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October 23, 2014 standard

You would think traditional districts and other school operators in Washington, D.C., and the surrounding metropolitan area would be especially focused on doing well for poor and minority children. After all, the region is home to some of the nation’s most financially-prosperous school districts, as well as the backyard of Beltway policy wonks and activists who are among the most-prominent players in the school reform movement. There’s even the fact the D.C. region is home to the nation’s Big Two teachers’ unions, which should be concerned about the success of the districts that serve the kids of staffers to whom they pay six-figure sums.

Yet as a Dropout Nation analysis of college-preparatory data for 10 school operators shows,, this isn’t even close to reality. Far too many black and Latino children are denied the higher ed-preparatory learning they need and deserve.

Raising the question about how well D.C.-area districts are doing for kids, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s effort to track spending patterns for districts and other school operators in the region. The School Spending Explorer, along with Fordham’s analysis on how badly many districts are doing in providing dollars to schools serving the poorest kids, has spurred plenty of chatter among wonks and others. And for that alone, the conservative reform think tank and its president, Michael Petrilli, deserve praise.

But as Ulrich Boser of the Center for American Progress and other researchers have long-ago confirmed, there is almost no correlation between spending levels and performance in improving student achievement. Just as importantly, a district can spend plenty on serving kids from poor and minority backgrounds and still fail to provide them with high-quality education. This is because most school funding is spent on teacher salaries and benefits (including efforts to shore up virtually-insolvent pensions). As a result, dollars actually follow instructors, not children or even programs.

One question that Fordham failed to answer (and couldn’t, given the limited scope of its research) is how well D.C. area-districts are doing in the one area of systemic reform that matters most: Preparing children, especially those from black and Latino households, for success in the traditional colleges, technical schools, and apprenticeships that make up American higher education, as well as in careers after children leave school. This includes providing kids with Algebra 1 in middle school (a key course for helping them take on tougher math courses in high school), as well as Algebra 2 and advanced math courses such as trigonometry and statistics (the latter two being gateways to high-paying blue- and white-collar careers).

This matters because the achievement gap is as much a result of the denial of college-preparatory learning opportunities to poor and minority schools — often by teachers and guidance counselors who serve as gatekeepers to such programs (including gifted-and-talented courses) — as it is a result of the failure of districts to address illiteracy in the early grades. Opportunity gaps, especially those perpetuated by American public education, lead to achievement gaps that condemn poor and minority kids to the economic and social abyss.

To shed light on this matter, Dropout Nation culled data on course-providing in 2011-2012 (the latest year available) from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Database. Your editor ultimately focused on 10 school operators in the immediate metropolitan area. This includes D.C. Public Schools; Montgomery County and Prince George’s County in Maryland; and Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax County, Falls Church, Loudoun County, and Prince William County in Virginia. [Because of data collection issues, DN excluded Anne Arundel County, Md., which is increasingly as much a suburb of D.C., as it is a branch of the Baltimore metro area from the list.] The D.C. branch of the Knowledge is Power Program charter school chain was also included, partly because it serves as many students as many traditional districts in the region, as well as because of its specific college-preparatory focus.

What Dropout Nation found was shocking, but not close to surprising.

Few districts provide black and Latino children with Algebra 1: On average, 27 percent of black middle-school students in the D.C. area and 21 percent of Latino peers took Algebra 1 in 2011-2012. That’s lower than the 37 percent average for white middle-schoolers, and 42 percent for Asian schoolmates in the 10 districts and school operators surveyed. On average, 10 percent fewer black kids take Algebra 1 than their white peers, while the gap between Latino and white kids is 16 percent.

The interesting news: Middle-school children of all backgrounds attending Alexandria’s traditional district have a far-better chance of being provided introductory algebra than kids in other districts. KIPP does the best among all school operators at providing Algebra 1 to black children, with 45.3 percent of its middle-schoolers taking the college preparatory course. The worst: Prince William County, Va., where a mere 12 percent of black students — who make up the vast majority of kids attending its schools — took introductory algebra. But while Prince William is dreadful on that score, few districts do better. Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery County, and Prince George’s provide Algebra 1 to fewer than three out of every 10 black middle-schoolers.

As for Latino kids: D.C. Public Schools did the best at providing Algebra 1 to those children, with 36.9 percent of Latino middle-schoolers taking the course. Prince George’s did the worst, with a mere one-in-10 Latino middle-schoolers taking the college prep course. [KIPP doesn't get mentioned because it didn't serve any Latino kids in 2011-2012.] But not one district in the D.C. metro area provided more than 37 percent of Latino students with introductory algebra. This includes Montgomery County, Md., where Latino kids make up a larger percentage of the student population (25.2 percent) than any of the districts on the list, and Fairfax County (which has the largest Latino student population of any of the schools on the list).

No district does well at providing kids with Algebra 2: On average, just 16 percent of high schoolers attending the 10 Beltway-area districts surveyed were provided Algebra 2, a critical course in helping them undertake tougher coursework in higher education. This included 18 percent of white high school students, 17.2 percent of black schoolmates, and 16 percent of Asian peers. Considering the necessity of Algebra 2 for success in college completion (and avoiding remedial math courses that condemn so many students to dropping out with crippling debt), the fact that districts are doing poorly in providing level two algebra for all kids is shocking.

Latino high-school kids fared worse of all, with just 13 percent of them being provided second-level algebra by the districts they attended; not one district or school operator surveyed provided Algebra 2 to a fifth of Latino kids. Alexandria did the worst, providing only 2.6 percent of Latino high-schoolers with Algebra 2; while Fairfax County did the best, with 17.7 percent of Latino students taking Algebra 2.

As for black high-school children: KIPP once again fared the best, providing the course to 22.7 percent of black students, while Arlington, DCPS, Montgomery County, and Prince George’s County not falling far behind. Alexandria was again the worst in this category, providing Algebra 2 to just two percent of black students; Falls Church fared little better, with only 8.2 percent of black students taking the course.

Most districts fail to provide advanced math to minority kids: Trigonometry is critical for kids who want to get into high-paying blue-collar jobs such as welding, while statistics is an increasingly important skill for those who want to get into marketing and other white-collar careers.  Both courses, along with other forms of advanced math, would be especially helpful for black and Latino children who often come from low-income households. Yet these are the courses (outside of calculus) they are the least likely to be able to access.

On average, just 15 percent of black high school students and 13 percent of Latino peers were provided advanced math courses by the 10 school operators surveyed. This is lower than the 24 percent average for Asian high schoolers and 20 percent of white peers. Only two districts — Falls Church and Loudoun County — provided advanced math to 20 percent of more of their black and Latino high school students. For black families, Loudoun County may be the best bet for their kids getting advanced math; 24.4 percent of black high schoolers were provided the course in 2011-2012. For Latino families, Falls Church is the best bet, with 29.4 percent of Latino high schoolers being provided advanced math.

But Alexandria proves to be the worst for both black and Latino children, with less than five percent of them being provided trigonometry, statistics, and other higher-level math. But Alexandria isn’t the only tony district who falls short in this category: Fairfax and Montgomery County fail to provide advanced math to more than 16.4 percent of either black or Latino high schoolers, while providing those courses to as many as 35 percent of white and Asian peers.

As with spending data, these three data points alone don’t provide a full picture of the performance of traditional districts and other operators in the D.C. area in providing all kids with college-preparatory curricula and high-quality education. But the data does illustrate what other data has revealed for some time.

Montgomery County Supt. Joshua Starr has plenty of not so noble reasons to call for moratoriums on testing…

The first? That black and Latino children are poorly-served by traditional districts in the D.C. area. This is especially true for black and Latino families in Fairfax County and Montgomery County, both of which are still resting on their (mostly unearned) reputations for providing high-quality education. When you look at other college-preparatory data — including percentages of minority kids provided with access to Advance Placement courses — as well as revelations that Fairfax County was inflating its test-score performance by steering poor and minority kids into taking less-demanding Virginia assessments geared for special-ed students, it is clear that neither district is doing well by our most-vulnerable. Dropout Nation‘s analysis also adds to the evidence there are plenty of not-so-noble reasons why Montgomery County Supt. Joshua Starr is beating the drum for a three-year moratorium on standardized testing aligned with Common Core reading and math standards,

For black and Latino families, especially those emerging into the middle class, who have flocked to Fairfax and Montgomery, the reputations of both reputations for providing high-quality education have proven to be mere smoke and mirrors. Even worse, as sociologist Karyn Lacey revealed in Blue-Chip Black, her study of black life in the D.C. suburbs, families have found themselves fighting hard against school leaders and teachers unwilling to help their kids take challenging college prep courses that will help them attain future success. Considering that Fairfax and Montgomery, along with Arlington and Alexandria, are the districts in which many reformers choose to place their kids, the silence among many about how poorly these systems serve minority children is unacceptable.

And Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker III has plenty of good reasons to take control of the faltering district.

Secondly: That poor-performing black-run school districts are perpetuating educational neglect on black children. Certainly D.C. Public Schools has cast-off its reputation as the toxic waste dump of American public education. But the district is still doing poorly in providing black children with college-preparatory curricula. The 15.6 percent of black middle-schoolers provided Algebra 1 by D.C. Public Schools’ is not only three times lower than than of the much-smaller KIPP, it is the second-lowest percentage (after Prince William County) for any district on the list. It is also the fourth-worst on the list (after Prince William, Prince George’s, and Fairfax County) in providing black high-schoolers with advanced math. Given the high levels of poverty among blacks in the nation’s capital, D.C. Public Schools must do better in helping their children gain opportunities for lifelong success.

But at least D.C. is improving. Prince George’s County, which is the home base for Dropout Nation (as well as the district serving the wealthiest majority-black county in America) should be especially ashamed of how poorly it is doing for black children. Prince George’s is third-worst in providing black middle-schoolers Algebra 1,   Even worse, it doesn’t even provide college-preparatory curricula to either Latino kids (its fastest-growing population) or to white kids. This isn’t to say that Prince George’s is doing terribly in everything for black children; the district is also home to some of the best-performing elementary schools in the D.C. area for young black men (something that can rarely be said for Fairfax or Montgomery County). But Prince George’s failure to provide black children with college-preparatory curricula (along with the impact of its missteps on the county’s future economic prospects) is one reason why County Executive Rushern Baker III successfully won partial control over the district’s operations last year. It is absolutely shameful that black teachers and school leaders are perpetuating the kind of educational abuse and neglect we would consider intolerable if done by their white counterparts.

Beltway reformers (and the movement overall) can’t hold districts in the rest of the nation accountable for providing high-quality education to poor and minority kids if they aren’t also holding school systems in their own back yard to account.

October 20, 2014 standard

This morning’s move by the American Federation of Teachers (with help from the National Education Association’s Golden State affiliate) to launch a digital ad campaign aimed at beating back surging support for Marshall Tuck in his bid to become California Superintendent is another sign of how the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union deploys cash to oppose systemic reform. Certainly the ads — including one which accuses the school reformer of wanting to sell off public school buildings — are full of blarney; in fact, so laughable that they may backfire on the AFT (as well as the NEA) even among hardcore progressives. But at least the AFT is being nakedly honest about its ultimate goal — keeping in place current Supt. Tom Torkakson (who has done the bidding of its Golden State affiliate as well as that of the NEA’s California Teachers Association) — instead of concealing its aims under the guise of promoting social justice.

But the very fact that the AFT feels the need to launch a commercial at all is a clear sign that it fears that reformers can actually win control of the most-important agency within the state’s byzantine school governance system. Tuck has so far put Torlakson on the defensive for his decision to appeal the state superior court’s ruling in Vergara v. California, which struck down near-lifetime employment and teacher dismissal rules at the heart of AFT and NEA influence over education policy. But as Dropout Nation determined in an analysis of campaign finance data and disclosures filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, the AFT is spending plenty of money on the Golden State.

Most of the attention on political campaign spending in California has been focused on the efforts of the NEA and its affiliate — and for good reason. California is the biggest base of power for the NEA thank to CTA, which has long been the biggest spender in Golden State politics; the AFT’s center of influence is in New York State thanks to the United Federation of Teachers and New York State United Teachers (the latter of which is also an NEA unit in name only). But the AFT also has a big footprint in California thanks to United Teachers Los Angeles, which scored a victory last week with the ouster of John Deasy as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District. This fact, along with the Vergara ruling, which is spawning similar lawsuits in New York and elsewhere, gives the AFT plenty of reason to spend plenty on campaigning.

Just last month, the AFT’s political action committee poured $125,000 into backing Torlakson’s political campaign, according to data from California’s Secretary of State. This is on top of another $125,000 the PAC put into the incumbent’s campaign back in May, just before the state’s primary. So far, the PAC still has $2.5 million in cash on hand, more than enough to finance Torlakson and other allies in public office inside and out of the Golden State.

The PAC for the AFT’s state affiliate, the California Federation of Teachers, also spent $125,000 on Torlakson’s campaign, on top of $13,600 put into his campaign back in July and $65,000 given five months earlier. Add in the $80,848.67 spent by the PAC on buttons and other campaign collateral to support Torlakson’s bid, and $431.57 in catering costs that it picked up on the union’s behalf as an in-kind donation, and the AFT affiliate’s PAC spent $284,880.24 this year to support Torlakson’s effort to keep his job.

But the CFT COPE isn’t just concerned about keeping Torlakson in office to do its bidding. Last month alone, the PAC poured $25,000 into the state Democratic Party’s central committee; so far this year, Democrats have been subsidized by the union to the tune of $55,000. Back in August, it donated $13,600 each into the campaigns of state Treasurer John Chiang, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, and Democratic nominee for state controller Betty Yee. Meanwhile the AFT affiliate’s PAC put money into “slate mailer” outfits working on behalf of labor unions within the state. This includes $50,000 to Opportunity PAC (which claims to be “a coalition of teachers, healthcare givers” and university staffers), and $25,000 to Californians for Working Families, a committee organized by the state branch of AFL-CIO. The PAC also dropped $15,000 into the political action committee of the AFT’s most-important Golden State local, United Teachers Los Angeles.

The PAC is also focusing on those all important state legislative races, hoping to ensure that the senate and assembly remain under the thrall of traditionalists. This includes $16,400 to former San Francisco Unified School District attorney-turned-city supervisor Dave Campos, whose running to fill the assembly seat currently held by Tom Ammiano (along with $15,000 to an independent committee supporting his bid). It also gave $11,700 to the campaign of teacher-turned union boss-turned-politician Tim Sbranti (who beat out an ally of Gov. Jerry Brown, Steve Glazer, to serve as labor’s standardbearer for the seat held by the reliably-traditionalist Joan Buchanan), as well as donated $20,000 to Californians for Economic Prosperity, another independent expenditure committee working on his behalf. Expect CFT and the NEA affiliate, California Teachers Association, to slot Sbranti into the assembly’s education committee once he wins office.

The CFT PAC did have one misstep: It gave $13,600 to the campaign of Derek Cressman, who unsuccessfully ran for secretary of state against state Sen. Alex Padilla, whose two teacher dismissal bills (including Senate Bill 1530) were kiboshed by the COPE’s parent union and the NEA. Given the important role this office plays in certifying (and denying) ballot initiatives the union and other interests use to get their way, the AFT affiliate likely hoped that Cressman could succeed in keeping the school reform-minded Padilla off the ballot. It didn’t work out.

Altogether, the CFT’s main campaign finance committee spent $1 million on political efforts this year, and has $304,416.81 in cash on hand. Expect the AFT and its Golden State affiliate to use every dollar possible to back its favored candidates.

But the political activities don’t end with just this CFT PAC. Another campaign committee run by the AFT affiliate solely deals with ballot initiatives. This is where the AFT’s co-opting of social justice efforts is taking place. The PAC poured $50,000 into Yes on Prop. 47, which is advocating for the passage of a measure aimed at reclassifying most nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors. It is also backing Prop. 45, an effort by Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones to force healthcare companies to run rate increases by his office for approval, to the tune of $75,000.

But the AFT is never really concerned about social justice. The PAC gave $25,000 to an outfit called Citizens for Retirement Security, which fought against a proposed pension reform effort in Ventura County, Calif.; that measure was one of many proposals floated by pension reform advocates in the wake of successful initiatives passed in San Jose and San Diego that would have eventually led to a focus on an even stronger measure to overhaul the California State Teachers Retirement System than that which Gov. Brown successfully passed this year.

Altogether, CFT’s ballot initiative PAC spent $967,060.31 so far this year, and has $1.9 million left in cash on hand. While most of the PAC’s spend ended up being given to locals for their political activities (classified as grants for internal political organizing projects), CFT also picked up plenty of cash. The PAC paid $407,638.87 for various expenses such as campaign consultants, staff assistance, office space, and even reimbursement for a “check deposited in error”. This means that nearly half of the ballot PAC’s spending went into the AFT affiliate’s own coffers. [CFT collected just $1,068.23 in fees from the main political action operation.]

But at least these direct political activities are funded by the voluntary donations of those AFT members who chose to do so. There are also the CFT’s organizing and other political activities that are heavily subsidized by national — and ultimately, by teachers through compulsory dues regardless of whether they want to be part of the union or not. This is money that those members, especially younger teachers in the rank-and-file, would likely rather have spent on elevating the teaching profession and improving their development.

The AFT subsidized the Golden State unit (including its Solidarity Account) to the tune of $1.3 million in 2013-2014, according to its latest filing with the U.S. Department of Labor. The AFT also tried to renew its effort to organize teachers working in the City of Angels’ public charter schools; it sent $283,657 to its Los Angeles Charter School effort. Meanwhile the union spent $319,725 on meetings in Los Angeles. While some of which was connected to planning for its annual convention held in the city this past July, the AFT’s meetings (along with the convention itself) were also geared in part to bolstering its presence (as well as that of UTLA and CFT) as a key player in Golden State education politics.

By the time Election Day rolls around, the AFT will have poured even more money into California just to keep its influence from declining. But there’s also a chance that Tuck will win — and that will be a blow to the union and its traditionalist allies everywhere.


October 18, 2014 standard

It would be an understatement to say that John Deasy’s last few months as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District haven’t been delightful. Those last days are the reasons why was traditionalists on the district’s board finally succeeded Thursday in ousting him from the top job — and why reformers in L.A. didn’t try to stop them.

Deasy’s ambitious effort to provide every student with an Apple iPad tablet, already bungled because of his failure to address the underlying information technology issues, came to a bitter end this summer amid revelations by public radio station KPCC that district officials surreptitiously met with officials from Apple Computer and Pearson Plc.’s education division about a deal a year before it formally went to bid. For traditionalists, that news gave them enough ammunition to call for Deasy’s head once and for all. And for reformers in the City of Angels, who helped Deasy keep his job last year after board president Richard Vladovic and the AFT local tried to oust him, the revelations made it difficult for them to help him out.

Then Deasy lost reform support when it was revealed that the district would disobey California’s Parent Trigger law and essentially deny families within the district the ability to either take over or negotiate with it to help their kids gain high-quality education. When Deasy went forward with the decision even though his justification for the move — that use of the Parent Trigger wasn’t allowed by the No Child waiver given to it and six other districts — was refuted by the Obama Administration, Parent Power activists and other reformers pretty much decided it may not be such a bad thing for Deasy to go.

So even as Deasy took other important steps to help the district’s children — including instituting a new school discipline policy that eschews the overuse of suspensions and referrals of kids to the juvenile justice system — he was a virtual dead man walking. So this week’s announcement was greeted less with outrage from reformers than with praise for his successes and a lot of relief that it only ended with a whimper.

In many ways, Deasy’s departure is a shame, both for him and for reformers. As Dropout Nation pointed out last year, the longtime school leader and L.A.’s reformers had a great opportunity to take even bolder steps on behalf of all children. After all, the failed effort by Vladovic and the AFT local, United Teachers Los Angeles, to oust Deasy was the latest in a string of bad decisions by traditionalists that put them on the defensive. Particularly for Vladovic, who had faced the possibility of censure for allegedly harassing current and former staffers, and for then-UTLA President Warren Fletcher, the poor handling of their effort to get Deasy out of the district’s top job weakened them politically; for Fletcher, it led to his ouster by hardcore traditionalists dismayed by his tenure months later.

Deasy and reformers could have gone bolder in this environment. For Deasy, it meant pushing the envelope further on revamping how L.A. Unified recruited, trained, evaluated and compensated its teachers, further supporting the use of Parent Trigger by families of kids attending its schools, and reviving predecessor Ramon Cortines’ earlier plan to spin off 200 of the district’s schools into the hands of families, charter school operators, and even teacher-led groups. For reformers, it meant gaining additional seats on L.A. Unified’s board (especially in December after the death of longtime board member Marguerite LaMotte) as well as building stronger support reform on the ground, especially in black and Latino communities in most need of systemic reform.

Yet neither Deasy nor reformers achieved much in a year’s time. Sure, Deasy scored a victory in June when L.A. Unified’s board adopted directed him to develop a so-called “equity-based index” — a version of the poverty indexes used by states such as Indiana — to direct $800 million in so-called supplemental funding coming from California state coffers to district’s neediest children. This was a key step in his goal of embracing a weighted student funding approach to budgeting, handing more dollars to schools serving poor and minority children while allowing principals to manage their own budgets. But Deasy played it to cautious up to that point, which meant that he made little headway on any reform.

After the win on weighted student funding, Deasy spent most of his time playing defense as the failures of the iPad roll-out grabbed more headlines, leading to revelations that his staff may have rigged the bidding process in favor of Apple and Pearson despite concerns about implementation. His failure to fully apologize for either the roll-out or for the failure of leadership in coming clean about the bidding process merely aided his foes and their sympathizers, including Los Angeles Times editorialist Karin Klein, who continued to demand that the district and Deasy fully account for the matter.

Meanwhile reformers didn’t win LaMotte’s seat. Certainly they did their best on the money front, pouring $1.1 million into the campaign of Alex Johnson, a former New York City Department of Education staffer who worked for L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. The Service Employees International Union and Johnson’s boss, Ridley-Thomas (who is surpassing Congresswoman Maxine Waters as the leading black power-broker in Southern California) also supported Johnson’s bid. But because reformers didn’t do a good job over the past few years building grassroots support on the ground, Johnson ultimately lost to the AFT’s favored candidate, former L.A. Unified bureaucrat George McKenna, by seven percentage points.

Reformers also failed to heed Dropout Nation‘s advise last year to hold Deasy’s feet to the fire on advancing reform. The move by L.A. Unified to ignore the state’s Parent Trigger law had been in the works since November. But reformers, most-notably Parent Revolution, failed to make anyone else aware of Deasy’s decision until August (likely after former California State Sen. Gloria Romero, who authored the law, found out during a meeting with the district, took on the matter head-on). The impotence of reformers who should be acting boldly for kids when dealing with Deasy is absolutely shameful. They should have been demanding more and better of him.

The failures on the part of Deasy and reformers came just as UTLA, now under the leadership of the Karen Lewis-wannabe Alex Caputo-Pearl, began a renewed agitation for Deasy’s firing. Capitalizing on the iPad fiasco and now in control of the district’s board, the AFT local took aim at Deasy’s bungling of the iPad rollout while hinting that it would go on strike if the district didn’t agree to its demand for a 17-percent pay hike over the next two years. [Deasy offered just a two percent increase.] While it is unlikely that L.A. Unified will even agree to that deal, Deasy’s departure all but ensures that the AFT will get a 10 percent raise, as well as weaken the district’s existing efforts. Sure, the union will have to face Cortines, who returns to the top job in a caretaker role. But he doesn’t have the strong backing of a reform-oriented board (or a change-oriented mayor) as he did during his last go-round three years ago.

This isn’t to say that Deasy hasn’t done a good job overall as head of the nation’s second-largest traditional district. His willingness to side step traditionalists on L.A. Unified’s board (with the implicit support of Monica Garcia, the former board president, and other reformers) has proven crucial to making the few advancements in reform possible in the Golden State. It was his backing of Vergara v. California that led to the ruling handed down in June striking down near-lifetime employment for teachers as well as teacher dismissal policies that do little more than keep laggard and criminally-abusive teachers in classrooms.

Deasy’s aggressiveness on removing laggard teachers and school leaders from schools also deserves praise. By 2011-2012, L.A. Unified removed 99 laggard and criminally abusive teachers, while another 122 resigned ; this is more than the 10 teachers dismissed two years earlier. Deasy’s backing of Parent Trigger efforts in the district (before his reversal of course) has helped families of kids in several schools get the teaching and curricula they deserve. In the process, Deasy helped continue Cortines’ efforts at ending L.A. Unified’s penchant for ignoring the desires of families, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds, for better than the worst the district offers.

Meanwhile he continued improvements in curricula that began earlier in the last decade under another predecessor, Roy Romer. The percentage of fourth-graders reading Below-Basic, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, declined by five percentage points (from 55 percent to 50 percent) between 2011 and 2013, while the percentage reading at Proficient and Advanced levels increased by three percentage points (from 15 percent to 18 percent) in the same period. The average L.A. Unified fourth-grader scored four points (or nearly half a grade level) higher  in 2013 than in 2011. These results aren’t unqualified signs of success  After all, L.A. Unified excluded 19 percent of fourth-graders in its special ed ghettos from the exam (tied for seventh among the 12 districts with exclusion rates greater than 15 percent). Even with that proviso, Deasy deserves credit for helping more kids escape illiteracy and reach proficiency in reading.

Yet Deasy has not nearly the strong reformer those in the movement, both in L.A. and nationwide, like to think him to be. After all, his tenure at the helm of L.A. Unified has been filled with has weak moves such as striking a deal with the AFT on a teacher evaluation plan that does little to actually measure the performance of teachers based on their success with the students they instruct in classrooms.Given L.A. Unified’s longstanding (and likely, never-reversible) dysfunction, some will say Deasy has done the best he could. There’s some truth to this. As I noted three years ago, district turnarounds rarely succeed because toxic cultures will overcome any individual effort (or even group action) to put it asunder. This fact is one reason why the average big-city district chief executive stays in the job for a mere four years. A Brookings Institution report on school leadership released last month further raises the question as to whether superintendents alone can achieve change on their own. And Dropout Nation has consistently called for L.A. Unified’s breakup into smaller school operators.

But as seen in the successes of former New York City Chancellor Joel Klein and onetime Boston Superintendent Tom Payzant, school leadership does matter. More importantly, strong leaders figure out how to take bold steps even in tough political environments, using every tool (from political capital to leveraging media coverage and advocacy) to make things possible. Deasy clearly had the skills and tenacity to achieve success — and did so on occasion. But more often than not, he didn’t push more boldly on reform. Even worse, he didn’t even take advantage of the breathing space he gained this time last year (as well as the defensive position traditionalists were placed in) to go even further, especially on the teacher quality front.

Then there is the iPad roll out which ultimately brought Deasy down. This is one of the few areas in which Deasy acted boldly — and he shouldn’t have. As in the case of another school leader, former Indiana superintendent and Florida commissioner Tony Bennett, Deasy should have proceeded more-slowly amid concerns early on about the technology challenges in providing the tablets. Given the tech market’s judgement (in the form of stalled sales) that tablets are not suited for the kind of productivity activities that children and adults undertake, it may have made more sense to just not bother. But Deasy moved forward without regard for L.A. Unified’s technology or operaional shortcomings — and it (along with the lack of candor about the revelations of behind-the-scenes dealings with Apple and Pearson) came back to haunt the last days of his tenure.

Meanwhile Deasy’s tenure also included some backsliding on helping kids gain college-preparatory learning. The percentage of L.A. Unified middle-schoolers taking Algebra 1 declined from 34 percent to 28 percent between 2009-2010 and 2011-2012, according to a Dropout Nation analysis of data submitted by the district to the U.S. Department of Education. Meanwhile the percentage of high schoolers taking trigonometry, statistics, and other advanced math also declined in that period, from 12 percent to nine percent. While it is possible that those declines could have been reversed by the time of Deasy’s departure, the dramatic declines in kids taking college-preparatory math cannot be ignored in any assessment of his tenure.

What becomes clear is that while Deasy hasn’t been the failure traditionalists want to say he was, the former superintendent also wasn’t the strong reformer kids in Los Angeles needed him to be. This isn’t the assessment many within the movement may want to accept. But it is the conclusion that needs to be admitted.

Your editor hopes that Deasy learns from his tenure and does better in his future endeavors. As for reformers in L.A. (as well as their allies in the rest of the country)? It’s time to regroup on advancing systemic reform — and that starts with looking at Deasy’s tenure for the missed opportunity it was.

October 15, 2014 standard

Your editor would like to spend less time on how the American Federation of Teachers’ spends its money to preserve its declining influence on education policymaking. But the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union keeps giving me more fodder — especially when it comes to Philadelphia, which has become an keystone in its efforts against systemic reform. Today, AFT announced that it made a “six-figure radio ad buy” in Philadelphia focused on whipping up indignation over last week’s move by the traditional school district to cancel its collective bargaining agreement with the union’s City of Brotherly Love local. This spend comes on top of the $2 million AFT spent in 2013-2014 on behalf of its local. [The union will hold a protest tomorrow.]

As you would expect, the ad isn’t focused on the fact that teachers are finally contributing something to their healthcare benefits (as professionals in the private sector must do) after years of getting it for free. After all, the AFT would then have to admit that the high costs of those benefits (which have increased by 53 percent between 2002-2002 and 2011-2012 thanks to deals the local struck with the district) is the reason why the School District of Philadelphia’s state-controlled board decided to not bother with renegotiating the already-expired collective bargaining agreement with the union’s Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in the first place.

Instead, the ad takes aim at Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett for reducing state subsidies to Philadelphia and other districts in the Keystone State by $1 billion. Which isn’t exactly so. For one, state subsidies for public schools (excluding funding for community colleges and higher ed aid) actually increased by 7.4 percent (from $9.3 billion to $10 billion between 2011-2012 and 2013-2014), according to state budget data. [This, by the way, doesn't include the additional $300 million that will be spent in 2014-2015 under the recently-enacted budget.] In fact, state spending for education increased by 38 percent between 2002-2003 and 2011-2012, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Chances are that AFT is pointing to the lost dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided an additional $1 billion in subsidies in 2010-2011 alone. But those were temporary funds, and therefore, were unlikely to be picked up by the state once the feds turned off the tap.

Many — especially school choice activists and Parent Power advocates fighting Pennsylvania’s Zip Code Education laws –can rightfully argue that the state should take over full funding of education and the reliance on local property tax dollars. But the AFT will never make that argument because it opens up the door for expanding choice, voucherizing school funding, and putting traditional districts from which the union draws its very existence out of business.

Philadelphia would be the only district that can make a case for losing out on additional state funding. But even that would be specious given that state subsidies increased by 38 percent between 2002-2003 and 2010-2011, before an 8.4 percent reduction in 2011-2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. [There's also the fact that Pennsylvania provides 48 percent of Philly's funding, which is higher than the 36 percent statewide average.] The district would have been able to withstand those reductions if not for its costly deals with the AFT local as well as a $1.5 billion building spree that ended up costing it plenty, both in terms of half-empty buildings that it would shut down last year as a result of enrollment declines (as well as a series of interest rate swaps that cost the district $72 million by 2011, according to a report by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.).

Certainly the AFT could make the case that Philadelphia has been fiscally feckless for quite some time. But doing so would then point to the union’s own role in the district’s spendthrift ways, including those very sweet healthcare benefits for which the union is fighting heartily. And in the process, admit its role in Philadelphia’s virtual insolvency.

But in buying the attack aid, AFT and its local has once again reminded reformers and others that the AFT is far more-concerned about defending traditional teacher compensation from which it benefits than about helping children succeed or the social justice for which they proclaim interest. More importantly, it is a reminder that it will spend plenty to advance those interests.

This can also be seen in the most-recent reports AFT and its units have submitted to Pennsylvania campaign finance officials. The political action committee for AFT’s Philly local, for example, has spent $252,476.25 so far this year, according to data from the Department of State; the PAC has $661,450.39 left in its coffers that AFT national can indirectly leverage on behalf of Democratic gubernatorial nominee (and Corbett opponent) Tom Wolf, who has expressed interest in handing back control of the Philadelphia district to a locally-elected board if he wins the top office next month. As for the PAC run by AFT Pennsylvania? It spent $30,000 so far this year, and has $9,075.24 left. But it may also end up getting a cash infusion from national before voters go to the polls.

Altogether, the AFT and its units has $670,525.63 that can be used to further its goals in Pennsylvania just in existing political action committees alone. This is less than the 57,772.52 on hand for Parents & Teachers for Putting Students First, the PAC controlled by reform outfit StudentsFirst; the $5,000 in cash remaining for American Federation for Children’s PAC in the Keystone State; and the $3,176.05 still available for Democrats for Education Reform. All three, by the way, spend a total of $180,335.88 (of which the StudentsFirst PAC accounted for $151,335.88).

As Dropout Nation Contributor Dmitri Mehlhorn pointed out earlier this month, reformers are still outgunned by the AFT as well as the National Education Association on the money front. And this is clear in Philly.

October 14, 2014 standard

One thing is clear when you look at the American Federation of Teachers’ financial filings: It rarely spends money without an ulterior motive. Even as younger members demand that the AFT become more like a professional association focused on elevating the profession, the union continues to focus on bolstering its declining influence and even expanding its reach. This can easily be seen in Texas, where the nation’s second largest teachers’ union is spending plenty to oppose the state’s overhaul of teacher evaluations and gain new members at the expense of the National Education Association’s affiliate there.

These days, as the 2013-2014 financial disclosure to the U.S. Department of Labor reveals, the AFT is becoming an active force in the Lone Star face. In May, its Houston local filed suit against the traditional district to end its use of test score growth data in teacher evaluations. As far as the union is concerned, the Houston Independent School District’s use of Value Added Measurement violates the due process of their rank-and-file under the U.S. Constitution*, and thus, their ability to keep their continuing contracts (also known as near-lifetime employment or tenure around these parts). If the suit is successful, the AFT could end up filing suits against similar evaluations across the country.

Meanwhile in Austin, the AFT and its Lone Star State affiliate, AFT Texas, fought hard earlier this year to oppose the state’s overhaul of teacher evaluations. From where the union sits, the state’s move to require test score growth data for 20 percent of an overall evaluation under the new regimen is illegal under state law. [The fact that observations still constitute 70 percent of the evaluation while teachers get to game the measure thanks to a self-evaluation, all rendering the performance management tool absolutely useless, doesn't factor into their thinking.] While the AFT and other traditionalists didn’t succeed in halting the state’s effort — which is now being reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education as part of the state’s No Child waiver request — expect them to work hard within districts (which are forced to “conference”, also known as bargain, with NEA and AFT locals) to weaken implementation.

Meanwhile the AFT is looking at Texas as a bellwether of things to come across the nation. The union is likely heartened by the Lone Star State legislature’s passage last year of House Bill 5, which scaled back the battery of standardized tests and effectively weakened accountability. AFT Texas supported the bill’s passage. There’s also August’s ruling in Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition et. al. v. Williams, in which a judge determined that the state’s school funding formula was neither adequate or equitable. The possibility of districts gaining more money means higher salaries for the AFT’s rank-and-file, and thus, more money into its coffers through the dues it often forcibly collects.

With Latinos and other minorities becoming the majority of the state’s population (and already the majority of public school enrollment), the AFT is also betting that the Lone Star State will go from being a conservative and Republican bastion to a stronghold for Democrats and progressives, the latter of which the union has long ago co-opted. It is one reason why AFT Texas took the time this year to endorse Wendy Davis, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee whose already-sluggish run for the top office took another hit last week after unveiling an ad featuring an empty wheelchair that offended the disabled as well as Republicans.

But for the AFT, spending time on Texas isn’t just about principle. It’s also a growth opportunity. Even as the NEA’s Texas unit, the Texas State Teachers Association, has seen membership decline by 3.4 percent between 2009-2010 and 2012-2013, AFT Texas increased membership by 14 percent. This growth is occurring even as the AFT’s Houston local has seen membership declines. With 40,000 rank-and-filers, AFT Texas is nearly as formidable as the rival TSTA, at least in terms of bodies. [Both are still slightly smaller than the 50,000-member Texas Classroom Teachers Association.] The fact that there are 320,000 teachers, many of whom the AFT can try to unionize, is also appealing.

But like TSTA (which has ran deficits for two straight years), the AFT unit is also struggling financially. It generated a deficit of $309,204 in 2013-2014 on $5.9 million in revenue. Since the affiliate also generates half the revenue its NEA rival does, it needs all the help national can provide.

So the AFT is pouring money into Texas. It has directly subsidized AFT Texas (including its solidarity fund) to the tune of $1 million in 2013-2014. That’s a 23 percent increase over what it spent in the previous year. But that’s not the biggest dollars the union has poured into Texas. The AFT has devoted even more money to the affiliate’s Professional Educator Group, which serves to funnel money ($12 per member a year) into its political action committee. AFT poured $2.9 million into the PEG last fiscal year. This is on top of the $4.5 million poured into it by national in 2012-2013. Altogether, the AFT poured $3.9 million into its Lone Star State unit and its operations in 2013-2014, and has poured $9.3 million into the affiliate’s operations over the past two years, making the Texas effort one of the biggest stands against systemic reform for the union.  Not one dollar, by the way, has likely gone to helping teachers improve their classroom instruction or elevate the profession.

But AFT spending in Texas isn’t just limited to the affiliate alone. It poured $100,000 into the PAC run by its Texas Organizing Project, put $21,840 into its Southwest and Mountain States regional office, and devoted $24,453 to the office’s Houston Organizing Project. The Houston local picked up $20,616 from national while the San Antonio affiliate garnered $62,790. It also spent plenty on meetings there. This included $20,372 for a Martin Luther King Day meeting at the Wyndham San Antonio Riverwalk Hotel, $32,921 at the Doubletree Houston-Greenway Plaza for “member related services”, and $6,608 at the Embassy Suites Downtown in Austin for another meeting.

Then there’s the money AFT gave to groups and individuals aligned with its interests. This included $30,000 to the Texas Future Project, an effort run by the secretive Democracy Alliance; AFT President Randi Weingarten is a key player within the group, but, like Fight Club, the first rule of Democracy Alliance is that you can’t talk about it. The AFT also paid $82,498 to Ross Fitzgerald, who used to work for the now-defunct ACORN’s Community Labor Organizing Center, for his “member related services”, and gave $5,000 to grassroots outfit Dallas Area Interfaith.

Will any of this spending help the AFT preserve its declining influence for the long haul? Probably not. Based on the ruling in the Harris decision handed down in June, the AFT may not even be able to keep forcing teachers to pay dues for long. But for now, the spending is the AFT’s stand at the Alamo, a fight to preserve the clout it has left.

*Updated to clarify due process rights being discussed in the AFT’s Houston lawsuit.


No matter what your editor thinks of Karen Lewis’ rhetoric and defense of traditionalist practices, all I have right now is prayers for her to make a speedy recovery from her surgery last week to remove a brain tumor. As children of God and people of goodwill, we share in the pain of life threatening illness faced by our fellow men and women. Let us all keep Lewis and her family in our prayers through their tough time.