public education in the state.

On Wednesday, Assembly Labor Committee Chairman Carl Heastie, who was cited by your editor Tuesday night as a likely candidate to succeed Silver, formally announced his bid for the top legislative job. His candidacy was joined by that of Catherine Nolan, the Assembly Education Committee Chairman who, like Heastie, was originally part of the five-person committee charged by Silver to run things when he planned to temporarily step aside. Nolan is hoping that her fellow assembly members from Queens will ignore calls from the Democratic party machine there and give her a chance. But this isn’t likely to happen, especially after both the Queens Democratic machine and that in Brooklyn gave Heastie their support.

The support from Democrats in the Big Apple’s second-largest borough explains why longtime Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, who had announced his bid earlier today withdrew it hours later. Keith Wright, the assemblyman who recently chaired the Empire State’s Democratic Party, also backed off his bid for the job. The Harlem politico likely kiboshed his plans after getting Heastie’s backing to run for the congressional seat that will be vacated by the infamous Charles Rangel next year; after all, part of Rangel’s district extends into the Bronx, where Heastie and his ally, Borough President Ruben Diaz, have control of the Democratic machine.

As a result of these machinations, Heastie is considered to be the front-runner to succeed Silver. But it isn’t a fait accompli. For one, Nolan could still rally women among Assembly Democrats to her side, especially playing upon their desire to replace Silver with the first woman in the state to hold one of the two top jobs in the state legislature. There’s also Joseph Morelle, Silver’s top lieutenant as Majority Leader, who can still command upstate Democrats to his side. Then there’s Heastie’s own reputation for alleged political corruption. This includes amassing more than $25,000 in credit card expenses that haven’t been accounted for, as well as collecting $20,706 in per-diem expenses, the most of any assemblyman. Imagine what the Daily News and the New York Post will sniff up in the coming weeks before February 10, when Assembly Democrats formally vote on Silver’s replacement. [Update: Both the Albany Project and the aforementioned Post have dug up some dirt on Heastie, while the Daily News decried his ties to the various Democratic Party political machines that are trying to regain power in both Albany and the Big Apple after decades of government reforms.]

What could this mean for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s school reform efforts and those of the movement? Who knows. As Dropout Nation noted on Tuesday, Heastie doesn’t have much of a record on reform issues; he is also heavily backed by private-sector unions, who are more-supportive of school reform than the American Federation of Teachers, its three affiliates in New York, and their public-sector union allies. There’s also the fact that Heastie’s main ally, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz and his father, a state senator, are both backers of charter schools. But Heastie could also end up being an obstacle to any reform effort just because the AFT and its three affiliates are big backers of Assembly Democrats; Heastie alone collected $27,670 from New York State United Teachers and New York State Public Employees Federation since successfully winning his assembly spot 14 years ago. Heastie may have to give a little to AFT, which means watering down some reforms Cuomo wants to put in place, and blocking any effort to make state test score growth data a larger component of the teacher evaluation system, the bane of the union’s existence.

Meanwhile outside of Albany, AFT’s Big Apple local, the United Federation of Teachers, is taking up the charge against Gov. Cuomo’s reform efforts. Today the union’s boss, Michael Mulgrew, railed against the governor’s plan to expand the number of charter schools in the state, proclaiming that this shouldn’t happen. One reason why: Because the charters enroll lower numbers of kids labeled special ed than traditional districts; special ed students accounted for just 8.9 percent of kids in Big Apple charters in 2012-2013 versus 12.7 percent for the city’s traditional district, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office. Playing off sister local Chicago Teachers Union’s practice of issuing white papers, UFT then issued a package of hit pieces accentuating Mulgrew’s point.

But as Manhattan Institute scholar Marcus Winters pointed out in a 2013 report, the reality is that Big Apple charters enroll fewer kids labeled as special ed than the city’s traditional district because they are less-likely to overlabel struggling students. It isn’t that charters are refusing to let kids in special ed through their doors. In fact, as the Independent Budget Office shows in a study released this week, kids who are other health impaired (or suffer from actual health issues such as asthma or diabetes) make up a larger percentage of charter school special ed populations (10.5 percent) than in the city’s traditional district (8.6 percent).  It is that they are not looking to condemn kids as special ed cases in the first place. Which, in turn, means that kids labeled as special ed by New York City’s traditional district are then brought into charters as regular ed students. As they almost always should be.

This is especially clear considering that, as Winters and others have noted, most children condemned to special ed ghettos are often put there based on rather subjective diagnoses that can often mistaken real learning issues as signs of cognitive problems. Many kids are condemned to special ed after being labeled as suffering from a “specific learning disability”, a vague catch-all that can include anything from dyslexia to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, burdened by emotionally disturbed (which could easily mean that the kids could either be poorly disciplined at home or suffer severe depression), considered developmentally delayed (which could mean that the kids are either cognitively damaged, dyslexic or functionally illiterate), or mentally retarded (for which illiteracy can often be mistaken).

What is happening is that charters, who usually attempt to ditch the same failed thinking as traditional district counterparts, simply educate kids otherwise labeled as special ed as regular students as they often should be. Which as the Independent Budget Office shows, is showing good results, especially in charters retaining larger numbers of all students (and losing fewer of them to attrition or push-outs) than Big Apple district counterparts. One reason why? Because in most cases, the decisions by traditional districts such as New York City to condemn kids to special ed ghettos (which, in turn, benefit AFT and National Education Association affiliates) are driven by factors other than the actual learning issues (especially illiteracy) with which they are struggling.

One is financial: Special ed kids generating more in state per-pupil spending than kids in regular classrooms. New York City, for example, collected an extra $1,227.61 in state aid per student for the 171,333 kids condemned to the district’s special ed ghettos, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of data from the state’s Budget Office. [This, by the way, doesn’t include additional dollars provided by the state for special ed students through the main school funding formula or the dollars given to the city for special ed kids put into specialized private schools.] The additional money spent by the Empire State on special ed is likely one reason why districts in the state identified and condemned 17.3 percent of kids to special ed ghettos in 2009-2010, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in a 2011 report; that was four percentage points more than the national average and more kids than every other state in the nation except Rhode Island.

The increased spending, in turn, benefits UFT and other teachers’ union locals because districts end up hiring more teachers and staffers under union contracts. UFT collects $50.74 every month from special ed paraprofessional on New York City’s payroll and picks up $101.46 from every teacher. In New York State alone, districts employ 186 teachers and paraprofessionals per 1,000 students, more than the national average of 129 per 1,000; just on those numbers, UFT may generate $14,154.60 per 186 teachers and paraprofessionals (based on an equal number of 93 of each) every month.

Put it bluntly, more kids in special ed ghettos means more dollars into UFT (and ultimately, AFT). Given its slow growth in rank-and-file as of late, UFT can use every dime it can get. And any expansion of charters, which are mostly non-unionized, will mean even fewer kids being labeled as special ed cases, and thus, less money for the union.

The other reason lies with the reality that many adults working in schools condemn children, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, with low expectations. As Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly noted in his 2007 testimony to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, adults in schools have a tendency to confuse the statistical probability that certain ethnic and gender groups may end up being diagnosed with a learning disability with the ethnic composition with ethnic composition within a disability category; essentially they end up labeling certain groups of students as learning disabled because they think they are destined to end up that way.

These acts of condemning the futures of Big Apple children aren’t the only examples of educational malpractice committed by many teachers and school leaders in the New York City Department of Education. As Contributing Editor Michael Holzman has noted in the past few years, the district’s continued practice of rationing high-quality education from some children, especially through gifted-and-talented programs that benefit white middle class kids at the expense of peers black, Latino, and poor, remains shameful. Yet Mulgrew and UFT have expressed little concern about these issues, and have remained silent amid the raging debate over whether to keep in place the district’s system of selective public high schools such as Stuyvesant, another legacy of denying high-quality education to those who need it most.

Certainly Big Apple charters can do better on some fronts. The overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other harsh forms traditional school discipline by many charters, especially by Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy chain, betrays the mission of the charter school movement to build brighter futures for all children by not replicating the bad practices of traditional public education. But Mulgrew’s professed concerns about equity are mere covers for defending a failed system that has benefited UFT and AFT, as well as his own pockets. Expanding charters that can help more kids avoid special ed ghettos should be the first thing state legislators do once Assembly Democrats choose Silver’s replacement.

January 27, 2015 standard

A few things have happened in Albany in the hours since Dropout Nation ran its analysis on the prospects of advancing systemic reform amid the kickback scandal involving Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. This evening, amid public uproar (as well as criticism from Gov. Andrew Cuomo) over Silver’s plan to temporarily hand power to a five-member committee of his cronies, the speaker has been forced by his Assembly Democrat colleagues to step down as head of the Empire State’s lower house. As a result, there will be at least a three-man race to succeed him permanently as speaker. Which, in turn, makes it even more-likely that the American Federation of Teachers and its three affiliates in the state will work overtime to push for a successor that befits their interests.

Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, who will serve as interim speaker, may have the edge going in. But his long and public association with Silver and his legacy of political corruption may make it difficult for Assembly Democrats to choose him. Same with Herman “Denny” Farrell, the New York City Democrat (and one-time candidate for Big Apple mayor) who was also part of the five-member committee Silver selected to operate the assembly in his stead. Meanwhile Catherine Nolan, a member of that committee who also chairs the education policy panel, likely doesn’t have enough juice (and also is tainted by her association with Silver) to win a bid for the top job.

So who could end up succeeding Silver as speaker? One is Keith Wright, the former state Democratic Party chairman who called for Silver to step down yesterday. Whether or not Wright can command other Assembly Democrats to vote him in is an open question; the fact that he could end up pursuing a bid to succeed Congressman Charles Rangel when he retires next year also makes the bid for speaker unlikely. There’s also Carl Heastie, another Big Apple Democrat who chairs the Assembly Labor Committee; his alliance with Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president (who can command other assembly members to vote for Heastie) may give him the edge over Morelle and Wright.

But who would the AFT prefer? Like Morelle, Wright and Heastie are both longtime recipients of AFT funding; both have received, respectively, $21,600 and $27,670 from New York State United Teachers and the New York State Public Employees Federation over their careers. But Wright may be the union’s choice. Three years ago, he offered up a proposal to require charter schools in New York City to be approved by the now-moribund community school boards instead of by either the mayoral-controlled district or the State University of New York (which are authorizers under state law). That plan, which would have ended the practice of allowing charters to operate in half-empty traditional district school buildings, never made it out of the legislature. But Wright’s stand proved his loyalty to the AFT and other traditionalists.

Heastie hasn’t exactly taken much of a stance on reform issues; his most-public stance came six years ago when he backed a bill that would have slightly weakened then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s control over the Department of Education. But his ties to private-sector unions generally more -supportive of reform (even though he is also supported by the AFT’s public-sector allies) also make him a relative wildcard. The bigger problem may lie with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, with whom Heastie has sparred in the past; two years ago, Heastie unsuccessfully backed the mayor’s rival for the Big Apple’s top job, Bill Thompson, then opposed de Blasio’s choice to run the city council. While Heastie has made up with de Blasio, the mayor may end up working with Cuomo and others to keep Heastie from becoming speaker.

But for AFT and its affiliates, anyone may be preferable to Morelle. This is because a Morelle tenure would likely benefit Cuomo and his school reform allies. So long as Silver remained the boss behind the scenes, Morelle could be counted on to resist Cuomo’s reform efforts. But free of Silver’s influence and with his relatively closer ties to the governor, Morelle could be too weak to resist any of Cuomo’s plans.

Beyond the intrigue at the Million Dollar Staircase, the AFT and its units are launching their salvos against Cuomo and reformers.

Michael Mulgrew, the president of AFT’s United Federation of Teachers, circulated a piece running in next month’s issue of New York Teacher accusing Cuomo of being “out of touch” with the union’s agenda as well as doing the bidding of “hedge-fund managers” and others backing systemic reform. [Your editor thanks Mona Davids of the New York City Parents Union for getting Dropout Nation a copy.] Given that UFT spent $18.3 million on political activities in 2013-2014 alone (along with $3.5 million through its United for the Future super-PAC on the Big Apple’s mayoral and city council races in 2013), Mulgrew’s ire at reform-oriented philanthropists for daring to disrupt the AFT’s influence over education policy is rather hypocritical. But given the penchant of Mulgrew and his AFT colleagues for faux-class warfare rhetoric, it also isn’t surprising.

You can expect the AFT’s vassals to play on the Silver scandal (and anger of good government activists against Gov. Cuomo’s move last year to kibosh the work of an ethics reform commission) by accusing the governor of being corrupt because he is backing systemic reform. Last month, the Alliance for Quality Education (which collected $200,000 from the AFT and NYSUT in 2013-2014) issued an attack piece targeting the support the governor picked up from New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, a super-PAC backed by key reform philanthropists such as Paul Tudor Jones and Dan Senor; the latter being the husband of another AQE target, Campbell Brown. Expect NYSUT, UFT, and NYSPEF to get together with AFT apparatchiks to take some of the data from the union’s past enemy’s lists to peddle similar talking points.

No matter what happens in the next few weeks, the battle over reform in the Empire State will remain interesting for the movement to watch.

Featured photo: Sheldon Silver’s top lieutenant, Joseph Morelle, is one of three men looking to succeed the indicted politician as assembly speaker.


It isn’t hard for anyone, much less school reformers, to be enrapt by the last week’s arrest and indictment of New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on charges of wire fraud for allegedly accepting $4 million in bribes from companies through his outside job as a lawyer. After all, the New York City politician, who has reigned for 21 years as the most-powerful legislator in the Empire State, has long-managed to escape the kinds of scandal that befell the likes of predecessor Mel Miller, former State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, and former Gov. Eliot Spitzer.

But particularly for school reformers in and out of the state, Silver’s indictment and decision to temporarily step down as overlord of the state assembly is another promising opening to advancing the array of proposals they back for overhauling public education. This is because Silver has long worked on behalf of the American Federation of Teachers and its two branches, New York State United Teachers and United Federation of Teachers, to block all but the weakest versions of reform. Now with Silver out of the way, reformers rightly think they have a strong chance of getting more thing done. Especially with Gov. Andrew Cuomo looking to expand charter schools and overhaul teacher evaluations, the Republican-controlled state senate hankering to pass a voucher-like tax credit plan, and both Cuomo and State Senate Republicans looking to teach NYSUT and UFT some lessons for trying to deny them power.

Yet reformers must not get so caught up in irrational exuberance and think that it will be easy for them to get their measures passed. This is because of Randi Weingarten and the national AFT, which will likely spend as much as they can to win as many defensive victories as it can so that its affiliates can maintain their declining influence. If anything, reformers must become even savvier in playing the political game than they have been so far.

Certainly NYSUT is none too happy with Silver’s indictment. It comes on the heels of four years of defeats on nearly every aspect of education policy — including the successful move by Cuomo two years ago to keep in place a teacher evaluation reform plan passed by predecessor David Paterson that required state test growth data to account for 20 percent of performance reviews, and the move by the state to increase the number of charters as part of winning money from the federal Race to the Top initiative. Sure, NYSUT succeeded in temporarily staving off the ability of districts to use the evaluations in hiring and firing decisions (ostensibly to allow for the implementation of tests aligned with Common Core reading and math standards). But it is quite likely that Cuomo will successfully overturn that legislation this year.

Why? Because of the AFT unit’s decisions on the political front that have alienated it from both the governor and State Senate Republicans (the latter who have proven in the past to be occasionally willing to go the union’s way). NYSUT’s decision last year to not endorse Cuomo’s bid for a second term and push to keep the AFL-CIO’s state affiliate from giving him an endorsement didn’t hurt Cuomo’s successful run. If anything, as seen last week with Cuomo’s budget proposal to require test score growth data to play an even bigger role in teacher evaluations as a condition of increasing state school funding by $1.1 billion, NYSUT’s decision has actually empowered the political scion to push even bolder on advancing systemic reform.

Meanwhile NYSUT, along with fellow AFT affiliates UFT and New York State Public Employees Federation (and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio), faces payback from Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and his fellow Republicans in the upper house for backing efforts by Democrats to take full control of the legislative body. The $5 million spend by NYSUT, which included buying ads accusing Republicans of being unwilling to address domestic violence against women, didn’t work out well at all as Skelos and his allies gained enough seats to control the state senate without having to reach out to Democrat dissidents as it has had to do the past few years. Given that Cuomo prefers Republican control of the state senate — the better for him to win passage of his centrist Democrat agenda — NYSUT and the rest of the AFT can’t expect any help from the governor in beating back any of Skelos’ plans.

But at least the AFT affiliate could count on Silver. A longtime beneficiary of AFT largesse to the tune of $44,800 since 1996 (from both NYSUT and NYSPEF), the assembly speaker has done everything he can on their behalf to blunt reform efforts. This includes helping NYSUT pass the legislation delaying the use of data from Common Core-aligned state tests in hiring and firing decisions last year. But now with Silver out of power (for now) and control of the assembly delegated to his hand-picked committee of less-formidable legislative players, NYSUT and the rest of the AFT have to work harder to blunt reform efforts. Given that some Assembly Democrats are no more willing than Cuomo and Skelos to do NYSUT’s bidding, reformers theoretically have the upper hand this time around.

Karen Magee, the former local AFT boss who took control of the NYSUT presidency after ousting Richard Iannuzzi as head of the union last year, can ill-afford another political defeat. Her patron, UFT President Michael Mulgrew doesn’t need her to lose either, especially since he has staked his aspirations to succeed Weingarten as national AFT president on Magee making the kind of gains that Iannuzzi could not.

But reformers can never forget the national AFT or Weingarten, who presided over UFT (and effectively, through the union’s outsized presence within NYSUT, controlled the state affiliate) for 11 years before becoming the leader of the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union seven years ago. This is because New York State is for the AFT what California is for the National Education Association: The lynchpin of the union’s influence. Every gain made by reformers in the Empire State is a loss of clout for AFT at all levels of education policymaking. Given all that is at stake, Weingarten isn’t going to simply sit by and let the AFT units flounder.

AFT has already shown that it will spend plenty to preserve influence, especially when the political (and ultimately, financial) fortunes of its affiliates are at stake.

Empire State reformers must never forget that in any battle over reform, he specter of Randi Weingarten won’t be far behind.

In Pennsylvania, where the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is battling with the state-controlled district over the latter’s efforts to address its fiscal and academic woes, AFT subsidized the local to the tune of $1.5 million in 2013-2014, a 10-fold increase from the previous year, and spent plenty to hold events and subsidize the local’s vassals on its behalf. This includes holding three meetings (including two so-called community events) at the ritzy Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown at the cost of $142,129, dropping $272,715 at the rather nice Sonesta Philadelphia hotel to cover “member related expenses”, and handing out $129,120 to the ACTION United, Youth United for Change, and the Philadelphia Student Union in exchange for their support.

At the state level, the AFT spent big to successfully oust erstwhile reform-minded Gov. Tom Corbett from the state’s top executive post; this includes pouring $581,400 into Democratic rival Tom Wolf’s successful bid against Corbett’s re-election run, a move that ensured that PFT’s push to remove Philadelphia from state control will get a more-favorable hearing. AFT’s move on the campaign front, along with the $499,661 in subsidies to its state affiliate (including funding for campaign finance activities) was a strategic move that can yield dividends for the union on other fronts (including blunting any effort to overhaul the Keystone State’s woefully-underfunded pension).

If AFT was willing to pour $3 million just into Pennsylvania (and is spending almost-as-considerable sums in Louisiana as part of an effort to oppose reformers showcasing New Orleans’ partially-successful overhaul), it will spend even more in New York. As Dropout Nation has previously reported, AFT subsidized NYSUT to the tune of $14 million in 2013-2014, according to its disclosure with the U.S. Department of Labor, while putting down another $300,900 into NYSPEF, which has served as its stealth vehicle for opposing reform by funneling campaign cash to legislators on senate and assembly education committees. Given that NYSUT is also struggling financially, with $380 million in pension and retired worker healthcare liabilities, AFT will have to step up even more on its behalf.

This has already begun this week with the so-called “emergency meeting” being held tonight by UFT to strategize on how to oppose Cuomo’s plans as well as that of his school reform allies. You can soon expect several of AFT’s reliable vassals, including Alliance for Quality Education and New York Communities for Change, to launch their own campaigns decrying Cuomo’s ties to reform outfits such as the Empire State branch of StudentsFirst as well as Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice (which, along with the New York City Parents Union, is battling with UFT and NYSUT in court over the Vergara suit looking to abolish the state’s near-lifetime employment and dismissal laws). AFT will also look to hire other so-called grassroots groups on its behalf the way it has done in New Jersey, where it has poured considerable sums into outfits such as One New Jersey to do its bidding.

But don’t think the AFT will limit itself to working through its affiliates and traditionalist allies. Chances are that the union will spend even more money in Albany on events and rallies to convince legislators to side with its affiliates. There’s also AFT’s considerable campaign coffers, which it can utilize to donate to statewide campaigns as well as on so-called independent expenditures as ads decrying Cuomo’s and reformers for supposedly defaming teachers.

Weingarten will also spend some time in Albany this year personally lobbying Assembly Democrats on behalf of AFT’s locals. This includes reminding key players chosen by Silver to run the body on his behalf — especially Majority Leader Joseph Morelle and Herman (Denny) Farrell (who collected $56,650 in campaign funding from NYSUT and NYSPEF since 1996) — that they need to repay the favors the union has given them. Catherine Nolan, who chairs the assembly’s education panel and is also part of the assembly’s new governing committee, will also feel pressure from Weingarten. After all, Nolan has also benefited from the largesse of AFT locals (to the tune of $39,712 over the last 18 years) and must also deal with traditional districts who will also be opposed to any effort to expand charters and choice; it is one reason why Nolan put the kibosh on her plan four years ago to introduce a Parent Trigger law.

Meanwhile the AFT will have plenty of allies within traditional public education to help out. As mentioned, the expansion of charters and the passage of a tax credit voucher plan will run afoul of traditional districts opposed to any effort to weaken their hold on children and the tax dollars that flow with them. While de Blasio, who is looking to renew the state law giving the mayor control over the Big Apple district (and having already been defeated by Cuomo and reformers on the school choice front) will keep quiet, districts such as Yonkers and Buffalo that are home to the Empire State’s worst failure mills will fight vigorously against any choice measure.

Districts and AFT will also look out for any plan from Cuomo to give the state Board of Regents power to take over failing districts; the governor hinted at doing this two years ago. Expect them to remind Cuomo that his picks for the board (including Chairman Meryl Tisch) are also up for consideration this session, and while the state senate will likely approve all of them, the assembly could hold up any appointments, forcing the governor to back down from any number of his proposals.

Finally, expect AFT to try to play its part in the state budget proceedings, which ultimately involve Cuomo compromising with Skelos and whoever represents Silver as speaker to come up with a deal. As seen seven years ago when NYSUT and UFT worked with Silver during the budget proceedings to abolish a tenure reform law Spitzer had managed to pass the year before, AFT can gain some victories by getting someone in the assembly to hold hostage state finances.

So Empire State reformers must be ready to play hard and fast this session. Because Silver’s fall may not mean their victory on behalf of our children.

Editor’s Note: In the hours since Dropout Nation ran this piece, Silver has been forced to permanently step down as speaker. You can read more about the implications of this and other moves.



October 22, 2014 standard

Back in August, Dropout Nation explained how Oklahoma could have avoided losing its No Child waiver if it had simply moved quickly on validating the curricula standards to which it reverted after voting in May to ditch implementation of Common Core. As you may remember, conservative reformers who support Common Core such as Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli were particularly annoyed that the Obama Administration dared to hold the Sooner State accountable for not fulfilling the promise of having college- and career-ready curricula standards in place as a condition of the waiver.  They were also needlessly worried that the move would allow opponents of Common Core to portray implementation of the standards as a federal initiative.

Yet as I noted, Oklahoma could have easily kept its waiver if not for its own incompetence. More importantly, the state would likely regain the No Child waiver once the old standards, Priority Academic Student Skills, were labeled college- and-career ready. Which is what is starting to happen. Last week, the Sooner State’s higher education board validated PASS standards as college- and career-ready. Outgoing Supt. Janet Barresi announced it is submitting its No Child waiver proposal — essentially a rehash of its old plan with the PASS standards in place — and hopes for federal approval by year-end in order to avoid having to deal with telling districts and schools whether their schools are in need of improvement under No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provision.

Yet the question remains: Should Oklahoma get a new No Child waiver? Your editor would argue no just on the principle that Obama Administration’s entire gambit has been a bungled exercise in policymaking that has weakened systemic reform and    . But that alone isn’t enough, especially since the administration has gone ahead and renewed waivers for six other states in the past two months. Particularly in the case of Oklahoma, the state shouldn’t get another waiver because it has proven that is incapable of actually fulfilling any of its promises.

This reality was made clear two years ago when the Obama Administration’s panel reviewing No Child waiver proposals raised numerous questions about Oklahoma’s plan. They were concerned that the A-to-F grading system it was planning to implement because Sooner State officials left several elements of the plan — including how much graduation rates would make up in the underlying calculation — were still “to be determined”, and didn’t include a student achievement growth model that would reward or hold schools and districts accountable for their work with kids in their care. In fact, the lack of a fully-developed grading program was so glaring that reviewers couldn’t determine if it would pass muster. [Let’s note the fact that A-to-F grading has proven so far to be not ready for prime time.]

Peer reviewers were also concerned that Oklahoma’s Annual Measurable Objectives only included data from kids enrolled during the first 10 days of a school year, leaving out crucial data on kids who may start attending afterward. Meanwhile the state’s plan for identifying so-called Focus schools, or those with wide achievement gaps, was criticized for obscuring data on achievement gaps for subgroups who are minorities in otherwise homogeneous schools. Essentially districts and schools can do poorly by, say, American Indian kids (who make up 17 percent of the Sooner State’s student population) and still not be held accountable for how they fail to work with the most-vulnerable of children.

As I noted back in August, many of these concerns expressed by peer reviewers have come to pass. As Bellwether Education’s Anne Hyslop noted last year in a study for the New America Foundation on the No Child waivers, 54 percent of Oklahoma schools previously identified under the law as needs improvement were allowed to escape scrutiny under the new accountability system developed under the waiver. Eighty-five schools likely serving 32,448 kids (or 4.8 percent of the state’s student population) were likely performing poorly, but went unidentified.

Meanwhile the failure of Sooner State leaders to quickly validate the old PASS standards as college- and career-ready is just one example of its ineptitude in handling education governance. Last month, preparations for a series of high school tests scheduled for December were delayed when McGraw-Hill’s CTB division withdrew from administering them. The snafu was caused by the state board of education’s decision to not approve a contract with the firm, a move driven by earlier ire over McGraw-Hill’s earlier mishandling of other assessments. [State officials approved a new vendor last week.] On one side, you can blame the state board for waiting way too late to kibosh the contract; the board should also take responsibility for not adequately telling Barresi to select any vendor other than McGraw-Hill. Yet blame must also be heaped upon Barresi and her staff for insisting on choosing a vendor who was already viewed negatively for its failures on handling state testing, and thus, wasn’t likely to get another contract approval.

Given Oklahoma’s record as of late, no one should reasonably expect its officials to properly execute any No Child waiver proposal. When you consider that the plan it had successfully submitted (and will put before the Obama Administration again) hardly merited approval in the first place, there is no way that the administration should grant that waiver. Especially when you consider the yawning achievement gaps between white and minority children.

Between 2003 and 2013, the gap in average scale scores in math between white fourth-graders and their Native schoolmates decreased by a mere two points (from 10 points to eight points), according to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress; the gap between white fourth-graders and their black and Latino peers  increased by one point (from 25 points to 26 points between white and blacks, and from 15 to 16 between white and Latino kids). While Oklahoma has done better than the nation in narrowing the gap for Native students (the nation’s achievement gap actually increased by three points, from 20 points to 23), it hasn’t done nearly as the rest of the country in improving education for black and Latino kids. Under the circumstances, allowing Oklahoma to return to using A-to-F grading and other approaches that ignore achievement gaps only condemns poor and minority kids to low expectations and even worse educational malpractice.

The Obama Administration would certainly benefit politically from granting Oklahoma a new New Child waiver. After all, it could (but not likely will) calm down criticism from Republicans, movement conservatives, and conservative-oriented Common Core foes about the entire waiver gambit being federal overreach. But it shouldn’t. Oklahoma’s plan, shoddy as it was (and will be) won’t be fulfilled to any satisfaction. And Sooner State children would be better off with the state being under No Child’s far-superior accountability rules.

October 9, 2014 standard

Based on all the complaints from Washington State politicians and conservative Beltway school reformers such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute reported by Motoko Rich last Sunday in New York Times, you would think that the Obama Administration’s leveled a great injustice by not renewing the waiver given to it two years ago to ignore the No Child Left Behind Act. If anything, as an update of a study by Thomas Ahn of the University of Kentucky and Duke University’s Jacob Vigdor shows, moving back under No Child will help spur reforms that will help children in the Evergreen State succeed. If anything, the Obama Administration should abandon its counterproductive gambit altogether and embrace the strong approach to accountability at the heart of the federal law.

From where Washington State politicians and Petrilli sit, the Obama Administration’s decision is “punishing schools and educators” because the state will now have to fall back on No Child’s Adequate Yearly Progress accountability provision, as well as the aspirational provision that states must ensure that all kids are proficient in reading, math, and science. This, along with No Child’s provision that states must make sure all kids are proficient in their core subjects by 2014, would lead more schools being labeled for under-performing than they supposedly should be. Meanwhile Petrilli and others believe that the Obama Administration is acting arbitrarily in violation of federal law. From where they sit, the administration cannot require states to fulfill promises they made as part of seeking the waivers.

Rich’s report (as well as the views of politicians and others cited in the piece) has garnered much-deserved criticism from Anne Hyslop of Bellwether Education for offering a misleading perspective on how No Child’s accountability provisions actually work in practice. This includes the fact that the 100 percent proficiency provision isn’t actually so (thanks to safe harbor provisions and other legalisms in place, it is actually 92 percent), as well as the fact that the school highlighted in the piece, Evergreen Elementary in the Seattle suburbs, wasn’t identified as being in need of improvement in 2012-2013 because of better performance. So I won’t spend time on this.

But Evergreen State politicians, along with Petrilli and other Beltway reform wonks, ignore a few inconvenient facts.

For one, they ignore the key reason why the Obama Administration declined to renew Washington State’s waiver: The state’s failure to meet its promise to replace its shoddy observation-based evaluations with more-objective data-based performance management tools using test score growth data. After all, implementing those new evaluations was a key condition of attaining the waiver in the first place. Because state legislators, at the behest of the National Education Association’s affiliate there, refused to pass a law back in February allowing the use of test score growth data in teacher evaluations. As in the case of Oklahoma (whose own failures in getting its No Child waiver renewed was discussed on these pages in August), Washington State had ample opportunity to muster the political will needed to change the law in order to fulfill its promise under the waiver. So it deserves no sympathy for failing to do so.

There’s also the fact that the Obama Administration is rightfully holding Washington State accountable as it is supposed to. Sure, as your editor has long explained ad nauseam, the No Child waiver gambit is a grand misadventure that is damaging efforts at advancing systemic reform. At the same time, the administration is correct in holding Washington State accountable for not meeting the condition of its waiver. What is the point of the entire exercise if the federal government will let states off the hook? Just as importantly, and contrary to assertions by the Petrilli crowd, the Obama Administration is legally correct in doing so. The No Child waiver gambit is legally questionable because the administration is allowing states to ignore whole sections of federal law. But the administration is allowed to hold states responsible for how they spend federal subsidies. This includes any promises states made as part of attaining waivers.

In any case, Washington State’s return to AYP should be welcomed and not disdained. Why? Because it has been proven that No Child’s accountability provision is critical to spurring reforms that help children succeed.

Washington State would have kept its No Child waiver if state legislators voted to change state law needed to fulfill its promise of overhauling teacher evaluations. Photo courtesy of Washington State Wire.

This was made clear this week in Ahn’s and Vigdor’s study on the impact of AYP on improving student achievement in North Carolina, a new version of research developed last year for the American Enterprise Institute on the impact of No Child’s accountability measures. Freed from the efforts of AEI’s education czar, Rick Hess, to spin the results in support of his opposition to accountability and focusing on achievement gaps, Ahn and Vidgor point out that AYP has “beneficial” effects on student achievement. By shining harsh light on the low performance of schools as well as prescribing consequences for continued failure, No Child’s accountability approach forced districts to focus on improving student achievement, especially for poor and minority children they have long ignored.

In the case of North Carolina, for example, the mere threat of No Child’s sanctions alone led to many schools that were identified as failing for the first time to take on the kind of reforms needed to improve student achievement. It also worked for schools failing AYP for the first time; on average, a Tar Heel State school failing AYP improved its math performance by five percent of a standard deviation. Even better, the failure of a school to achieve AYP led families to transfer their kids to better-performing schools under No Child’s school choice provision allowing them to escape, which led to improvements in their math achievement.

The benefits are even better when perpetually failing schools are forced to take corrective action under No Child accountability. A poor-performing North Carolina school under Needs Improvement for a fifth consecutive year (and forced to develop a restructuring plan) improved reading performance by six percent of a standard deviation, while math achievement improved by nearly three percent of a standard deviation. An under-performing Tar Heel State school forced to restructure after six consecutive years of laggard performance improved did improve student achievement in math by six percent of a standard deviation.

No Child accountability was particularly helpful for poor and minority kids. Ahn and Vigdor found that a student in a school that missed AYP saw math achievement improve by four percent of a standard deviation; a student in a school missing AYP for five consecutive years improved math achievement by nearly 10 percent of a standard deviation. For poor and minority kids, AYP has proven to be a critical tool in helping them gain the knowledge they need for lifelong success. None of this is shocking. As Dropout Nation has noted, data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that accountability (along with other reforms) have led to declines in illiteracy and innumeracy among poor and minority kids (including a 10 percentage point decline in the number of black fourth-graders reading Below Basic between 2002 and 2013).

The benefits of AYP are also reaped by high-performing kids, according to Ahn and Vigdor, countering arguments by Petrilli and others that No Child’s focus on stemming achievement gaps led to high-performing students being shortchanged. Children in the top percentile of student achievement in schools missing AYP saw small gains in math and reading achievement. This corresponds with Dropout Nation‘s analysis of NAEP data, which shows that average reading and math scores for top-performing students improved between 2002 and 2011 (versus almost no change between 1998 and 2002, before No Child was implemented), while the percentage of students reaching such levels increased since its passage (including a four percentage point increase in the number of students reaching such levels in reading between 2002 and 2013).

Though Ahn and Vigdor concede that North Carolina’s implementation of AYP — including merit bonuses to teachers who increased student test score growth — may have ameliorated any possible “adverse impacts” on either top-performing or struggling students, they conclude that high-performing kids can benefit from accountability. If anything, No Child’s focus on stemming achievement gaps — and helping poor and minority kids receive high-quality teaching and curricula — benefits all children. And contrary to what Petrilli and others have argued, curricula and learning, especially in music and arts, hasn’t been narrowed either (something, by the way, that has been proven by both the U.S. Department of Education and Quadrant Arts Education Research founder Robert Morrison).

Former President George W. Bush, along with congressional leaders such as George Miller, Ted Kennedy, and John Boehner, got it right with No Child 11 years ago. Obama should have built upon the law, not try to eviscerate it.

This isn’t to say that AYP is perfect or even an unqualified success. The fact that No Child allows a school to fail for six consecutive years before triggering an overhaul has never been a good idea; failure mills should be forced to restructure within at least three years instead. There’s also the fact that AYP focuses solely on schools and not on the laggard traditional districts whose failures are the reason why they are under-performing in the first place; forcing districts to overhaul their operations is as critical to helping kids succeed as restructuring and shutting down schools. The fact that AYP doesn’t focus on low educational achievement for young men of all backgrounds, the most-persistent symptom of the nation’s education crisis, has allowed districts to continue practices such as overlabeling of young men as special ed cases that toss more futures into the abyss.

No Child’s school choice option could have been more powerful than it has been. In fact, the school transfer option has often failed to work effectively in many districts because families weren’t fully informed of their options until June, when they are on their way to summer vacation and cannot exercise any choice. The fact that the school choice option was limited to just schools operated by the district (which may often be just as bad as the failure mills kids were leaving) instead of a wide array of charters and parochial schools outside of it has also blunted its usefulness.

Yet by holding states and districts accountable for — and forcing focus on — helping poor and minority kids they long ignored — No Child’s AYP provision has spurred reforms that have helped more kids get onto the path to lifelong success. This, in turn, points out a reality that neither the Obama Administration nor Beltway wonks such as Petrilli fail to admit: That No Child has been the single-biggest advance in education policy, both at the federal level and among states and local governments, since the Defense Education Act of 1958.

For the first time in the history of American public education, federal education policy set clear goals for improving student achievement in reading and mathematics, and finally focused attention on using data in measuring teacher quality. It also made it clear to suburban districts that they could no longer continue to commit educational malpractice against poor and minority children, as well as focused American public education on achieving measurable results instead of damning kids to low expectations. Without No Child, there would be no Common Core, no overhaul of teacher evaluations (or focus on revamping how we recruit, train, and compensate teachers), or no expansion of school choice options. Even the most-sensible reforms touted by the Obama Administration — especially Race to the Top — wouldn’t have happened without No Child in place.

Which is what makes the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit so disappointing. By dismissing the lessons gleaned from No Child’s success — and ditching the accountability tool that worked so well — the administration has weakened systemic reform on the ground. The ditching of AYP (along with allowing states to replace the 100 percent proficiency provision with Plessy v. Ferguson-like targets) has allowed states and districts to go back to subjecting poor and minority kids to the soft bigotry of low expectations. This is particularly true in states such as Indiana and Florida that have implemented A-to-F grading systems that essentially allow schools proclaim they are high-performing even when they have wide achievement gaps.

By allowing states to ignore AYP, the Obama Administration also took away valuable information on performance that is critical for shedding harsh light on school and district performance that is key to accountability. The effort has turned federal education policy into an incoherent mess, fueling opposition to a strong federal role in supporting reform. It has even weakened the advancement of the second wave of reforms — most-notably implementation of Common Core reading and math standards — critical to helping kids gain the academic proficiency needed to succeed in an increasingly knowledge-based economy.

But in not renewing No Child waivers for Washington (as well as for Oklahoma), the Obama Administration has an opportunity to set things right. More states are up for waiver renewal — and many of them are struggling to meet the promises they made in order to be allowed to ignore federal law.

As Dropout Nation has constantly pointed out, the administration shouldn’t have granted waivers to most of these states in the first place. Of course, the gambit shouldn’t have been undertaken either. The administration should decline to renew all of them save for those who have actually fulfilled their promises. [That the Obama Administration moved today to renew waivers for Arizona, Massachusetts, Missouri, Oregon, Rhode Island and Utah is a sign that it wants to continue on this disastrous path.*]

The Obama Administration could then take these last two years of its existence to advance reforms through the No Child framework, as it should have done in the first place. This includes issuing a new round of waivers that keep AYP in place, and at the same time, adjust it to address its shortcomings as well as take advantage of what has been learned about accountability over the past decade.

Certainly this will be displeasing to many. But it is clear that returning to AYP will help more children than continuing a waiver gambit that has become a present obstacle to systemic reforms the administration and the movement support.

Featured photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

*Updated to include this afternoon’s decision by the Obama Administration.

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.