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November 24, 2014 standard

The National Education Association just filed its 2013-2014 LM-2 filing with the U.S. Department of Labor, and once again, it spent big to preserve its declining influence over education policymaking. The nation’s largest teachers’ unions spent $132 million on lobbying and contributions to what are supposed to be like-minded organizations, a slight increase over the $131 million poured into such activities last year. This, by the way, doesn’t include another $45 million spent on so-called representational activities which are almost always political in nature.

This past fiscal year, NEA poured plenty of money into Democracy Alliance, the secretive progressive group that played a big role in trying to elect Democratic candidates to national and state offices this year. As Dropout Nation reported earlier this month, NEA and AFT have worked hard to pull Democracy Alliance into its fold; this includes NEA Executive Director John Stocks, a longtime player on the organization’s board, becoming its chairman. NEA poured $160,000 to the main organization itself, along with $250,000 into its Latino Engagement Action Fund, $150,000 into its Youth Engagement Fund, and $50,000 into its Committee on States. Altogether, NEA has devoted $610,000 to Democracy Alliance and its main affiliate organizations. Things didn’t work out so well this past Election Day for either Democracy Alliance or NEA; but that won’t stop either from spending plenty this next election cycle.

NEA also continued its co-opting of other progressive groups, many of which are part of Democracy Alliance’s wider network. This includes $150,000 to Progress Now, a member of Democracy Now’s wider network of groups whose past board members included Rob McKay, Stocks’ predecessor as Democracy Now chairman. The union also poured $250,000 into Center for Popular Democracy and its action fund for its campaigns against charter schools and the so-called “privatization” of public education; $235,000 into Progressive States Network; $200,000 into David Brock’s Media Matters for America; $67,000 into Progress Michigan; $25,000 into the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (another member of the Democracy Alliance network); and $25,000 into Netroots Nation. Solidifying its relationship with Democracy Alliance outfits, NEA spent $393,542 with Catalist LLC, the data outfit for the Democratic National Committee that has provided information to the organization’s allies in order to elect progressive-oriented candidates. Center for American Progress, which is a strong reform outfit, received $160,000 from the union.

Meanwhile NEA worked harder to build ties to black and Latino advocacy groups. The big winner this year was the Schott Foundation for Public Education, which has long ago abandoned its once-powerful work on how the education crisis damaged the futures of young black men. Through its Opportunity to Learn Fund, Schott picked up $300,000, or as some can say, a lot of chicken wing money. The dollars from NEA (as well as from AFT, which poured $180,000 into the foundation and into Opportunity to Learn) explain why Schott President John Jackson has become such an enthusiastic backer of the effort by the Big Two to roll back the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions. NEA gave a considerably smaller $25,000 to NAACP, which has been as ineffective on education policy for traditionalists as it was for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (which gave $1 million to the outfit in 2011 for a policy agenda that it never rolled out, as well as participation in the now-moribund Campaign for High School Equity).

The NEA gave $120,400 to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, while giving $50,000 to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. The union also gave $30,000 to the Board of Hispanic Caucus Chairs; $25,300 to NALEO’s education fund; $15,000 to National Council of La Raza; $15,000 to the National Hispana Leadership Institute; $10,000 to MALDEF; and $7,500 to the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators. A new NEA vassal is the Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, which is working in six states with La Raza, the Service Employees International Union, and NALEO on organizing Latinos to become citizens and voters; it picked up $50,000 from the union this past year. Given that new NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia likes to play upon her Latina heritage, expect the union to pour more money into reaching those communities. As part of the union’s play on immigration reform, it gave $50,000 to the National Immigration Law Center.

Speaking of signatories to NEA’s and AFT’s effort to roll back No Child: The Advancement Project received $75,000 from NEA, while Barnett Berry’s Center for Teaching Quality received $345,000. Education Law Center received $75,000, while the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (a longtime NEA vassal) received a mere $15,000. Even with the sums given to Schott Foundation, NEA spent very little money to gain adherence to its vision, especially from groups that are supposed to look out for the best interests of black and Latino children.

But NEA’s efforts aren’t just limited to that spending. The union poured $9.8 million into its Advocacy Fund super-PAC, which spent big this year to unsuccessfully help Democrats retain seats in North Carolina, Arkansas, and Colorado. The super-PAC itself spent $17 million during the 2013-2014 election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.org. Over the past two fiscal years, NEA poured $15.4 million into the Advocacy Fund; whether or not it was money well spent (especially in the minds of younger teachers looking to elevate the profession) is a much-different story.

Among the usual suspects: The Economic Policy Center picked up a mere $48,000 this past fiscal year, an 81 percent decline from the $250,000 it had received in 2012-2013. Through the University of Colorado Foundation, NEA also donated $250,000 to the National Education Policy Center, whose policy studies also align with the union’s positions. A big winner among usual suspects was the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, the outfit whose training programs do little to improve the quality of teaching performance; it picked up $216,904 from NEA coffers. NEA poured $397,195 into the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, which was formed by last year’s merger of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council.

The union gave $7,500 to Joel Packer’s Committee for Education Funding, $10,000 to Rebuild America’s Schools, $160,000 to the National Public Pension Coalition, and $250,000 to Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. The Republican Main Street Partnership and its Main Street Advocacy Fund picked up $275,000 from the union; while the Learning First Alliance received $121,100.

Just so it can keep support from the very teachers it is supposed to represent — and looking to show that it cares about elevating the teaching profession it debases through its defense of quality-blind seniority-based privileges and reverse-seniority layoff rules — the NEA gave $77,000 to the National Network of State Teachers of the Year. This shouldn’t be shocking; after all, the selection of teachers of the year is usually more of a popularity contest than one based on objective measures of teacher performance. Since few people give that much thought, NEA can easily gain some goodwill from the spend. It also gave $35,000 to the National Teacher Hall of Fame, and $191,600 to teacher quality reform outfit Teach Plus.

Meanwhile the NEA spent considerable sums propping up busted affiliates. It poured $1.2 million into the insolvent Indiana State Teachers Association; this doesn’t include the $52,571 loan made to the union during that period, or the $880,440 to maintain the building the Hoosier State affiliate occupies across the street from the Indiana Statehouse. Yet somehow ISTA managed to whittle down the money it owes to NEA by $2.4 million (to $13.5million) within the past year. NEA also subsidized the virtually-insolvent Michigan Education Association to the tune of $6.1 million last year, a slight decline over the $6.3 million given to the union and its PAC in 2012-2013; and poured $814,370 into the South Carolina Education Association, which the union had to put into receivership four years ago.

As for the NEA’s top honchos? Now-former president Dennis Van Roekel was paid $541,632, a 32 percent increase over his salary in 2012-2013; while Eskelsen Garcia picked up $345,728, a slight decline over her income last year (but still enough to buy some acoustic guitars for her occasional impromptu folk music performances); and Secretary-Treasurer Rebecca Pringle (now vice president of the union) pulled down $337,618, a 2.5 percent drop over last year. Altogether, the NEA’s big three were paid $1.2 million in 2013-2014, a nine percent increase over the previous fiscal year. [Note that this doesn’t include new Secretary-Treasurer Princess Moss, who pulled down $96,897 as a member of the union’s executive committee.] As Dropout Nation always says, there’s nothing wrong with NEA leaders and their counterparts at the AFT drawing six-figure sums. But remind Van Roekel and successor Eskelsen about their dollars (and the corporate ways the NEA and the AFT engage in their defense of traditionalist policies and thinking) whenever they try to use class warfare rhetoric to oppose systemic reform of American public education.

This statement also applies to the NEA’s 374 staffers earning six-figure sums; by the way, that is five more than in 2012-2013. Among the highly-paid employees: Executive Director Stocks, who pulled down $412,398 in 2013-2014 (a 7.3 percent increase over the previous year); General Counsel Alice O’Brien, whose $233,153 in compensation was slightly lower than last fiscal year; and membership czar Bill Thompson, who was paid $229,878, also a slight decline from last year. NEA top lobbyist Marcus Egan was paid $$172,870 in 2013-2014, a 2.3 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. Again, the NEA’s payroll shows that being a teachers’ union official is a lucrative line of work. Again, whether this is working out for teachers, especially given the union’s declining clout, is a different story.

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

November 20, 2014 standard

If you want to understand how federal education policymaking between the Obama Administration and congressional Republicans will play out over the next two years, just check out the battle over reforming America’s dysfunctional immigration system.

As you already know, the sparring between the administration and congressional Republicans reached a new crescendo last night when President Obama issued an executive order temporarily staying deportation for five million undocumented emigres, many of whom have children who are American citizens by birth. Certainly this has aroused the ire of Republicans, especially those movement conservatives demanding even more restrictions (and red tape) upon the layers of rules already in place. House Speaker John Boehner and other congressional Republican leaders have spent the past two weeks threatening that Obama’s action would be a breakdown of good faith between the two sides that would lead to reprisals from them. This has ranged from plans to pads legislation that they know Obama would veto as soon as it got to his desk, to shutting down all but the most essential federal operations by refusing to pass another of the various continuing resolutions that have passed for what should be sensible budgeting. From where the Republicans sit, Obama has engaged in “lawlessness” because he has supposedly violated the U.S. Constitution, has behaved like an emperor, and, as a result, has “squandered what little credibility” he has left (with Republicans, of course).

Yet Boehner and his colleagues have done little other than bluster on this front. They haven’t even attempted to pass legislation overturning an earlier Obama Administration executive order on immigration, the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals, which held off deportation for undocumented immigrant young people brought to the country as kids by their parents, or even filed a lawsuit against the order as they have done today over the administration’s implementation of the Affordable Car Act. Why? Because they don’t have much more they can do other than bluster.

For one, as even legal scholars and immigration experts less-sympathetic to the administration such as Ilya Somin of the Cato Institute and Shikha Dahmia of the Reason Foundation have noted, federal immigration law grants the Obama Administration we latitude in temporarily staying deportations and operating the rest of the immigration system. In fact, Congress (including Republicans now in leadership in the House and Senate) granted that authority in the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed 28 years ago. The fact that earlier administrations, including that of Ronald Reagan and George Bush, have also implemented similar executive orders. Give the law as well as the political, legal, and historical precedents, Obama’s decision is defensible on all possible grounds. That the executive order itself is limited in scope, leaving seven million of the 11.4 million  undocumented emigres subject to deportation, is also a factor, as is the reality that the Obama Administration has deported more undocumented emigres than any of his recent predecessors (a matter congressional Republicans and immigration reform opponents fail to acknowledge).

The second reason is purely about long-term politics. Like their Democrat colleagues, Republicans are quite aware of the usefulness of expansive presidential authority in advancing political goals, especially when they don’t control the federal legislature. Having a president retain wide constitutional latitude in administering the executive branch, especially when controlling parties in both houses are gridlocked on key issues, allows for policymaking to continue. Add in the reality for House and Senate Republicans that key constituencies within the party (including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce) want immigration reform, as well as the need to expand the base in the long term to include black and Latino communities (the latter of which is key to the Republicans’ lock on political power in Texas), and the party has little choice but to just bluster and threaten.

Even if congressional Republicans pass legislation (including continuing resolutions) that attempt to stop enforcement of the immigration executive order, they can’t make it stick. Right now, the Republicans only control the House and, thanks to arcane rules, merely have the power to block legislation in the Senate. Even when they take over the Senate in January, they lack veto-proof majorities in both bodies to overcome Obama’s rejection of their legislation. There’s also the fact that Senate Democrats can now leverage the very rules uses Republicans used to block legislation; while Obama’s relationship with Senate Democrats are not much better than that he has with Republicans, his party has to also keep in mind the need to rally their political base in order to keep the White House in their control after 2016.

What you have with immigration reform is stalemate, one that, for all the bluster coming from Boehner and Senate colleague Mitch McConnell, favors the Obama Administration at nearly every turn and, therefore, will be exploited as the president attempts to establish a legacy that can’t so easily be reversed by his immediate successor. This is a reality reformers must keep in mind as they consider what to do on the federal level in these coming days and years.

For President Barack Obama, Election Day losses may have helped him far more than anyone has imagined.

Certainly one can say that the most-immediate consequences of this month’s election losses by the Democratic National Committee is that the Obama Administration is weaker politically. But that is assuming that Democrat control of the Senate was actually valuable to the administration in the first place. Sure the administration didn’t want the party to lose control; but the history of midterm elections for second-term presidents all but assured that this would be a reality. But given that Senate Democrats had little success in passing legislation other than continuing resolutions that would be acceptable to House Republicans (and that’s when Senate Republicans weren’t blocking every bill they could), Obama is actually no worse than he was before the election.

If anything, one can argue that the Obama Administration is in a stronger position than it was earlier this year. The first reason is that it no longer has to worry about defending vulnerable Senate Democrat seats that were quite likely to be lost because of dissatisfaction among voters over the nation’s continuing economic malaise. Free of the responsibility to keep Senate seats, the administration can do now is forge a path that may be more-helpful to Democrats two years from now when Republicans have to both defend vulnerable seats coming up for re-election and try to recapture the White House. Secondly, thanks to the Constitution, the penchant of Congress to dispense the details of legislation to administrative rule-making (the real vehicle for making laws a reality), the executive authority granted to the Oval Office both through current legislation and legal precedent, and the divisions among Republicans themselves, the Obama Administration has plenty of policymaking tools at its disposal.

These two realities are prominent in the debate over the expansiveness of federal education policymaking — and the future of the federal role in advancing systemic reform that has been embraced by presidents and Congress since Richard Nixon proposed the creation of what became the Institute of Educational Sciences five decades ago.

This hasn’t fully occurred to most reformers, especially those in the Beltway. Some conservative reformers, caught up in irrational exuberance, think that congressional Republicans and the Obama Administration will engage in honest negotiating on a compromise reauthorization of No Child next year. That’s naivete bordering on stupidity. Anyone who has watched how Obama and congressional Republicans have dealt with each other over the past six years know that neither side will deal with each other in good faith.

On one hand, Obama has proven over and over again that he will do whatever is legally and constitutionally possible to go around congressional opposition from Republicans and Democrats alike. The No Child waiver gambit exemplifies this. Obama could have gotten a reauthorization passed as early as 2009,when Democrats controlled both houses. But he didn’t as much because he didn’t want to watering down his reform agenda in order to satisfy the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers as because of opposition from congressional Republicans looking to deny him a legislative victory. The waiver gambit, along with administering of the school reform initiatives for which the administration won congressional approval, allows the president to pursue (questionable) policymaking that he favors.

The No Child waiver gambit is reckless policymaking that has weakened systemic reform on the ground. But as Conor Williams of the New America Foundation has noted, it is also a critical aspect of President Obama’s legacy. Defending the waivers, along with Race to the Top, I3, and the School Improvement Grant initiatives, is the single most-important effort the administration must do. Given that proposed reauthorizations of No Child — including the second version of the Student Success Act passed out of the House last year — would gut the waivers as well as No Child itself, Obama has no interest in negotiating.

House Speaker John Boehner and his fellow congressional Republicans talk tough. But have a weak hand when it comes to combating the Obama Administration on the education front.

As for congressional Republicans? They could have passed a new version of No Child that was more amenable to the Obama Administration that still would have accomplished their policy goals. But they haven’t had much interest in doing so. Concerned primarily with grinding down Obama’s agenda and with putting a Republican back into the White House in 2016 as well as looking to please hardcore activists among movement conservatives (including Heritage Foundation’s political action wing), congressional Republicans done everything they can to deny the administration a legislative victory. The emergence of Lamar Alexander as chairman of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee will not change these and other dynamics one bit; in fact, the former school reformer, now an apostate from the movement, is as much a problem as the rather Machiavellian John Kline, who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

There’s also the reality that congressional Republicans are divided among themselves over key educational issues, especially between hardcore movement conservatives who want to cut all federal education subsidies, suburban Republicans who represent districts that benefit just as much from them as those in Democrat districts, and Republicans who embrace No Child as fervently as their allies in the business community. There’s the discord between congressional Republicans and their gubernatorial colleagues who have benefited both from No Child and the waiver gambit (and are also concerned about their political prospects). And never forget that while Kline is the driving force on education legislation, he must still deal with a weakened Boehner, a coauthor of No Child who is not all that interested in eviscerating his handiwork (and has shown occasional willingness to speak honestly to his colleagues when they engage in reckless policymaking).

So a reauthorization of No Child is off the table until at least 2017, when the next president takes office. Until then, the Obama Administration and congressional Republicans will continue sparring over the direction of federal education policy. As with the battle over immigration reform, it is one that plays to the Obama Administration’s advantage. And the administration is already leveraging the opportunity.

Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan fired the first salvo last week when they unveiled guidance for granting No Child waiver extensions. Because the extensions may last as long as three years, the Obama Administration is essentially moving to institutionalize the gambit and make it difficult for congressional Republicans (or anyone else) to undue it. Certainly the waiver gambit itself is far more legally questionable than the president’s executive order on deportations; the idea that states can ignore federal law is not even close to acceptable. But as with immigration (where the legality of the president’s executive order is firmly established by statute, history, and legal precedent), the Obama Administration can argue that the effort is defensible.

Meanwhile the Obama Administration have already taken steps on other fronts. The move by the Department of Education and the Justice Department earlier this year to issue guidance on ending overuse of harsh school discipline (along with accompanying investigations of districts such as Tupelo, Miss., and Minneapolis), will continue even as congressional Republicans and normally-sensible conservative reformers argue against it. The administration’s effort to address the failure of districts to provide college-preparatory courses (including Advanced Placement classes) to poor and minority kids is also proceeding apace.

The waiver gambit will likely stand because congressional Republicans (along with their Democrat colleagues) will do nothing other than bluster about it. After all, complain about the waiver gambit is all that congressional Republicans have done since the Obama Administration undertook it three years ago. The easiest solution to ending the waivers was for House Republicans to team up with Senate Democrats and the Obama Administration on a compromise version of No Child reauthorization. As the Center for Education Reform noted last year in its review of the Student Success Act and the competing Senate Democrat plan (which in many ways reflects the No Child waiver gambit), there is little substantial difference between both plans, especially in their adverse consequences for the futures of children. But Kline and his fellow House Republicans never pulled that together mostly because they had no interest in giving Obama anything close to a legislative victory.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is already heading up the Obama Administration’s offensive against congressional Republicans on the education policy front. Photo courtesy of the Associated Press.

There’s another reason why the waiver gambit will likely stand: Because as with immigration reform, congressional Republicans have to think about the political long term. What if they gain the presidency in 2016, but lose control of the Senate to Democrats? As with Obama during the last four years, a Republican president will likely struggle mightily on gaining a legislative victory. This isn’t to say this is so: If former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who like his brother, has worked well with Democrats on education, wins the Republican nomination and then the presidency, a compromise on No Child reauthorization may be possible. But given the good-but-not-great odds of Bush winning the nomination, Republicans want to keep their options open. And thanks to the waiver gambit, Obama has offered it to them.

Then there is the fact that congressional Republicans have no ability to make their version of a No Child authorization become law. Because they lack veto-proof majorities in both houses, Obama can veto any version of No Child that isn’t to his liking (that is, keeps the waiver gambit in place), and suffer few consequences. Congressional Republicans can try to cut funding for Race to the Top and other competitive grants through continuing resolutions. But as with Obama on his continued efforts to cut funding for D.C.’s school voucher program, Republicans can be easily forced into finding the dollars for those initiatives. [That even Republicans privately admit finding favor with competitive grants also factors into the equation.] Could Republicans just shut down the federal government? Sure. But given that the last time they did that ended up with the loss of sequestration (which fiscal conservatives such as Grover Norquist lamented because it led to automatic discretionary spending cuts), that won’t happen, either.

This isn’t to say that it is good news for reformers on the federal education policy front. Not at all. For one, as Dropout Nation has documented over the past three years, the No Child waiver gambit has been counterproductive to systemic reform on the ground. One of the consequences: Efforts to eviscerate No Child’s annual testing requirements, which have helped provide families, teachers, school leaders, politicians, and researchers much-needed data on how states and districts help all children succeed. it is quite likely that the Obama Administration will either sign onto congressional legislation ending annual testing or even offer waivers to states allowing them to dispense with it. So reformers must advocate strongly against such a move.

For American Indian and Alaska Native children, the stalemate will also likely mean no action on overhauling the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education. The woeful state of the federally-run school system will remain that way for some time at the expense of kids who have long been subjected to educational genocide. Even worse, given Kline’s penchant for trying to cut Title VI and Title VII funding even amid opposition from fellow Republicans representing Oklahoma and other states with large numbers of Native students, expect a renewed effort; Boehner, who has never been fond of any of it (which, given how poorly those dollars are spent, is somewhat understandable) won’t stand in the way.

The stalemate is also counterproductive to systemic reform because the federal government plays a critical role in sustaining systemic reform on the ground. This includes the Reagan Administration’s publication of A Nation at Risk — which took the work of southern state governors and chambers of commerce and promoted them on a national level — and No Child (which built upon the school accountability regimes of states such as Texas and Florida and gave cover to governors fighting against traditionalists to implement similar efforts). Certainly the more-active federal role in education policymaking is perfect or always an unqualified success. But it is clear that the federal role is crucial to advancing reforms that help all children succeed.

This isn’t to say that reformers should despair. Given that both No Child and the waivers reaffirm the role of state governments in overseeing public education, reformers must work hard in statehouses and in the grassroots to advance systemic reforms. That Election Day also proved to be a qualified boon politically for the movement also offers promise. Even if No Child was reauthorized in its current form, focusing on reform at the state level would still be top priority.

But the stalemate between the Obama Administration and congressional Republicans will continue. And not for the good of our children.

Featured photo courtesy of Harvard Business Review.

November 13, 2014 standard

Yesterday’s revelation by Washington Free Beacon of documents detailing how secretive progressive outfit Democracy Alliance coordinated its unsuccessful efforts to elect Democratic candidates during this year’s election cycle have certainly stirred discussion. After all, for all the carping of progressive groups (especially education traditionalists) this year over the role of David and Charles Koch in financing political campaigns, the report by Lachlan Markey show that they are also far too willing to leverage money in their campaigning — and even go around campaign finance laws to do so. This includes the Democracy Alliance members working with Catalist LLC, the data hub for the Democratic National Committee, to use the party’s donor and voter data to quietly coordinate their efforts.

Yet school reformers should pay great heed to Markey’s report as well as to the documents revealed. Why? Because they also offer a guide on how the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are co-opting progressive groups in order to defend their declining influence over education policy.

As Dropout Nation readers know by now, the NEA and AFT have long been key donors to progressive outfits willing to do their bidding. In 2013-2014 alone, the AFT gave $25,000 each to Progressive States Network, Progress Michigan, and Netroots Nation, while handing out another $60,000 to Center for Popular Democracy’s Action Fund, which has campaigned against the expansion of charter schools and so-called “privatization” of American public education. In 2012-2013, NEA contributed $332,000 to Progress Now; $100,000 to Progressive States Action, an affiliate of the Progressive States Network; and and $30,000 to the Leadership Center for the Common Good Action Fund, one of the now-defunct ACORN’s many spinoffs.

But increasingly, the NEA and AFT are turning to Democracy Alliance for help. For good reason. As novelist Chuck Palahniuk would write, the first rule about membership in Democracy Alliance is that you don’t say you’re part of it. Such secrecy is especially helpful to the Big Two teachers’ unions, who are required by law to report their finances including contributions to political groups; they can donate to Democracy Alliance and its Committee of States, then team up with other progressive outfits with more stealth than they are used to having.

That Democracy Alliance is tied to many of the groups to which NEA and AFT already sustain through their coffers also assures them that they have (mostly) loyal allies at the table; particularly for the NEA, which has found that its contributions to nonprofits haven’t always led to reciprocal support for its agenda, the existence of Democracy Alliance is especially helpful. There’s also the fact that Democracy Alliance is a hub for some of the leading well-heeled progressive donors and political players in the nation. This includes Rob Stein, the founder of the organization, who was a longtime operative for former President Bill Clinton before becoming a seed investor in tech startups, and hedge fund legend George Soros, who is as much a bogeyman to conservatives as the Koch Brothers are to the left.

[Full disclosure: I am an alum of a Koch-backed nonprofit, the Institute for Humane Studies, and an adviser to Black Alliance for Education Options, which received money from Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Yes, I’m bipartisan like that.]

Over the past couple of years, NEA and AFT have become more-prominent players within Democracy Alliance. Last year, after AFT President Randi Weingarten joined Democracy Alliance as a partner, AFT began donating money to the outfit; it gave $60,000 to the outfit in 2013-2014, while also donating $30,000 to its Texas Future Project, which aimed to help Democratic candidates such as gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis win office. [That donation was part of AFT’s wider mobilizing effort in the Lone Star State.] Weingarten isn’t the only AFT leader or staffer tied with Democracy Alliance. Michelle Ringuette, the former Service Employees International Union operative who is now Weingarten’s assistant, also joined the outfit last year. Weingarten noted that the union would pour $233,000 into Democracy Alliance this year.

The role of the NEA is far more extensive. NEA Executive Director John Stocks (who is now working to coerce the union’s vassals to sign onto its so-called social justice agenda), has long been active in Democracy Alliance’s Committee on States, the hub for its activities on the state level, as well as a member of the organization’s board. This includes bringing in such players as Dave Horwich, a former Clinton Administration advance man who is now the mouthpiece for prime (and secretive) Democratic Party donor Fred Eychaner, to a Democracy Alliance event this year. In April, he replaced Taco Bell heir Robert McKay as chairman of the organization, making the NEA (along with the AFT) the driving force of its agenda. The union is also one of Democracy Alliance’s biggest funders, handing over $110,000 in 2012-2013 (including $25,000 to its Committee on States, the hub for the outfit’s activities on the state level). In fact, the union gave $634,278 to Democracy Alliance between 2009-2010 and 2012-2013, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of filings with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Meanwhile the Big Two are amplifying their support for Democracy Alliance by backing the array of organizations that are part of the organization’s network of progressive activists. Among the organizations: The Nation, the bible of the progressive movement, which became a member of Democracy Alliance’s network within the past year; its affiliate, the Nation Institute, became a new AFT donor in 2013-2014, receiving $10,000 from the union. Another is Demos, the progressive think tank; it picked up $13,333 from AFT this past fiscal year. The results of AFT support (and likely, the affiliation with Democracy Alliance) can be seen in The Nation‘s report late last month on Teach For America’s public relations statement (and misstatement that it was surreptitiously tipped off by Obama Administration officials about a Freedom of Information Act request), as well as an essay criticizing reform in Politico written by Demos scholar (and former New York Times columnist) Bob Herbert. [Note that The Nation didn’t mention its ties with the AFT or Democracy Alliance in the report.]

There’s plenty for the NEA and AFT to learn from Democracy Alliance. One lesson lies in how to get around the campaign finance laws that often serve as firewalls of sorts between the advocacy activities of 501(c)3 nonprofits and explicit campaigning activities of political parties, Super-PACs, and 501(c)4 groups. Expect the two unions and their affiliates to spend plenty of time understanding how Democracy Alliance works those loopholes — and then take advantage of them in their own activities. Given that AFT President Weingarten has snapped up key progressive players such as Ringuette into the union’s fold, don’t be shocked if Democracy Alliance staffers end up working for the union or even for the NEA, both of which offer sweet compensation packages few outside of K Street can match.

The question for the Big Two is how are their ties to Democracy Alliance playing out for them where it counts: At the ballot box. As you already know, it didn’t work out so well. Davis, who was heavily backed by the group and the AFT, lost big in Texas to Republican Gregg Abbott. Other favored progressives also lost big elsewhere. The rank-and-file members for both unions, most of whom are forced to pay into their coffers, can easily argue that the money both unions have sunk into Democracy Alliance was wasted. Both would have been better off devoting the dollars to activities that actually help elevate the teaching profession they both claim to represent.

Just as importantly, NEA and AFT can’t even say that Democracy Alliance is totally in their corner. For one, the organization’s board includes Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which is both a competitor with AFT in the healthcare field as well as a supporter of school reform efforts through locals in Southern California and elsewhere. There’s also Nick Hanauer, the bedding products heir and tech investor, who challenged the NEA’s Washington State local two years ago. Add in the Center for American Progress, a strong backer of school reform (as well as a wayward recipient of NEA and AFT money), and it is clear that there are plenty of progressives who realize that the efforts of the two unions to defend traditionalist policies and practices fail to serve their political priorities. They also know that aiding and abetting NEA and AFT also means supporting a public sector union version of corporate welfare — or protecting the rich, as they would say — at the expense of poor and minority children as well as their families.

For reformers, especially centrist and progressive Democrats within the movement (who end up working closely with Democracy Alliance-backed outfits even as they oppose their ties to the Big Two), it is important to keep tabs on how both the NEA and AFT are structuring their political activities. With Democracy Alliance becoming an increasingly important part of their influence-buying activities, reformers must be ready to counter with even greater political savvy than they usually display.

Featured photo: NEA Executive Director John Stocks.

November 12, 2014 standard

Three years ago, Dropout Nation noted the rampant and abysmally high levels of grade inflation among university school of education majors. As Cory Koedel of the University of Missouri noted in a series of studies he conducted that were the subject of the piece, the average ed school major often had grade point averages often two-thirds of a grade point or more greater than peers in math, science, economics, and even humanities courses. This is in spite of evidence over that ed school candidates often earn lower grade point averages in their basic university course subjects than their peers heading into other majors.

Considering the shoddy quality of ed school curricula and training compared to those of such subjects as economics and the hard sciences, Koedel’s study (along with reports such as former Teachers College President Arthur Levine’s 2006 survey showing that 54 percent of the nation’s teachers are taught at colleges with low admission requirements.) was a reminder of the reality that there is no correlation between the credentials teachers are granted and their ability to improve student achievement over time. In fact, success in ed school doesn’t even ensure that teachers will remain on in classrooms beyond their first year.

So it isn’t shocking that the National Council of Teacher Quality turned up more evidence of grade inflation at the nation’s ed schools in a report it released today. The findings should once again focus reformers on overhauling how we recruit and train teachers — including bypassing ed schools (if not shutting them down altogether).

As NCTQ researchers Hannah Putnam and Julie Greenberg (along with the organization’s president, Kate Walsh), point out, 295 of the 509 ed schools surveyed had grading standards for students that were far lower than those for other majors on campus. At these schools, the percentage of students earning honor’s level GPAs is at least 10 percentage points higher than that for all other majors. Even worse, 44 percent of ed school majors coming out of schools surveyed earned honors-level GPA’s, which is 14 points higher than the average honors rate for other majors. An average ed school major is 50 percent more likely to graduate with honors than their peers in business and other areas of study.

The numbers get even worse. At 34 out of 40 universities where the percentage of ed school majors earning honors-level GPAs is 20 percentage points higher than for business, psychology, and nursing counterparts, ed school students account for the top third of all honors recipients, a far higher distribution than for the three other fields of study. In fact, ed school majors account for a far high higher distribution of honors students than nearly every other major field of study on those campuses. As Putnam, Greenberg, and Walsh put it, “no other popular major rivals teacher preparation for being consistently among the majors in the top third in terms of proportion of honors graduates.”

Why is the grade inflation so problematic? It’s because grades for ed school students, like test score growth data for kids in K-12, serve as a signal of how well they are prepared to work in classrooms upon graduation. A high grade point average, for example, tells an aspiring teacher that they have at least mastered the basics of working in classrooms and helping kids master their own studies. But this only works if the grades are realistic, and are obtained from successful mastery of coursework that actually prepares teachers for the challenges of working with the kids they are supposed to serve.

But as we have learned a long time ago, far too many ed schools do a poor job of providing aspiring teachers with the coursework and training they need to succeed in classrooms. This is a point upon which Putnam, Greenberg, and Walsh further elaborate in their evaluation of ed school courses. Far too often, ed schools aren’t providing criterion-referenced assignments, ones in which aspiring teachers must learn a clear scope of knowledge about a subject and are provided high levels of critical feedback from professors in order for them to gain much-needed challenge for growth and mastery.

Half of the 6,000 assignments given in 862 courses at 33 ed school programs surveyed by NCTQ were criterion-deficient, or lacked the clear scope of knowledge and feedback aspiring teachers need to achieve mastery in their work. Because these courses were so lacking in quality, students ended up getting plenty of easy As, giving them a false sense of accomplishment and preparation. The consequences of the shoddy quality of ed school coursework ends up being borne upon both teachers (in the form of high levels of college debt that can be difficult to pay off), by districts (who struggle to provide kids with high-quality teachers), and ultimately, by children and the communities in which they live.

None of NCTQ’s conclusions should be shocking. [Nor should the response from defenders of ed schools such as the American Federation of Teachers, which gave $69,333 to Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, a key player in defending the ed school lobby formed by last year’s merger of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education and the Teacher Education Accreditation Council.] As Dropout Nation has pointed out over the past four years, ed schools remain stubbornly wielded to approaches that have long ago proven to be ineffective in recruiting and training aspiring teachers.

Ed school professors, many of whom have never taught in K-12 classrooms, insist on filling the heads of their students with pedagogy (or instructional theories) that favor their ideologies instead of focusing on teaching practices that actually work for kids, especially poor and minority children in urban settings. Ed schools also fail to weed out potential ed school candidates who won’t make the cut in the classroom by using techniques developed by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee guru Martin Haberman and Teach For America, all of which focus on subject-matter competency, entrepreneurial self-starter ability, and empathy for all children regardless of background. Both failures are among the ultimate reasons why half of all teachers end up leaving the profession in five years.

Meanwhile the universities that run the ed schools are far too concerned with milking their cash cows instead of improving the quality of their instruction and coursework. This is clear in the fact that in many states, many ed schools are producing so many graduates for so few positions that most don’t go into teaching; in Michigan, Supt. Mike Flanagan noted three years ago that, two-thirds of the Wolverine State’s 7,500 ed school grads leave the state, either to work in districts in other states, or perhaps to go into other fields. What is quite likely is that savvy collegians have figured out that ed school courses are easy to take, so they gravitate to those fields with no intention of ever working in classrooms. Ed school deans with any pride should find this troubling.

Certainly the NCTQ report points to the need to continue developing alternative teacher preparation programs that are outside of the university campus. This includes further expansion of outfits such as Teach For America as well as Urban Teacher Residency United, which released a report earlier this week on how two of its most-successful residency programs can serve as models for teacher training. The efforts of outfits such as Relay Graduate School of Education, an ed school program run by a collection of charter school operators, should be expanded to the undergraduate level; an aspiring teacher can earn a major in math, science, or reading, while also taking summer courses with an independent ed school program that includes an internship with a charter or parochial school.

At the same time, states and the federal government must also be willing to do what the Carnegie Corporation did a century ago with the release of the Flexner Report on medical schools: Force the worst ed schools to shut down. One can easily argue that shutting down the worst-performing half of ed schools currently in operation — something that resulted from the Flexner Report — would definitely help improve the quality of teachers going into classrooms. Forcing those that remain to embrace the approaches being developed by Haberman, Teach For America and Doug Lemov of Uncommon Schools (as well as new innovations in the field) would go a long way toward helping aspiring teachers become high-quality instructors.

But the need to move beyond the traditional ed school model extends beyond teacher training. As American Enterprise Institute education czar Rick Hess points out this week, ed schools are still the go-to forums for education research. While think tanks such as the American Institutes for Research and Brookings Institution are increasingly big players in the field, ed schools are still dominant because of the patina of respectability given to them by their parent universities. Developing new models of education research activities similar to what is done by the Federalist Society on the legal front, a suggestion offered up by Hess, is definitely something to do. At the same time, it may be time for reformers (including charter school operators) to further expand the array of institutions outside of ed schools that can engage in research in new ways. This includes actually teaming up with charter school operators and traditional districts (some of which already conduct their own research) to conduct such activities in real time.

NCTQ’s latest report is another reminder that overhauling teacher training is as critical as ending near-lifetime employment to improving the quality of teaching for our kids. We owe our children better than this.

November 5, 2014 standard

Your editor hasn’t spent any time so far on what yesterday’s Election Day results mean for federal education policy. That piece will come later. Right now, however, here are a few other points about state-level races that should be considered.

As I noted earlier today, the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers suffered near-total defeat at nearly all levels of politics. Certainly this is a matter that AFT President Randi Weingarten attempts to dance around in her latest press release; after all, she would engage in her typical class warfare rhetoric and complain about the losses all about the unwillingness of voters to consider “everyday concerns”. But given the defeats the two unions have experienced in gubernatorial races, state board seats, school board elections, and even legislative races, Weingarten’s rhetoric is just plain laughable. [Her colleague at NEA, Lily Eskelsen Garcia was more honest, admitting that it was “sad” that “so many friends” of the unions lost their seats.]

This can be seen in Louisiana, where an effort by the AFT and its Jefferson Parish local to win control of the traditional district’s school board fell apart. Despite spending $446,000 in political action committee spending campaign itself (as well as pouring another $40,542 from the main coffers into an organizing project there), the AFT only captured one of the four new seats it sought on the nine-member board,while losing another. [There will be runoff elections for two other seats,both of which will likely result in losses for the union.] All the money the AFT has sunk into Louisiana in the past couple of years is resulting in nothing but defeat.

This is also clear in New York State where the AFT’s losses extend beyond Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s re-election in spite of their snub of his candidacy earlier this year. In Albany, Republicans regain sole control of the senate after four years of sharing control of the body with a small group of dissident Democrats egged on in part by Cuomo. For the AFT, which has poured plenty (including contributions from its New York State Public Employees Federation affiliate) into backing the Democratic bid to take control of the Empire State upper house, this is a tremendous loss.

Senate Republicans will give Cuomo and Education Commissioner John King freer hands in advancing their reform efforts; this is something that the governor (who helped orchestrate the senate’s governing coalition two years ago) appreciates because he knows his fellow Democrats are often unreliable on education policy. Senate Republicans will also have long memories of how the AFT tried to wrest power from them. Expect the senate to pass at least one school choice measure, most-likely the voucher-like tax credit plan that Cuomo has publicly endorsed, as well as give King leeway to shut down failing districts. Certainly both measures may not make it past the state assembly and Speaker Sheldon Silver (who is in the AFT’s pocket). But given the political weakness of the AFT’s affiliates — and the demonstrated inability of them to launch effective reprisals against wayward politicians — Silver may actually be willing to go along with modest versions of both.

But the AFT isn’t the only one who lost big in the Empire State. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also took it on the chin. Several of the Democrats he backed for the state senate lost their bids. As a result, de Blasio will also face a hostile state senate willing to back Gov. Cuomo’s efforts to beat back the first-term mayor’s efforts to roll back predecessor Michael Bloomberg’s overhaul of the Big Apple’s traditional district. Cuomo, in particular, will be more than happy to remind de Blasio that he is the most-influential politician in the Empire State the same way his father, Mario, put then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch back in his place four decades ago.

What should be clear for the NEA and AFT (as well as for de Blasio) after last night is that their embrace of policies that damage children, as well as their defense of quality-blind practices that do little for high-quality teachers and help laggards instead won’t lead to political victories. Most of the few wins the unions managed to gain — most-notably in Pennsylvania (where Democrat Tom Wolf beat incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett) — resulted either from the inability of their opponents to mount effective campaigns or from their timid leadership while in office. So long as the two unions continue to hold on to traditionalist thinking and old-school industrial union models, their influence and relevance will remain in free-fall.

Across the country in California, the NEA and AFT did a tad better. Incumbent Supt. Tom Torlakson, who was backed by the two unions to the tune of $5.2 million in direct donations (as well as millions more in independent spending) beat reformer Marshall Tuck. But it wasn’t by much. Torlakson won by a mere 181,489 votes, or a margin three-quarters smaller than the 746,828-vote lead he had over Larry Aceves four years ago. For the two unions, along with their fellow traditionalists, Torlakson’s victory can be best-considered a defensive win. A pliant ally remains in office and in control of the education agency at the heart of the Golden State’s balkanized educational governance structure, while also avoiding a high-profile win that would be nearly as big for reformers as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s re-election victory last night.

As for reformers? There is plenty of good news from Tuck’s defeat. For one, the small margin of Torlakson’s victory shows that there are plenty of Californians ready to embrace systemic reform. The state superior court’s ruling last June in Vergara v. California, along with the outcry over the state legislature’s unwillingness over the past two years to pass legislation that would make it easier for districts to remove criminally-abusive teachers from classrooms, has galvanized many families. This is especially true for black and Latino families who attend the Golden State’s failure mills and have benefited the most from the few systemic reform efforts that have been undertaken in the state. The fact that reformers showed up with cash to fund Tuck’s campaign is also important; they are realizing that favored candidates need money to have a chance to back traditionalist opponents backed by NEA and AFT coffers. That reformers such as Ben Austin of Parent Revolution and former Los Angeles Unified board president Caprice Young stepped up and campaigned for Tuck is also heartening.

Yet because school reformers, especially in Los Angeles, have spent so little time courting and building up grassroots support, Tuck didn’t have enough votes to overcome Torlakson’s natural advantage as the incumbent. You can’t expect to win when you only reach out to your allies during election cycles. The misplaced hostility among Beltway reformers outside of the Golden State, as well as wonks within it to Vergara suits and Parent Trigger laws have also alienated the movement from the very families and activists who rightfully recognize both as key tools for helping families become lead decision-makers in education policymaking.

Yet as I mentioned, there is plenty of opportunities for reformers to turn Tuck’s defeat into long-term success. This starts by building stronger support among the grassroots, especially with the single-parent households and immigrant families from Latino and Asian communities. This means adopting the approach of listening and engaging intently and deliberately with communities that Green Dot Public Schools founder Steve Barr (now the chairman of Democrats for Education Reform’s Golden State branch) used successfully in the last decade. At the same time, it also means embracing the tactics of Vergara and Parent Trigger efforts to build allies on the ground; you can’t claim to be for poor and minority kids if you are opposed to the very tools that empower their families. This has to be done every day starting now, in an open-ended way; helping out communities with critical needs builds goodwill that is useful at the ballot box.

These tactics, along with embracing traditional political mobilization approaches such as voter registration drives, wouldn’t just be helpful to California’s school reformers. One of the biggest problems of the movement on a national level is that its leading lights have been so focused on winning over statehouses and political leaders that they struggle when faced with traditionalists with greater presence on the ground. As seen yesterday, the advantage traditionalists have doesn’t always show up at the ballot box. But as seen earlier this year in Newark N.J. (where school principal-turned city councilman Ras Baraka beat out Shavar Jeffries for mayor, and became for Supt. Cami Anderson, a well-deserved thorn in her side), reformers can end up on the losing end of political battles. This lack of political savvy (along with an overemphasis on being the smartest in the room instead of the savviest in politics) is one of the reasons why Common Core supporters have been on their heels for most of the past two years.

The benefits of strong grassroots ties can be seen in Minneapolis, where Don Samuels, a former Twin Cities councilman, won a seat on the traditional district’s board. Certainly Samuels was helped out by funding from reformers; this includes $228,000 raised by the Minneapolis Progressive Education Fund, which spent plenty backing Samuels and his teammate, American Indian education activist Iris Altamirano. But Samuels, a Jamaican émigré who came into politics after a varied career that including gospel singing and running a toy design studio, also had strong community ties at his disposal. The onetime mayoral candidate has spent years volunteering with community organizations working on children’s issues, and has won both controversy and acclaim for speaking truth to influence, especially to fellow blacks in the city. So Samuels had a leg up on the traditionalist competition when announced his run for the district board this summer.

There are plenty of lessons from last night for reformers to heed. Embracing the grassroots, as well as addressing the concerns of poor and minority communities who are damaged the most by the nation’s education crisis, are two of them.

*Editor’s Note: Updated to note the role of reformers in backing Tuck’s campaign, as well as the Jefferson County school board results.