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April 8, 2015 standard

There are reformers who are going to argue that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s victory in tonight’s runoff election for a second term is an absolute mandate for his entire agenda. Not so fast. Any situation in which an incumbent mayor wins less than 50 percent of the vote in an official election and worse, forced into a runoff, makes such a statement pure hogwash. This isn’t to say that there aren’t Second City voters supporters who back the systemic reform efforts Emanuel and predecessor Richard M. Daley have overseen for three decades. But given that the mayor is responsible for far more than public education — and in light of dissatisfaction over Emanuel’s and Daley’s efforts on that as well as other quality-of-life issues — Emanuel can’t claim a mandate. [Not that mandates exist the way ideologues, partisans, and pundits ever think.]

At the same time, traditionalists and teachers’ union bosses, along with their allies among progressives, are forced to admit this reality: That their campaign to halt the path of systemic reform — and force centrist Democrats to adopt their agenda — has all turned out for naught. Especially for the American Federation of Teachers and its Chicago Teachers Union, which (along with other AFT locals) have spent $1.2 million during this election to unseat Emanuel, this defeat should prompt plenty of soul searching about their embrace of failed policies and practices that voters have soundly rejected.

As your editor predicted on Friday, AFT declined to throw more money at Cook County Commissioner Jesus (Chuy) Garcia’s campaign to unseat Emanuel once the latest round of polls showed him trailing the mayor by as much as 28 percentage points. Even as its Second City local desperately issued press releases — including a particularly sleazy flack piece attempting to link Emanuel’s reform efforts to the guilty verdicts against 11 teachers and school leaders involved in the Atlanta test-cheating scandal — AFT refused to infuse Garcia’s campaign with more cash and didn’t do any public relations on his behalf. By Tuesday morning, it was clear that AFT was wiping its hands of the debacle, leaving CTU (along with the Service Employees International Union and its affiliates) with the job of cleaning up the mess.

Ultimately, Emanuel won by 11.4 percentage point margin. AFT President Randi Weingarten attempted a positive spin on the failed effort up by proclaiming that the runoff sent a message that Emanuel’s “education policies have to change.” But when you look closely at Emanuel’s victory, the message for reformers and traditionalists is far different than what Weingarten and her allies want to claim it to be.

As I have noted, Emanuel didn’t win an overall mandate. Certainly crime has declined under Emanuel’s watch. But Chicago’s homicide rate remains three times higher than that of New York City, while its police department’s tactics (including mislabeling of homicides as anything but and alleged torture of suspects done at a warehouse on the city’s West Side) have been generally ineffective in addressing violence in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. If Emanuel had done a better job on the crime front (and had less of an Adrian Fenty-ish demeanor to boot), he wouldn’t have ended up in a runoff in the first place.

But at the same time, the majority of Second City voters clearly showed that they were satisfied with Emanuel on other fronts. This includes his battle with public-sector unions over addressing Chicago’s massive defined-benefit pension insolvencies. Public-sector unions, especially CTU, along with the Service Employees International Union and the city’s police union, thought they could use class warfare rhetoric to win voters over to their side. But as it turned out, voters realize that the city faces a fiscal crisis — including a teachers’ pension busted to the tune of $12.3 billion (based on a preliminary Dropout Nation analysis that will be published on Friday) — that cannot be addressed by continuing the status quo. On this front, Emanuel’s pugnaciousness serves him well, especially compared to Garcia’s position as the standardbearer for public-sector unions.

As for Emanuel’s school reform efforts: Voters made clear that they should continue apace. This became clear late last month, when a Chicago Tribune poll revealed that likely voters sided with Emanuel’s efforts over those proposed by Garcia by as much as 14 percentage points.

Certainly there is plenty of divide over Emanuel’s approach and ire over his move two years ago to shut down 47 half-empty traditional district schools. As Dropout Nation noted last November, Emanuel should be even more aggressive on the reform front, especially in passing a Parent Trigger law allowing families to take over failing district schools. But voters have a hard time arguing with improved student achievement. Given that the city’s high school graduation rate increasing from 39 percent to 66 percent between 2005 and 2013, and the percentage of Second City fourth-graders reading Below Basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress declined from 60 percent to 49 percent within the last decade, the reforms Emanuel (and before him, Daley) have undertaken are helping more kids. Add in the evidence that the school closings have actually helped more kids get into better-performing schools, and it is hard to argue that the reform efforts aren’t working.

This isn’t to say that Chicago doesn’t have more to do to improve its traditional district. Emanuel should immediately order his schools czar, Barbara Byrd Bennett, to put additional focus on improving achievement for the city’s young black men; the failure of the district on this front is simply unacceptable. Emanuel should also continue the city’s efforts to reduce overuse of harsh school discipline, which would keep more Second City kids off the path to poverty and prison.  — will help even more kids succeed. As a study released last month by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research has shown, reducing out-of-school suspensions along with over reforms can lead to schools actually being safer; if anything, overuse of suspensions is clearly tied to low student achievement resulting from laggard teaching and curricula.

AFT’s Chicago local boss Karen Lewis spent four years battling Rahm Emanuel’s reforms. Now she must figure out how to deal with her union’s big loss.

The success of Emanuel’s and Daley’s reforms even extend to the expansion of public charter schools, which now serve 15.2 percent of Chicago’s school-aged children. As a study released last month by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes has shown, poor kids attending Second City charters gained 35 additional days of learning in reading over peers in the traditional district’s schools.

This isn’t exactly unqualified success; as CREDO also shows, Chicago’s charters have to do better in improving achievement on other fronts. The fraud scandal that has engulfed the UNO chain of charter schools is a clear sign that Emanuel must overhaul how the district authorizes and oversees charters; in fact, given that Chicago city government has a conflict of interest on this front, Illinois state officials should end the city’s status as an authorizer and put that role into the hands of either the University of Chicago or another outfit. But the study bears out evidence in other studies — including Rand Corp.’s 2010 study of charters in Chicago and other locals — that expanding choice is helping more Second City kids succeed in school and in life.

In the face of all this evidence, there was no way Garcia could convince voters that his sparsely-detailed proposals on education would work better. Garcia couldn’t even prove that he would act in the best interests of Chicago’s children and families. After all, he proved through word and deed that he would only do the bidding of CTU and the national AFT; given that his bid for the mayoralty wouldn’t have happened without CTU’s early and enthusiastic endorsement (over the opposition of hardcore traditionalists who preferred Ald. Bob Fioretti for the challenger’s spot), there was no way Garcia could distance himself from the union. By be so wedded to CTU’s agenda (as well as that of other public-sector unions), Garcia proved to voters (with the help of Emanuel’s ad blitz) that he was bought by the union for a few shekels.

But Garcia isn’t the only one who lost this election. As Dropout Nation noted last week, Emanuel ‘s victory is also an embarrassing defeat for CTU and its ailing president, Karen Lewis. After spending four years challenging Emanuel’s reforms, and arguing alongside hardcore traditionalists that it was better to go radical than to embrace the triangulation previously championed by Weingarten, CTU and Lewis could do little better than garner support for its agenda from two out of every five voters in both the general election and the runoff. That CTU couldn’t even muster much support from poor and minority communities — especially black voters — is especially telling.

Because Emanuel has won this tough fight, he will now be politically invincible. Not only will the mayor remain in office for another four years, he can choose to remain in office as long as he wants the same way Daley pere (and his legendary father) were able. Without an ally in the top job, Lewis finds herself in a tough spot. Continuing her hardcore traditionalist approach will not win her any more victories; in fact, it will merely give Emanuel an even freer hand to do as he please on the education front. But if Lewis embraces the go-along approach taken by Weingarten for most of her career in the AFT, she will end up getting the business end of the hardcore traditionalist ire she has fanned since becoming the union’s boss four years ago.

But none of this should be shocking. As I noted two years ago, CTU’s biggest victory — a two-week strike that led Emanuel to back off of some of his reforms — was merely defensive. The deal Emanuel struck with the union still allowed him to increase school days, angering Lewis’ allies; that the strike couldn’t stop the use of student test score growth data in teacher evaluations mandated under state law also made the strike little more than just one overgrown tantrum. For all of CTU’s bluster, it has little support from families who have suffered the most from the failed policies and practices it (along with the national AFT) have long defended.

As for AFT? Emanuel’s victory is also a sobering moment. For all of Weingarten’s bluster last night, even she realizes that the union (along with its traditionalist, progressive, and public-sector union allies) has lost big. AFT local bosses duplicating the approach taken by Lewis in Chicago — and championed by Weingarten to satisfy the hardcore activists within national’s ranks — now know they will not succeed. Centrist Democrats, especially those in big cities, now have evidence that standing strong for school reform (as well as addressing virtually-busted pensions) will not result in political defeat. In short, they no longer have to fear losing the backing of AFT and NEA affiliates who have been the most-prominent players within Democratic Party politics.

The fact that AFT and NEA have done little to cultivate ties to Republicans (who aren’t a presence in most urban communities anyway) means that they (along with their public-sector union brethren) are isolated and, thus, have less influence than they have had in the past. This reality has been clear for some time. But Emanuel’s hard-fought victory adds the proverbial exclamation point. The ramifications of the mayor’s victory will be reflected in next year’s race for the White House; likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton could easily toss a few bones to AFT and NEA and still embrace a strong systemic reform agenda. Given that likely Republican candidates such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin have strong reform bona fides, Hillary will have almost no choice but to do so.

Even worse for AFT is that Emanuel’s victory will continue to raise questions among the rank-and-file as to whether the grand bargain struck with the union long ago is worth the money they are (often) forced to pay. With nearly a million dollars wasted on a political campaign that only resulted in defeat, and with reformers encouraged to continue efforts to overhaul the traditional teacher compensation deals that have made teaching the most-comfortable profession in the public sector, Baby Boomers likely wish they can get those dues back. Younger teachers, who want to elevate the profession, have already raised that question. And if the U.S. Supreme Court decides to overturn its four decade-old Abood decision allowing public-sector unions to compel workers to pay dues regardless of membership status, expect more teachers to flee AFT and NEA ranks.

All in all, Emanuel’s victory is a resounding defeat for AFT and its fellow traditionalists.

 

 

 

April 4, 2015 standard

Historians such as Wilma Dunaway are now establishing that slavery was a highly profitable business for the slave owners as well as for the northern banking and commercial interests that supported them. Popular culture has left behind the romantic and highly deceptive images of slavery in the last century projected by The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind to provide in their stead the realism of movies like Twelve Years a Slave and Django Unchained. Especially for those of us who have never watched Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, there is the profound sense of shock that we realize that, in this context, Quentin Tarantino is a realist.

These strands come together on the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, the blacksmith shop of which was used as the setting for the scene in Django Unchained in which Django is tortured.

The recently restored Whitney Plantation is one of a series of plantations along the Mississippi above New Orleans. The tours of the others celebrate their white columned houses and the leisure of the White owners of those houses, their imported furnishings, their gardens and their gracious way of life. John Cummings, the attorney whose project the Whitney Plantation has been, takes a different approach, making it into a monument for the enslaved Africans themselves, their horrific lives, their early deaths.

Cummings has placed a large, now rusted, iron cage between the blacksmith shop and the big house. About six feet high and twenty feet long, it was used to display the sufferings, and often enough the death throes, of slaves bull whipped in front of their fellows and families for defiance, attempting to escape, or for nothing at all. They were left to bleed in that cage in the Louisiana summer heat, in the winter rain, in the clear line of sight from the covered porch in the rear of the second floor of the big house. One can visualize the Haydel family, owners of the plantation, the men and women, the children and their visitors, taking tea on that porch on a summer’s afternoon, talking among themselves of the doings of their relatives and neighbors along the Great River Road or about the politicians in the capitol, Baton Rouge, just across the Mississippi, while one of their slaves, perhaps one of their mulatto daughters, screams as the bull whip strips the skin from her back and she is tossed naked into that iron cage.

Each member of the Haydel family, of the families of slave owners all along the river, had a personal slave, often given to them when each—owner and owned—was a child. The slaves slept on the floor, at the foot of the owner’s bed or just outside the bedroom door. White infants were nursed by enslaved Black women, who slept on the floor next to their cradles, in some cases forming life-long relationships. White people of the former slave-owning class in the South had similar upbringings not so long ago, or may even have such experiences today. The memory of some of these relationships were (and still) viewed sentimentally by their White participants. These sweet stories are part of the myth, the ideology, of the Southern way of life. Of course they are no longer stories about master-slave relationships, and yet even master-servant relationships are not true human relationships based on a mutual recognition of equality. They are stories of domination.

The legacy wrought by slavery and White Supremacy upon black children of the Whitney Plantation still haunt their descendants (and those who claim ancestry from other slave children) today thanks to American public education.

That cage behind the big house on the Whitney Plantation, perhaps replacing one worn-out from use, was manufactured in Philadelphia. The owners of the Philadelphia iron works profited; the plantation owners gained an instrument to help preserve the Southern way of life. Just as that exchange united the North and the South in a common cash matrix, so did it and the persistent exchanges on other levels infect Northerners as well with the racism of Southern slave owners (thinking again on the popular culture level of Gone with the Wind and the like, and on the political level of the Fugitive Slave Act and continuing White Southern dominance in Congress).

The tour of the Whitney Plantation begins at a church, built by and for ex-slaves elsewhere in the region and moved to the plantation as an entrance to the lessons taught by the docents. The church contains statues of slave children, reminiscent of those created by the artist Kara Walker, standing at the ends of the pews, witnessing. In a corner there is a bust of Pope Nicholas V, he of the Papal Bull justifying the enslavement of Africans. The next exhibit, a few dozen yards around the back of the church, is a set of memorial walls with the names of those who had lived as slaves on this property and the next is a set of Vietnam Memorial-style walls covered with the names and ages of the children who had died there before their fifth birthdays.

After this there are slave cabins, that blacksmith shop, the carriage house, mule stable, kitchen and the pigeon towers, the cage, and finally the big house, with its genteel atmosphere. The tour is a form of adult education. It is a course in American history, in the sociology of the plantations, in the morality of the owners of those plantations, their influence on race relations even today.

Education is not limited to elementary and secondary grades. It begins at birth and continues throughout life. Some of it is formal, some not. It is difficult to distinguish education in the usual sense of the word—reading, writing, arithmetic; quantum mechanics and philology—from education as the transmission of ideology or as the promotion of commercial products. Proctor & Gamble spends half a billion dollars or more on one form of education: making their products known and attractive to consumers. Political parties and those paying for them spend billions of dollars on another form of education, which also has the purpose of making their products known and attractive to the people they wish to influence.

Efforts to educate White people to accept racism as natural began in Europe as early as the sixteenth century Papal Bull of Nicholas V and rapidly took root in the Americas. Those efforts have been, continue to be, highly successful. The White police officers shooting Black children have been educated in this way so that they do not think that they are doing anything wrong. The school superintendents preferentially funding schools attended by White children do not think they are doing anything wrong. The school principals paddling or suspending Black girls and not White girls for similar behaviors do not think they are doing anything wrong. They have been carefully taught.

Different lessons are taught by the Whitney Plantation.

Visitors to the Whitney Plantation leave with images difficult to get out of one’s mind: Those artfully decorated rooms in the big house. That cage. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?

April 3, 2015 standard

Certainly your editor is a tad skeptical about New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s successful effort this week to convince legislators to pass a reform package that includes the overhaul the state’s teacher evaluation regime. At the same time, Cuomo deserves credit for making key steps that can help all Empire State children.

Why the skepticism? Start with the statement by Meryl Tisch, who heads the Empire State’s Board of Regents, that high-performing schools could be exempted from the new evaluation system is none too pleasing because it essentially allows teachers working in those classrooms off the hook for their performance. Given that even top-performing schools have laggards working within them, and that the quality of education varies between classrooms than between schools, exempting one group of teachers from performance management means denying school leaders, families, researchers, and even teachers the data they need to help all children succeed.

The fact that the state doesn’t ensure that state test score growth data accounts for 50 percent of the new evaluations leaves too much room for mischief (and watering down of performance management) to take place. The American Federation of Teachers’ Big Apple and Empire State affiliates, knowing that Tisch and her fellow Regents are up for reappointment over the next two years, can simply lean on Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to oppose their continued rolls on the body, leading them to allow test score growth data to account for as little as a quarter of the overall evaluation. This, in turn, will make subjective observations count for a greater portion of the performance review, essentially making the evaluations as inaccurate as they are now.

Given that a decade of evidence (including the Measures of Effective Teaching studies conducted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) shows that observations are absolutely ineffective in measuring how teachers improve student achievement — the unobservable aspect of teacher performance that is the most-important for our children’s lifelong success — the lack of a specified percentage makes almost no sense at all. Gov. Cuomo will have to put pressure on Tisch and her fellow Regents to ensure that test score growth data takes up 50 percent of the overall evaluation.

[Your editor knows that some reformers, most-notably Educators4Excellence and Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, think that test score growth data shouldn’t account for half of an evaluation. But they are arguing against evidence, including studies by Thomas Kane (who also oversaw Gates Foundation’s MET initiative) and are incorrect in their respective stances. That’s all.]

Then there’s the fact that Cuomo dropped his demands for expanding charter schools and passing a tax credit scholarship initiative as conditions for signing the state budget in order to get the package — which includes a school takeover plan and an effort to improve the state’s ed schools — passed by the legislature. After all, by doing so, the governor loses critical leverage in expanding school choice. Yet your editor isn’t as concerned as charter school advocates about this move because Cuomo still has leverage it the form of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s effort to renew mayoral control of the Big Apple’s traditional district.

Because de Blasio played a key role in helping Heastie succeed the disgraced Sheldon Silver as assembly speaker, de Blasio will work hard with him to renew mayoral control. The fact that de Blasio must also make amends with the state senate’s Republican majority, which is still perturbed over the mayor’s effort last year to help Democrats take control over the upper house is also a factor. If expanding charters and passing tax credits (the latter of which is a key priority of State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos) are the conditions for winning renewal of mayoral control, then de Blasio will probably support it. Cuomo knows this and will likely get his way in the end.

As I said, your editor reserves some skepticism about the reform package. Yet at the same time, that Cuomo has managed to get the legislature to go his way is good news for children and families in the state.

The fact that the new evaluation system will only use score growth data from the Empire State’s battery of standardized tests is a strong blow for high-quality data on teacher performance. No longer will data from district-developed assessments of lower quality (including formative tests from Northwest Evaluation Association — which aren’t aligned to Common Core’s reading and math standards, and those written up by teachers lacking the knowledge to develop high-quality tests) be included in evaluations. The current evaluation regime’s use of locally-developed tests for 20 percent of evaluation is likely one reason (along with the low percentage of state test data used in the reviews) why nearly all of the Empire State’s teachers were ranked as meeting or exceeding expectations, which is laughable given the low levels of student achievement.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew (right) and NYSUT boss Karen Magee (far right) suffered another big defeat.

If the state education department and the Board of Regents do their jobs properly on this front and require state test data to be used for half of evaluations, this will lead to more-accurate (and fair) data on teacher performance that is useful to everyone. Especially families, who under state law, can actually look at data on the teachers serving their children. This is also true with the new evaluation system’s requirement that observation from outsiders, along with those from school leaders, be included in the evaluation. As D.C. Public Schools has demonstrated through its successful IMPACT evaluation system, using skilled outside evaluators to observe teacher performance can be especially helpful for newly-hired teachers

The even bigger moves lie with two key aspects of Cuomo’s reform plan: Extending the time it takes for newly-hired teachers to attain near-lifetime employment through tenure from three years to four; and making it easier for districts to fire laggard teachers.

New York has long been one of 36 states in which newly-hired teachers gain near-lifetime employment within one-to-three years of entering classrooms. Given that it takes at least four years for teachers to prove their worth, granting such status so quickly makes it difficult for districts to weed out laggards (and even criminally-abusive teachers). By becoming the 12th state to grant near-lifetime employment after four-to-five years on the job, the Empire State is making it easier for districts to keep those who don’t belong in classrooms from gaining near-permanent jobs. Which will help end the role of tenure as protection for bad teachers and AFT locals living off their dues payments.

Just as importantly, by requiring newly-hired teachers to demonstrate that they are effective or highly effective for three years before attaining tenure, the state is also setting a high bar for attaining near-lifetime jobs in classrooms. By the way: This also puts the onus on districts to do a proper job in evaluating new hires — and gives reformers as well as families a tool for holding school leaders accountable for failure in personnel management.

An even bigger move lies in requiring districts to remove laggards after being rated ineffective for three consecutive years — and requiring those being fired to prove that the ratings are fraudulent in order to win an appeal. Currently, laggard Empire State teachers can appeal their dismissals without proving that the district engaged in an unfair firing. This change in the state’s tenure law, along with another rule allowing districts to remove laggards rated ineffective for two years in a row, also keeps school leaders from using excuses for failing to do proper work in providing all the children they serve with high-quality teachers.

By overhauling the teacher dismissal law, Cuomo and legislators finally made incompetence grounds for dismissal and allow districts to no longer waste precious time on trying to improve the performance of teachers who have long ago demonstrated they can’t hack it. This matters because under previous the state’s previous teacher dismissal law, there was almost no way for districts to remove laggards for low-quality teaching. Between 1997 and 2007, three out of every five New York City teachers found to be incompetent, abusive of children, or excessively absent still remained in classrooms, according to an analysis of the state’s teacher dismissal law by the American Enterprise Institute.

The inability to remove laggards and the criminally abusive in classrooms is one reason why the New York City Parents Union and Campbell Brown’s Partnership for Educational Justice launched their Vergara suit last year challenging the state’s tenure and dismissal laws. The suit is one reason why Cuomo pushed hard for the teacher quality reforms in the first place. His moves help address the issues raised by the suit, and, along with the tort, hasten even stronger reforms in the next few years.

The fact that Cuomo managed to get all these reforms passed by the legislature despite the opposition of the AFT’s United Federation of Teachers and New York State United Teachers is absolutely astounding. Certainly NYSUT has been significantly weakened over the past year, as an internal feud, along with political mistakes such as refusing to endorse Cuomo’s re-election bid and backing Democrats in their bid to take control of the state senate, earned it the ire of the governor and Republicans alike. In fact, NYSUT’s influence is in such decline that its president, Karen Magee, has been forced to lobby families to opt out of standardized tests in order to keep the data from being used in evaluations. This is just pure desperation.

But the fact that UFT, which once again has sway over New York City’s traditional district, couldn’t convince Heastie and other Big Apple legislators to shoot down Cuomo’s entire agenda is shocking. The AFT local, after all, has spent the past three months lobbying classrooms and organizing sham protests against Cuomo’s reform plans. For UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who is angling to succeed Randi Weingarten as national AFT president, the passage of the teacher quality reforms is defeat plain and simple. [AFT national also takes a beating this time around.] And this political loss will be magnified if Cuomo manages to get the charter school expansion plan passed.

The jury is still out on Cuomo’s evaluation reform. Whether Cuomo will succeed in expanding school choice is also an open question. But one thing is clear: The governor has succeeded in passing a series of reforms that will help provide Empire State children with high-quality teaching they need and deserve. And for that, Cuomo deserves praise.

standard

With Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel comfortably leading in the polls — and gaining the endorsement of a rival previously favored by some traditionalists, Alderman Bob Fioretti — the American Federation of Teachers’ bellicose Second City local is pulling out all the stops to help favored candidate Jesus (Chuy) Garcia make up whatever ground he can.

The Chicago Teachers Union reports to the Illinois State Board of Elections that it spent $110,299.79 on Garcia’s behalf within the last few days. This includes $80,000 on radio spots touting his candidacy and attacking Emanuel produced by Screen Strategies Media of Centreville, Va., as well as $11,940.17 on newspaper advertising put together by Alexandria, Va., campaign firm Mack-Sumner Communications. Screen Strategies Media, by the way, is a key vendor of the national AFT for its lackluster Reclaim the Promise campaign; while Mack-Sumner, a powerhouse that has long worked on behalf of Democrats, has ties to the Service Employees International Union, a key backer of Garcia’s campaign (and likely to Michelle Ringuette, the former SEIU executive who is now Randi Weingarten’s top special mandarin). The AFT local is also putting an additional $6,279 into phone banks as well as for “canvassing” local communities for votes.

None of this spending, by the way, includes the costs CTU is bearing for a rally it is holding Saturday at New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church on the city’s Westside. That event will certainly feature CTU President Karen Lewis along with a group of AFT vassals that includes Rev. Jesse Jackson (whose Rainbow PUSH Coalition has collected $75,000 in AFT money over the last two years), Rep. Danny Davis (a beneficiary of $45,000 in AFT donations during his congressional career), and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka (who is repaying AFT for its support of his successful campaign last year for the New Jersey city’s top office as well as helping the union in its efforts against the reform efforts of Supt. Cami Anderson).

Certainly this won’t necessarily help Garcia make up what is at least a 16-point gap in the polls against Emanuel. But CTU (along with AFT) can say that it is building a movement that will eventually stop systemic reform efforts. All at the cost of $262,592.79 (including this week’s spend).

Of course, CTU isn’t the only key backer of Garcia’s campaign pouring as much money in as possible to salvage it. SEIU and its affiliates in Chicago, Pennsylvania, California, and Florida has spent $81,629.04 on Garcia’s behalf; the Communications Workers of America and its units have put $65,000 of skin into the game; and MoveOn.org’s political action committee has spent $9,400 this week on billboards for Garcia’s effort. James Zogby of the Arab American Institute (who once wrote a piece in the Huffington Post defending Emanuel after he was appointed to serve as the Obama Administration’s chief of staff) tossed $1,200 into Garcia’s campaign; Zogby, the brother of the famed pollster, is just one of many Arab-Americans (including Iftekhar Shareef, a head of a healthcare supply firm) donating plenty to Garcia’s campaign and against Emanuel, a longtime supporter of Israel.

The big question is how much more will the national AFT kick in on behalf of Garcia? Given that the union has already kicked in $649,503.20 on behalf of Garcia over the last month (and $902,103.20 altogether this election season), there’s no reason to think that the union will stop now. On Wednesday while in Chicago, Weingarten pledged the union’s support for Garcia as part of an announcement of the launch of a partnership with one of its vassals, Kenwood Oakland Neighborhood Organization, and CTU to “reverse the tide of disinvestment and the effects of gentrification” supposedly caused by systemic reform. It will likely be similar to the Reconnecting McDowell public relations effort the union is undertaking in Wisconsin with the help of its state affiliate there.

But with polls from Odgen & Fry, the Chicago Tribune, radio station WVON, and the Chicago Defender showing that Emanuel leads Garcia by as much as 28 percentage points, it may not make sense for AFT or Weingarten to kick good money after bad. Especially when the union is also weighing on Philadelphia’s mayoral race, as well as possibly preparing to launch an ad blitz pushing congressional Democrats to pass a reauthorized version of the No Child Left Behind Act that favors its interests. So there is a good chance that AFT national will sit the rest of this race out.

As a result, this could leave CTU (along with SEIU and others) bearing the consequences of Garcia’s all-but-likely loss next Tuesday. Particularly for Lewis, who, despite her ailing health, likely wants to one day lead the national AFT, Garcia’s loss (and Emanuel’s victory) damages her profile. Sure, she can still claim that she forced an incumbent mayor into a run-off. But given Emanuel’s problems on other fronts, that’s not much of a claim to make. The big payoff comes with Garcia winning the office and knowing that he will do her bidding (as well as that of Weingarten and AFT).

But with Emanuel in office for another four years (and, if he chooses to remain mayor, for as long as he wants), Lewis will find herself adopting the same accommodationist approach Weingarten had to take on when she was head of the AFT’s United Federation of Teachers in New York. This will likely result in Lewis getting the business end of the hardcore traditionalist ire she has fanned since becoming the union’s boss four years ago; she nearly paid that price in 2013.

Meanwhile a Garcia loss will temper the efforts of Lewis’ mini-mes elsewhere. This includes California, where Alex Caputo-Pearl, the boss of AFT’s United Teachers Los Angeles, has been threatening a work stoppage against L.A. Unified if the district doesn’t agree to the union’s demands for an 8.5 percent raise. [The contract dispute between the union and the district is now before a state mediator.] With so much political influence that can be lost because of an election defeat, AFT locals (along with those of the National Education Association) may be more circumspect about mounting election challenges and more-thoughtful about how radical they should be in defending what clout that remains.

Whatever happens on Tuesday, you can expect CTU to expend as much of its resources as possible to make its stand against Emanuel and systemic reform. Even if it doesn’t lead to any success at the ballot box.

March 30, 2015 standard

As Dropout Nation readers know, Friday’s analysis of Philadelphia’s virtually-insolvent district’s fiscal condition also previewed this magazine’s evaluation of the financial state of Pennsylvania’s Public School Employees Retirement System. What has become clear from the latest analysis is that the Keystone State must take decisive action to address the defined-benefit pension’s woeful financial state — and that starts with demanding accurate accounting that reflects the dire reality.

Within the last week alone, state legislators have taken some steps toward addressing the woes of PSERS and Pennsylvania’s pension for state employees. This past Tuesday, the Keystone State’s House of Representatives held a hearing on a plan offered up by Rep. Warren Kampf, a pension reform hawk, to close participation in state pensions to new employees and require new hires to save money in defined-contribution plans. On the senate side, Majority Leader Jake Corman is putting together his own plan, which would follow along Kampf’s proposed move as well as essentially roll back Act 10, the state pension law passed in 2010 that boosted annuities collected by teachers to equal 75 percent of final year’s salary.

If Kampf and Corman can get their legislation passed any possible opposition within their own caucuses — a reason why former Gov. Tom Corbett’s pension reform plan was defeated last year — this would be one clear sign that legislators are finally taking the state’s pension crisis seriously.

Standing opposed to any reform plan is Gov. Tom Wolf, who successfully defeated Corbett for the state’s chief executive spot with the help of $732,400 in donations (along with other spending) by the American Federation of Teachers and its state affiliate there. Mindful of the debt he owes to AFT as well as to other public-sector unions, Wolf has made clear that he would not agree to any reductions in pension annuities. But given that Corman and his fellow Republicans control both houses of the state legislature and want to tie pension reform to the passage of next year’s state budget, Wolf may have to give something in order to get legislators to pass other aspects of his agenda.

But in order for Kampf, Corman, and Wolf to undertake any meaningful and substantive pension reform, it must have accurate data on the fiscal state of PSERS and the state employee retirement plan. Based on Dropout Nation‘s analysis of the teachers’ pension’s comprehensive annual financial report, the pension isn’t dealing honestly with its condition.

PSERS officially reports that its was underfunded to the tune of $33 billion in 2012-2013, a 10 percent increase over the previous year. But as you all know by now, those numbers aren’t real. As your editor detailed in last year’s analysis, one reason why lies with Act 120, the law passed by state legislators five years ago which senselessly hiked annuities when PSERS was already virtually-insolvent. Under the law, PSERS recognizes gains and losses over a 10-year period, instead of an already-ridiculous five years. This even more-aggressive-than-usual form of smoothing — which allows the pension to effectively hide investment gains and losses under the guise of keeping investment volatility from wreaking havoc on state and district budgets — gives gives the false impression that its financial condition is in good shape.

The bigger problem lies with the PSERS’ assumed investment rate of return of 7.5 percent. Given that the pension’s assets declined in value by 3.7 percent between 2008-2009 and 2012-2013, there’s no way it could even meet such an overly-optimistic rate of return. Using overly-inflated assumed rates of return are problematic because pensions can report insolvencies as being lower than they actually are. This can result in politicians abandoning any fiscal prudence, handing out annuity raises based on inaccurate data. What PSERS should do is base its rate of return on an average such as the Citibank Pension Liability Index (which is based on the yield for AA-rated corporate bonds) or at least assume a more-realistic return rate such as 5.5 percent.

To get to the heart of matters, Dropout Nation uses a version of a method developed by Moody’s Investors Service that uses a more-realistic 5.5 percent rate of return on investments. The result? PSERS is virtually insolvent to the tune of $41.3 billion for 2013-2014, or 27 percent higher than officially reported. Using last year’s analysis, the pension’s insolvency increased by 11.6 percent over 2011-2012. Based on a 17-year amortization rate, taxpayers would have to shell out an additional $2.4 billion in contributions just to get the pension back into solvency; that’s 82 percent more than the $2.9 billion in contributions made in 2013-2014.

Districts such as Philadelphia have already seen double-digit increases in contributions over the past few years. The impact of any effort on hiking contributions to finally address the insolvency would be tremendous.

For Philly, a $135 million hike in 2013-2014 would have led to a loss of $203 million, or more than the $165 million it lost in 2012-2013. For Pittsburgh Public Schools, which paid $28.3 million into PSERS in 2013-2014, a repayment of the pension’s shortfall would mean an additional $23 million in contributions; this would have meant that the portion of the district’s budget going to pensions would have increased from 5.3 percent to 9.7 percent, and more than doubling its $14 million operating deficit.

This isn’t just a problem for Keystone State districts. After all, Pennsylvania state government reimburses districts for as much as 56 percent of PSERS contributions. This means that the state (you know, taxpayers) would likely have to take on $1.4 billion of the bailout cost, based on Dropout Nation‘s estimates. This would be double than the $1 billion paid out by the state in 2013-2014; the percentage of that year’s state budget dedicated to PSERS would increase from 3.6 percent to 8.5 percent.

Meanwhile the problem is going to get worse thanks to the growing numbers of Baby Boomers heading into retirement. Some 16,404 retired teachers and other traditional district employees were added to the pension rolls in 2012-2103, a 12 percent increase over the previous year; the number of new retirees (before removals) increased by 54.6 percent between 2006-2007 and 2012-2013. With PSERS likely to add likely add 12,438 new annuitants (excluding deaths  and other removals) to the rolls ever year for the next decade, the pension’s will add at least $306 million a year in new annuity expenses over that time.

By the way: None of this includes PSERS’s unfunded retired teacher healthcare costs with which the state must also contend. The pension officially reports unfunded liabilities of $1.3 billion for 2012-2013. But unlike most pensions, PSERS uses the same inflated rate of return for the investments used to cover those costs as it uses for the pension. Using the same method applied to the pension, Dropout Nation determines that the true unfunded liability for the healthcare costs is $1.6 billion, or 27 percent more than officially reported. Based on a 17-year amortization rate, taxpayers would have to put down $95.7 million a year over 17 years to pay off that insolvency, 89 percent more than the $108 million contributed in 2012-2013.

Put simply, the Keystone State’s teachers’ pension is busted. Addressing that insolvency requires honest numbers about the true condition of its finances. Corman and Kampf should take steps toward that by passing legislation that ends the 10-year smoothing required by Act 120, as well as force the pension to reduce its assumed investment rate of return from 7.5 percent to a more-realistic 5.5 percent (or an average based on the annual change in Citibank’s pension index). Both moves would lead to accurate data on the PSERS true fiscal condition and force the state (along with districts) to deal honestly with it.

Along with those steps, legislators should pass legislation moving both existing and new employees out of defined-benefit pensions into hybrid approach that features defined-contribution accounts as well as cash-balanced accounts that guarantees an annual savings rate. The existing pension would then be cash-balanced, allowing workers already in the pension to move whatever they have already saved and whatever has been contributed by districts into the new accounts. Such a move would effectively stop PSERS’ insolvency from increasing. At the same time, it would also help younger teachers, who often lose out in most pension reforms, by providing them a portable plan that allows them to fully benefit from their hard work in classrooms.

One likely argument against such a plan from Gov. Wolf will be that such a transition would be too costly to the state. This is because the Government Accounting Standards Board recommends that states closing down pensions should aggressively reduce their insolvencies. But as Andrew Biggs of the American Enterprise Institute noted last week in the Wall Street Journal, Pennsylvania could reduce the insolvencies by a longer period than recommended by the accounting transparency organization.

While your editor recommends a 17-year amortization period (as Moody’s uses), the Keystone State could use as long as 20 or 30 years (the latter used by states such as California in far more-modest pension fixes). And if the existing pension is cash-balanced, with existing teachers moving what they are due to receive in a lump-sum payment into the new retirement package, the cost of the transition wouldn’t be all that prohibitive at all.

Ultimately, what matters most is that Pennsylvania officials finally force PSERS to honestly detail its virtual insolvency. Without accurate numbers, even the most-radical pension reform will fall apart.

March 28, 2015 standard

As you would expect, the American Federation of Teachers isn’t just focused on making sure that Philadelphia’s mayor is one who favors its interests. There’s still the Chicago mayoral run-off, in which the union’s favored candidate, Jesus (Chuy) Garcia faces an uphill fight against incumbent Rahm Emanuel for the top municipal job. With so much at stake for the union and its notoriously-bellicose Second City local — which has spent the past few years campaigning for Emanuel’s ouster — it and its affiliates are spending plenty of cash on Garcia’s behalf.

Even before Garcia managed to help deny Emanuel enough votes to win the mayoral race outright, AFT and its affiliates spent heavily on the Cook County commissioner’s behalf. AFT donated $252,600 to Garcia’s campaign, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The donations make the union the second-biggest donor to Garcia’s campaign after the Service Employees International Union’s Indiana healthcare affiliate, which oversees the union’s healthcare organizing in the Midwest.

The Chicago Teachers’ Union, AFT’s Second City local, poured $52,600 through its political action committee into Garcia’s campaign, while the campaign committee formed by the union’s boss, Karen Lewis, tossed in another $16,000; as you know, Lewis was looking to run against the top job before health problems forced her out of the running. The AFT’s Cook County College Teachers’ unit put another $3,000 into Garcia’s campaign.

But once Garcia managed to win second place against Emanuel for the mayoral runoff, AFT took its efforts up a few notches. Within the last month, AFT has directly and indirectly supported Garcia’s quest to unseat Emanuel to the tune of $649,503.20. This includes a massive $300,000 donation to Garcia’s campaign on March 12, along with another  $349,503.20 spent on get-out-the-vote efforts on the challenger’s behalf.

When the AFT bets heavily on a political campaign, you can expect its affiliates to follow right behind.

The union’s Illinois Federation of Teachers donated $50,000 to Garcia’s campaign, while its political action committee of its North Suburban unit put down another $10,000. Considering that CTU got the ball rolling on AFT’s effort to oust Emanuel, its PAC has spent $73,140 on ads touting Garcia’s candidacy and spent another $26,553 on “door-knocking” activities. Even New York State United Teachers, AFT’s virtually-insolvent state affiliate, got in on the action; it gave $10,000 to Garcia’s campaign on Friday, according to a disclosure by Illinois’ board of elections.

Altogether, AFT and its affiliates have spent $809,196.20 this month on Garcia’s quest for the Second City mayoralty. This, of course, doesn’t include the political spending done directly out of the union’s coffers and funded by teachers through dues and agency fees they are often forced to pay regardless of their desire to do so. This will include spending on so-called representational activities such as member e-mails, which end up being political activities because traditional school districts are government operations. Expect AFT to expend even more resources on Garcia’s behalf over the next 10 days.

For AFT President Randi Weingarten, a Garcia victory would be a rare bit of good news for her and the union.

It is unlikely that the union’s national overlord, Randi Weingarten, will make an appearance with Garcia in Chicago anytime soon. [She did appear with him in D.C. at a fundraising event.] After all, this is Karen Lewis’ territory and she isn’t one to like having someone else bogarting her faux class warfare schtick. But AFT has likely already thrown some cash to the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition, which has been a steadfast ally of the union’s efforts to halt the three decades of reform efforts undertaken by Emanuel and predecessor Richard M. Daley. Jackson’s crew has already collected $75,000 from the union over the past two years; he will certainly take more money to shill on behalf of the union at the expense of the Second City’s black children.

The Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, a community grassroots outfit that is advocating for the end of mayoral control of the Second City’s traditional district, will also likely get some AFT dollars in exchange for backing Garcia’s bid; it collected $60,000 from the union in 2013-2014, according to its filing with the U.S. Department of Labor. Other organizations on the ground will likely also get some AFT cash in exchange for doing work.

As you expect, AFT isn’t the only public-sector union player supporting Garcia’s campaign. SEIU and its affiliates throughout the nation have poured plenty into the longtime Chicago politician’s campaign since its state unit moved to back him two weeks ago. The National Education Association, which has no presence in the Second City, is also playing its part; the union reported to Illinois election officials that it plunked down $50,000 into Garcia’s campaign, while its state affiliate chipped in another $25,000.

But AFT is by far the biggest backer of Garcia’s campaign — and stands to yield the greatest benefit if he wins. This includes essentially ending the Emanuel-Daley reform efforts as well as likely placing a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools, the bane of the union’s existence. As in New York City, AFT and CTU would have a pliant mayor with little constituency who must repay his eternal debt to them.

The benefits extend beyond Chicago (as well as Lewis and Jesse Sharkey, who has been running the union in her stead). For Weingarten, whose efforts to stop reform (including attempts to triangulate reformers) have yielded almost no victories, plenty of political losses, numerous episodes of embarrassment, and ire from hardcore traditionalists upset about dwindling influence, Garcia’s win would allow her to claim some kind of success. It could even dissuade big-city Democrats in the rest of the country from undertaking systemic reform in any aggressive way.

Certainly Lewis would deserve ultimate credit; after all, it was her hardcore defensive of failed policies and practices, which have won her acclaim from fellow-travelers across the country, that led Weingarten to stop her triangulation of reformers. But Weingarten is first and foremost a politician — and a crafty one at that — which means she’ll glom on to Lewis’ hard work.

But will any of AFT’s efforts lead to a Garcia victory? This is unlikely. Certainly he could end up bringing out Latino voters who are undercounted in polling. But Garcia only managed to garner 34 percent of the vote against Emanuel’s 45 percent last month even though the other challengers — most-notably scandal-tarred Alderman Bob Fioretti — were weak and had little support. Back in January, CTU itself released a poll from Democrat pollster Celinda Lake’s eponymous firm (a longtime vendor of AFT) that underestimated Emanuel’s strength on Election Day by seven percentage points. With polling outfit Ogden & Fry showing that Emanuel’s lead has increased from 10 percentage points to 16 over the past two weeks, Garcia’s hopes of victory are slim.

There’s also the reality that the AFT’s own presence in this campaign, along with that of CTU and other public-sector unions, helps Emanuel in casting Garcia as little more than someone who will do its bidding. Given the qualified success of Emanuel’s reform efforts — including a study released in January by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research that shows that 93 percent of kids affected by the shutdown two years ago of 47 half-empty traditional district schools went to better-performing operations — neither Garcia nor AFT can make the case that Emanuel should no longer be the city’s chief executive. Add in the fact that Emanuel’s chief schools boss, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, is no Michelle Rhee, and both Garcia and AFT lose a key foil for their mutual benefit campaign.

As I noted earlier this week in The American Spectator, Emanuel could still lose next month. But the mayor is running hard and scared — and that’s almost always bad for the challenger. As it stands now, AFT may have wasted a lot of money for almost no gain.