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February 19, 2016 standard

As you would expect, Tuesday’s commentary on Success Academy’s pattern of educational abuse garnered plenty of reaction from reformers and traditionalists alike. Even more discussion continued about the New York Times‘ revelation that the charter school operator’s “model teacher”, Charlotte Dial, berated and embarrassed a first-grader for failing to answer a math question to her liking, an approach that the outfit encourages through its professional development and daily practices.

But Success and its founder, Eva Moskowitz, can always count on more than a few allies within the school reform movement to defend it. Over the past couple of days, some reformers have offered up more excuses than any sensible person would want to hear. And in the process, Success Academy’s defenders have done a disservice, both to the school reform movement’s mission of building brighter futures for children and to the communities we are supposed to serve.

You already know one of the lines of defense that defenders of Success Academy usually trot out: That any critique of its practices by reformers concerned about them is de facto opposition to school choice. Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in his attempt to be clever, tried this line of argument early on. Your editor has already detailed why this argument is pure hogwash; this includes the reality that families may be choosing Success not because it wants its model of educational practice, but because New York City has restricted the expansion of high-quality alternatives from which they can choose.

There’s also the fact that Success supporters are conflating criticism of charter school operators and other institutions with support or opposition to advancing the power of families to choose high-quality education. This is just as intellectually dishonest as traditionalists conflating criticism of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers with esteem for teachers. Just as importantly, while there are traditionalists taking aim at Success’ practices are aiming to oppose expansion of choice, taking aims at motivations of critics doesn’t address the lengthy evidence of Success’ failures in educational practice.

But never think that those willing to defend the indefensible will settle on one line of argument. The latest attempt to defend Success’ practices seems ripped from the words of your average 10-year-old after being caught misbehaving in class: Traditional districts engage in educational abuse, too. According to this line of argument, traditionalists (and by association, reformers) calling out Success for overusing suspensions, allegedly engaging in pushing children out of its schools, or keeping educationally-abusive teachers on payrolls are engaging in utter hypocrisy if they also don’t call out traditional districts for the long and sorry record of similar misbehavior. Otherwise Success should be left alone and the video of Dial’s misdeed ignored (or else someone conclude that it may be more-representative of what happens in its schools that photos of smiling faces for public relations purposes).

Certainly those who offer this excuse have a point: Many traditionalists have long-failed to acknowledge the academic and even physical abuse that has gone on within more than a few traditional districts. In fact, many of these folks, including those running the National Educational Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have done all they can to oppose reforms of teacher dismissal policies that keep academically- and criminally-abusive teachers in classrooms.

But there are many problems with this argument. For one, it ignores the fact that there have been more than a few traditionalists who have stood against such abuses. Particularly on the school discipline front, traditionalists such as the AFT’s Chicago Teachers Union have been more-active in pushing against the overuse of suspensions and expulsions than many within the school reform movement itself. This is a point made by former Newark Supt. Cami Anderson earlier this month at Teach For America’s annual summit. All in all, Success Academy defenders pushing this argument come off as being selective in their outrage.

If anything, by implicitly comparing their own failure to argue strongly against both Success’ school discipline practices and its failure to fire Dial, reformers defending Moskowitz are essentially admitting that they are no better than traditionalists who conveniently ignore these acts of educational abuse. Which is true. As Dropout Nation has documented ad nauseam, many in the movement either seem comfortable with overuse of harsh school discipline so long as it is done by the operators they favor, or are cowardly silent in the face of the facts.

Meanwhile reformers defending Success are taking another tact: Blame the media. From where they sit, the New York Times‘ coverage of the operator’s spate of problems –including its revelation of the Dial video — is biased because the newspaper supposedly doesn’t cover the educational and even criminal abuse that happens within the Big Apple’s traditional district and other school operators.

One problem with this argument: A simple Google search proves it to be untrue. This includes a story three years ago detailing how 16 teachers in New York City kept their jobs despite evidence of engaging in sexual misconduct against children in their care; allegations of sexual misconduct by Nicole DuFault, who worked in the Maplewood district in nearby New Jersey; and the crimes of now-convicted former Brooklyn Tech instructor Sean Shaynak. As with any newspaper, the Times is going to dig deep into a hot story featuring an institution or leader of significant presence, influence, and controversy. For the Times to ignore Success Academy, one of the foremost and most-controversial players in American public education, would be tantamount to journalistic malpractice.

At the same time, in complaining about the Times‘ coverage, Success defenders have failed to appreciate that the newspaper isn’t in the business of providing coverage they find favorable. After all, the Times is supposed to be both a news outlet that practices traditional objective journalism and an institution charged by the First Amendment and journalistic tradition to shed light and aid the afflicted. This includes families of children who have not been well-served by Success Academy’s schools and its staffers. If anything, as evidenced by how Moskowitz and her team handled the revelation of Dial’s malpractice, the Times proved to be as necessary as ever. The teacher’s aide who provided the video likely did so because she knew all too well that Success would do nothing right by the child in Dial’s care.

Instead of criticizing the Times for doing its job, reformers defending Moskowitz and Success should engage in some self-examination. Why do they defend overuse of harsh school discipline that has been overwhelmingly proven by data and evidence to do little to improve (and actually damages) student achievement and school cultures? Why are they defending a school operator against whom there has been a lengthy record of documented educational malpractice — including former teachers and school leaders pointing to teaching approaches that damage the self-worth of children in its care? Why are they so insistent on being unwilling to strongly criticize the actions of an institution even as they advance the much-needed expansion of high-quality school choice? Why do they seem willing to forget the goal of nurturing the genius and potential of our children, especially those black and brown who are harmed the most by these practices, that is at the heart of the movement’s mission? And how can the movement sustain systemic reform when it alienates the very families from which they need vital political support?

By continuing to defend Success Academy’s practices, these reformers are demonstrating to families black and brown that they cannot be trusted with building brighter futures for children. Even worse, their concerns for defending an institution over the life of the child at the heart of Success’ latest controversy serves as propaganda material for the very traditionalists they rightfully call out for their justifications of the indefensible. No matter how you look at it, this is not a good moment for reformers defending Success Academy’s practices. Not at all.

January 8, 2016 standard

As the largest local of the American Federation of Teachers — and the breeding ground for the union’s past and present top leaders — United Federation of Teachers knows how to throw its weight around. But as the local’s latest filing with the U.S. Department of Labor shows, that political heft isn’t exactly helping it keep members or stave off long-term fiscal burdens.

The nation’s largest teachers’ union local generated $126 million in dues in 2014-2015, a 5.7 percent increase over the previous year. [The union’s overall revenue was $169 million, a 3.3 percent increase over 2013-2014.] This is only because of a 6.8 percent increase in average monthly dues paid by classroom teachers into the union’s coffers (from $101.46 to $108.34).

The big problem? UFT experienced a three percent decline in rank-and-file. The decline is worse than it appears. The number of active teachers and school employees paying into UFT declined by 5.4 percent between 2013-2014 and 2014-2015; the union also saw a 15.1 percent decline in the number of teachers not in the union still forced to pay into its coffers through agency fees charged to them.

With nearly every Big Apple teacher paying $108.34 a month into UFT’s coffers, each lost teacher means less money for the union to stay afloat without either subsidies from the national AFT or massive bank borrowing. [By the way: AFT provided just $219,758 in subsidies to the union in 2014-2015, along with another $140,016 in grants through its foundation affiliate.]

UFT’s retiree members did increase by 1.9 percent within the last year. As you already know, the AFT local’s president, Michael Mulgrew, likes their presence because they are loyal to the Unity Caucus that controls the branch (as well as forms the heart of the Progressive Caucus that controls the national union). But as Dropout Nation noted last year, the fact that the average retired member pays between $1.50 and $15.09 a month in dues into UFT’s coffers (or between 86 percent and 98 percent less than dues paid by classroom teachers) means that the union needs the Big Apple to employ more teachers in order to keep dollars flowing, even as it continually works to suppress their voice within the union.

This is especially important because UFT’s pension and retiree healthcare burdens are on the increase.

The AFT local owed $61 million in pension and retiree healthcare obligations in 2014-2015. That’s a 17.3 percent increase over the $52 million in pension and other post-employment obligations on the union’s books during the previous fiscal year. UFT’s pension and retiree health liabilities have increased by 32.6 percent over the past two years. [The union contributed $5.4 million to pension and defined-contribution plans, a 4.9 percent increase over 2013-2014.]

Considering that UFT is also on the hook for $50 million in loans taken out by affiliates that control two of its posh real estate properties (including its former headquarters on Park Avenue South near the famed Flatiron Building), this means that the AFT affiliate has $146 million in liabilities compared to just $127 million in assets; in short, the union doesn’t have enough assets available to pay off its pension burdens.

So you can imagine that it is more than worried about the impact of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which threatens to end UFT’s (and AFT’s) ability to force teachers to pay into the coffers regardless of their desire for membership. [As you know, Dropout Nation, along with several of its contributors, are party to an amicus brief filed on behalf of the plaintiffs in the case.] Theoretically, UFT may be better-able to withstand the impact of any ruling than its national parent or the National Education Association because of its role in dealing with teacher work issues on the ground. But given the lingering ire among both hardcore traditionalist Baby Boomers and younger, more reform-minded teachers over the suppression tactics of Mulgrew and predecessor (and current AFT president) Weingarten, there may be plenty of teachers ready to leave the UFT fold, either for another union or for professional associations that focus on elevating the teaching profession.

As you would expect, none of the short- and long-term fiscal issues are getting in the way of UFT’s influence-buying.

The union spent $31.6 million on lobbying, so-called representational activities (which are often explicitly political), and contributions to like-minded groups in 2014-2015, a 1.6 percent increase over the previous year. Among the beneficiaries of UFT’s largesse: New York Communities for Change, which along with the Alliance for Quality Education, has helped UFT and its national parent take on reformers such as former CNN anchor Campbell Brown. The union gave $155,001 to the group in 2014-2015. The union also gave $10,000 to former ACORN leader Bertha Lewis’ Black Institute, and poured $5,000 each into Citizen’s Action New York and ACLU’s New York Civil Liberties Union branch.

Meanwhile UFT spent heavily on old-school civil rights groups and high-profile minority events. The NAACP’s branch in the Elmhurst section of Queens picked up $56,910 from the union, while the Big Apple unit of 100 Black Men collected $12,500. UFT also gave $25,000 to the Martin Luther King Concert Series held in the New York City borough each summer; $10,000 to the organizer of the National Puerto Rican Day Parade; $10,000 to the organizer of the Big Apple’s West Indian American Day Carnival; $5,225 to the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s Empire State chapter; $5,000 to the venerable Amsterdam News‘ foundation wing; $5,000 to Latino activist group El Puente; and $5,000 to Make the Road New York (which the union prominently lists as one of its “community partners” in opposing systemic reform).

Yet much of UFT’s spending went not to supposed community groups and progressive outfits, but on direct political spending and media buys.

The union spent $3.3 million with political campaign consultancy Shorr Johnson Magnus on various media buys, gave AFT boss Randi Weingarten’s former employer, Stroock & Stroook & Lavan $274,313 for lobbying activities, and spent $60,000 with the lobbying wing of law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. UFT spent $81,999 with the New York City branch of education news outlet Chalkbeat, bought a $15,000 ad with the Daily News, put down $11,990 with Politico‘s New York City outlet, and spent $12,500 with politically-connected media magnate Tom Allon’s Manhattan Media.

The union also did plenty of independent spending on behalf of state legislative candidates it favored during the 2014 election cycle. This included spending $30,416 with Momentum Strategic Campaigns to pay for junk mail sent on behalf of New York State Assemblywoman Jo Ann Simon’s successful maiden campaign; spending $10,213 with Red Horse Strategies on mailers for State Sen. Adriano Espaillat‘s re-election bid; and $40,400 with polling outfit Greenberg Quinlan Rosner to conduct surveys on state senate campaigns.

An even bigger spend was for last year’s lobbying day effort in Albany. For that, UFT dropped $50,400 with transportation firm Academy Express to transport activists to the legislature, spent $61,346 with Mazzone Management Group for catering services, and ran up $9,404 in hotel charges with TownePlace Suites by Marriot. [The union spent another $29,337 on hotel rooms for meetings with top black and Latino state legislators.]

You can check out the data yourself by checking out the HTML version of UFT’s latest financial report, or by visiting the Department of Labor’s Web site. Also check out Dropout Nation‘s Teachers Union Money Report, for this and previous reports on NEA and AFT spending.

December 21, 2015 standard

By now, we all know that reading is fundamental. But for the school reform movement, reading a broad, well-rounded collection of books is especially critical to success. Because the nation’s education crisis feeds into the social, economic, and political issues facing our nation and world, we must break out of specialization and become interdisciplinary in our thinking. There’s also the fact that as parents and caregivers, we must continually be the lifelong readers we demand all of our children to be.

This is why Dropout Nation offers its help with the 2015 edition of The Top Eight Books That School Reformers Should Read. Culled from more than 100 books, the selections include Ta-Nehisi Coates’ exposition on racialism in America; academic N.D.B. Connolly’s exploration of the forces that have shaped the urban segregation that continues to exist in Miami and other cities today; journalist Stephen Witt’s reporting on how the Internet disrupted the music industry; and Nick Salvatore’s biography of famed preacher C.L. Franklin’s leadership in music and civil rights. Also on the list are Dale Russakoff’s tome on Newark’s school reform efforts, a Parent Power book from Tom Vander Ark and his team at Getting Smart, and a tome on education governance from famed education policy wonk Paul Hill.

As with every edition of the Top Eight, the selections met five important criteria: Does it have a strong narrative or polemical power (also known as “is it well-written”)? Are the lessons relevant to the reform of American public education? Is the book thought-provoking (or does it offer new arguments or new thinking on familiar issues)? When research is involved in the narrative, does it stand up to scrutiny? And would you pay at least $14 to put it on your tablet (or, for those of you still reading traditional books, pay at least $20 for the paperback or hardcover)?

Below are this year’s selections. Offer your own suggestions in the comments. And just read, read, read.

A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida: There are plenty of reasons why reformers should pick up Johns Hopkins University Professor N.D.B. Connolly’s exploration of how political forces and real estate speculation shaped housing segregation in Miami (and ultimately, the rest of the nation). One reason: Connolly clearly details how the development of cities — including urban renewal programs and the construction of housing projects that blighted so many cities in the 20th century — were strongly influenced by Jim Crow segregation. This, in turn, explains why the traditional district model of public education perpetuated state-sanctioned racial bigotry, as well as why expanding school choice is critical to addressing this shameful legacy. Connolly’s skillful dissection of how black real estate owners — including local civil rights leaders such as Athalie Range — worked together with white counterparts and politicians in perpetuating segregation should also be considered. After all, those collaborations against the futures of black people can be seen today as black teachers, school leaders, police officers, and politicians team up with others to perpetuate the nation’s education crisis and the overcriminalization of black lives. For reformers, Connolly’s book provides important lessons on the thinking we must use to build brighter futures for every child.

The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools: Plenty of well-deserved praise and equally-warranted scorn has been heaped upon New Yorker writer Dale Russakoff’s report on the very mixed success of now-former Newark Supt. Cami Anderson’s effort to overhaul the New Jersey city’s long-floundering district. But for reformers, regardless of their views on the book, Russakoff’s analysis should be considered with an open mind. Why? Because in illustrating how Anderson as well as allies such as former Newark Mayor Cory Booker and Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg failed to fully engage and empower families and communities in overhauling the district, Russakoff points out the failures of the movement to build strong grassroots ties that are needed to sustain reforms for the long haul. As seen this month in the evisceration of the No Child Left Behind Act, there are grave consequences for not doing so. Even if The Prize isn’t the messenger reformers want to hear, the message deserves reading and listening loud and clear.

Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces:
As Dropout Nation has detailed within the past year, overuse of harsh school discipline has commingled with the militarization of police departments and referrals by districts to juvenile courts to endanger the futures (and lives) of poor and minority children in and out of school. But as you read Washington Post columnist Radley Balko’s book on police militarization, this didn’t happen overnight. Throughout the book, Balko demonstrates how bad policymaking at federal, state, and local levels — from the SWAT teams instituted by the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1960s, to Bill Clinton’s launch of the Community-Oriented Policing program, to the Section 1033 program that has equipped school cops with assault rifles — has led to innocent lives being endangered even within their own homes. For school reformers, Balko’s book offers more reasons why they should team up with criminal justice reform advocates on ensuring that children are free from harm everywhere they go.

How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of PiracyBe they school choice advocates or activists for revamping teacher quality or even standards and accountability proponents, many reformers have a tendency to believe that their favored solution will transform American public education. Yet the history of the movement itself, as well as what has happened in other sectors, has long ago shown that it takes numerous solutions to overhaul and even disrupt failing sectors. Stephen Witt proves this point in How Music Got Free. Throughout his reporting, Witt shows how various actors — from the work of Karlheinz Brandenburg and his colleagues at the Fraunhofer Institute in developing and releasing the MP3 format, to the effort of Dell Glover to upload music onto the Internet, to the emergence of Apple Computer’s iPod and iTunes music service — upended the music industry’s traditional and archaic business model. At the same time, Witt also offers reformers some new ideas on how they can continue to upend traditional public education. Certainly there are differences between the Big Six music labels and traditional districts. But for any reformer looking for new lessons for their efforts, How Music Got Free is important reading.

Singing in a Strange Land: C.L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America: At first glance, a biography on the legendary preacher and father of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, seems a strange choice for this list. But if reformers look closely, they will realize that isn’t so. Why? By offering a strong look at how Franklin succeeded in becoming a major force in gospel music — and failed as a preacher to be as strong a player as contemporaries Martin Luther King and Fred Shuttlesworth in rallying civil rights activism — Nick Salvatore provides important insight on what can happen to leaders when their focus is more on celebrity than on transforming the lives of the communities in which they live. Through the portrayals of the efforts of civil rights leaders in Franklin’s home base of Detroit such as Albert Cleage and Richard Henry, Salvatore also provides lessons on building grassroots efforts in urban communities. Befitting his daytime job as a labor historian at Cornell University, Salvatore even manages to provide a strong look at how unions such as the United Auto Workers often discriminated, both internally and in municipal politics, against the black workers whose interests they purported to represent. Particularly for black reformers battling teachers’ union affiliates, Singing in a Strange Land is a reminder that Big Labor has never been friends of black communities and their children.

Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning: When families are provided knowledge and high-quality data, they can help their children succeed in school and in life. Yet as a movement, school reformers do little to equip them. So it is wonderful that Tom Vander Ark, with the help of his Getting Smart colleagues, Bonnie Latham and Carrie Schneider, have put together an important book advising families on how they can personalize learning as well as help their kids achieve in school and in life. From showing parents how they can help their kids become self-directed in their own learning, to crafting learning plans that focus on matters academic and otherwise, Smart Parents provides some important and useful tools. This isn’t to say that Vander Ark, Latham, and Schneider does the complete job. The book is particularly deficient on parent advocacy, failing to offer the strong advice given by Dr. Steve Perry four years ago in Push Has Come to Shove (a Top Eight book in 2011). It also fails to offer examples of successful Parent Power advocacy such as that of Gwen Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union or New York City Parents Union’s Mona Davids. That said, Smart Parents deserves a place on the bookshelves of reformers and families alike.

A Democratic Constitution for Public Education: The byzantine nature of education governance, especially at the state level is a serious problem. One key reason: Because the structure of school systems can be as much a culprit for why reforms don’t happen as it can be a reason for why tough action can happen swiftly. So former Center for Reinventing Public Education boss Paul T. Hill and his onetime colleague, Ashley E. Jochim, deserve plenty of praise for devoting 143 pages to addressing what reformers can do to overhaul governance. This includes offering a new vision of structuring public education, based largely on the portfolio model Hill and his successor at CRPE, Robin Lake, have advanced for the past decade, as well as crafting a new approach for financing education that expands high-quality school options for children and their families. At the same time, in refreshing moments of candor, Hill and Jochim acknowledge that the educational governance approach for which they advocate has its own issues. This isn’t to say that the book is without flaws. For example, it fails to consider Hunter v. Pittsburgh, the century-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling that essentially renders districts (as well as other local governments) as subservient to state government, essentially making the very concept of local control a fiction. All that said, Hill and Jochim have offered an important primer for reformers to use in overhauling how American public education is overseen at all levels of government.

Between the World and Me: Atlantic Monthly columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates has garnered plenty of acclaim and more than a little scorn for his letter to his son on the racialism that is the Original Sin of American life. While Coates doesn’t touch on education policy, he essentially makes a strong historical case for why reformers (especially increasingly erstwhile conservatives in the movement) must go back to embracing accountability measures and a strong federal role in education policymaking that, along with other changes in American society, are key to helping children from poor and minority households (as well as their families and communities) attain economic and social equality. Coates’ reporting on meeting with the mother of Prince Jones, a young man murdered by an off-duty police officer while driving to meet up with his fiancee is one of the most-heartbreaking passages in the entire book. Whatever your perspective, Coates has written a compelling book. It deserves your attention.


As always, there are a number of books that are deserve praise, but didn’t make the cut. This Next Four includes The School Choice Journey, Thomas Stewart’s and Patrick Wolf’s analysis of the impact of Washington, D.C.’s school voucher program; The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s look at the Great Migration of African-Americans from the tyranny of the Jim Crow South during the last century; The Courage to Act, Ben Bernanke’s memoir of his term as Federal Reserve Board chairman during the most-recent economic malaise; and The Knowledge Capital of Nations, Eric Hanushek’s and Ludger Woessmann’s expository text on the importance of education policy in global economic development.

December 10, 2015 standard

There’s a lot of cheering in the Beltway today as President Barack Obama eviscerates much of his legacy as school reformer-in-chief (as well as reverses the strong federal role in advancing systemic reform that reached its apex with the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability provisions) with the signing of the laughably-title Every Student Succeeds Act. But as Contributing Editor Sandy Kress and other writers on these pages have pointed out, there are numerous reasons why no one who proclaims to be a school reformer should welcome this.

The latest example can be seen in Hartford, Conn., where the traditional district’s mistreatment of English Language Learner children and peers condemned to its special ed ghettos is another reminder of why accountability. Our most-vulnerable children deserve far more than what the Obama Administration and the cadre of congressional leaders who passed this shoddy legislation are giving to them.

Back in November, it was revealed that children in special ed at the district’s SAND Elementary School were forced to wear stickers on the backs of their shirts labeling their learning issues. This was developed by Chris Hempel, then an assistant superintendent in charge of teacher training, as one of the district’s professional development training sessions. Kids who were both English Language Learners and in special ed, for example, were required to wear blue stickers, while peers who were merely learning disabled were forced to wear yellow stickers.

As a result of the stickers, children in the school’s regular classrooms ended up targeting and referring to those kids in the kind of way that would lead to bullying and other nastiness. For those children in special ed — including those with low-incidence disabilities for whom school is already a struggle — the district’s “training” regimen was pure educational abuse.

But as you would expect given everything we know about overlabeling of kids as special ed, kids weren’t the only ones who ended up taking aim at peers. In the session, teachers were required to collect information on each of the ELL students and kids in special ed that specified the issues that they observed. In some cases, teachers were noting that a kid was “academically low and needy” or “acting babyish”; other children were called “needy” and “fidgety”. Given that the teachers weren’t asked to investigate the underlying issues each kid faced, this exercise essentially gave laggard teachers excuses to further harm children in their care.

If not for children talking about the stickers, parents and the public would have never heard anything about the exercises. It not for the parents, with help from Parent Power activists such as Hartford Parent University President Milly Arciniegas and Gwen Samuel of the Connecticut Parents Union, these exercises would have continued to have gone on for years. Thanks to the families and the outcry over the labeling, Hempel was sent packing, albeit with much of his $146,260 in annual salary until he either finds a new job or the end of the school year.

On one hand, this is good news. But not really. For one, Hempel will still be allowed to work in public education systems in both Connecticut and the rest of the nation. After all, he resigned instead of going through the lengthy process of dismissal that protects laggard teachers and school leaders alike. So there is a good chance that Hempill will educationally abuse other children at some point down the road.

Secondly, Hempel wasn’t the only one who thought it was perfectly fine to engage in this shameful labeling in the first place. Even worse, it isn’t shocking. This is because American public education damages our most-vulnerable children at nearly every turn — and what happened in Hartford was just a very visible example.

Far too many young children, especially young men of all backgrounds, are labeled as special ed cases when they are really struggling with functional illiteracy and other learning issues. Forty percent of the nation’s 5.8 million special ed students covered under Part B of the Individuals with Disability Education Act are labeled as suffering from a “specific learning disability”, a vague catch-all that can include anything including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Another six percent are allegedly emotionally disturbed, which could easily mean that the kids could either be poorly disciplined at home or suffer severe depression. Two percent are considered developmentally delayed, which could mean that the kids are either cognitively damaged, dyslexic or wasn’t taught to read by their parents.

Even mental retardation (or intellectual disabilities, to which seven percent of kids in special ed are labeled) may not necessarily mean what it seems. As Reid Lyon and other researchers have determined, many kids who appear mildly retarded (or seem to have other forms of cognitive disability) are actually be struggling with literacy.

Children from poor and minority households are the ones most-likely to end up being put into special ed ghettos. Eleven percent of black children aged 6-to-21, for example, were condemned to special ed ghettos in 2011-2012, while just eight percent of white peers were subjected to such educational malpractice. This is borne out in Hartford and Connecticut: Fifteen-point-four percent of black students in Hartford’s schools were condemned to special ed in 2011-2012, versus 8.5 percent of white peers. Eleven-point-six percent of Nutmeg State black kids were condemned to special ed, while only 7.2 percent of white peers were placed in those conditions.

One reason why so many kids from poor and minority backgrounds are put into special ed: The low expectations of the adults who are supposed to serve them.  As Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly noted in his 2007 testimony to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, adults label certain groups of students as learning disabled because they think they are destined to end up that way.

Once children end up in special ed ghettos and ELL programs, they are more-likely to be subjected to overuse of harsh traditional school discipline.

On average, districts and other school operators mete out-of-school suspensions to children in special ed at levels double-to-triple that for peers in regular classrooms, according to an analysis of federal education data led by Daniel Losen for the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. Districts meted out-of-school suspensions to 18.1 percent of children in secondary schools, double the nine percent rate for kids in regular classrooms.

The overuse of suspensions is particularly problematic in both Hartford and the State of Connecticut as a whole. The district meted one or more out-of-school suspensions to 27 percent of kids in special ed in 2011-2012, a rate higher than the already-far-too-high 15 percent rate for peers in regular classrooms. At the state level, districts in the Nutmeg State suspended 14 percent of kids in special ed that same year, double the rate for peers in regular classrooms. The state’s suspended or expelled 150 kids per 10,000 students in special ed for more than 10 days in 2011-2012, higher than the already-abysmal 97 per 10,000 for the nation as a whole.

But the damage of harsh school discipline upon kids in special ed ghettos extend beyond suspensions. A special ed child could easily land in a setting in which barbaric discipline techniques such as placing kids into so-called seclusion rooms (or, as prison inmates, would call them, solitary confinement) and tying children down (called restraints) can be the norm. Special ed students made up 75 percent of kids held in restrains during 2011-2012 even though they account for just an eighth of all students, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The children subjected to these barbaric practices pay the price, both in physical injury (from broken hands to death) and emotional damage.

Hartford didn’t report using any of those practices that year. But some 2,180 kids in Connecticut’s special ed ghettos were subjected to restraints and seclusion in 2011-2012, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of data submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. That’s three-point-five percent of Nutmeg State kids condemned to special ed ghettos. Many of them have suffered harm: Some 1,313 children in the Nutmeg State were injured through use of those practices during a three-year period, according to education department officials there.

When kids in special ed aren’t being suspended, tied up or put into solitary confinement, they are shortchanged the high-quality education they need to survive and thrive economically and socially. This is especially clear in how states exclude them from standardized tests that show objectively how those kids are being served. Twenty-four percent of fourth-graders in special ed, along with 25.5 percent of eighth-graders and 20.5 percent of high schoolers were excluded from state reading tests in 2011-2012, according to federal data. Connecticut is particularly egregious on that front. It allowed districts to exclude 49 percent of fourth-graders in special ed, as well as 41 percent of eighth-grade peers, and 36 percent of high schoolers from standardized testing.

For these kids, their time in special ed often ends with dropping out. Sixty-four percent of children aged 14-to-21 left special ed ghettos and high school with a diploma in 2011-2012, according to the U.S. Department of Education; this is 15 percentage points lower than the graduation rate for the nation overall. The rest eventually drop out. Even worse, only 10.2 percent of children age 14-to-21 in special ed leave those ghettos for regular classrooms, essentially guaranteeing that most will never have a chance at attaining high-quality teaching and college-preparatory curricula. Only on this front, Connecticut is an exception: Some 81.2 percent of kids in special ed leaving school with a diploma, while 16.5 percent of 14-to-21 year olds in special ed moved into regular classrooms.

There has been some good news for kids in special ed, both nationally and in Connecticut. High-school graduation rates for kids in special ed increased by 12 percentage points between 2002-2003 and 2011-2012.  Just as importantly, more kids in special ed are learning. The percentage of eighth-graders in special ed reading Below Basic (as measured on the National Assessment of Educational Progress) declined by five percentage points between 2002-2003 and 2014-2015. The gains aren’t anything close to what our kids need. But they are a much-needed start that could have been spurred on with a reauthorized version of No Child that provided even stronger accountability when it comes to kids in special ed.

These improvements happened for two reasons. The first? The passage of the now-eviscerated No Child Left Behind Act, whose accountability provisions and focus on helping all children reach proficiency in reading, math, and science shined much-needed light on how American public education condemned the futures of our most-vulnerable children. George W. Bush, Ted Kennedy, George Miller, and John Boehner were right to declare to states and districts 13 years ago that they could no longer shortchange children they didn’t want to serve. And in the process, the law they passed spurred reforms that continue to benefit kids.

The second reason lies with the embrace by presidents since Ronald Reagan of a stronger role in advancing systemic reform through federal education policy. For all of the Obama Administration’s flaws, its focus on addressing the overuse of harsh school discipline (along with its push on overhauling teacher evaluations and expanding school choice), have been responsible for getting states and districts to use better approaches. Connecticut took a key, though flawed, step earlier this year when its legislature passed a law effectively banning the use of restraints and seclusion on kids in special ed. The state wouldn’t have even took this step if not for the federal government meeting its constitutional obligation to safeguard the civil rights of all children. Under such a role, Hartford would be rightfully scrutinized by the Department of Education for how it treats the most-vulnerable.

The bad news, however, is that thanks to the passage of the laughable Every Student Succeeds Act, the opportunity to make progress on helping kids trapped in special ed has been lost. The kids in Hartford and elsewhere have been told by Congress, President Obama, and erstwhile reformers who support this law that their lives don’t matter. This is immoral, intellectually indefensible, and unconscionable.

December 8, 2015 standard

As Dropout Nation reported last week, National Education Association has had to deal with declining rank-and-file numbers as well as prop up affiliates struggling with pension woes and other issues. None of this, by the way, includes the nation’s largest teachers’ union’s own virtually-insolvent defined-benefit pension.

Yet as NEA has shown in its 2014-2015 financial disclosure to the U.S. Department of Labor, it hasn’t done much to reign in its costs even while revenue remains stagnant.

The union reported overall revenue of $389 million in 2014-2015, a one percent increase over the previous year. Dues and agency fee collections barely budged over the previous year, remaining at $363 million. If not for a 31 percent increase in “other receipts” (including vendor rebates and reimbursements by affiliates for using NEA’s software and technology services), the union’s revenue would have declined.

While NEA’s revenue didn’t increase, its expenses certainly did. The union spent $362 million in 2014-2015, a 2.8 percent increase over the previous years (or nearly $10 million more than last year). Much of that increase can be attributed to a 30 percent increase in direct lobbying spending, as well as a 4.5 percent increase in union administration costs. Adding 21 more employees earning six-figure sums also didn’t help the expense line. The union only slightly trimmed its benefits payouts, reducing those costs by a mere 2.3 percent.

Meanwhile NEA spent big on its annual convention at Walt Disney World in Orlando. This included $216,375 for meetings and hotel rooms at the resort’s Swan and Dolphin Hotel, $131,192 at Walt Disney World’s Buena Vista Palace Hotel. Among the other big hotel spends: NEA dropped $39,641 with Kimpton Hotel’s swanky Grand Solamar, spent $54,155 at the Loews Vanderbilt Hotel in Nashville, ran up $57,365 at the MGM Resorts, and put down $70,876 with Hilton’s Minneapolis hotel.

Yet for all the spending, NEA managed to come up with a surplus of $27 million. This is 18 percent lower than the surplus generated in 2013-2014. But a surplus (or profit, as it is known in Corporate America) is still a surplus. The big question is how long can the state of affairs last. As Dropout Nation noted last week, the union defined-benefit pension is virtually insolvent to the tune of $111 million, according to the plan’s 2013 announcement to retirees. This is a 37 percent increase in unfunded liabilities over the previous year, and 82 percent more than liability levels two years ago. The union has $364 million in assets that could be liquidated in order to cover those liabilities today. But with shortfalls increasing at a fast clip, the union may end up in dire straits itself.

These woes come just as the union and its affiliates must deal with the possible aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court abolishing compulsory dues laws nationally with a ruling next year in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. [Dropout Nation, Editor RiShawn Biddle, and Contributing Editors Gwen Samuel and Dmitri Mehlhorn, are parties to an amicus brief filed in the case.] If the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs, as it is likely based on Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion in last year’s ruling in Harris v. Quinn, NEA could lose at least a quarter of rank-and-file, taking a $66 million hit to its coffers (based on 2014-2015 dues and agency fee collections). This would mean a dramatic reduction in dollars available to the union both to pay down its pension as well as dole out for influence-spending.

While NEA’s Golden State affiliate has developed plans to deal with the aftermath of an end to compulsory dues, other state units haven’t done so. NEA itself doesn’t seem to have a plan in place at all. Unlike rival American Federation of Teachers, NEA hasn’t taken the step of aggressively expanding into other union-dominated fields such as healthcare and hasn’t done the kind of talent-hiring from unions such as Service Employees International Union that would be helpful in organizing. Also, unlike AFT, NEA hasn’t offered an associate membership category that would allow teachers and others to join the union and pay dues into it. While NEA may hope that the status quo remains ante on this front, it isn’t likely. And refusing to tackle those issues head-on may leave it weaker in the long run.

You can check out the data yourself by checking out the HTML and PDF versions of the NEA’s latest financial report, or by visiting the Department of Labor’s Web site. Also check out Dropout Nation‘s Teachers Union Money Report, for this and previous reports on NEA and AFT spending.

December 3, 2015 standard

When it comes to political spending, the National Education Association isn’t nearly as savvy or as targeted as the rival American Federation of Teachers. The union has tried to do better at throwing its dollars around. This includes its recent effort to get social justice groups it funds to echo its messaging and work more-closely with it on opposing systemic reform, as well as its increasingly close ties to the secretive Democracy Alliance. But the union’s reticence on this front, a legacy of its origins as a professional association (a pose that many of its affiliates still embrace), means that it is scattershot when it comes to leveraging its vast coffers.

But what NEA lacks in strategic thinking it more than makes up for in sheer spending, especially on ballot measures at the state level as well as the army of political consultants it leverages to preserve influence. Sometimes, the spending can yield good results for its side. This becomes clear once you peruse the union’s 2014-2015 financial disclosure to the U.S. Department of Labor.

NEA threw plenty of big money at ballot initiatives with varying degrees of success.  In Michigan, NEA gave $50,000 to Michigan Citizens for Better Roads and Schools, an outfit that unsuccessfully supported Proposal 1, a measure on the ballot earlier this year which would have enacted increased the state’s sales, use, and fuel taxes. Given that Wolverine State districts collect 75 percent of sales tax revenue (and therefore, would use it to cover busted pensions and hire new teachers), it was natural for NEA to support the measure.

In Mississippi, NEA gave $16,284 to its affiliate there for its unsuccessful effort to pass Initiative 42, another measure on the ballot this year which aimed to give the Magnolia State’s judiciary control over school funding and other aspects of public education. If the initiative passed, NEA’s affiliate would have likely used the courts to push for increases in state education funding, which, in turn, would have led to more teachers (and therefore, more due-paying rank-and-file) on district payrolls.

Then in Tennessee, NEA gave $5,000 to Citizens for Fiscal Sanity, a group which unsuccessfully pushed against the passage of Amendment 3, which banned the passage of an income tax. The group proclaimed that such a ban would lead to “a double-digit tax increase on food & necessities”. Another loss was in Florida, where NEA’s $120,000 subsidy to the Public Education Defense Fund run by its Sunshine State affiliate yielded few results as Gov. Rick Scott won a second term.

But for every loss, NEA has also garnered big wins. The biggest was in Washington State, where it backed a group called Class Size Counts to the tune of $1.6 million. Why? Because the outfit was the prime mover in successfully passing Initiative 1351, which requires the Evergreen State to reduce class sizes in grades four-through-12 to just 22-to-25 children per classroom. Thanks to the passage of the measure, Washington State districts will have to hire 15,000 new teachers, which is music to the ears of NEA and its state affiliate.

Washington Education Association forcibly collects $375.82 annually from every teacher covered under its collective bargaining agreements, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of the unit’s most-recent filing with the Internal Revenue Service. Given that WEA represents 94 percent of the 91,916 teachers covered by it and the AFT’s much-smaller state affiliate, WEA will likely add 14,118 new teachers, eventually generating $5.3 million a year for the unit (as well as an additional $1.7 million annually, or $119.05 per teacher, for NEA national). While implementation of I1351 was delayed by legislators this past July — and is caught up in a longstanding battle over school funding that has included rulings by the state’s high court — the law could eventually reap dividends for the union.

Another big win for NEA was in Illinois, which had several measures on the ballot in 2014 NEA gave $250,000 to Committee to Raise Illinois’ Minimum Wage, which was successful in passing a ballot measure advising the state legislature to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour. The union also gave $250,000 to Fairness for Working Families, another group that also successfully passed a measure asking the legislature to levy an additional three percent income tax on citizens earning more than $1 million a year in order to finance the state’s traditional districts; the state’s spending increased by 44 percent (from $20 billion to $29 billion) between 2003-2004 and 2012-2013, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Illinois, by the way, had already increased income taxes by 67 percent (to five percent) back in 2011, but rolled it back to 3.75 percent earlier this year.

In Hawaii, NEA gave $510,000 to For the Future of Our Keiki, which successfully defeated passage of Question No. 4, which would have expanded school choice for families of preschool children by giving them vouchers to send them to privately-run prekindergarten programs. [The union’s political action committee kicked in an additional $275,000, according to data from Ballotpedia.] Despite the measure being backed strongly by Aloha State politicians, NEA and its affiliate managed to defeat it by a nine-point margin.

Another key win was in Missouri, when NEA gave $250,000 to Committee in Support of Public Education, which helped defeat the teacher evaluation reform measure contained in Amendment 3. The ballot initiative, which would have required the use the Show-Me State to use student test score growth data in teacher evaluations, was abandoned months before voters had a chance to deem it worthy of passage. But any Election Day victory for NEA is a good one.

Meanwhile in Nebraska, NEA gave $100,000 to Nebraskans for Better Wages, which successfully backed a referendum increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 over the next two years. The union also gave $750,000 to Give Arkansas A Raise, which also successfully supported a minimum raise hike referendum. In Maine, the union gave $50,000 to Yes to Maine Clean Elections, which successfully advocated for passage of that state’s Question One, a campaign finance reform measure that requires candidates to disclose their top three funders as well as fines candidates for filing late disclosures. The union’s Pine Tree State affiliate was a major supporter of the initiative.

The biggest political win for NEA at the state level wasn’t a ballot initiative, but the removal of reform-minded school leaders from the Jefferson County district in Colorado. The union achieved this by giving $150,000 to Jeffco United, a group led by the union’s Jefferson County local that successfully ousted the district’s reform-minded majority this past Election Day. Even as reformers attempted to spin Election Day in the Rocky Mountain State as a good day for the movement, NEA actually scored a real win that ensures a return to an older that benefits the union politically and otherwise.

NEA is pouring money into states to get ready for future political battles. In Oregon, it gave $500,000 to Defend Oregon, a coalition of traditionalists and public-sector unions (including AFT’s state affiliate along with the union’s Oregon Nurses Association unit) that has beaten back ballot efforts by movement conservatives. The group is mobilizing this year against possible ballot measures during the 2016 election cycle.

For school reformers, especially conservative reformers in the Beltway celebrating what might be the likely passage of a reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act that strips away strong accountability measures, these numbers should give them pause. Wonks who wistfully believe that systemic reform can be sustained solely by focusing on statehouses, should ask themselves if they really believe that the movement has the capacity to beat back a teachers’ union with dollars and bodies at its disposal? Given that the movement never had the numbers or the dollars that NEA and AFT have long had at their disposal, those erstwhile reformers happy with weakening the federal role in education policymaking must now ask themselves how will they come out of their ivory towers and work with their allies to build up the capacity to work voting booths and statehouses. [This, by the way, was an issue even when No Child’s accountability measures were in full force.]

Back inside the Beltway, NEA spent plenty on political consultants, pollsters, and media advisers to assist in its efforts. It spent $111,224 with Democrat pollster Celinda Lake’s eponymous firm; this gave the union some Orwellian talking points to give out to its advocates in the rank-and-file in the fight against systemic reform. The union also paid $71,232 to grassroots mobilization outfit 50+1 Strategies, $50,000 to voter outreach firm Chism Strategies, and $314,516 with digital campaign platform outfit NGP VAN.

The union spent big on the communications front. It paid $1.8 million to Democrat strategist Will Robinson’s New Media Firm for its work, while dropping $281,605 with Terris, Barnes, & Walters for campaign communications work. The union also paid $1.5 million to powerhouse advocacy firm GMMB’s secretive Waterfront Strategies unit, spent $470,245 with political direct advertising outfit Hopkins+Sachs, and put $358,358 into the hands of Gumbinner & Davies Communications to put more junk mail into the hands of potential supporters.

Certainly NEA also put some of those rank-and-file dollars to work through contributions to progressive groups. The union gave $150,000 to Corporate Action Network and its Action Center, ensuring that the outfit would bolster its class warfare bona fides.

Of course, NEA’s biggest spend was with its own super-PAC. It poured $8.7 million into the NEA Advocacy Fund during 2014-2015, nearly every dollar coming before the 2014 Election Day; those dollars were used by the super-PAC as part of the $19 million the union spent during the last election cycle. The results were not good at all. From now-former North Carolina U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan’s defeat at the hands of Republican Thom Tillis, to Cory Gardner’s victory over Mark Udall for Colorado’s federal upper house seat, NEA Advocacy’s spend went to waste. To administer the super-PAC, NEA spent $174,577 with Public Affairs Support Services.

Dropout Nation will provide additional analysis of the NEA’s financial filing later this week. You can check out the data yourself by checking out the HTML and PDF versions of the NEA’s latest financial report, or by visiting the Department of Labor’s Web site. Also check out Dropout Nation‘s Teachers Union Money Report for this and previous reports on AFT and NEA spending.