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January 27, 2015 standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 16, 2015 standard

Your editor has spent way too much time already tearing apart Rick Hess’ and Michael Petrilli’s this week’s piece accusing fellow school reformers of race-baiting for raising concerns about efforts by congressional Republican powers John Kline and Lamar Alexander to eviscerate the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions. But there is another point to be made about the intellectual unseriousness of the two erstwhile conservative school reformers’ argument that No Child in particular — and the aggressive federal role in advancing systemic reform — is damaging to public education. And that lies with Hess’ and Petrilli’s silence about what to do about the compliance-oriented provisions of No Child — a legacy of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act — that should be eviscerated from the books.

One of those provisions is the mouthful of words called Supplement not supplant. Written into the original ESEA in 1966, the rule is geared toward keeping states and districts from using federal Title 1 dollars to subsidize the instruction and curricular activities they were already funding out of their own coffers. Because the purpose of Title 1 is to provide additional support for children from poor and minority backgrounds, any use of the subsidies for general school operations (including for kids from the middle class) is a violation of federal law.

While supplement not supplant made sense from a compliance perspective, the rule can end up complicating the work of reform-minded state and district school leaders (especially those who are implementing programs approved by the Obama Administration under Race to the Top). More than a decade ago in New York City, concerns from Empire State officials about violating supplement not supplant led then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and now-former Chancellor Joel Klein to drop plans to implement a weighted student funding formula. The law’s complexity ends also leads to such perverse actions by district such as using Title 1 dollars to finance field trips instead of improving student achievement. Just as importantly, given the shoddy nature of most school district accounting systems and the murky nature of school finance, and there is little way that any district doesn’t end up in violation of federal law.

Districts, policy wonks, and others have long talked about the need to get rid of supplement not supplant. It isn’t the only non-accountability aspect of No Child that needs to be tossed asunder. Your editor has long criticized the law’s Highly Qualified Effective Teacher provision for being a rather wishy-washy element that merely allowed states and districts to simply allow laggard teachers to keep their jobs by magically certifying them as high quality. Since the provision didn’t require the use of student test data in measuring teacher quality (focusing instead on certification and other qualifications that have no positive correlation to student achievement), it should be removed from the law.

As I wrote yesterday, the federal role in education policy, especially in advancing systemic reform, has been positive on balance. But it doesn’t mean it is unquestionably so. The compliance aspects of federal law, which has never worked as a form of accountability (and was never designed for that purpose) is one aspect of the federal role that can be eliminated. In fact, doing so would make the federal government even more-effective than it has been in supporting efforts on the ground to transform public education.

Yet as I noted more than a year ago, there has been little effort on the part of districts, wonks, or policymakers to get rid of the legacy compliance rules embedded within No Child and other federal education laws. The plan for reauthorizing the law put out this week by Alexander, the overlord of the Senate’s education committee, would only modify supplement not supplant. [It does propose to eliminate HQET.] Other plans offered up by congressional Republicans and their Democrat counterparts haven’t even broached the subject.

While Hess has occasionally mentioned supplement not supplant as an issue, neither he nor Petrilli said much about it in their piece. They did spend plenty of time attacking the aspects of No Child (and the federal role in education policy) that actually focus on helping all kids succeed.

Why? Because for all the complaints about supplement not supplant and HQET, these are compliance matters for which districts and states have long ago developed processes to address. In fact, states and districts have successfully convinced Congress to grant exemptions to HQET, especially when it comes to hiring Teach For America recruits to work in classrooms. The fact that few districts and states are ever dinged for non-compliance — and even less media coverage of those incidents when the Department of Education gets around to catching them — makes them non-factors at all.

What is far more concerning to these folks is the embarrassment that comes from No Child’s accountability provisions, especially those forcing them to show Adequate Yearly Progress for improving the achievement of poor and minority children (as well as those in special education ghettos). The very revelations of how poorly districts and states were doing in improving the achievement of children — especially those from poor and minority backgrounds — since the implementation of No Child 12 years ago have embarrassed states and districts publicly and badly. So have the research and news stories that have revealed how states and districts inflated graduation rates and concealed the true numbers of children dropping out into poverty and prison.

More importantly, the accountability provisions have proven to be useful to reformers, as well as reform-minded policymakers, researchers, and families in advancing the systemic overhaul of American public education. As I pointed out yesterday, the accountability provisions have spurred the expansion of school choice (including public charter schools, vouchers, and tax credit programs) that have helped kids from poor and minority households escape failure mills. The law has also forced states to pay more attention to the plight of kids condemned to special ed ghettos.

Particularly for suburban districts such as those in Minnesota represented by Kline and Alexander who oppose expansion of choice and benefit from putting kids they don’t want to teach into special ed, the light shined on their failures as result of No Child have been anything but welcomed. So for these districts and their respective states, especially those in the Beltway where Hess and Petrilli live, there is greater motivation to eviscerate the accountability provisions (and go back to ignoring poor and minority kids) than to get rid of the compliance rules that actually get in the way of systemic reform.

Given these realities, it makes you wonder if Hess and Petrilli merely want to eviscerate No Child because of any true concerns about the federal role.

January 12, 2015 standard

Today’s speech by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on reauthorizing the No Child Left Behind Act, along with the entire circus over the latest efforts to pass a new version of the federal education law, have certainly garnered plenty of attention from Beltway school reformers and other policy wonks. But as your editor has noted over the past few months, the chances of a No Child reauthorization becoming reality are as likely as they were two years ago. That is, none at all. After all, Duncan and the Obama Administration have issued calls for reauthorizing No Child at various points over the past six years, as have Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. Yet as Duncan’s speech shows, the president will not sign any reauthorization that doesn’t preserve his legacy on education policy, a demand by which congressional Republicans won’t abide. So the latest hub-bub will be as meaningless as all the sound and fury signifying nothing that has happened over the past eight years.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some positive things coming out of all the otherwise-useless action. Education Trust and a cadre of civil rights groups (including the United Negro College Fund and NAACP) deserve praise for issuing a statement today calling for a reauthorization of No Child that effectively keeps in place the Adequate Yearly Progress provisions that have shined light on the consequences of the nation’s education crisis on children from poor and minority households. Given the collapse of the Campaign for High School Equity (which once served as the convening body for civil rights-based reformers) and the efforts by the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers to co-opt such groups by peddling a version of accountability that lets states, school operators, and adults off the hook for failure, Ed Trust deserves praise for rallying so many civil rights players to stand up for our most-vulnerable children.

But if reformers are looking to actually advance systemic reform, they need to spend less time in the Beltway and more in the nation’s statehouses, where much of the action on education will play out. Especially with a cadre of new governors and legislators taking office, along with issues that intersect with education such as criminal justice reform on the agenda, reformers should use the time now to pass meaningful legislation that will help all of our children.

There are plenty of reasons for focusing on the states beyond the stalemate inside the Beltway that has been the norm for the past four years and will remain so for the time-being. One lies with the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver gambit, which has allowed 40 states and the District of Columbia to ignore No Child’s accountability provision. As Dropout Nation has reported ad nauseam over the past four years, the administration has engaged in an exercise of shoddy policymaking that has damaged systemic reform by encouraging traditionalists in states such as Texas and California to weaken and ditch accountability altogether. Just as importantly, the waiver gambit reaffirms the role of states in structuring education without holding them accountable for how they spend federal dollars (or for providing them with high-quality teaching, curricula, and school options); this includes the administration’s move through the waiver process to bless implementation of Plessy v. Ferguson-like proficiency targets that allow districts and other school operators to effectively ignore poor and minority students.

For the few states that haven’t been granted a No Child waiver, there’s the matter that the federal law itself. Contrary to arguments offered up by traditionalists and conservative reformers looking to ditch No Child, the law did little to expand the federal role, and actually confirmed the role of states as the controlling entities of public education within their respective boundaries. States may be required to improve graduation rates and test scores — including the aspirational goal that all students are proficient in reading, math and science by 2014 — but they are given plenty of leeway in developing their own solutions in order to achieve them. Because of this flexibility, which states have figured out how to game since No Child signed 13 years ago, reformers in states still under its provisions must work as hard as in waiver states to advance systemic reform.

Certainly No Child and the waivers are two reasons why reformers must focus on states. But not the only ones. There’s the battle over implementing Common Core reading and math standards will continue apace, especially in states where Republican-controlled legislatures are under pressure to halt that work from movement conservatives opposed to them. Certainly reformers who back the standards are heartened by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s latest flip-flop from demanding the halt of implementation to giving districts a choice on continuing the work (which they will all likely do). But with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a once-strong backer of Common Core, already calling for a review of them, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal continuing his presidential ambition-motivated effort to stop implementation, reformers must work hard to keep them on the books.

Another fight will be over expanding school choice. In Massachusetts, a years-long battle over eliminating a cap on expanding public charter schools will become even more heated thanks to incoming Gov. Charlie Baker, who has signaled that he will support reformers on this issue through his appointment of former New Schools Venture Fund boss-turned-federal education official Jim Peyser as the state’s new superintendent. In Maryland, the small cadre of reformers there (including the Old Line State branch of 50 CAN and the Center for Education Reform) are looking to rewrite the state’s charter school law, which favors districts at children’s expense. And in Connecticut, Parent Power activists are looking to revise the state’s Parent Trigger law, building upon the petition model that has worked well in California.

With new governors such as Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker coming into officer, reformers must make the case for their solutions.

Then there are other battles. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, emboldened by winning a second term without backing from the AFT’s Empire State affiliate, will likely team up with Republicans in control of the state senate to push to improve an array of reform measures, including a further revamp of the teacher evaluation system. There’s also Indiana, where the two-year-long battle between reformers on the state’s board of education and Supt. Glenda Ritz will likely come to a head with efforts in the state legislature to make the latter’s job a gubernatorial appointment as well as Gov. Mike Pence’s plan to clarify state law by allowing the body to appoint its own chair instead of having Ritz at its helm. [Modifying and restructuring governance of state education systems will likely be on the agenda in other states as well.] And back in the Bay State, advocates for ending the overuse of harsh school discipline will likely leverage a report released last week by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice to push legislators to go their way.

But the battles extend beyond education. The uproar over the murders of black men such as Michael Brown and Eric Garner by police officers are leading criminal justice reform advocates to push legislatures and governors to enact new policies, including the creation of independent prosecutors for cases involving cops as well as the rewrite of use-of-force laws that allow rogue cops to get off scot-free. Concerns over the virtual insolvencies of public defined-benefit pensions are spurring pension reform activists to action; this will include efforts to pass laws that will move teachers and other civil servants into hybrid plans that feature aspects of defined-contribution plans along with a defined-benefit component with a guaranteed savings rate. On these and other issues, reformers can easily team up with advocates on those issues to address the matters that affect our children inside and outside of schools.

These fights matter because states are the battlegrounds from which reform efforts, especially at the federal level, are ultimately won or lost. Starting with 1960s, when NEA and AFT affiliates successfully convinced states to pass state laws forcing districts to bargain with them, states began reaffirming their constitutionally-mandated role overseeing and structuring public education. This continued into the 1970s, when school funding lawsuits and property tax reforms such as California’s Prop. 13, forced states to become the single-biggest source of funding for public school systems. By the end of that decade, southern governors and chambers of commerce successfully launched a wave of curricula standards, standardized testing regimes, and teacher quality efforts that would be at the heart of the school reform movement of today.

The policy wins in one statehouse end up being reflected in other statehouses. Why. Contrary to the longstanding argument by some that states are laboratories of democracy in which innovation is the norm, legislators and governors often duplicate efforts undertaken by counterparts elsewhere. This is because states differ little when it comes to the challenges they face on education and other issues. It is one reason why the American Legislative Exchange Council (with its success in developing model legislation passed in statehouses) has emerged as a leading policymaking force on the national level — and why progressives are trying to duplicate those efforts through the State Innovation Exchange. It is also why NEA and AFT affiliates, which have long-understood the importance of working statehouses, are stepping up their efforts on that level to preserve their influence.

Particularly when it comes to education, policy initiatives end up becoming embedded in federal law. This is because the federal government ultimately amplifies education policy decisions made at the state level, especially by those reform-minded governors and legislators (along with reformers) who also seek help from the federal level to beat back opposition to their efforts by entrenched traditionalist interests. If not for the reform efforts of governors at the end of the 1970s, there would be no A Nation at Risk. If not for moves by Florida and Texas during the 1990s, No Child wouldn’t have even become reality.

This is even clear now in discussions over revamping No Child; proposals by congressional Republicans to voucherize Title 1 funding originate from the passage of school voucher initiatives in states such as Indiana and Louisiana, while the Obama Administration’s initiative on reducing the overuse of harsh school discipline result in part from efforts by activists in states such as Maryland. When reformers succeed on the state level, they can then advance policy changes on the federal level that can, in turn, bolster existing efforts as well as move states bereft of strong reform constituencies.

Simply put, reformers must focus less on the bluster surrounding No Child reauthorization and more on what will (or won’t) be passed during state legislative sessions this year.

This starts with building stronger ties to chambers of commerce and other institutional groups who are as concerned as reformers about the consequences of the education crisis. It also takes embracing a bipartisan approach that accepts the reality that battles over reform have far less to do with political ideologies than with the power relationships that often exist at the state level. This includes building stronger ties with advocates on other issues that affect education; this includes criminal justice activists, who can help address overuse of out-of-school suspensions that (along with low-quality teaching and curricula) make schools way-stations into prisons for so children from poor and minority households. It involves long-term cultivation of grassroots support critical to making passage and implementation of reforms a reality. This must also include continually making the case to governors and legislators on why advancing reform matters — and holding them accountable when they go the wrong way. Finally, it means developing model legislation that reform-minded legislators and governors can build upon in their own policymaking work.

Sure, some attention should be paid to a No Child reauthorization that won’t likely happen. But a greater focus on statehouses will actually do more on the policy front for our children.

January 6, 2015 standard

Back in November, your editor explained why, contrary to the views of some conservative reformers irrationally exuberant over Republicans regaining full control of Congress, there will be little movement on education policy at the federal level over the next two years. Certainly one reason lies with the fact that President Barack Obama, no longer having to worry about protecting Senate Democrat incumbents, will use his executive authority to advance his efforts and will refuse to sign any legislation that doesn’t dovetail with his efforts to preserve his legacy on this front. But as I also noted, internal divisions within House and Senate Republican ranks on education and other policy issues (as well as the divide among congressional Democrats) all but assure that little in the way of sensible policymaking, especially on reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, will happen over the next two years.

A reminder of this reality came today during today’s intramural battle between House Republicans over re-electing House Speaker John Boehner to another term as their leader. The difficulty the Ohio Republican had in retaining the top job — and the likelihood of similar mutinies by more-conservative members within his caucus down the road — should rudely end any dreams of any real movement on federal education policy (especially No Child reauthorization) in the next congressional cycle. Put simply: Mike Petrilli should put away those colorful charts on reauthorizing No Child and grab some popcorn instead.

One would think that the affable Boehner, who came to Capitol Hill 20 years ago as a member of the Republican freshmen class that helped the party gain control of both the Senate and House for the first time since the early days of the Eisenhower presidency, would have an easy time winning another term as speaker. After all, he just presided over a successful midterm election campaign that included the pickup of 13 seats formerly held by Democrats as well as helping Republicans gain the largest majority it has had in 86 years. But you would be wrong. After a month of discontent among House Republicans that included the revelation that Majority Whip Steve Scalise had given a speech before an outfit founded by notorious Klu Klux Klansman-turned-politico David Duke, Boehner won re-election with just 216 votes from fellow Republicans (or 31 less than the total number of Republicans in the federal lower house). Put simply, Boehner kept his job by less than a constitutional majority.

Why the lack of thanks of an ungrateful caucus? More-conservative Republicans, angered by Boehner’s unwillingness to shut down the federal government’s discretionary operations, annoyed by his unwillingness to support their opposition to any kind of immigration reform, and dismayed by his successful move last month to pass a continuing budget resolution features such apostasies as financing the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for two months (and thus, allowing the Obama Administration to enact the executive order on immigration they hate so deeply), decided to vote for anyone but him.

But the disenchantment extends beyond the recent months. Among more-conservative Republicans and their amen corners in media outlets such as National Review and think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, Boehner’s Reaganesque brand of conservatism (one which favors expansive immigration), his record on such matters as education policy (especially having served as a coauthor of No Child), and his desire to actually engage in that thing called governing a nation makes him a virtual traitor to movement conservatism. Or so they think. The fact that Boehner attempted last year to rally support for an immigration reform plan that would have likely been similar to one offered up by the Gang of Eight in the Senate led by Florida Republican (and likely presidential candidate) Marco Rubio, also irked them. And let’s not forget that Boehner, along with other congressional leaders, is associated with the Bush-era policies (including No Child) that these new-styled conservatives want to cast aside.

Luckily for Boehner, he didn’t need a majority of either Republican or Democrat votes to win another term as speaker. But today’s antics already prove lie to speculation among some political observers within and outside of education policy circles that more-conservative players among congressional Republicans in both houses will pass any legislation that Boehner or his Senate colleague, Mitch McConnell, offer up. If anything, full Republican control of Congress actually empowers more-conservative players such as Ted Cruz because they can count on a larger faction of fellow-travelers (as well as those playing to the less-sensible among conservative activists within the party) to stop passage of any measure that displeases them. The fact that Republicans won full control of Congress 13 months after Cruz and his colleagues helped shut down federal discretionary operations to the annoyance of the public at the time has actually shown them that they can get away with anything because voters have short memories of bad acts.

For Boehner, in particular, this dissension is particularly problematic because the House Speakership is probably in its weakest state since 1811, just before the legendary Henry Clay transformed what was then a figurehead job into a seat of political control over every aspect of legislating. The move five years ago by House Democrats and Republicans three years ago to end the practice of earmarks, or allowing congressmen to shower subsidies upon favored constituents, means that Boehner lacks a key tool for forcing factions opposed to his key goals to either compromise or go along. Further complicating matters: House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who can easily exploit congressional Republican divisions by refusing to offer Boehner any support from her caucus. Given that Democrats are now in the minority, and that her own long-term survival depends on waging a war of obstruction, she has little reason to offer Boehner support in those sticky situations when his more-conservative dissenters refuse to vote for his plans.

Given that policymaking and ultimately, governing always involve some level of meeting in the middle, Boehner’s lack of power means that little in the way of legislating (save for matters involving those budgetary matters congressmen know are key to their relationships with constituents and iron triangles) will be happening under the dome.

Last year’s debacle over immigration reform has already shown that little in the way of comprehensive action will be happening on that front. Same is also likely true on federal education policymaking. House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (along with Senate counterpart Lamar Alexander) aim to eviscerate No Child and its accountability provisions. But he must contend with more-conservative members off the committee who have no interest in taking any action that looks like they are teaming up with the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers; passing a No Child reauthorization that eviscerates annual testing (as Alexander suggests he would support) won’t go down well with movement conservative activists on the ground. Kline must also deal with the few remaining Republicans on and off the committee who realize that No Child’s measures have spurred the kinds of systemic reforms children need for lifelong success. The presence of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a strong reformer who has embraced No Child (and his brother’s legacy on education policy), in the race for the Republican presidential nomination is also a factor.

The fact that Kline essentially wants to go back to the old days of the federal government doling out subsidies without holding states accountable (an affront to movement conservatives of any intellectual honesty), and is pushing for increases in federal special ed dollars in order to help out the traditional districts in his Minnesota community, also doesn’t sit well with those in his caucus who want to reduce federal spending altogether. Add in the anger among Republicans with American Indian and Alaska Native communities in their districts over Kline’s effort two years ago to end funding for Native education programs, along with Boehner’s own desire to preserve his legacy on education policy, and Kline could end up finding himself having a harder time passing his proposal out of the House than he did two years ago.

More than likely, what will come out of both houses will be legislation to expand charter schools, funding for D.C.’s school voucher program (a perennial battle of wills between congressional Republicans and an Obama Administration always trying to shut it down), and a bill governing federal education research that almost passed out of Congress last year. Beyond that, promises by Kline and Alexander to pass a reauthorized version of No Child by Valentine’s Day is hogwash. Even a proposal makes it out of both houses, it will be vetoed by Obama, who knows that Republicans don’t have the two-thirds of votes needed to overturn his action.

So reformers looking forward to congressional action of any kind on education policy should keeping looking. Particularly for conservatives in the school reform movement, the revolt against Boehner should serve as a rude awakening.

January 5, 2015 standard

If you want to know why the United Federation of Teachers is pushing New York State legislators to enact a class size reduction initiative (and pass a $900 million-a-year property tax increase to pay for it), just look at the union’s 2013-2014 financial disclosure to the U.S. Department of Labor filed last month. For the American Federation of Teachers affiliate, reducing class size and the teacher hiring spree that would accompany it is key to boosting the slowdown it is experiencing after a decade of strong growth in revenue and rank-and-file membership.

The nation’s largest teachers’ union local generated $136 million in dues in 2013-2014, a mere 2.2 percent increase from the previous fiscal year. This is slower than the 3.9 percent annual growth in dues UFT experienced between 2005-2006 and 2012-2013. One reason: The union’s membership declined slightly between 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (from 124,145 members to 124,069 members), after a 17 percent increase between 2005-2006 and 2013-2014.

UFT did add 2,109 retired members paying dues in 2013-2014, leading to a 3.5 percent increase in retired members paying dues into its coffers over the previous year. But given that the average UFT retired member pays as much as $27.06 a month in dues every month (based on Dropout Nation‘s analysis of salary data from the Teachers Retirement System of New York), or little more than one-quarter of the $101.46 paid monthly by the average teacher in the union’s rank-and-file, it needs more full-time teachers and other school employees on the city’s payroll to grow its revenues without increasing dues.

In the unlikely event that Empire State legislators moved to pass the UFT’s proposal, it would likely lead to an additional 10,000 teachers on New York City’s payroll (based on the union’s proposal to reduce class sizes from 25 students per teacher to 15), which would increase the 73,373-teacher staff by another 13.7 percent. [Dropout Nation revised the original estimate downward as part of its own due diligence.] Considering that the evidence shows there is little correlation between class-size reduction and improvements in student achievement — as well as the reality that such a hiring spree would exacerbate the Big Apple’s massive pension insolvency (which is $32 billion based on Dropout Nation‘s latest analysis) that taxpayers already struggle to bear — the UFT’s class-size reduction plan does little for children for the short- and long haul. It won’t even be a benefit to teachers, especially high-quality instructors already dealing with the consequences of low-quality teaching among their worst colleagues. But for UFT, that’s another $12.2 million a year in much-needed revenue — which would lead to $24.4 million in revenue it would collect annually from teachers teaching kindergarten through third grade classes. And for the union, which has done plenty to ignore the wishes of its rank-and-file, the cash is what matters most.

Meanwhile there are other reasons why UFT needs more teachers and more money. Start with its pension and retiree healthcare liabilities. The union reported an accrued pension liability of $27 million in 2013-2014, a 39 percent increase over the previous year. [This, by the way, is still lower than the $42 million it owed in 2011-2012; how it managed to whittle those liabilities down by nearly half is an accounting trick Dropout Nation is figuring out.] UFT also reported post-retirement health liabilities of $25.3 million, a five percent decline from the previous year; this is also lower than the $30 million in liabilities it reported two years ago. Altogether, the AFT local must pay down $52 million in retirement liabilities. Luckily for UFT, it has $139 million in assets, some of which can be liquidated quite easily to pay down those liabilities if needed.

There’s also the fact that UFT’s other sources of revenue are in decline. The union’s overall revenue of $164 million in 2013-2014 is 14 percent lower than its revenue in the previous year. It generated a mere $2.3 million in loan repayments last fiscal year, a 93 percent decline from levels during the previous fiscal year. UFT also collected just $15.2 million in subsidies from the New York State United Teachers, the AFT affiliate of which it essentially regained control last year with the ouster of now-former president Richard Iannuzzi; that is slightly lower than in 2012-2013. A teacher hiring spree by the Big Apple district means more dollars into UFT’s coffers.

Finally, there is the fact that the AFT local is spending more on political activities. It spent $31 million on lobbying (including so-called representational activities that include political spending alongside arbitration and other unionizing expenses) in 2013-2014; this is an 18.3 percent increase over spending in the previous fiscal year. The local’s political spending increased by 35 percent over the past two years.

Among the biggest beneficiaries of UFT’s largesse: New York Jobs Now, a coalition of businesses and unions that worked to win voter support for a referendum allowing casino gambling in the Empire State; it picked up $125,000 from the union last fiscal year. Strong Economy for All Coalition, a cadre of public-sector unions and progressive outfits whose members include Citizen Action, along with AFT vassals New York Communities for Change and Alliance for Quality Education, also collected $150,000 from the union; UFT is likely the second-biggest donor to the group after NYSUT (which gave the group $259,150 during its 2013-2014 fiscal year).

The NAACP’s New York State unit, whose misadventures in backing UFT’s efforts have been well-documented on these pages, picked up $12,800 from the union, while Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network collected $25,000 from the union as part of the deal he struck with UFT President Michael Mulgrew to back its efforts to oppose teacher quality reforms that benefit black children in exchange for the union’s internally controversial support for addressing police brutality. UFT gave $5,000 to the publishers of Dissent, the progressive magazine.

The ever-reliable New York Communities, which along with AQE, helped UFT and AFT target news anchor-turned-school reformer Campbell Brown last year, picked up $25,000 from the union. The Black Institute, which is run by former ACORN honcho Bertha Lewis, received $30,000, while the W.E.B. Du Bois Scholars Institute at Princeton University, which recruits and develops young black leaders, picked up $20,000 in AFT local ducats. Looking to bolster ties with Latino and black community players, UFT also poured $11,500 each into the committees running the Big Apple’s Puerto Rican Day and West Indian parades, while giving $5,000 each to two churches, Thessalonia Baptist (in the Bronx) and Union United Methodist (in Brooklyn).

Meanwhile UFT spent plenty of money with scandal-plagued political operatives. It purchased $35,000 in consulting services from Time for a Change Foundation, whose boss, Musa Moore, has ties to the notoriously-corrupt former New York City Democratic party boss Clarence Norman. The AFT local also spent $50,632 with the Advance Group and its front operation, Strategy Consultants; both have been under federal investigation since it was revealed last year that Advance set up Strategy Consultants so that it could get around campaign finance laws barring it from doing work for both UFT and individual political campaigns (including that of Bill Thompson, the longtime Big Apple politician who was backed by UFT in his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic mayoral nod against eventual winner de Blasio). Beyond less-than-savory politicos, UFT spent $12,000 with political consultant Brendan Kelly (whose past clients include New York City Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy).

As for UFT’s salaries? Mulgrew pulled down $281,223 in 2013-2014, a 4.5 percent increase over the previous year. The union’s secretary and treasurer, Michael Mandel and Melvin Aaronson, collected no compensation in those roles; but Aaronson was paid $72,206 (9.4 percent more than in 2012-2013) while serving as one of the union’s special representatives. Richard Riley, who is the public relations boss for UFT, was paid $192,533, a 2.6 percent increase over 2012-2013.

You can check out the data yourself, either by checking out the HTML version of its LM-2 filing or by visiting the Department of Labor’s Web site.

December 20, 2014 audio

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle takes time this Christmas season to consider two important lessons about helping all kids from the birth of Christ that all reformers should embrace.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle Radio or download directly to your mobile or desktop device. Also, subscribe to the podcast series, and embed this podcast on your site. It is also available on iTunesBlubrry, Stitcher, and PodBean.