There’s a lot for reformers to consider from this week’s Dropout Nation analyses of the National Education Association’s $131 million in political influence-spending. And a few key lessons can be gleaned from the data on how the nation’s largest teachers’ union is using its dollars to fight against reform efforts in statehouses and on the ground.
The first? The movement must work more-closely with impromptu leaders and grassroots activists yearning to support reform within black and Latino communities, especially emerging Parent Power groups outside of the old-school civil rights circles, as well as with bellwethers that have become reform-minded such as the National Urban League and the United Negro College Fund. Particularly with those groups working in the grassroots, reformers must put down some dollars, build stronger ties, listen to the concerns of those groups and the families they represent, and get to work. This also means targeting dollars in better ways than the NEA has for the past few years; even with the union rethinking its strategy and demanding more from social justice and civil rights groups, the union remains scatter-shot in how it spends the dues it forcibly collects from both high-quality and laggard teachers in classrooms.
But this goes beyond money. Chat with civil rights-oriented school reformers and they will tell you that one reason why the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers still retain some influence among their old-school counterparts in the civil rights movement is because the two unions are quite willing to give a helping hand in ways beyond money. From allowing groups to convene meetings in their lavish offices inside the Beltway, to allowing school-level PTA units to use their fax machines and copiers, the two unions have long-ago realized that resource-strapped groups are the easiest to pick off and co-opt to their side. The school reform movement’s biggest players, including Teach For America — which has extensive facilities throughout the nation — could easily provide free meeting space to grassroots reformers on the ground if they so choose.
Dollars should also be focused on helping grassroots outfits, especially Parent Power groups, develop their capacity; this includes financing advisory services that can aid these groups in developing strong financial controls as well as craft robust governance structures that can help such groups work more-effectively against NEA and AFT affiliates and locals. Certainly this should be an activity embraced by the big school reform philanthropies which are sometimes criticized privately among reformers for cumbersome request-for-proposal processes and for not fully understanding what building capacity really means. But the big philanthropies themselves may be far too bureaucratic to do embrace such an approach. So it may take the emergence of smaller philanthropies embracing an approach similar to what angel investors do in providing seed money to start-up ventures in the technology field in order to make this a reality.
The second lesson for reformers: They must get better when it comes to the political ground game and embrace the brass-knuckle tactics increasingly being used by teachers’ unions and their allies among progressive groups (as well as the approaches taken by Democrats and Republicans in political campaigns outside of education). The NEA, along with the AFT have always done a solid (if not always effective) job of leveraging their coffers and rank-and-file members on the ground. But as yesterday’s follow-up has shown, the NEA is directing more of its dollars to voter registration drives, supporting ballot initiatives, and using get-out-the-vote tactics that can make the difference between victory and defeat in political campaigns. Reformers have always been skillful in working statehouse corridors and policymakers. But politicians count votes and cash, and they won’t stand by any reform if they have to take on NEA affiliates with plenty of both.
Certainly some reform outfits, including Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst and Jonah Edelman’s Stand for Children, understand the reality that political action is critical to sustaining reform for the long haul. The emergence of Teach For America as a training ground for reform-minded politicians is also wonderful to see. But more needs to be done on the political front. So reformers must embrace the single-issue voter approach that was crafted by the legendary Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League, who understood that having allies was more important than backing particular parties. This means embracing a bipartisan approach — including a willingness by reformers within both parties to back politicians on the opposite side who support reform goals. It also means taking on simple tactics such as holding voter registration drives, which can serve both as opportunities for civic engagement and for getting the message out to communities about why reforming education matters.
This savvy must extend to media. As seen last night on MSNBC talk show host Chris Hayes’ eponymous show, the NEA and AFT are also getting better at the public relations, especially in placing rank-and-file members who fail to mention their union affiliations as well as their work with groups supported by the two unions. [In such situations, by the way, reformers appearing on these shows should aggressively raise questions about such ties, which in turn, will also lead talk show hosts to also ask those questions.] Reformers have long had the high ground on the media front, especially in currying auteurs such as Waiting for ‘Superman’? director Davis Guggenheim and M. Nighty Shyalaman. But no advantage lasts forever, especially when traditionalist opposition realize that they are getting beat badly. This is why the NEA and AFT are launching their “Day of Action” this coming Monday to champion the policies and practices that sustain their coffers and influence; it is also why a group called the Institute for Better Education (whose recruitment memo for an executive director was revealed today by This Week in Education‘s Alexander Russo) is being formed by traditionalists to aggressively develop news that takes aim at reformers. Reform activists should already be mounting a counter-campaign that points out how the policies the two unions support have led to an education crisis in which 120 children every hour drop out of school and into economic despair. More importantly, each and every day, reformers should both point out the movement’s positive vision of brighter futures for all children as well as point out how NEA and AFT affiliates help themselves financially at the expense of kids.
The final lesson? Reformers must put more money into politically advancing reform. Consider this: The NEA’s $131 million in influence-spending is double the double the $61 million spent in 2012 by the Walton Family Foundation, the second-largest school reform philanthropy after the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (whose $399 million in funding to reform outfits in 2012 outstrips the NEA’s largesse). The NEA’s political spending is also greater than that of politically-oriented reformers. Stand for Children, for example, spent just $15 million in 2012, according to its most-recent annual report and its political action fund only spent $1.1 million on political campaigns in 2012, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics; StudentsFirst only spent $1.4 million in 2012, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of data from National Institute on Money in State Politics and OpenSecrets.org. The NEA’s spend, scatter-shot as it is, is still powerful when one remembers that it faces few restrictions on how it doles out contributions to allies and even fewer encumbrances on what can be considered “representational activities” on behalf of the rank-and-file. Reform-oriented foundations are effectively barred by federal regulations restricting them from engaging in political activities in aggressive ways; this is a legacy of outrage during the 1960s over the social reform efforts of the Ford Foundation and other philanthropies deemed too political by critics of the time (including the school decentralization effort in New York City that led to the Ocean Hill-Brownsville battle between the AFT’s Big Apple affiliate and those who would now be considered Parent Power activists today).
While this spending hasn’t helped the NEA keep its influence over education policy from falling into decline, it has helped the union and its allies score defensive victories against reformers. Certainly one can argue that reformers should continue to devote their money to building up organizations focused on transforming existing institutions, developing alternative teacher training outfits, and even launching alternatives to traditional public schools. At the same time, anyone who thinks that systemic reform can happen without political action — especially in battling for control of school boards that run most districts, as well as winning mayoral races in cities where city chief executives run schools — is not thinking clearly. As seen in Texas this year, where reformers saw two decades of hard-won reforms get rolled back, sustaining and advancing reform requires vigilance and cash. So reformers must spend more on political campaigning — and spend it smartly.
Once again, the NEA’s activities offer plenty of lessons from which reformers can learn. Now it is time to apply them in advancing and sustaining reforms that will help all children succeed.
As Dropout Nation detailed yesterday in its initial analysis of the National Education Association’s 2012-2013 financial disclosure to the U.S. Department of Labor, grants and donations to supposedly like-minded groups made up a large portion of the $131 million the union spent to preserve its influence. But the NEA also used its money to support its own efforts and that of its state affiliates — especially in Michigan and Ohio — to defend the deals struck with state governments and districts that are the source of the clout it wields.
In the Wolverine State, the NEA handed over $400,000 to Defend Michigan Democracy, a now-defunct group which opposed Proposal 1, a ballot measure that would have validated Gov. Rick Snyder’s successful effort to greatly expanded the scope of emergency financial managers throughout the state such as then-Detroit Public Schools czar Roy Roberts; the NEA’s contribution was on top of the $120,000 given to the group by its notoriously-belicose Wolverine State affiliate, the Michigan Education Association, and the $250,000 given to the union by the American Federation of Teachers. Defend Michigan Democracy succeeded in defeating Proposal 1, along with another ballot measure that would have required have required a two-thirds vote by the Wolverine State legislature to pass tax increases.
The NEA’s spending in Michigan extended beyond supporting Defend Michigan Democracy and its $1.3 million in subsidies to the Wolverine State affiliate for its efforts to halt reform. The union gave $585,000 to the Michigan League of Responsible Voters, a group also opposing Proposal 1 whose backers included the AFT’s state affiliate and other public-sector union players. It also dumped $1.5 million into Protect Our Jobs, whose effort to win voter passage of Proposal 2, a constitutional amendment which would have enshrined collective bargaining in the state constitution, went down to defeat. All in all, the NEA scored some defensive victories, but didn’t make much in the way of lasting gains, especially in light of Snyder’s success in passing a new round of reforms this year — including a law allowing for the state to shut down financially failing districts.
In Ohio, the NEA gave $1.4 million to Moving Ohio Forward, which advocated for Democratic candidates who supported the union’s efforts against Gov. John Kasich’s school reform efforts; this is on top of the $500,000 the union gave to the group in 2011-2012. Moving Ohio Forward did plenty of spending. This included an ad campaign for three state house candidates, school board member Heather Bishoff, and teachers Donna O’Connor and Maureen Reedy; only Bishoff managed to win her state legislative race. It also poured $50,000 into Innovation Ohio, a group which seems to issue education studies that dovetail nicely with the union’s own agenda. The NEA also spent $5 million to prop up its Ohio affiliate, the Ohio Education Association; without the funds, the Ohio affiliate’s $2.7 million loss (on $100 million of forced teacher dues collected) would have been even larger.
The NEA’s political spending wasn’t limited to Rust Belt states. In Washington State, NEA gave $250,000 to People for Our Public Schools, which unsuccessfully opposed Initiative 1240, which ended the state’s embarrassing status as one of the few that didn’t allow for the existence of public charter schools. The union also gave $200,000 to Class Size Counts, the class size reduction campaign operated by its Washington State affiliate; in spite of the evidence that shows that class size reductions yield little results in improving student achievement, the NEA wants to make sure that its Evergreen State affiliate can increase revenue by requiring districts to hire more teachers (who must then pay dues to the union regardless of their desire to do so).
In Pennsylvania, where the NEA’s affiliate is battling with Gov. Tom Corbett over reductions in state education spending and the governor’s plan to ditch the Keystone State’s virtually-busted defined-benefit pension, the union gave $650,000 to Pennsylvanians for Accountability, a group which has been doing the union’s work in trashing Corbett’s agenda. In Florida, where the affiliate the NEA controls with the AFT is battling fiercely with Gov. Rick Scott and reformers unified under Scott’s predecessor (and rival), Jeb Bush, the union gave $250,000 to progressive outfit Florida Watch Action, and handed over $500,000 to the state affiliate’s Public Education Defense Fund. And in Georgia, the NEA gave $310,000 to Partnership for Public Integrity, a group which doesn’t seem to exist other than for a post office box at a UPS Store in the suburban Atlanta city of Milton. More than likely, the dollars were used to unsuccessfully oppose Gov. Nathan Deal’s effort to amend the state constitution to allow for the state to authorize public charter schools.
In South Dakota, the NEA poured $683,000 into No on 16 Campaign, the group which successfully opposed Referred Law 16, which would have abolished near-lifetime employment for teachers and established a performance pay plan. In Minnesota, the union gave $300,000 to Our Vote Our Future, which also helped beat back a proposed voter identification amendment. The NEA also gave $75,000 to Educating Maryland’s Kids, the outfit which helped pass the Old Line State’s DREAM Act allowing undocumented immigrant children to get funding to attend state universities; and $15,000 to Protect New Hampshire’s Constitution, which opposed three ballot measures not favorable to the interests of its state affiliate; the NEA’s Advocacy Fund super-political action committee also spent $15,883.64 on opposing the ballot measures, according to data from the Secretary of State’s office. The NEA also gave $450,000 to Quality Education and Jobs, an Arizona group which failed in its effort to pass Prop. 204, which would have required the Grand Canyon State to levy a one-penny sales tax in order to increase school funding. In a display of chutzpah, Quality Education and Jobs complained on its Facebook page that the amendment was defeated because of out-of-state funding from so-called “dark money lords”.
All this spending, by the way, doesn’t include the $70.1 million spent by the NEA and its affiliates during the 2011-2012 election cycle, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. This amount, is more than the $59 million spent during the same period by the Service Employees International Union, or the $34.5 million spent by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
Meanwhile the NEA is still doing plenty on the national political front. It poured $5.6 Million into its Advocacy Fund super-PAC in 2012-2013; this may include the $300,000 OpenSecrets.org reports that the union has put so far into the super-PAC during the 2013-2014 election cycle. The NEA has also bought itself plenty of help from political consultants. This includes $215,000 to the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center; $141,044 to progressive-oriented mobile communications outfit Revolution Messaging; $762,757 to the New Media Firm, whose boss, Will Robinson, helped the NEA and other public sector unions defeat Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s effort to abolish collective bargaining; and $1.3 million on direct-mail help from the now-defunct Mack/Crounse Group. The NEA also spent $141,727 on help from Fort Worth-based consultants Angle Mastagni Mathews, which helped the union and its New Hampshire affiliate make get-out-the-vote calls for seven of their favorite state legislative candidates.
As for the NEA’s bottom line? It generated $387 million in 2012-2013, little changed from revenue levels in the previous fiscal year, thanks in part to a two percent decline in membership (from 3.2 million to 3.1 million) during the period. This included $1.7 million from NEA Member Benefits, the controversial affiliate that peddles annuities and other financial instruments to its members, an 11 percent decline from the previous fiscal year; NEA Member Benefits did manage to earn a profit of $4.5 million for 2011-2012, according to its filing with the Internal Revenue Service, versus a loss in the previous year. The NEA generated a $44 million surplus for 2012-2013, a 72 percent increase over the previous year. This can be credited to a 13 percent decline in the union’s payroll (from $77 million in 2011-2012 to $67 million in 2012-2013) resulting from laying off staff and sending some of its high-cost employees into early retirement; this included 68 staffers earning six-figure sums.
Still, the NEA managed to keep 369 employees earning six-figure sums on the payroll. That group includes Executive Director John Stocks, who pulled down $384,320 in 2012-2013 (a 1.3 percent increase over the previous fiscal year); General Counsel Alice O’Brien, whose $237,495 was 3.9 percent more than in the previous fiscal year; and membership czar Bill Thompson, who earned $235,152 (a nine percent increase over the previous year). Marcus Egan, one of the NEA’s top lobbyists on Capitol Hill, picked up $169,011 in 2012-2013, a 25 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. Once again, the NEA’s payroll shows that it can be a very good life for teachers’ union officials who like to engage in class warfare rhetoric.
The National Education Association filed its 2012-2013 LM-2 financial disclosure to the U.S. Department of Labor, and once again, the nation’s largest teachers’ union spent big to preserve its influence over education policymaking. The NEA spent $131 million on lobbying and contributions to like-minded groups in 2012-2013, a four percent increase over its $125 million spend in the previous year. These numbers don’t include the $51 million the union spent in 2012-2013 on so-called representational activities, which are often just as much geared toward political activity; that number, by the way, is little changed from spending levels in 2010-2011 and 2011-2012.
An analysis of the NEA’s spending shows that while it attempts to use some strategy in order to leverage its contributions to like-minded groups, it remains as scatter-shot as it has been in previous years. Over the past year, the NEA has attempted to get social justice groups it funds to echo its messaging and work more-closely with it in order to advance its agenda. This included meetings between the union’s executive director, John Stocks, with the top executives of past and current recipients. All this effort, however, has not ensured that NEA recipients are any more loyal to the union’s mission than at any other time.
For example, the NEA handed $30,000 to the Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights, one of the leading civil rights-based players in the school reform movement, and dropped $75,000 into the National Council of La Raza’s political action fund even though the outfit is also a major reform player. Another recipient of NEA largesse is Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. It picked up $100,000 from the union in 2012-21013 in spite of the civil rights leaders longtime support of expanding the very charter schools the NEA opposes, $75,000 more than in the previous fiscal year.
The NEA continues its efforts to co-opt old-school civil rights outfits, albeit on a smaller scale. The NEA only gave $5,000 to Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition; Jackson’s group already collects considerable sums from the rival American Federation of Teachers. The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, a longtime recipient of NEA largesse, received $51,050 from the union’s coffers; that is less than the $60,000 it received in the previous fiscal year. The NEA gave $20,000 in chicken wing money to the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, while doling out $10,000 to the National Alliance of Black School Educators. The black fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi received $10,000 from the union this past fiscal year.
The NEA also seems to be looking to co-opt groups that are major players in fast-growing Latino communities — including the Latino immigrant households for which systemic reform would be the most beneficial at the union’s expense. The union gave $125,000 to the National Latino Engagement Action Fund, which aims to mobilize Latino communities through voter registration drives and other efforts. Another voter registration group, Vote Latino Action Fund, received $110,000 from the union for its get out the vote effort. The NEA also handed $65,000 to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute; this is the first time the nonprofit arm of the congressional caucus has received more money than its CBC rival. The National Latino/a Education Research and Policy Project, a unit of the University of Texas at Austin’s Texas Center for Education Policy focused on recruiting aspiring teachers from Latino communities, picked up $50,000 from the union. The NEA also spent $25,000 on advertising and other public relations costs with Latino Publishing LLC’s Latino magazine.
Meanwhile the NEA’s successful co-opting of progressive groups continued unabated. It gave $332,000 to Progress Now; $100,000 to Progressive States Action, an affiliate of the Progressive States Network; and $25,000 to Committee on States, whose goal is the “strengthening of sustainable, state-based progressive political networks.” Another progressive group, Democracy Alliance, picked up $85,000 from NEA coffers this past fiscal year; the Massachusetts branch of the Fair Share Alliance also picked up $25,000 in NEA cash. The union also gave $10,000 to Good Jobs First, an outfit known for toeing the line of private- and public-sector unions. Engaging in class warfare rhetoric against companies (even though the NEA itself is among the nation’s most-influential corporations with even more clout than most Fortune 500 firms), the union gave $100,000 to the Corporate Action Network’s action center unit. The union also gave $25,000 to Netroots Nation, and $30,000 to the Leadership Center for the Common Good Action Fund, one of the now-defunct ACORN’s many spinoffs.
The NEA also sought out other alliances in order to preserve its declining influence. It gave $200,000 to CASA in Action, a leading player in rightfully advancing immigration reform, and shelled out $100,000 to Committee for American Fairness, which focuses on combating health care fraud and the swindling of senior citizens. Playing on the battle over recognizing same-sex marriages, the NEA also gave $300,000 to Marylanders for Marriage Equality, which helped successfully pass an Old Line State constitutional amendment last year allowing for gay marriages; Marriage Equality Rhode Island, a group working to make gay marriage a reality in that state, picked up $20,000 from NEA coffers. The union also poured $175,220 into the organization charged with building and maintaining the Martin Luther King National Memorial in Washington, D.C., and doled out $112,500 to People for the American Way, the old-line left-leaning group.
Attempting to maintain support among 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 $73,500 to the National Network of State Teachers of the Year; that the selection of teachers of the year is usually more of a popularity contest than one based on objective measures of teacher performance is often conveniently ignored by all but the most thoughtful of observers, and thus, serves as a good way to spend union funds.
As for the usual suspects? The NEA gave $250,000 to the Economic Policy Institute, whose reports (including the shoddy work of its Broader Bolder Approach unit) always dovetail with the views of the union and the rival AFT. The union also gave $588,490 to the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, which is charged with overseeing the quality of the nation’s university schools of education; for all the NEA’s declarations that it wants to reform how aspiring teachers are recruited and trained, it continues to subsidize the outfits responsible for the slipshod quality of training by the nation’s ed schools. Joel Packer’s Committee for Education Funding picked up a $17.500 check from the NEA, while Rebuild America’s Schools received $20,000 from the union.
Meanwhile the NEA spent considerable sums propping up its busted affiliates. It has lent $462,845 to the Indiana State Teachers Association, which is currently under the national union’s receivership, last year; the affiliate now owes $17 million to the parent union. The NEA also gave the affiliate $144,722 for member litigation costs, $170,000 for so-called member communications activities, and $899,324 in Uniserve and non-Uniserv grants. Considering that former Indiana NEA affiliate board member Glenda Ritz is now the Hoosier State’s Superintendent for Public Instruction, the sums the national union is spending to prop up the unit can be considered well-spent. The NEA also took care of the Michigan Education Association, whose liabilities of $181 million for 2012-2013 are far greater than its assets of $69 million; it provided the Wolverine State affiliate $3.7 million in Uniserv and non-Uniserv grants and $1.3 million for member litigation costs. This, by the way, doesn’t include the $1.3 million the NEA gave to the Michigan affiliate for advocacy efforts to beat back reforms put in place by Gov. Rick Snyder and his allies in the state legislature.
As for NEA’s top leaders: President Dennis Van Roekel was paid $411,172 in 2012-2013, a 5.5 percent increase over his pay in the previous fiscal year, while number two Lilly Eskelsen Garcia was paid $347,751 (a 4.6 percent increase over the previous year), and Secretary-Treasurer Rebecca Pringle pulled down $346,436, a 4.2 percent increase over the previous year. These increases come a year after the NEA laid off staff and sent longtime employees into early retirement. Altogether, the NEA’s top three leaders were paid $1.1 million in 2012-2013, little changed from the previous year. As Dropout Nation noted last year, there’s nothing wrong with NEA leaders and their counterparts at the AFT drawing six-figure sums. But remind Van Roekel and his team about their dollars (and the very, umm, corporate ways the NEA and the AFT engage in their defense of traditionalist policies and thinking) whenever they try to use class warfare rhetoric in opposing systemic reform.
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.
Slowly but surely, the annual financial disclosures provided by affiliates of the National Education Association to the U.S. Department of Labor are coming available for public consumption. And in the case of the nation’s largest teachers’ union’s Florida affiliate, the spending on preserving influence is quite sizable.
The Florida Education Association, which is also an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, spent $15 million political activities (including lobbying, so-called representational activities that are often geared toward political activity, and contributions to what should be like-minded organizations) during 2012-2013, little changed from its spending levels during the previous fiscal year. Among the recipients of the union’s largesse: The Sunshine State unit of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which picked up $32,500 from the NEA affiliate; the state branch of National PTA, which received $10,000 in exchange for its efforts on behalf of the NEA affiliate to preserve traditionalist practices and oppose efforts to pass a Parent Trigger law; and the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators, which also picked up a $10,000 contribution.
The biggest single recipient of Florida NEA largesse? A group called the Coalition to Save FRS, which is fighting efforts to overhaul the Sunshine State’s virtually-busted defined-benefit pensions. The NEA affiliate tossed $90,000 over to Coalition to Save FRS in 2012-2013, which in turn, has apparently been spent on a pretty nice Web site and a Facebook group which have aimed to convince taxpayers that they should ignore the pension’s officially-reported pension deficit of $20 billion (as of 2011-2012, the latest year reported), but more likely to be $26 billion (or 30 percent more than officially reported) based on Dropout Nation‘s analysis using a formula developed by Moody’s Investors Service. The NEA affiliate also poured $200,000 into its political action committee, the FEA Advocacy Fund, as well as threw in $15,000 into its solidarity fund.
Meanwhile the Florida NEA got support from its two national parents. The affiliate reported that the AFT poured $736,890 into the union during 2012-2013, less than the $980,561 the union received from the national parent during the previous year. But that number doesn’t fully reflect all the support the AFT has provided; as Dropout Nation reported last month, the AFT spent $586,109 on various union organizing projects that the Sunshine State NEA handles. The national NEA ponied up $3.5 million to the Florida affiliate in 2012-2013, more than the $3 million it spent subsidizing the affiliate during the previous year.
The NEA and AFT are particularly interested in helping their affiliate maintain its influence — and for good reason. Until recently, the Sunshine State has been home to the most-aggressive statewide effort to aggressively reform education. But with Gov. Rick Scott struggling to retain office — and turning tail on all but the most-aggressive efforts to transform public education — sparring matches between Scott and allies of predecessor Jeb Bush over the direction of education policy, and the opposition of movement conservatives over the state’s implementation of Common Core reading and math standards, traditionalists sense an opportunity to turn back systemic reform. Add in the aftermath of former state education commissioner Tony Bennett’s forced resignation as Florida’s education commissioner in August amid allegations that he changed Indiana’s A-to-F grading system while as state superintendent, and the NEA’s Florida affiliate likely feels that the turmoil among reformers offers new possibilities.
The Florida NEA affiliate also recovered $107,252 from Fight for Florida, which proclaims that it is “fighting back against the assault on Florida’s middle class” supposedly by Gov. Rick Scott and his allies in the state legislature. Apparently the NEA was unhappy that the group spent its time championing immigration reform efforts and opposing the U.S. Postal Service overhaul act contained in House Resolution 2748 instead of on issues of the union’s primary concern
As for finances? Following a trend set by other NEA affiliates in state such as Michigan, the Florida NEA lost $453,054 in 2012-2013; it had generated a $2.4 million surplus during the previous fiscal year. One reason for the loss: A four percent decline in revenue between 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 (from $56 million $53 million). Another lies with a 5.6 percent increase in benefits costs between 2011-2012 and 2013; the NEA affiliate’s own post-retirement obligations increased by 12 percent (from $13.5 million to $15 million) over that same period. This didn’t stop the Florida NEA from paying six-figure salaries. Thirty-nine staffers were paid salaries of $100,000 a year or more. Florida NEA President Andrew Ford was also well-paid, earning $394,148 in 2012-2013, a 63 percent increase over his pay in the previous fiscal year.
Sure, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan caused a firestorm earlier this month when he stated that opposition to Common Core standards came from “white suburban moms” learning that their children weren’t as “brilliant” as they were led to believe by the districts whose schools their kids attend. Whatever you think of what Duncan particularly said, he is right to point out that suburban districts have obscured the problems they have in educating all students, including black, Latino, and poor children. But what Duncan fails to mention is that he himself has helped suburban districts obscure the facts by rolling back the No Child Left Behind Act, which helped expose these problems in the first place.
A few folks, including Eduwonk‘s Andrew Rotherham, have pointed out Duncan’s role in this. And this point hasn’t gone unchallenged by the Obama Administration and its surrogates. In the comments to Rotherham’s piece, Peter Cunningham, the former Assistant Secretary of Education for Communications and Outreach, tried to defend Duncan and the approach the Obama Administration has taken in rolling back No Child. The problem is that in his role as a surrogate for Duncan, Peter makes points that simply aren’t true. In fact, Peter seems to be advancing an approach that will, I fear, however high minded it is in many ways, actually lose ground for the country.
He starts by criticizing No Child’s approach to accountability. Nothing new. Yet, he offers a rather novel, double-pronged attack: he says on the one hand that No Child painted all the schools with the same brush yet allowed wildly different standards. Wow – doing both – and at the same time – that’s quite a feat! Aside from the absurdity of it, neither contention is true.
No Child simply said that if schools didn’t lift all subgroups increasingly toward their state’s bar of proficiency they were in need of improvement. And, with each passing year, consequences would become more serious, and opportunities for parents would increase. The accountability systems, yes, are varied because all 50 states have different systems; yet, the law tried to be both respectful of those differences and also create pressure to narrow gaps between white and middle class kids and disadvantaged kids and to encourage all children at least to jump over the states’ bars for proficiency. Complicated, yes. Diverse, yes. But it was an important goal, and progress has been made toward it both in the years when states began this sort of accountability on their own prior to No Child and in the years after its passage.
This administration’s waivers, frankly, are the far more serious culprit with respect to the crime of “wildly different standards.” As we look back on the scene five or more years out from now, we’ll really see what “wildly different” really means, and I suspect we won’t like it. We’re already seeing the first effects of these “wildly different” policies in the waivers that have been granted. Only time will tell if these differences contribute to the recent, virtual freeze in the narrowing of achievement gaps as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
That old canard about states lowering their standards in response to No Child? My, oh, my. How many studies have to be produced to cause this nonsense to stop? Some performance standards went up; some went down. But they’re about where they were before the law was passed, actually a little higher. There’s abundant research by Harvard University’s Paul Peterson and others that proves this quite clearly. [By the way, and on a related note, it will be mighty interesting to see what happens to the performance standards set by the consortia when (or if) their assessments are actually put in place in the states.]
Cunningham says the right policy is to set the bar high, let states figure out how to get there, and then hold them accountable. How? What does he mean? I have seen accountability reduced to just a sliver of schools through the operation of the waivers in many states. I must have missed the details of what exactly he’s talking about on, for example, how states will be held accountable to the new high standards. Please refresh me. Given all the gnashing of teeth when a majority of schools were at risk of being labeled in need of improvement to the “low standards” under No Child, I’m actually quite interested in the rates of failure that will be spawned when they are “held accountable” to the new, higher standards. I’d love some clarity on this.
Cunningham is wrong again in asserting that under No Child, a high performing school with an achievement gap is treated the same as a low achieving school. I spent quite a lot of time traveling across the country after No Child passed, and showed states how they could create differentiated accountability systems to distinguish such schools. While both types of schools had work to do, both could be given very different ratings and, in many respects, have different consequences. Several states, including Ohio, whose deputy commissioner is now the commissioner in Massachusetts, put such pioneering systems in place. Others followed. That some didn’t do so, even after Duncan’s predecessor as Secretary of Education (and my colleague) Margaret Spellings provided this flexibility, is due to their own lack of initiative. In fact, had the Obama Administration wanted to make the possibility of differentiation even clearer, it could have built on the flexibility Spellings put into place. This could have been done without getting rid of accountability. It also could have been done if the Obama Administration wanted to build a bipartisan coalition as we did in 2001 and pass a reauthorization of No Child that improved the law. These and other approaches would have been less destructive than the waivers the administration ended up putting in place.
These are the facts that Cunningham and his colleagues still in the administration are not admitting: Accountability is being weakened. Federal policy is being fractured. Commitments are being made that will likely not be kept over the long term. Content standards will be better, yes, but there may be no will to see them through or hold anyone accountable to learning to them. What we may end up with is a scattered landscape with fragmented, fleeting, and wildly different remnants of reform that do little for our students.
I tip my hat to Duncan and the Obama Administration credit for taking arrows from traditionalists for the sake of reform the same way Margaret and Rod Paige and George W. Bush and I did. That’s what happens to people who want to change and improve the system. But this false piety of those who persist in thinking they have it all right while their predecessors had it all wrong will only help destroy the base for reform. The administration will end up lonely and still despised by the defenders of the status quo. And to what end?
No one should be surprised that the U.S. Department of Education’s new guidance for 41 states to renew the waivers granted to them under the Obama Administration’s effort to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act and its accountability provisions effectively allows states to get away with continuing their shortchanging of poor and minority children. After all, the Obama Administration is facing a maelstrom of problems on every front inside and outside of education — and it has neither the political capital or fiscal coffers to stop states from going their own way.
Over the past few months, the administration has met stiff resistance in its efforts to hold states responsible for not following through on reforms promised as conditions for receiving the waivers. States such as Kansas, Oregon, and Washington State (likely with help from congressional leaders who represent their states) have pushed back on the administration’s effort to place their waivers into so-called “high risk status” (and thus, threatening to cancel them). Arizona’s state officials publicly sparred with the administration after it was threatened with being placed into high-risk status for refusing to count graduation rates for 20 percent of a school’s ranking on the state’s new accountability system (versus 15 percent), and for not revamping its teacher evaluation system to meet the waiver’s requirement.
The Obama Administration is faring no better with those few states that are still under No Child’s accountability provisions. In September, California Gov. Jerry Brown resisted Duncan’s threat to withhold $7.3 billion in federal funding if he signed into law Assembly Bill 484, which effectively eviscerates accountability (and gets around the administration’s decision to not grant the Golden State a waiver from No Child on its own terms) by eliminating all but a smattering of the state’s standardized tests. After all, Brown knows full well that any attempt to withhold federal funding will be challenged by Golden State’s influential congressional delegation (including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein); the former state attorney general is also likely betting that the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year on the Affordable Healthcare Act, which effectively makes it impossible for the federal government to withhold subsidies from states for not implementing new regulations, can also be applied to what the administration can do on the education policy front. In any case, the Obama Administration lacks much in the way of leverage against California’s move (and similar steps that could be taken by other states still under No Child) because it has effectively shredded the law, both through the waiver gambit and by blessing moves by states that are, in substance, little different than what California has done.
So one could easily see that the Obama Administration’s original rules for renewing waivers, which was released back in August, was likely to be tossed into the proverbial dumpster. In some respects, for good reason. The rules requiring waiver states to submit plans for providing poor and minority children with high-quality teachers was unworkable because it doesn’t address the supply problem at the heart of the teacher quality issues facing American public education; the fact that state education departments would have to battle with teachers’ union affiliates, suburban districts, and the middle-class white families those districts serve made the entire concept a non-starter. But the Obama Administration still could have required waiver states to divert federal Title II funding used for teacher professional development from shoddy programs that do little to improve teacher performance into better-quality regimens. The fact that the Obama Administration was so willing to let states continue to fund professional development programs unworthy of being called such is another sign that the when it comes to implementation, the administration is all hat and no cattle.
But again, none of this shocking. The Obama Administration is now retrenching from its reform agenda after botching it so badly. As Dropout Nation has pointed out ad nauseam since the administration unveiled the No Child waiver gambit two years ago, the plan to let states to focus on just the worst five percent of schools (along with another 10 percent or more of schools with wide achievement gaps) effectively allowed districts not under watch (including suburban districts whose failures in serving poor and minority kids was exposed by No Child) off the hook for serving up mediocre instruction and curricula. The overall plan to eviscerate AYP also took away real data on school performance, making it more difficult for families from being the lead decision-makers reformers need them to be in order for overhauls to gain traction, while eliminating data that researchers and policymakers need to see how districts are progressing in improving student achievement. Add in the fact the waiver gambit is legally questionable because it goes beyond the adjustments the Obama Administration is allowed to do by law — along with the fact that the entire gambit effectively allows states to violate federal law with tacit backing of Obama and Duncan — and it was clear that the administration was setting itself up for failure.
The Obama Administration then proceeded to exacerbate its problems by engaging in even more shoddy policymaking. The administration granted waivers to to states in spite of questions raised by the peer review panel it put in place to vet the proposals about whether the promises made would be fulfilled. The administration effectively allowed many of the states granted waivers to game graduation rates — including counting low-grade General Education Development certificates in graduation rate calculations — and let them account graduation rates for fewer than a third of performance on the respective accountability indexes of waiver states. Meanwhile it allowed states such as Virginia, Florida, and Tennessee to define proficiency down for poor and minority kids by setting Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency targets that only require districts to ensure that fewer black and Latino kids are learning at proficient levels than their white and Asian counterparts.
Only after civil rights-based reformers, unlike their centrist Democrat and conservative reform allies, fully exposed the consequences of the waiver gambit has the Obama Administration even started to right the errors of its ways. But it is now too late. By engaging in the waiver gambit in the first place — and then handing out waivers to nearly every state with a half-baked plan — it effectively gave away all of its leverage without getting anything in return. Especially in light of the waiver gambit’s questionable status, and the political battle over the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards (which the waiver gambit helped support), the Obama Administration can do little more than be all talk and no action.
Meanwhile the Obama Administration is paying a high price for other bad decisions outside of education policymaking. The decision three years ago by President Barack Obama to not push for a budget for 2010-2011, a move to which Democrats who controlled all of Congress at the time had acquiesced (even as it was clear that the party would lose control of the federal lower house), has resulted in sequestration-triggered budget cuts that denies the administration funding it can leverage through competitive grant programs such as Race to the Top in order to force states to fulfill their promises under the waiver. The administration is also paying a price for its penchant for using executive orders to achieve short-term policy goals instead of negotiating with congressional leaders to achieve its aims. Because it has little credibility or good will among either fellow Democrats on Capitol Hill or with congressional Republicans, it has no allies in its efforts to hold waiver states accountable for their promises. And with Obama due to become a lame-duck president by year’s end, his congressional Democrat allies have no reason to do any more than necessary for their political survival on the administration’s behalf.
Democrats may not even do that. Why? Because Obama Administration’s botched roll-out of ObamaCare’s healthcare exchanges (including the troubled HealthCare.gov Web site) has sapped much of the administration’s credibility. These problems, along with other scandals (including those related to Big Brother-like domestic spying on American citizens by the National Security Agency) make it harder for Senate Democrats facing tough re-election odds such as Mark Begich of Alaska to stand by the administration on any issue, much less education policy.
Congressional leaders are more than willing to back any plan from the Obama Administration that ends up being little more than a way for states to get more money for nothing. This is clear from this week’s announcement of the Strong Start for American Children Act, the proposed early ed program which has been criticized for not requiring states to improve the quality of teaching in prekindergarten programs. But anything from the administration that smacks of holding states accountable for improving student achievement will not get congressional backing, especially from Harkin (who has proven in the past that he will do anything asked of him by the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers) and House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (who wants to ditch No Child altogether and go back to the bad old days of handing federal money freely to states).
Anyone expecting the Obama Administration to further advance its education policy agenda — or advance systemic reform — shouldn’t stop their wishful thinking. This week’s retrenchment on the waiver renewal rules has shown that it has thrown in the towel on doing anything to help all children succeed.