Sometimes the worst damages done in American public education to our young black men and women are committed by the educational incompetence of people who look like them. And this can be seen in Indianapolis Public Schools, the largest of Indianapolis’ 11 districts that is the worst collection of failure mills in the Midwest outside of Detroit.
Back in 2005, Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz commented that IPS was the only district he researched in which all of its high schools were dropout factories. Little has changed since then. While the district’s five-year Promoting Power rate (based on eighth-grade enrollment) improved from 32 percent to 45 percent between 2005-2006 and 2011-2012, IPS’s five-year graduation rate declined from 41 percent to 40 percent over that time, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of federal and state data. [The Indiana Department of Education reports an official graduation rate of 65 percent overall and 62 percent for black students.]
The failures of the district are borne hardest upon black children, who make up the vast majority of IPS’ enrollment. Although the district’s five-year Promoting Power rate has increased from 32 percent to 49 percent, few of them are getting the college-preparatory learning they need for success in traditional colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeships. Just 8.5 percent of IPS’ black middle-schoolers were provided Algebra 1, the key course for preparing kids for higher-level math courses in high school, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights database.
Just 6.4 percent of IPS’ black high schoolers took trigonometry, statistics, and other forms of advanced math, while another 6.4 percent took physics, another college preparatory course. A mere 28 black students took calculus. Even fewer took Advanced Placement courses; just 23 black students took A.P. Math, while another 58 took A.P. Science. Only 10 black students were enrolled in the district’s International Baccalaureate program. [The numbers are equally abysmal for the district's white students; just 6.6 percent white high schoolers took physics, for example.]
That’s just for the kids who actually get to stay in school: During 2011-2012, 1,794 young black men and women — or 10.7 percent of IPS’ black student population — were suspended at least once by the district. Another 1,751 black children in IPS — or another 10.5 percent of all black students — were suspended two or more times during the same period. Given that most suspensions in IPS, like in most districts, are for behaviors such as disruptive behavior that can often be addressed through better means (and are often indicators of underlying learning issues), this means that IPS is failing to address the needs of kids in its care.
Meanwhile the district meted out in-school suspensions — technically keeping kids in school, but not actually having them attend regular classes and get any learning — to 2,033 young black people, or another 12 percent of the black student population. Altogether, one-third of black children attending IPS were subjected to some form of harsh school discipline, and as a result, fell further behind in their studies. Even worse, one out of every two black children condemned to IPS’ special ed ghetto was subjected to some form of in-school or out-of-school suspension. [Sixty-eight special ed students were either placed in restraint or what prison inmates call solitary confinement.]
Presiding over IPS’ consistent condemning of the futures of black children are black men and women who have perpetuated the district’s unenviable status as a failure cluster. Until 2013, this included the notorious Eugene White, whose eight-year tenure overseeing the district was marked by craven nepotism, shuffling incompetence into school leadership jobs, and and few improvements in student achievement. He gained particular notoriety two years ago when he claimed that IPS was failing because it served special ed kids he called “blind, crippled, crazy”. It also includes Mary Busch, who, along with Michael D. Brown, ran IPS’ board for two decades (and let White off the hook for his nasty remarks) before they finally ended her reign of error last year.
IPS’ new leadership, including Supt. Lewis Ferrebee, is working hard to overhaul it. But the district’s dysfunction (along with its coterie of laggard teachers and school leaders) has so ingrained in its DNA that it may be best for folks in the Indiana Statehouse to just shut it down and abandon the traditional district model altogether.
Yet IPS isn’t the only district run by black school leaders who do the kind of damage to the futures of children that would lead most of us to go on protest marches if this were done by whites. Far too many black school leaders, teachers, and even politicians, are allowed to condemn the futures of the young people who we need to bring black communities into the economic and social mainstream in an increasingly knowledge-based world.
This can be seen in abject failure factories such as Camden, New Jersey, whose black leadership had been failing black kids for decades before Gov. Chris Christie finally ordered a state takeover last year. Under a string of black superintendents, including Annette D. Knox and Bessie LeFra Young (who skipped out on more than 180 days of work for two years and racked up $6,000 in travel reimbursements before being sent packing in 2012), the district’s five-year Promoting Power rate for its black students declined from 75 percent for its Class of 2006 to 61 percent for its Class of 2012. Keep this in mind: African-American men and women account for 77 percent of the district’s school leaders.
The rot isn’t just among the school leaders alone: The average Camden teacher was absent for 11.2 days during the 2008-2009 school year, according to an analysis by the Courier-Post, leading the district to spend $8,748 each day for 81 substitute teachers to fill in for absent teachers. Two years ago, the district hired an employment agency after recognizing that as many as 40 percent of classroom teachers were absent each day during the school year. This is especially shameful given that black teachers account for 43 percent of the instructors working in Camden classrooms.
There are also the black-run districts which subject far too many black children to the harshest school discipline — even when the leaders know the damage this does to their futures.
Two years ago, the Pontiac district in Michigan was cited as the worst district for suspending black kids, according to analysis of federal data by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Things haven’t improved much more based on Dropout Nation‘s analysis. Fifteen percent of Pontiac’s black students were suspended at least in 2011-2012, while another 17.6 percent were suspended more than once. [Eight tenths of one percent of its students were subjected to in-school suspensions] Altogether, a black child attending Pontiac has a one-in-three chance of being suspended during a school year. Considering that 77 percent of Pontiac’s school leadership is black (as are 36 percent of its teachers), this is shameful. But it isn’t shocking: These are the very school leaders whose mismanagement — including former Assistant Supt. Jumanne Sledge (now in prison for diverting $236,000 in district funds to pay for his lifestyle) has nearly led Pontiac to fiscal ruin.
Four of the 10 districts ranked by the Civil Rights Project as having the highest suspension levels for black children are run by black school leaders and largely staffed by black teachers. Besides Pontiac, this includes East Jasper Consolidated in Mississippi, Bloom Township in Illinois, and Oak Park City in Michigan. Combined, these four districts meted out in-school and out-of-school suspensions to 43 percent of the black children they serve. And as with nearly all districts, the suspensions were for
Aiding and abetting these school leaders, along with other traditionalists such as the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, are some old-school civil rights activists and black politicians, often more-interested in sustaining their limited vision and pocketbooks than helping black children succeed.
These days, that group includes Donna Brazile, the longtime Democratic party apparatchik who is now heading up the AFT’s front group against centrist Democrat reformers. There’s also Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., who has long ago proven that he will never show up for advancing systemic reform. Instead, in exchange for $50,000 in donations from the AFT into the coffers of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, Jackson have supported the notoriously-bellicose Chicago local’s efforts against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s reforms, including the decision two years ago to lay off 365 low-performing teachers. Let’s also not forget the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which continually debases its once-proud legacy as a school reformer. This includes its efforts in New York City and elsewhere against charter schools, as well as the resolution it passed in 2011 against the expansion of school choice beneficial to black children.
Meanwhile there are well-meaning black leaders in education who engage in equally senseless arguments defending harmful traditionalist practices because they are more-interested in protecting brethren who commit educational malpractice than about the very children for which they should show the greatest concern. The otherwise-sensible Andre Perry, dean of Davenport University’s school of urban education, took to the pages of the Washington Post last week to argue that efforts to end near-lifetime employment laws and overhaul other teacher dismissal policies would hurt black communities because laggard black teachers could lose their jobs, and thus, districts would have less-diverse teaching pools serving our kids. Forget that Perry ignores the reality that black teachers make up larger portion of instructors in charter schools (where they don’t get near-lifetime employment) than in traditional districts that do. The fact that he refuses to acknowledge the evidence — including research by outfits such as TNTP as well as reporting by the Los Angeles Times – on how tenure and other policies (including Last In-First Out layoff rules) harms the academic achievement of black children is absolutely stunning.
Now let’s be clear: There are plenty of black men and women, from classroom teachers to politicians, fighting hard every day to transform American public education for our children. This includes such folks as former Memphis school board leader Kenneth Whalum; former IPS principal (and current Chicago Public Schools principal) Jeffery White; Black Alliance for Educational Options cofounder Howard Fuller and the outfit’s chief executive, Kenneth Campbell. It also includes a generation of new civil rights leaders such as Derrell Bradford of 50CAN, former National Alliance for Public Charter Schools President Peter Groff, and outgoing Georgia legislator Alisha Thomas Morgan. One of the less-acknowledged benefits of the emergence of the school reform movement is that it has helped bring to prominence new and longtime black leaders who realize that the path to black economic and social empowerment begins with overhauling the schools that have damaged generations of children and communities for far too long.
At the same time, we must acknowledge these realities: That far too many black school leaders, men and women who aren’t fit to check coats at Ruth’s Chris steakhouses, are as much responsible as their white brethren for the policies and practices (including overuse of suspensions) that have condemned our sons and daughters to the abyss. That these leaders often come to the protection of laggard black teachers whose incompetence does harm to our kids every day they sit in their classrooms. That far too many old-school black politicians and civil rights leaders, both because of their own avarice as well as an unwillingness to acknowledge new evidence on addressing the nation’s education crisis, fight against the very reforms that will help our kids attain the high-quality teaching and college-preparatory learning they need and deserve. In the process, they perpetuate the educational genocide that has wrecked havoc on our children and communities, and have hobbled efforts to end the racialist policies.
These leaders who should stand for our children deserve to be called out for their failure to do right by them. We cannot let our own people be as much a cause of the debasement of our children as those whose skins aren’t brown. As champions for our black sons and daughters, this must be done. The future of Black America may well depend on it.
Your editor has been a tad too busy focusing on the impact of Michael Brown’s alleged murder in Ferguson, as well as other pieces, to think much about Michelle Rhee’s departure from StudentsFirst. Others, as you know, haven’t ignored it. As you would have expect given the divisiveness that surrounds anything regarding Rhee, Stephanie Simon of Politico an inside-the-Beltway-stenographer-like not-for-attribution-quote laden gossip piece about Rhee’s tenure at the outfit. That piece, in turn, has been rightly lambasted by This Week in Education‘s Alexander Russo and Andy Rotherham of Eduwonk (along with Rhee’s soon-to-be former underlings) for being way below Simon’s usually-higher standard of reporting. Traditionalists such as once-respectable educational historian Diane Ravitch are also celebrating Rhee’s departure from the school reform outfit. So are, given how Rhee’s presence in the school reform movement crowded out so many aspiring big names, her friendly rivals as well.
Certainly Rhee didn’t accomplish all that she could during her tenure overseeing StudentsFirst. Rhee’s infamous lack of collegiality, along with the envy among rival groups, meant that StudentsFirst wasn’t always successful in building coalitions on the ground needed to advance critical reforms. This was clear in Florida two years ago when its effort to pass a Parent Trigger law was defeated in the Sunshine State senate. Under Rhee, StudentsFirst didn’t hit what I determined to be the sweet spot in advancing reform: Merging policy savvy with hard-core, grassroots activism and entrepreneurial (and operational) drive.
Then there’s the fact that Rhee hasn’t been successful (or even had enough time to) build StudentsFirst from a personality-driven outfit to an institution that will survive long beyond her departure. StudentsFirst has more than enough money to survive for the time being, and after a period of high turnover, now has a top-notch staff that includes chief operating officer Rebecca Sibilia and policy czar Eric Lerum. But Rhee’s failure on the institution-building front is especially shocking, especially when you consider the lasting success of teacher quality reform outfit TNTP and the continuing work of reforming D.C. Public Schools undertaken by Rhee’s successor there, Kaya Henderson.
Yet you also can’t deny that Rhee’s work at StudentsFirst did achieve some important results for our children. The organization’s success in backing strong systemic reformers in statehouses deserves praise. Her embrace of the bipartisan single-issue voter approach in politically advancing reform, an approach that differed greatly from that of groups such as Democrats for Education Reform that have spent most of their time only trying to win support from respective party circles, is one that other reform groups should embrace. This is because Rhee realized, as other reformers have figured out the hard way, that bipartisanship is the only way to break through the ideological sparring and power relationships at the state and district levels that often complicate efforts to advance systemic reform.
Under Rhee, StudentsFirst also succeeded in developing the State Policy Report Card, which has proven to be a comprehensive-yet-simple report on what states are doing (or, in many cases, not doing) in the area of revamping public education. Even better, the report card has shown how even the most-aggressive reform-minded states have not taken on the school finance and pension reform overhauls that are as critical to reforming American public education as expanding school choice and revamping teacher evaluations. Other reform groups should embrace StudentsFirst’s effort and craft their own.
Meanwhile we must keep in mind that Rhee’s impact on the debate over transforming American public education extends beyond her short time at StudentsFirst. Certainly, this can be hard to consider. After all, the clash of egos, both between reformers and traditionalists, as well as among the movement’s players (especially when one of the their own gains heightened public stature as Rhee has), colors every consideration of Rhee’s legacy so far. But we must acknowledge that without Rhee, the school reform movement’s most-renown public figure, and one of its few from minority households (whose second husband is also from that background), the movement would have not advanced its efforts as far as it has.
One of the points your editor always make is that movements succeed in part because of divisive figures who stand by their moral principles, strongly challenge policies and practices that are immoral and abominable, force people to clarify where they stand on matters of great moral importance, and embrace true leadership. Divisive figures such as Thomas Paine, William Wilberforce, Winston Churchill, and Mahatma Gandhi are the ones who force the positive changes that have improved the world for all of us. And Rhee deserves to be considered among them.
After all, without Rhee (along with Teach for America cofounder Wendy Kopp), there would be no TNTP, whose reports and work with districts on addressing their shoddy hiring practices have provided us with new models for bringing high-quality teachers to every classroom. Without TNTP’s studies, there wouldn’t be the Vergara lawsuits that are challenging morally repugnant near-lifetime employment laws that harm poor and minority kids. For the existence of TNTP alone, Rhee deserves our thanks.
Without Rhee’s strident rhetoric in challenging traditionalist thinking, along with her willingness to use her own bully pulpit to take on traditionalist thinking, discussions around transforming American public education would still be mired in the anti-intellectual civility of false consensus, phony collaboration, and embrace of “best practices” that only serves to keep the status quo ante. While some reformers find this to be discomforting, Rhee’s willingness to call things and people as they are provides much needed-clarity in a battle in which sophistry and demagoguery from the likes of Ravitch and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten is the norm.
Then there’s the presence of Rhee herself. Certainly some may have been discomforted by the photo of Rhee holding a broom on the cover of Time. But that very image also attracted much-needed new voices into the school reform movement and galvanized the support among those who never gave much thought to the possibility that systemic reform of public education could be done. Every movement needs its Churchills, its Martin Luther Kings and Malcolm Xs, the controversial big faces who can attract attention needed to drive its cause forward, who can take the barbs of opponents, while others work on the ground to make things happen. Without Rhee (and without figures such as Kopp, Howard Fuller, John Norquist, Virginia Walden Ford, Steve Barr, and Joel Klein), the school reform movement would still be a coterie of wonks, chamber of commerce members, and southern governors. And you can’t transform education without a wide array of voices from all backgrounds fighting for brighter futures for all children.
Meanwhile Rhee’s impact can be seen in Washington, D.C., where she gained fame and infamy during a four-year period as overseer of the district’s turnaround. Certainly Rhee is likely disappointed by successor Kaya Henderson’s less-than-sensible this week to temporarily halt the IMPACT teacher evaluation regime –the hallmark of her tenure and the most-successful performance management effort in the nation — in order to alleviate concerns about the district’s transition to tests aligned with Common Core reading and math standards. [Your editor will have more thoughts on this later this week.] But even with IMPACT halted for the time being, the data shows that Rhee’s reform efforts have been successful in helping more kids in the nation’s capital get high-quality education. The concerns expressed in 2010 by then-Contributing Editor Steve Peha have proven to be unfounded.
The percentage of DCPS fourth-graders reading Below Basic as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress declined from 61 percent to 51 percent between 2007 and 2013, according to the U.S. Department of Education; the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 14 percent to 25 percent in that same period. The average DCPS fourth-grader reads a grade level higher in 2013 than they did six years earlier. Black and Latino children showed the greatest improvements. The percentage of black fourth-graders reading Below Basic declined by five percentage points (from 67 percent to 62 percent), while the percentage of them reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by four percentage points (from nine percent to 13 percent) in that same period.
While the percentage of Latino fourth-graders reading Below Basic remained unchanged, the percentage of kids reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased from 15 percent to 26 percent in that time. The percentage of kids from poor households reading at levels of functional illiteracy have also declined. Between 2007 and 2013, the percentage of fourth-graders eligible for free and reduced lunch reading Below Basic declined from 71 percent to 63 percent, while the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels doubled from six percent to 12 percent; the average fourth-grader on free- and reduced priced lunch read at half a grade level higher in 2013 than six years earlier.
This isn’t to say the work begun by Rhee and being continued by Henderson has been an unqualified success. Like other traditional districts, DCPS has not done well on preparing kids for success in higher education and career that is the key marker of success in this stage of reform emerging a decade after the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act. But that is understandable. After all, DCPS’ overhaul began long after districts such as Houston and New York City began their efforts. There’s also the unwillingness of Rhee and Henderson to address the allegations of test cheating that occurred during the former’s tenure, which continues to cast a cloud on the successes they have achieved. Rhee should have displayed more candor on this front. Period.
There’s also the fact that DCPS is still struggling with improving literacy for young black men, especially those from poor households. Getting this right is critical to the Rhee’s reform efforts yielding lasting fruit. The percentage of low-income young black men in fourth grade reading Below Basic did decline by three percentage points between 2007 and 2013 (from 76 percent to 73 percent), and the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by two percentage points (from four percent to six percent). But the average scale score declined by two points (from 183 to 181); the average young black fourth-grade young man educated in DCPS reads at a grade-and-a-half level below that of his peer nationwide.
Yet Rhee helped spur the reforms needed to help the district toss off its status as the Superfund Site of American public education — and has given black and white families the possibility that they can send their kids to high-performing schools. IMPACT has shown the way on how districts can effectively use school data in evaluating and ultimately, improving the quality of teachers working it classrooms. Ultimately, Rhee, along with former New York City chancellor Joel Klein and Boston’s Tom Payzant, has shown that traditional districts can be overhauled. Whatever your views on whether the traditional district should continue to exist as a way to provide education (your editor’s views are well-known on this front), Rhee has proven that failure clusters need not be immortal. Rhee has also proven lie to the traditionalist argument that only so-called experts should be charged with operating districts and schools. We need great leaders who understand the challenges facing them, yet are willing to take them on for our kids.
All in all, the school reform movement needs more challenging and divisive figures like Michelle Rhee to continue the transformation of American public education. We also need Rhee to continue playing her part. Our children needs all the strong voices they can get to fight on their behalf.
There are reformers who wonder how why systemic reform of American public education matters in addressing the underlying racial issues that have led to the alleged murder of 17-year-old Michael Brown and the protests happening in Ferguson, Mo. All they need to do is to consider the data on overuse of suspensions and expulsions by the Ferguson-Florissant school district, which serves the kids in the St. Louis suburb.
During the 2011-2012 school year, 829 young black men and women were meted out one out-of-school suspension by Ferguson-Florissant. That’s 8.1 percent of the 10,197 black children attending the district’s schools, according to data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. Another 705 black children — or another 7.2 percent of kids — were suspended by the district more than once during the 2011-2012 school year. All in all, Ferguson-Florissant meted out-of-school suspensions to 15 percent of its black students.
Meanwhile Ferguson-Florissant meted even more discipline. This is in the form of in-school suspensions, which often involves tossing kids into rooms where they often sit around instead of learning in classrooms. While some have touted in-school suspensions as a better alternative to tossing kids out of school, the evidence suggests that this isn’t so. The district placed another 2,087 black children into in-school suspensions; that meant 20.5 percent of Ferguson’s black children, who make up the majority of the district’s population of 13,234, were kept out of classrooms.
Let’s put this into context compared to the white kids who attend Ferguson-Florissant. A mere 68 white kids — or 3.3 percent of the district’s white student population — was suspended only once in 2011-2012, while another 33 white kids (or 1.6 percent) were suspended more than once during the school year In-school suspensions were meted out to another 149 white kids, or 7.2 percent of the population.
Put simply, if you are a black kid attending Ferguson-Florissant schools, you have at least a one-in-seven chance of being subjected to some form of harsh school discipline. If you are a white kid, the chances are only two in 100.
Ferguson-Florissant kids weren’t being suspended because they were engaged in violent behavior or carrying guns. The district had no out-of-school suspensions for violent acts, according to data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, nor were kids suspended for alcohol consumption. While Ferguson-Florissant’s suspension rate for drug use was 0.4 per 100 kids in its schools, that rate was only slightly higher than the 0.3 percent rate for the state as a whole.
Yet Ferguson-Florissant’s out-of-school suspension rate of 5.6 per 100 students is rate five times higher than that for the entire state as a whole. The length of times kids are suspended by the district is also high. On average, 2.2 kids per 100 students were suspended for 10 consecutive days during the 2011-2012 school year, almost double the 1.3 kid per 100 for the state overall. And Ferguson-Florissant suspended 3.4 kids per 100 students for more than 10 consecutive days, eight times the statewide rate of 0.4 per 100 students.
Are Ferguson-Florissant’s kids coming from violent and crime-ridden neighborhoods? Not based on the data. There were just two reported homicides per 100,000 people in Ferguson in 2012, a sixty-percent decline from the homicide rate of five per 100,000 in the previous year. The aggravated assault rate of 37 per 100,000 (a decline from 47 per 100,000 in 2011) is also extraordinarily low. Certainly Ferguson has higher levels of poverty than many parts of the United States. But as the data shows, poverty and crime aren’t correlated. Nearby Florissant, which is also served by the district, had a homicide rate of zero in 2012 and just one per 100,000 in the previous year; the city’s aggravated assault rate was 47 per 100,000 in 2012, a slight decline from 53 per 100,000 in the previous year. Keep in mind that 73,387 people live in both Ferguson and the much-larger Florissant.
Again, let’s put this in context: A black child attending Ferguson-Florissant schools is more likely to be subjected to harsh forms of school discipline than be affected by violent crime in their neighborhoods.
What is clear is that Ferguson-Florissant is likely suspending kids at high levels because of issues such as disruptive behavior and attendance, all of which teachers and school leaders can deal with through more-effective means that can both teach children the impact of their behavior on school communities and themselves while also giving them a path to getting back onto the path to graduation. With 47.1 percent of Ferguson-Florissant’s fourth-graders reading at or below basic proficiency on the reading portion of the Show-Me State’s battery of standardized tests, the overuse of suspensions and expulsions shows that the district isn’t dealing adequately with the literacy issues that often lead to discipline issues.
The only good thing that can be said is that the out-of-school suspensions on their own have not led to a lower graduation rate; Ferguson-Florissant’s official graduation rate of 78 percent for its Class of 2012 was a mere five points lower than the state average. But that could easily be because Ferguson-Florissant’s overuse of suspensions and expulsions is overcome by its proximity to other school districts; kids who are being pushed out by the district can attend other schools in districts such as the ever-woeful St. Louis and the soon-to-be-shut down Normandy district (from whose high school Brown had graduated before his tragic demise). Without such proximity, it is quite likely that Ferguson-Florissant’s graduation rates would be as low as many districts that overuse harsh school discipline. More importantly, given the low graduation rates for those surrounding districts, it is quite likely that those who have been subjected to suspensions and expulsions have also likely dropped out.
Certainly the experience of Ferguson-Florissant illustrates what decades of data on school discipline have shown long ago: That far too many kids are suspended and expelled from school. That children from poor and minority households, especially young black, Latino, and poor white men, are more likely to be suspended and expelled than middle class peers. That the underlying reasons for discipline have less to do with violent behavior, drugs, or weapons possession,than with misbehavior that can be addressed through better means. That such discipline (especially those occurring as a result of zero tolerance policies) doesn’t improve school cultures or even makes schools safer for kids. That overuse of suspensions and expulsions lets teachers and school leaders off the hook for not addressing the learning issues at the heart of why kids act out in school.
We also already know that the consequences of such use of discipline is that kids end up dropping out into poverty and prison. Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz determined in his own research, sixth-graders with “unsatisfactory” behavior marks (which indicate being suspended from school at least once during the school year) have only a one-in-five chance of graduating on time six years later. Considering the high likelihood of young men dropping out of school landing into prison — especially young black male dropouts, who have a two-to-one risk of landing in prison by age 34 — suspensions and expulsions often leads to academic, economic, and social failure.
But Ferguson-Florissant’s overuse of harsh school discipline — and that of other districts throughout the country — isn’t just about a district failing the children who most need nurturing, high-quality education. It is also about this reality: What happens in our schools ends up in our streets. When districts overuse harsh school discipline, they teach law enforcement outside schools that poor and minority children are only criminals. The lawlessness of the police in Ferguson — and the evil they have shown toward the black people who live their and pay their wages — is mirrored by the unwillingness of those working within its schools to provide all kids with high-quality education.
In fact, districts end up bringing law enforcement into schools through arrests as well as through referrals to juvenile court of matters that were once relegated to principals and parents. Truancy cases account for 33 percent of all status (or illegal only because the child is a minor) cases referred to the nation’s juvenile courts in 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Justice; schools accounted for 55 percent of all truancy referrals (and, given that schools often work closely with police departments, that rate is likely even higher). In fact, schools account for one out of every five status cases referred to juvenile courts that year, the second-highest source of referrals after law enforcement agencies.
Because judges are ill-equipped to deal with most juvenile cases — which often results from some combination of shoddy education and bad parenting — the result is that our most-vulnerable children end up being put into a cycle of incarceration and poverty from which they cannot emerge. Or, as Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Michael Holzman would say, they become the usual suspects, and thus, are known as such to teachers, school leaders, and law enforcement.
But this perception isn’t just limited to those kids who end up getting caught up in school discipline and juvenile courts. All poor and minority children, especially young black men who are the ones subjected to educational abuse and malpractice, end up being tarred by perceptions that they are merely the potentially lawless, not young people whose potential should be nurtured and developed. As a result, they end up facing their virtual and literal Michael Brown moments, both at the hands of police and even at the hands of other black people. All this perpetuates cultures of death in which our kids are dehumanized, and then their futures and lives are slaughtered.
School reformers, especially those who try to downplay the consequences of overusing harsh school discipline on the futures of children, must realize that the damage of failed policies and practices done by districts against kids don’t stay within schoolhouses. Making the use of harsh school discipline rare and only for the most-serious offenses, along with overhauling how we provide kids teaching and curricula, is critical to keeping our children, especially our young black men and women in Ferguson and Florissant, on the path to futures in which everyone treats them with dignity and respect. The time for reformers to step up and lead, both within American public education and outside of it, is now.
Back in 2011, your editor wrote a series of pieces on how school reformers — especially charter school operators and school choice activists — must learn from the issues of financial mismanagement and low academic quality that plagued the for-profit higher education sector. Three years later, scandals involving charters in Hartford and Chicago have once again served as reminders of how the bad behavior of operators can end up casting the entire sector (and the school reform movement as whole) in a bad light.
Once again, reformers need to take stronger measures to force out charter operators and authorizers responsible for letting such lapses to happen in the first place. Or else charter schools will face the same regulatory pressures that are now buffeting for-profits.
The latest reminder of the importance of good conduct came last week when federal investigations issued subpoenas to Hartford’s Family Urban Schools of Excellence, the former operator of the Jumoke collection of charters, amid allegations of shoddy hiring practices and financial mismanagement. The federal investigation came after a month of revelations by the Hartford Courant that the charter school operator’s founder, Michael Sharpe, had falsified his academic credentials, lived in a building owned by Jumoke, and overseen the hiring of a school staffer whose felony conviction landed him on a sex offender registry. There is a chance that the Jumoke schools, which have been successful in improving the achievement of the poor and minority kids in its care, could end up being shut down.
The federal probe into FUSE came a month after another charter school operator, Chicago’s UNO Charter School Network, settled civil fraud charges brought by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission related to charges of financial mismanagement, conflicts of interest, and nepotism. The agency alleged that UNO deceived bondholders about its financial condition even as it faced sanctions by Illinois state officials for handing out contracts to firms owned by the brothers of Juan Rangel, the onetime Second City powerbroker who ran the chain, as well as placing three of his relatives on its payroll. For the Chicago Teachers Union, the American Federation of Teachers local, the UNO scandal has offered it an opportunity to renew its opposition to efforts by mayors Richard Daley the younger and Rahm Emanuel to expand school choice.
Certainly both FUSE and UNO are rare examples of financial and operational malfeasance within a charter school sector that has served children well. Just as importantly, school reformers and charter school operators have condemned both for their bad acts. Both ConnCAN and the Nutmeg State branch of the Northeast Charter Schools Network issued their condemnations of FUSE this past weekend.
Yet these scandals come amid other episodes of fiscal mismanagement by charter school operators. The most-notable: The scandal that enveloped American Indian Charter Schools after a California state audit revealed that its former boss, Ben Chavis, had allegedly embezzled $3.8 million from the school during its tenure. Thanks to Chavis’ alleged malfeasance, the failure of American Indian to develop strong financial controls, and the poor oversight by its board, the schools the charter school chain operates (all of which have done well in improving achievement for the kids in its care) are under the threat of being shut down. Only a state court ruling has kept the traditional district that oversees the schools — which are its competitors in the education space — from closing them down altogether.
American Indian’s situation, along with that of FUSE and UNO, prove this reality: That criminal allegations like bad studies on charter school performance, last forever and do even more damage that good news can’t always overcome. Especially when you consider that school choice sector is a new part of an American public education dominated by traditional districts, the fact that only 13 percent of Americans can accurately describe charters, and that traditionalists are willing to play fast-and-loose in their rhetorical and tactical gamesmanship, charter schools are vulnerable to mudslinging.
It isn’t just about rhetoric. After three decades, the charter school sector (along with vouchers and other choice programs) have proven that its schools help kids succeed academically and economically in their adulthoods. A study of 521 kids attending charter schools released this month by a team led by University of California, Los Angeles researcher Mitchell Wong determined that high-quality charters can help keep kids from engaging in gang activity and drug abuse. Rand Corp. determined in its 2009 study that students attending high-quality charters are seven-to-15 percent more likely to graduate than their traditional public school peers.
But charter schools aren’t an unqualified success. Far too many charters perform no better than traditional district failure mills. Three years ago, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute pointed out in its study of failed schools that few laggard charters are ever turned around, and even fewer are shut down; this betrays the claim made by reformers that charters, unlike traditional public schools, can be easily shut down. There are cities such as Detroit where charter schools are often performing as badly as the Motor City district’s appallingly bad operations. Add in the admittedly sparse episodes of mismanagement and fraud by charter school operators, and it is clear that reformers can’t just simply declare success and go home.
At the heart of the problem is the that charter school authorizers — including traditional districts — have been far too willing to allow shoddy charters to remain in operation long after it is clear that they should be shut down. Traditional districts such as Detroit Public Schools, for example, are allowed to involve themselves in overseeing schools even though they lack the manpower (and, given their awful performance, even the credibility) to do a good job of it. [The fact that traditional districts are allowed to oversee charters in the first place, which is akin to McDonald's having the power to watch over a Wendy's, is especially ridiculous.] But as seen in Fordham’s own woeful experience as a charter authorizing, oversight efforts by independent outfits is no guarantee of high quality.
This is because charter authorizers can often derive revenue from charters, especially through the provision of services to schools that effectively lead to conflict of interests; it’s hard for an authorizer to provide proper oversight to schools if they are also a vendor. Only Louisiana, Minnesota, Nevada, and Washington State restrict authorizers from overseeing charter operators and offering them services without a separate contract in place. Lax oversight from states is also a problem. Only Hawaii and Washington State (along with the District of Columbia) meet the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ requirements for holding authorizers accountable for their work in overseeing schools; note that Washington State has only gotten legalized charters in the past few years.
Even when charter authorizers try to hold schools accountable, they can be hamstrung by state laws that allow for charters to go for as long as a decade without their academic, financial, and operational performance being subjected to formal review, and, if necessary, be shut down. In Michigan, for example, a charter authorizer can allow school operators to go for as long as seven years without any formal review. In fact, few states require charter authorizers to conduct high-stakes reviews of school operators every five years.
The good news is that key players such as the National Association of Charter School Authorizers are pushing states and reformers to pass laws that will lead to the shutdown of shoddy charter authorizers (and ultimately, shut down laggard charters). But that work has been complicated by opposition from choice activists — especially outfits such as the Center for Education Reform — out of concern that stronger accountability could lead to fewer charters and options. This shouldn’t be shocking. One of the problems these days in the school reform movement is many school choice activists — both out of genuine concern over restricting choice and because their own finances are dependent on a growing school choice sector — have become as opposed as traditionalists to the kind of accountability measures needed to transform American public education.
What the charter school sector (along with choice activists and other reformers) must acknowledge is that the expansion of school choice cannot continue without assuring taxpayers that charters (along with other forms of choice) will operate effectively and that they will do a better job than traditional districts of improving student achievement. When charter oversight is faulty, when choice programs aren’t subjected to strong accountability and oversight, they become vulnerable to scandals that do damage to the cause of systemic reform, even if they are isolated incidents compared to their overwhelming benefits. And ultimately, it is intellectually, ethically, and morally unacceptable for charter operators and choice activists to demand accountability for traditional districts and then tell taxpayers to simply trust that the programs are working properly.
So charter players and the rest of the school reform movement must take critical steps to ensure that charters are operating properly. This includes pushing for laws at the state level that force authorizers to be more-effective in overseeing charter operators or leave the sector, as well as legislation to allow for academically- and financially-failing charters to be shut down quickly. This includes only granting charters five-year contracts. Getting districts out of the business of charter authorizing — a move undertaken by D.C. a few years ago — is also critical to improving quality.
Meanwhile the sector must also engage in more-stringent self-policing, publicly and privately shame laggard charters and authorizers to either turn things around or shut their doors. The charter school sector must embrace better approaches to financial and operational management. Given that most nonprofits are terrible at their own activities, the movement should look toward the private sector for models of better practices; this includes even embracing outsourcing of functions that school operators shouldn’t be handling on their own in the first place. It also involves crafting standards and procedures for contracting and procuring services — rules that can easily be picked up from the private sector, particularly in the healthcare field — that would assure taxpayers that charters are operating properly.
Finally, reformers must step up on public relations. This includes painting portraits of what charters are doing for their students, putting kids and their teachers front and center in campaigns, traditional and viral, and touting high-quality examples of charters that are successfully building brighter futures for kids, families, and communities. As I also mentioned three years ago, charter school operators and authorizers must also build stronger ties with communities, grassroots activists, and Parent Power groups in order to blunt opposition, especially when bad actors in the sector behave, well, badly.
The FUSE and UNO scandals offer an opportunity for the charter school sector, choice activists, and the rest of the school reform movement to address challenges can hinder the expansion of high-quality opportunities our children need. Either they take the chance now — or wait until it’s too late.
Featured photo: Michael Sharpe, former chief executive officer of FUSE, before he resigned as head of the charter school operator.
Reformers took plenty of pleasure earlier this last week when Indiana Inspector General David Thomas announced that his office cleared former Supt. Tony Bennett of alleged corruption involving his move two years ago to amend the state’s A-to-F grading system, and which affected the ratings of 13 schools (including one whose founder was a donor to Bennett’s re-election campaign). In many ways, it is understandable. Yet reformers must still remember that the clearing of Bennett’s name on corruption charges does not excuse the bad decisions he made which led to this fiasco in the first place.
As you may remember, Bennett, who had moved on from the Hoosier State’s chief school officer job to become Florida’s superintendent, was forced to resign from that job after revelations of the move by Associated Press writer Tom LoBianco (based on e-mails likely leaked to him by Glenda Ritz, who defeated Bennett for the job) led to calls for his head from both traditionalists and opponents of Common Core reading and math standards such as Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute. The validity of Bennett’s decision (if not the lack of transparency involved) was vindicated a month later when a Hoosier State legislative team concluded that he made “plausible” adjustments that were geared to address concerns from school operators that the new grading system didn’t measure school performance in a fair and accurate manner. But traditionalists and Common Core foes still continued to accuse Bennett of behaving in a corrupt manner, while some reformers such as Ann Hyslop of the New America Foundation still thought that Bennett engaged in “grade inflation” for a select number of schools.
Yet as Thomas has noted, there was no evidence that Bennett amended the grades as a favor to Christel House Academy South, whose founder, Christel De Haan, gave to his unsuccessful re-election campaign. In fact, the investigation validated the statements by Bennett and his allies that the move was done to deal with the variations for 165 schools with a nontraditional kindergarten to 10th grade format, as well the state legislature’s own report. Bennett only ended up being fined $5,000 for asking state education department staffers to compile lists of key donors (as well as their decision to store that list on the agency’s computers). Certainly Bennett shouldn’t be excused for this bad judgment. But this is hardly evidence of corrupt behavior.
In light of this latest clearing of Bennett’s name, you can understand why reformers are calling out traditionalists, Common Core foes, and their more-skeptical fellow-travelers for beating up on him. American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess bemoaned in his Education Week column about how they engaged in the kind of “politics of personal destruction” that is beyond the pale of political battles, especially those involving systemic reform. Thomas B. Fordham Institute honcho Mike Petrilli went further, demanding on Twitter that Hyslop and Carey walk back their critiques of Bennett’s conduct.
Both men are right, at least on this: Traditionalists and Common Core foes who insinuated that the grade-letter change was driven by corrupt motivations — including the intellectual charlatan Diane Ravitch, Jim Stergios of the Pioneer Institute (who called for Bennett’s resignation from his now-former post as Florida’s education commissioner), and syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin — should apologize for rushing to judgment. What they did was intellectually unacceptable and morally wrong. All of us should follow the Golden Rule, and one aspect of that is to not make accusations before all facts are in evidence. I don’t expect any of these folks to apologize. Particularly for Common Core foes such as Stergios, taking out Bennett was a victory for their cause of opposing the standards. [Let's not even bother with the once-respectable Ravitch.] May God rest all of their souls.
Meanwhile Hyslop should have been a little more circumspect in calling Bennett’s move grade inflation. Sure, Hyslop was right to critique the lack of transparency surrounding Bennett’s decision to amend the grades. [More later.] Hyslop was on high ground to criticize how Bennett and his staff addressed the issues inherent within the A-to-F grading approach the state was implementing, and that he championed. But Hyslop should have also been more circumspect in her judgment until all the evidence came out. [Editor's Note: Hyslop tells us that she eventually wrote in a New America piece published that the reasons behind Bennett's move was "plausible" but it was still a decision that weakened public confidence in accountability.]
There are two other people who should also be called out for their conduct. The first is LoBianco, whose reporting led to the sliming of Bennett’s character. As I noted last year, his reporting incomplete and lacking in strong analysis. He failed to provide good journalism by not noting that Bennett was dealing with questions among traditional district bureaucrats and charter school operators about the validity of the A-to-F grading system since February 2012, when a dry run by Bennett’s staff showed wide swings in performance. LoBianco also did a shoddy job of reporting. He should have gone beyond the e-mails leaked to him by Ritz and asked current and former state education department staffers about the technical issues surrounding implementation of A-to-F grading. Finally, by failing to address the political motivations behind the e-mails being supplied to him — including Ritz’s battles with reformers over her attempts to roll back Bennett’s efforts — LoBianco didn’t act like a reporter shining light on complex issues.He, in effect, became little more than a political arms dealer, at best, and in the minds of some, a Mike Sitrick-like attack flack working for Ritz while on the payroll of an objective media outlet.
Then there’s Ritz, who started the entire character jihad against Bennett (and against Hoosier State reformers) in the first place. By leaking those e-mails to LoBianco instead of providing the information to the public in a more-honest fashion, Ritz behaved not as a public servant, but as a vengeful politician who only has her own self-interest in mind. By starting this act of character assassination against Bennett, Ritz essentially showed her own bad character. The good news, if one can call it that, is that Ritz is now paying her own price for engaging in politics of personal destruction. Her battles with both the reform-minded state board of education and the otherwise-useless Gov. Mike Pence has essentially weakened her ability to advance her agenda; her decision to spend $100,000 of state money to renovate her office — money that Bennett had redirected during his tenure to focus on improving student achievement — has also shown that she has no interest in helping all kids succeed. Hopefully, Ritz will lose office in two years.
Yet reformers cannot act as if Bennett was blameless. While Bennett clearly didn’t engage in bad behavior, he made the kind of bad judgments that weakens the efforts of reformers to transform public education for all children. And as a moral movement, we cannot dismiss or excuse it.
Bennett amended the grades in order to deal with problems with implementation of the A-to-F grading system as well as to avoid the likely public backlash that would come with it. Bennett’s faulty decision was also driven by another problem in his leadership: The loss of critical staff needed to address the information technology and other technical aspects of implementing the A-to-F grading system. As the Hoosier State General Assembly’s report pointed out, the Indiana State Department of Education lost three key staffers within a year of initial implementation. That brain drain, along with the apparent lack of information technology manpower within the agency, led to a series of snafus (including the aforementioned failure to eliminate the cap on student achievement growth that could count against the grades) that,along with Bennett’s aggressive deadline to put the accountability system in place by October 2012 and the underlying complexity of the accountability itself, led to Bennett’s hasty decision.
What Bennett should have done is slow down implementation. Certainly that would have been hard for him to do. After all, aggressively putting reforms in place is critical to making them stick. But in light of the loss of talent, Bennett should have announced that the agency wouldn’t release the results until November of 2012 in order to work out the kinks of implementation. Just as importantly, he should have made all of his decision-making — especially on the grade change — transparent and public, with full explanations for his decisions, and a willingness to take the heat for doing the job of properly informing all.
But by continuing on a needlessly aggressive path of implementation, Bennett sowed the seeds for another bad decision that he probably rues to this day. By not making his decision-making transparent and public, Bennett gave his opponents the ability to paint his actions in an even worse light than they deserved.
The consequences ended up being politically grave. Not only did he end up allowing his opponents to damage his reputation, he also jeopardized systemic reform efforts in Indiana, Florida and the rest of the nation. Bennett’s decision to not be transparent about the grade changes had hampered efforts to provide high-quality data that families, policymakers, researchers, and others can use to make smart decisions. As is, A-to-F grading wasn’t exactly ready for prime time. But Bennett’s decision and the controversy arising from it has raised even more questions about its validity as well as that of other accountability systems, playing into the hands of traditionalists and districts who want the status quo to remain ante.
Particularly on Common Core implementation, Bennett’s decision gave foes of the standards a tool to force him out of public office, and, in the process, get rid of another prominent supporter for high-quality standards that can help all kids, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, get the college-preparatory curricula they need and deserve. Bennett’s presence in advocating for Common Core would have been especially helpful in Indiana, where legislators moved this year to kibosh their implementation.
Reformers have to remember that one bad decision can have so many devastating consequences. They must also remember that while the behavior of Ritz and others is deplorable, it is also coin of the realm. Education will always be subject to political gamesmanship. So conduct becoming is the best weapon against such machinations, especially since reformers are going to be the first to call out the bad decisions of traditionalists. If Bennett was transparent in his decision-making in the first place, opponents wouldn’t have no weapon to use.
Ultimately, reformers must remember that like born-again Christians, we have publicly declared that we behave and conduct ourselves differently than those who defend traditionalist thinking. Because of our public declaration, and our dedication to the movement’s moral mission, we cannot engage in the same type of behavior and excuse-making as traditionalists who excuse policies and practices that condemn the futures of our children. This means that we cannot excuse Bennett’s bad decision-making even as we rightfully criticize traditionalists and Common Core foes for their wrongful rush to judgment.
Your editor hopes that Bennett returns to the public stage, has learned from his mistakes, and once again take his well-deserved place as one of the nation’s foremost reform-minded state education leaders. Bennett certainly deserves criticism for how he handled the grade change. But we will all make mistakes and deserve second chances. Now, more than ever, we need bold champions for the systemic reforms our children need. And as a movement, reformers need to learn the lessons from this fiasco even as we properly celebrate Bennett’s vindication.
As your editor mentioned yesterday in the piece on Karen Lewis’ six-figure compensation, Chicago is in the midst of a battle over reforming its virtually-insolvent teachers’ pension. While Lewis and the AFT local, the Chicago Teachers Union, proposes to float a $5 billion pension obligation bond and levy a so-called LaSalle Street tax on commodities trading transactions on the two exchanges located in town, Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to offer a set of reforms that are similar to the modest changes put in place by Illinois earlier this year to address its woeful pension deficits. Emanuel would likely push to restrict cost-of-living increases to three percent on the first $25,000 in annuity payments (or up to an additional $750 in cost-of-living hikes).
As seen last month with the state legislature’s passage of a plan to shore up the Second City’s pensions for police officers and firefighters, any plan Emanuel finally proposes will end up being approved. As Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley, can attest, getting your way is what happens when you’re the mayor of Illinois’ largest city. But the bigger question is whether Emanuel will offer a plan that effectively addresses both the pension’s insolvency and also provides teachers (especially high-quality instructors and younger teachers who are the least likely to stay around long enough to collect annuities) suitable retirement savings options. This starts with dealing accurately and honestly with the real level of insolvency. As the most-recent comprehensive annual financial report released this month by the teachers’ pension makes clear, Emanuel will need to force it into being truly transparent.
Thanks in part to a 26 percent increase in the number of teachers retiring and collecting annuities, the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund officially reports an underfunding of $9.6 billion as of 2013, the latest year available. That’s 16 percent higher (or $1.6 billion more) than the officially-reported level of insolvency for the previous fiscal year.
But these are just the officially reported numbers — and understated at that. For one, thanks to smoothing and other actuarial tricks ostensibly used to insulate Chicago’s budget from shocks, the number doesn’t include the unrecognized gains and losses from investments the fund has experienced. If the Chicago pension fully recognized the $2.2 billion in investment losses over the past years, it would have had to officially report an insolvency of $12 billion, 24 percent higher than what it actually stated.
Then there is the fact that CTPF still assumes a rate of return on investments of 7.75 percent, far higher than the 5.2 percent five-year return rate experienced in the market (according to Wilshire Associates) and the 4.6 percent average return the pension itself has achieved over the past five years. Because of the inflated rates of return, the Chicago pension is overstating how much its investments can generate over the long haul to address the insolvency, and ultimately, how much it has available to cover annuities.
To get to the bottom of CTPF’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 on investments. [Moody's bases its rate of return on the performance of a bond index, which can range between four and six percent.] Just analyzing the officially-reported insolvency, Dropout Nation concludes that the Chicago teachers’ pension is underfunded to the tune of $12.5 billion, 30 percent higher than the pension states.
Based on a 17-year amortization schedule, Second City taxpayers would have to spend an extra $735 million a year just to pay down the insolvency; that’s six times greater than the $120 million the city currently paid into the pension. Thanks to a so-called pension holiday granted by the state, Chicago has skipped on making full payments into the pension as it should be doing for the past 18 years; it was supposed to pay $196 million in 2013 and must contribute $613 million this year, and $684 million in 2015.
But this number is also based just on the officially-reported insolvency, not on what would have been reported if the Chicago pension actually accounted for all of its investment gains and losses the moment they occurred (as it should be doing). Accounting for the all the investment losses, Dropout Nation concludes that the pension’s underfunding for 2013 was $15.5 billion. That’s 30 percent more than the $12.5 billion the pension would have had to report if it accounted for its losses and gains on time, and 61 percent higher than the officially-reported insolvency for last year. Based on a 17 year amortization schedule, Chicago taxpayers would have to pay an extra $910 million a year just to pay down the insolvency; that’s nearly eight times greater than what the city contributed to the pension last year.
Let’s be clear about this: These numbers don’t include the unfunded retired teacher healthcare obligations that CTPF bears on behalf of the city. The pension reports an official unfunded actuarial accrued liability of $2.3 billion for 2013, a 23 percent decline over the previous year. The good news is that the pension assumes a realistic 4.5 percent rate of return for its investments dedicated to covering retiree health costs. But when adds the healthcare underfunding to the uncovered pension liabilities, the Chicago pension has an insolvency of $12.8 billion to $15.8 billion that Emanuel must ultimately address.
The problem will get worse because more Chicago teachers are heading into retirement. Between 2004 and 2013, the number of annuitants increased by 42 percent (from 19,266 to 27,440), while annuity payouts increased by a two-fold (from $594 million to $1.2 billion). Based on the pace of increases in annuitants in that nine-year period, CalSTRS will likely add 1,583 new annuitants (excluding deaths and other removals) to its rolls every year for at least the next decade before retirements slow down. Considering that 2,129 teachers and other school employees retired in 2013, even that average number pace is understating matters. Based on the pace of increases in average annuity payouts, the pension will also face annual increases of 4.3 percent per retiree, further increasing its insolvency.
Emanuel will have to take numerous steps to address the CTPF’s financial straits for the long haul. Restricting cost-of-living increases is a start. But the city must make full contributions to the pension as it should have been doing in the first place. The mayor must level with taxpayers — and increase contributions to $1 billion a year just to get the pension onto the path to solvency. At the same time, Emanuel must address the governance of the pension itself. One reason why it is in such dire straits is because it is effectively a division of the AFT’s Chicago local, which controls all but four seats on its 12-member board; currently, it is even further under the union’s control because Jay Rehak, the AFT honcho who presides of the board is now serving as its acting executive director. Any pension reform plan Emanuel offers must effectively put the pension under the city’s budget office, with the mayor assuming full control and responsibility for its solvency as it should be.
Emanuel must then ensure that any pension reform plan he offers doesn’t give younger teachers (and high-quality instructors, in particular) the shaft. This is particularly important because the district he controls needs to hold onto all the good and great talent it needs to continue its overhaul and improve student achievement. As with other pensions, CTPF is a particularly bad deal for high-quality new teachers, whose attrition rates are likely even higher, both because of the lack of support they get from school leaders and districts as well as because of their own desires to utilize their talents beyond classroom instruction. For these teachers, the pension doesn’t allow them to actually attain full retirement benefits unless they remain in classrooms.
So Emanuel must offer a new retirement option for younger teachers so that they can reap the full rewards of their work. This would feature a defined-contribution account toward which teachers can contribute as much of their income to retirement as they see fit (with a five percent match from the city), as well as a cash-balanced plan that guarantees an annual savings rate. Such a move, by the way, would also help the pension (and ultimately, taxpayers) by reducing the number of new annuitants that will add to its insolvency. Sure, Lewis will oppose any plan that resembles what your editor is describing. But Emanuel should then turn the tables on her rhetorically, pointing out how his plan is addressing both the city’s irresponsibility and that of the AFT local in managing the pension.
But none of Emanuel’s efforts to address the Chicago teachers’ pension’s insolvency will matter if he doesn’t get accurate numbers. And this means he must force the pension — and the AFT local — to be honest in the first place.
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Tribune.