menu search recent posts
July 14, 2014 standard

The nicest thing that can be said about the American Federation of Teachers’ latest convention is that it was an amazing display of desperation by a union that has lost considerable influence over education policy. The union’s vote yesterday to call for President Barack Obama to fire Arne Duncan if he didn’t improve (read: do the AFT’s bidding) as much epitomized the union’s fall from power as the National Education Association’s call for the U.S. Secretary of Education’s resignation a week earlier. The union’s efforts at rallying the rank-and-file — from videos declaring its effort to supposedly “Reclaim the Promise” of American public education, to rah-rah speeches from longtime villeins such as once-and-future California Gov. Jerry Brown and Congresswoman Judy Chu — did little to hide the reality that it is politically weak and financially struggling.

But the most-interesting thing about the AFT convention was how far the union and its president, Rhonda Weingarten, has gone to disavow the effort to triangulate school reformers (and embrace only the weakest versions of school reform measures while keeping the status quo quite ante) it has undertaken for the past five years. It passed a resolution that moves away from the union’s always-tepid embrace of modest teacher evaluation reforms and fully calls for opposition to the use of Value Added and student test score growth data in assessing performance. The AFT also disavowed one of the more-admirable aspects of Weingarten’s tenure (and one legendary leader Albert Shanker’s better ideas), by approving an effort to force states to ditch Common Core reading and math standards if they don’t let AFT affiliates effectively weaken them altogether. And Weingarten herself ditched her own past effort to make the AFT seem reasonable in comparison with the more militant NEA by taking up the combative (though less-inflammatory) rhetoric befitting the likes of Karen Lewis, the bellicose boss of the union’s Chicago local.

None of this should be surprising to any reformer or even to any reporter who has spent enough time covering the fight over reforming American public education. Over the past few months, Weingarten has been doing all she can to remake herself into Lewis lite, and backtracking away from her triangulations. This includes announcing in March that the AFT and its foundation wing would no longer take money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, whose eponymous founder spoke before the union’s convention four years ago.

But the AFT convention is another reminder that any hopes of teachers’ unions embracing any aspect of systemic reform — or even that NEA and AFT leaders who embrace some form of it can last long within its ranks — is foolish thinking.

One of the more-naive assumptions of some reformers, particularly centrist and even idiosyncratic progressive Democrats within the movement, is that there are some bosses within the NEA and AFT ranks who will willingly embrace, support, and even lead the overhaul of public education. Heartened over the years by occasional calls for change coming from the mouths of Weingarten and by the efforts on the ground by union bosses such as David Cicarella, the president of the AFT’s New Haven, Conn., local to weed out laggard teachers, centrist Democrat reformers argue that these bosses realize that it is in the enlightened best self-interest of their unions to ditch support for the traditional teacher compensation and seniority-based privileges for which they have long advocated.

Such naivete explains why the Obama Administration has continually promoted case studies of reform-minded school leaders working closely with NEA and AFT locals, why Class Struggle author Steve Brill floated the laughable idea of Weingarten becoming chancellor of New York City’s traditional district three years ago, and why organizations such as Educators4Excellence and Teach Plus — which represent younger, reform-minded teachers who now make up the majority of NEA and AFT rank-and-filers (and are staffed by teachers who are themselves centrist and progressive Democrats) — work so hard to aim to lead reform from within union ranks.

Certainly some of this thinking among Democrat reformers is based on their own affinity, both financial and ideological, for unions; after all, the NEA and AFT have long been the biggest funders (and most-important advocates within the ranks) of the Democratic National Committee. But it is also based on some geniuine, if misguided, beliefs: That there are NEA and AFT bosses who can succeed in rallying support for modest measures from everyone, especially Baby Boomers in classrooms, within their respective rank-and-file; and that they are as concerned as reformers about the futures of children and therefore, willing to risk their unions losing influence and money in order to help all kids succeed.

But recent history has proven that these hopes of reform unionism becoming a thing, as the cool kids say these days, isn’t even possible. This was made clear by Weingarten’s willingness to abandon her own moderate reform rhetoric (and her triangulation strategy) during the AFT’s recent national convention. It has also been seen in the ouster of those few NEA and AFT bosses who have dared to embrace modest reforms. This includes Lewis’ successful ouster of predecessor Marilyn Stewart four years ago, and the sacking of the AFT’s Washington, D.C., local boss, George Parker after he negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with now-former D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee that embraced performance-based pay plans and all but ditched seniority as a factor in teacher layoffs. It has also been seen in the moves by NEA and AFT bosses backing some modest reforms — Weingarten’s protege and likely successor as National AFT boss, Michael Mulgrew, for one — to ditch earlier pledges in order to keep their phony baloney jobs.

Why can’t NEA and AFT leaders ever be reliable reformers? For one, the two unions are looking after the interests of Baby Boomers, who, despite their dwindling numbers, remain the most-influential within the rank-and-file. Efforts by reformers along with reform-minded (and, in many cases, budget-conscious) governors to make it harder to attain tenure or abolish near-lifetime employment altogether, along with moves to subject teachers to performance-based evaluations, means that they would lose the benefits for which they have long worked. Sure, Educators4Excellence won a few internal battles — including gaining seats on the governing board of the AFT’s Los Angeles local a few years ago. But Baby Boomers — including those within NEA and AFT leadership, and thus (save for Weingarten, who only taught for 122 days at New York City’s Clara Barton High School over a six-year period before becoming an AFT union boss), are also beneficiaries of traditional teacher compensation) are still in clear control of union activity. And they will do what they can to preserve their interests.

Reform-minded teachers’ union bosses such as George Parker don’t last long in power.

Particularly for AFT leaders, including Weingarten and Mulgrew (whose Progressive and Unity coalitions have controlled the union since the 1940s), keeping retiring Baby Boomers happy is especially key to their power. After all, they are leaving classrooms and becoming the retirees these leaders count upon for votes. Mulgrew made this especially clear in January 2013 when he successfully suppressed the votes of younger teachers and (along with more-militant traditionalists among Baby Boomers) by lifting the cap on retiree participation in elections from 18,000 to 25,300; his move was validated three months later when retirees accounted for 22,462 votes, or 52 percent of all ballots returned during the latest local elections. As seen in the cases of Stewart and Parker (and as former AFT bosses such as A.J. Duffy of the union’s City of Angels local admit), even when union leaders want to admit that seniority-based privileges and even near-lifetime employment for teachers are terrible for kids and great teachers alike, admitting this or even agreeing to measures that end them will lead to loss of power.

The consequence of the focus on NEA and AFT leaders on Baby Boomers (and retirees) has a consequence, especially on participation in union activity by younger teachers. For them, the greater concern of NEA and AFT leaders of advocating for reverse-seniority layoff rules that harm their careers leads them to decide that devoting time to union politics isn’t worth doing. That even those few NEA and AFT leaders who advocate for some modest version of systemic reform continually back other policies that do not help younger teachers — including the defense of defined-benefit pensions from which half of newly-hired teachers will never benefit — has also made them apathetic about even bothering with the unions that take so much of their take-home pay. When you also keep in mind that many AFT locals do everything possible to suppress the voices of younger teachers, there is little reason for younger teachers to bother with union politics other than to occasionally hope that the unions are attending to workplace concerns.

For those NEA and AFT leaders who truly support systemic reform, they end up in situations in which they have no active and engaged constituency who can continually support them even at times when they must battle with the hardcore traditionalists opposed to any change. They end up losing their berths, and eventually, end up outside unions in the reform movement. What about the likes of Weingarten and Mulgrew, who are just cynical politicians who don’t really want reform at all? Scandals such as the Connecticut AFT’s presentation on neutering Parent Power efforts, and AFT honcho-turned-Albert Shanker Institute boss Leo Casey’s “blood libel” smear against former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, end up revealing the phoniness of their efforts to both reformers outside the unions and traditionalist Baby Boomers within them. Since they are ultimately concerned with keeping their power, the Weingartens and Mulgrews will abandon their reformist rhetoric when politically necessary.

But there are other reasons why reform unionism is nothing more than illusion.

There’s the fact that the NEA and AFT continue to cling to an old-school model of employee-management relations — borrowed from industrial unions battling with managers who treated employees as little more than mules capable of only singular tasks — that was never really a fit for the kind of work teachers do in the first place. Certainly teaching was never as bad as factory work. But the concerns faced by the mostly-female teaching corps at that time — that they were never paid accordingly for their performance, that their performance couldn’t be measured in any way, that they could be easily fired for just getting pregnant, and couldn’t count on a secure retirement — were definitely realities. This is why the AFT and the NEA fought successfully for near-lifetime employment through tenure, degree- and seniority-based pay scales, and seniority-based privileges that currently make up traditional teacher compensation. And it is why the two unions have worked so hard to make school districts servile to their demands.

But this old-school industrial union mindset, which never really applied to public education, is especially outmoded in an age in which value-added assessment and standardized testing allows for the success of teachers in improving student achievement can be easily measured; the fact that two decades of studies have proven that value-added stands up to scrutiny is one that NEA and AFT bosses, along with their traditionalist allies, try to dismiss without much in the way of proof. The overwhelming evidence that traditional teacher compensation is ineffective in spurring student achievement, and worthless in attracting aspiring teachers and keeping high-quality instructors in teaching proves the uselessness of the NEA-AFT model. But the two unions continue to embrace this model because it is the source of their influence and financial sustenance. The fact that both the NEA and AFT have become so fearful of the implications of last month’s decision in Vergara v. California ending near-lifetime employment and reverse-seniority layoff rules — including the likelihood that teachers, now realizing that the two unions can no longer hold up bargain they struck with earlier generations in the profession — show how tied they are to this outdated model of unionism.

This unwillingness of NEA and AFT bosses to break with their old-school approach becomes especially understandable when you keep in mind that neither union has much to offer to younger teachers in this day and age. Because the two unions have never really succeeded in providing good and great teachers with the kind of professional development they could use to improve upon their talents, neither of them can prove their ability to help elevate the teaching profession. The opposition of the two unions to performance-based pay and objective data-based teacher evaluations using student test score growth data is driven more by the realization that the teacher dismissal restrictions they support are inherently impediments to professionalism than by an ideological belief that standardized testing has no value in measuring teacher performance. Given these two realities, NEA and AFT affiliate can never adopt the professional association or skill trades guild models found in other high-skilled fields; the unions can’t become that which they never were.

Finally, let’s remember that systemic reform efforts, especially those from centrist Democrats, all lead to the weakening of NEA and AFT influence.  After all, the efforts of centrist Democrats to implement objective teacher evaluations and revamp tenure have the same effect as efforts by conservative reformers and Republican governors to abolish collective bargaining and end the privilege of unions to force teachers to pay dues into their coffers. Even moving teachers away from defined-benefit pensions also weakens NEA and AFT power. Not only do NEA and AFT affiliates lose the ability to promise teachers that they will get comfortable retirements without contributing a single penny of their own cash, they also lose control they have over pensions through board seats on their governing boards. It is why Weingarten has spent the past two years issuing an enemies list of money managers whose bosses are supporters of reform outfits.

For centrist and progressive Democrat reformers, the AFT’s recent convention is another reminder that their desire for reform-minded teachers’ unions isn’t ever going to pass. If anything, the fact that the AFT and NEA have occasionally given in on reforms after losing battle after battle to the movement shows that the only way to get the unions going in any right direction is to continue weakening their influence. This includes supporting efforts by younger teachers to walk away from the NEA and AFT, and start new professional associations that can address their needs by offering professional development and championing teachers to start their own schools. It also means supporting efforts such as that of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to stop NEA and AFT affiliates from forcing teachers regardless of their membership to pay into their coffers.

At the end of the day, reformers must give up on the fanciful notion that NEA and AFT leaders can embrace systemic reform on anything other than a tepid level.

July 11, 2014 standard

This should be a happy time for Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten. After all, the American Federation of Teachers boss is in sunny Los Angeles presiding over this year’s convention. She can also claim that it has increased membership by 50 percent (from 848,323 to 1.6 million between 2011-2012 and 2012-2013) even as the rival National Education Association’s ranks declined within that same period. There’s the fact that Dennis Van Roekel’s departure as NEA president makes Weingarten the most-senior leader within the traditionalist camp. And Weingarten can argue that she only has to build upon the AFT’s few successes while her new counterpart as NEA boss, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, is faced with cleaning up Van Roekel’s mess.

But you wouldn’t know Randi had anything to be happy about if you listen to her state of the union speech before today’s convention.

During the speech (which featured a talk show host-style walk-through and a less-than-sincere effort at folksiness with her “welcome home” to the crowd), Weingarten complained that reformers and cost-cutting governors have made “threats” to the lives and livelihoods of teachers and others within AFT membership. She intoned that the union would wage retribution against U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other politicians for supporting last month’s California Superior Court decision in Vergara v. California decision. And in a typical bit of class warfare rhetoric, she bemoaned the “political power” of the wealthy (without, of course, daring to mention the $543,150 she collected in 2012-2013 or the AFT’s vast coffers).

Yet none of Randi’s disappointment should be surprising. This is because she and her fellow AFT bosses have plenty to worry about. These days, the union’s influence over education policymaking, as well as its financial fortunes, are in decline.

Weingarten is presiding over the AFT’s convention in the City of Angels just a month after a California judge handed down his ruling in Vergara v. California ending the near-lifetime employment laws upon which the AFT’s influence (and that of the NEA) is dependent. Especially for the AFT, the ruling makes it even harder for the union, which works in the big cities that are the most-fervent hotbeds for revamping traditional teacher compensation and implementing other reforms), to keep the grand bargain it has long struck with Baby Boomers and other teachers to keep their profession the most-comfortable (as well as best-paid) in the public sector. Particularly for Baby Boomers and hardcore progressives within the AFT’s rank-and-file, the ruling is a reminder of how weak the union has become, and that Weingarten’s unsuccessful efforts to triangulate school reformers has, in their minds, contributed to the problem.

There’s also the fact that the AFT, along with the NEA, were harshly reminded that it can no longer count on unquestioned Democratic Party support. Randi wasn’t likely surprised when outgoing House Education and the Workforce Committee Ranking Member George Miller, long a foe of traditionalists, sent out a letter to his colleagues praising Vergara. But Weingarten was livid when Duncan, the Obama Administration’s point man on education reform, mildly praised the Vergara decision as an opportunity to “build a new framework” for teacher employment that “protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities”. Even worse for Weingarten and the AFT, Duncan didn’t take too kindly to her attempt to shame him into submission; he doubled down on his earlier remarks, arguing that the AFTs (and NEA’s) defense of traditional teacher compensation policies “undercut the public’s confidence in public education.”

The need to boost Democratic Party support — especially given that the AFT (save for its New York State affiliate) has never bothered to cultivate allies among Republicans — explains Weingarten’s announcement today that the union is backing the formation of a Democratic Party pressure group co-chaired by longtime party operative Donna Brazile (whose firm is a recipient of teachers’ union dollars) in order to counter centrist reformers who are now in control of the education policy discussion. Whether or not it will work is another story. After all, Hillary Clinton, who may end up winning the Democratic presidential nomination if she runs for it, helped her husband successfully push for the use of teacher certification tests during his tenure as Arkansas governor in the 1980s. Other likely candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, have also been strong reform backers.

Weingarten even learned that even some progressives aren’t on the AFT’s side. Sure, the union can still count on outfits to which it has financed such as Netroots Nation (the latter of which, along with its foundation arm, collected $43,400 from the union in 2012-2013). But the union took a blow last week when former Village Voice writer Wayne Barrett (who has also been a thorn in Weingarten’s side) took aim at the union, its Big Apple local, and even New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on the pages of the Daily News for “hijacking the very language of movement politics” in order to keep its influence from waning and its coffers filled. The piece (along with one written this week by former StudentsFirst executive Dmitri Melhorn in The Daily Beast) has once again reminded more-thoughtful progressives that supporting the AFT (as well as the NEA) doesn’t lead to better outcomes for the children and poor families they want to help.

So this weekend, Randi is attempting to use the convention to galvanize the AFT’s campaign to supposedly “Reclaim the Promise” of public education. But given the union’s longstanding support of policies and practices that have harmed kids, especially those from poor and minority backgrounds attending traditional district schools the union’s locals have long dominated, neither it nor Weingarten can claim to be working to reclaim a promise it never made.

Meanwhile the AFT is attempting to reclaim its financial condition. That’s also a problem.

As Dropout Nation noted back in November, the AFT generated revenue of $321 million in 2012-2013, a two percent decline over the previous year. The decline marks the second straight year of decline. Forced dues collections in the form of a per-capita tax on members at the local level was $144 million, a 17 percent decline over 2011-2012. But even those numbers don’t fully show the union’s fiscal condition. See, the AFT has developed a habit of borrowing massive sums to tide itself over. It borrowed $117 million through its line of credit with SunTrust Bank during 2012-2013, of which all but $2 million was repaid; this was similar to what happened in 2011-2012, when the AFT borrowed $88 million and repaid most of it back. Without the borrowing (which accounted for 36 percent of reported revenue), AFT generated $203 million in 2012-2013, a 15 percent decline over the $238 million generated (excluding debt borrowings) during the previous year.

These tough straits explain why the AFT is proposing a $12 hike in raises by 2014-2015, which will raise just $10 million in new dues, according to a Dropout Nation analysis. This includes kicking some money to a so-called Militancy/Defense Fund that can only be used to finance work stoppages the union deems allowable under its strike policy. So it will rarely be spent, giving the union a nice pool of cash on which to collect interest. Of course, cutting the 198 AFT staffers making more than $100,000 a year, as the NEA has done, is not an option. Yet.

As for the AFT’s membership growth? It isn’t what either Weingarten or her fellow bosses within the union want to claim it to be. Much of the union’s growth hasn’t come from the addition of teachers to the rank and file through its organizing effort, or from the growing ranks of early childhood teachers working in preschool programs. Instead, it has come from striking affiliation deals with unions outside of education such as the United Nations Staff Union and unions representing nurses in the healthcare field. As a result of this, the AFT is less able than ever to claim itself to be the voice of teachers working in the nation’s classrooms. It also means that the AFT is competing against the likes of the Service Employees International Union, a far more ruthless union which has spent most of the last two decades beating back other unions to gain large shares of workers in healthcare, early ed, and other fields.

There’s also the growth that has come from adding part-time rank-and-filers to its rolls: The percentage of one-eighth members increased by a ten-fold, from 3,453 members in 2011-2012 to 33,042 in 2012-2013, while the number of one-quarter members tripled, from 24,484 to 97,571 in that same period. The ranks of so-called associate members have also doubled, from 25,264 in 2011-2012 to 53,212 in 2012-2013. Much of this growth can certainly be attributed to the addition of members who work outside of elementary and secondary education.

As a result, the AFT isn’t adding more of the full-time rank-and-file members it needs to fill its coffers. Just 46 percent of the AFT’s 1.6 million members in 2012-2013 were full-time dues payers either working in classrooms or in other areas; they accounted for three-quarters of the union’s roster a year earlier. What about the rest? Twenty-one percent of AFT members are retirees no longer working in classrooms; the better for Weingarten and her allies within the Progressive coalition that controls the union (as well as runs locals such as the United Federation of Teachers in New York City) to keep it under their thumb. [By the way: The AFT's decision to recognize the retirees is a big reason why the union's membership doubled between 2011-2012 and 2012-2013.] Another 12 percent of members are half-members. That’s no so good: Like the quarter-members and others, they don’t pay enough into the union’s coffers to keep it afloat.

This isn’t shocking. The long-term costs of virtually-insolvent defined-benefit pensions that the AFT has defended (and through its affiliates, often control through board seats) is weighing heavily on districts and states. This, along with woes from the seven-year-long economic malaise, and the retirement of Baby Boomers, is resulting in fewer teachers (as well as other school employees) on the job. The successful efforts by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to end collective bargaining and the ability of teachers’ unions to force instructors to pay into their coffers regardless of their desire to join their rosters has also been hurtful. The AFT’s Wisconsin affiliate was particularly hard hit, losing 63 percent of its members, and being forced into merging with the NEA’s Badger State affiliate in order to survive.

But for the AFT (as well as the NEA), the worse is likely yet to come. The U.S. Supreme Court has already signaled in its decision in Harris v. Quinn that it will probably reverse the precedent set in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education granting public-sector unions the privilege of forcing workers regardless of membership status to pay into its coffers. For the AFT, this may mean a 25 percent decline in membership leading to a $36 million hit to its revenue line. Considering the AFT’s not-so-great fiscal condition (including a $14 million deficit last year), such a loss would be devastating.

Even without a reversal of Abood, the AFT could lose money and clout if younger teachers, who now make up the majority of rank-and-file members, leave the union for professional membership associations that eschew the old-school union approach it embraces. Given their frustration with the AFT’s defense of seniority-based privileges such as last in-first out that impede their career progress, anger with the efforts of locals such as UFT to rig elections in ways that favor retirees over teachers still in classrooms, and dismay with the union’s unwillingness to embrace a professional development model that elevates the profession, they have little reason to stay in its fold. And when they begin noticing that the union’s growth in other sectors outside of education is coming at their expense (as some traditionalists already have) they will agitate for something better.

The only way the AFT can keep those teachers is by embracing the skilled tradesman model of the pre-Industrial Revolution era at the heart of the medical and legal professions. This includes providing professional development to in place of what is offered by districts, championing teachers to start their own schools and programs to address the education crisis, and launching alternative teacher training programs similar to those offered by Teach For America. But that requires the AFT to embrace systemic reform — and that won’t fly with the Karen Lewises and other hardcore unionists among Baby Boomers in the ranks who want the union to fight harder for traditional teacher compensation. The fact that Weingarten’s efforts on that front — including the biannual TEACH conferences and the Share My Lesson venture the AFT launched with British corporate firm TSL Education Ltd — have not been satisfactory to members show the inability (and the unwillingness) of the union to truly adapt to meet the needs of younger teachers.

With Weingarten being unable to revamp the AFT in ways that will actually lead it to live up to its motto of being a union of professionals, and incapable of accepting the reality that the policies it defends can no longer stand (and, in fact, are immoral and intellectually indefensible), there is little for her to celebrate. Randi may be better off playing a certain Rolling Stones song and reminiscing about her union’s good old days.

Updated to note the proposed dues hike.


Last month, Dropout Nation discussed how the California Superior Court ruling in Vergara v. California would spur similar legal challenges to near-lifetime employment rules and other traditional teacher quality laws defended by traditionalists such as the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Parent Power groups such as the New York City Parents Union, which had immediately announced after the ruling that it would file a Vergara suit, would especially pursue such litigation largely because, unlike other reform camps, they have long backed the idea of using the courts to advance systemic reform for our children.

So it wasn’t shocking that the New York City Parents Union moved last week to file its own Vergara tort in Richmond County Supreme Court, essentially dominating the education news cycle this Fourth of July weekend. After all, it is following up on the announcement made a week earlier by Campbell Brown’s group, Partnership for Educational Justice, to file its own tort. As you would expect, the suit demands that New York State’s tenure, teacher dismissal, and reverse-seniority layoff rules be struck down because they violate the Empire State constitution’s provision that all kids are provided sound basic education. In the process, the Big Apple Parent Power group is applying the state Court of Appeals’ ruling in Campaign for Fiscal Equity v. New York to force the Empire State to give districts the ability to provide all children with the high-quality teachers they need and deserve.

But the big story isn’t about the fact that this lawsuit was filed. As I mentioned, this was to be expected. No, the real story is how Parent Power activists who are the new voices in the school reform movement are taking their own steps to advance systemic reform, and aggressively use all tools at their disposal to transform education for all children. And it is time for the rest of the school reform movement, much of which has become a little too institutional, even a little too cautious, in their efforts, to be as bold in their actions as the parent activists fighting for the kids they love.

One of the more-interesting story lines unfolding in the fight over the reform of American public education is the emergence of families becoming what former National Urban League President Hugh Price calls impromptu leaders, agitating for the overhaul of traditional districts, pushing for the expansion of high-quality school choices, and even taking on traditional teacher compensation. Starting in the mid-1990s with Virginia Walden-Ford and her successful effort to spur the expansion of choice in Washington, D.C. (along with the overhaul of the traditional district), parents and caregivers working outside of think tanks and other institutions have been among the foremost reformers in the movement. It would be this earlier generation of Parent Power advocates who would make the concrete cases for why school choice was both beneficial to children and the moral obligation states owed to children condemned to failure clusters. And as homeschooling families who successfully provided their kids with high quality teaching and learning environments, these activists also showed what districts should be doing for all kids regardless of their learning issues if they were seriously about fulfilling their obligations.

What would really jump-start Parent Power activism was a move in 2009 that no one among the rest of the school reform movement would have thought possible. That’s when then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and now-former State Sen. Gloria Romero, driven by the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top initiative, passed the nation’s first Parent Trigger law. Thanks to the law, families in the Golden State (as well as in the six other states that have since enacted some form of Parent Trigger provision) gained a new tool for forcing reform by overhauling the very schools within their own communities. Two years later, Parent Power activists began embracing the example set in the last century by civil rights activists and school funding advocates by filing their own lawsuits to challenge Zip Code Education policies such as school residency laws that restricted families from providing kids with high quality school options, and taking on near-lifetime employment laws that subject kids to laggard teaching.

The importance of Parent Trigger laws in giving families the ability to advance reform can be seen in places such as Adelanto, Calif., where families of kids attending schools such as the former Desert Trails Elementary successfully took control of the school and also forced out two board members of the district that formerly controlled it. Families of kids attending several schools operated by the Los Angeles Unified School District have also leveraged the Parent Trigger law to force the school operator into negotiations that have led to new reforms to the benefit of students attending them. Meanwhile the families of nine Southern California children, assisted by school reform outfit EdVoice, proved the importance of using lawsuits to advance reform — and challenge traditionalists — with last month’s ruling in Vergara. That decision sent a message to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers that the status quo they defend won’t stand — and at the same time, showed other reform camps the importance of using the courts to help transform public education.

Certainly not all Parent Power groups think the same way. There are disagreements among them about such matters as Common Core. Their views about how to leverage Parent Trigger laws also differ. Parent Revolution, the California outfit that helped bring that state’s Parent Power law into reality, views it as a form of collective bargaining for families; this reflects the organization’s roots in the work of Green Dot Public Schools founder Steve Barr to help families in Los Angeles take over failing schools. Other Parent Power groups think of Parent Trigger laws in a different way, looking at the laws as direct democracy and localizing education decision-making; in short, a real family control over education that isn’t illusory like the local control that traditionalists and some movement conservatives defend.

There is also plenty of divide over how closely they should work with their fellow reformers and oppose traditionalists. The New York City Parents Union and its president Mona Davids, has confounded more-hardcore reformers by occasionally working with the AFT’s Big Apple local even as it has has fiercely battled the union over matters such as tenure and the new contract the latter struck with Big Apple Mayor Bill de Blasio. The Connecticut Parents Union, on the other hand, is as fierce a foe of the AFT and the NEA as they come; but its president (and Dropout Nation Contributing Editor) Gwen Samuel is skeptical of the propensity of some reformers to be as disdainful as traditionalists about the role families (especially those from poor and minority households) should play in education decision-making.

What Parent Power groups do share in common is their bold willingness to embrace new approaches to advancing systemic reform even as other camps within the movement — especially Beltway think-tankers and institution-oriented types — express initial skepticism at every turn. This isn’t surprising. Unlike other players in the school reform movement, Parent Power activists are grassroots-oriented players, often coming from backgrounds outside of education and policymaking circles, and have actually have dealt day-to-day with traditional districts which have treated them as little more than nuisances and pests. This gives Parent Power activists a much more personal perspective on the underlying causes of the nation’s education crisis, a lower tolerance for silver-bullet thinking on how to deal with these issues, and ultimately, a greater willingness to use any tactic possible to give all children high-quality education.

The fact that Parent Power activists are working on the ground with families with whom they share similar experiences, or have spent years learning how to master working with communities rightfully skeptical of outsiders, also gives them a perspective that other reformers lack. They have long ago learned that success on in communities involves listening attentively to — and addressing — concerns, providing lots of resources (including time) in order for people to help themselves, solving problems quickly (often without a plan), and giving families real power to shape the direction of reform in ways that fit the contexts in which they live. This is the hard work with which Beltway reformers and others more-comfortable with crafting legislation often struggle.

Then there’s the reality that for Parent Power activists, reform is no bloodless exercise. It isn’t some glib Mike Petrilli chat-piece or a Rick Hess policy tome or Jay P. Greene write-a-thon. After all, it is their children, the only kids they will ever have, who are the ones subjected to the worst American public education offers. It is their young black sons who are the ones most-likely to end up being placed into special ed ghettos even when they only need extra reading instruction. It is their Latino daughters who are kept out of college-preparatory math and science courses by teachers and guidance counselors who think they are incapable of mastering those subjects. They, along with their relatives, neighbors, and friends who are denied the high-quality data they need to make smarter decisions for their kids, the ones that researchers such as Peter McDermott, Julia Johnson Rothenberg, and Karyn Lacey have documented as being treated as afterthoughts and worse by traditional districts, the people who need school choice the most and the least likely to have it.

This makes sense. When you are the afflicted and not the comfortable, giving your children every opportunity to move into the middle class is your greatest concern. You don’t really care about treatises on whether families are best being customers of schools, or ideological debates over the value of Common Core, or pablum from school choice activists with jobs to protect about why state tests shouldn’t be used to hold accountable private schools taking vouchers for serving kids, or if an Obama Administration plan to address suspensions is somehow a punishment to traditional district schools that have been failing kids for decade after decade. You care about giving all children the best chances at better lives- and using every solution available to make it possible.

This is what drives Parent Power activists and makes them key players in driving reform for all children. In fact, all reformers should embrace Parent Power thinking in their work. This means being as focused on building grassroots support for advancing reform as lobbying statehouses and launching new reform groups. It involves being willing to leverage any new solution for transforming education and providing all kids with high-quality education. This includes becoming the afflicted in mindset and being willing to afflict the comfortable in all aspects of our work. And it must mean taking reform personally because the children for which we are helping are living, breathing people who look like our ourselves when we were young as well as our kids at home.

The school reform movement can use more of the boldness shown by Parent Power activists such as those in New York City and elsewhere. Because our children cannot wait another day for high-quality education.

July 9, 2014 standard

Your editor didn’t bother paying much mind to last week’s call by the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly for Arne Duncan’s resignation as U.S. Secretary of Education. For one, your editor was more-concerned with spending time with his lovely wife and fast-growing son during the Fourth of July weekend than with anything dealing with the union. The fact that the NEA’s call for Duncan’s resignation comes two years or so before he actually steps down from the job as part of the end of the Obama Administration’s term-limited tenure also makes the demand especially silly.

But what got your editor’s attention is the response to the resignation call from both Duncan and the Obama Administration. It was clearly not to the liking of either the NEA or other traditionalists long-opposed to the administration’s reform efforts. Duncan simply brushed off the NEA — and actually pointed out the lack of credibility the teachers’ union even has among its own rank-and-file membership — when he said that “I always try to stay out of local union politics” and that “I think most teachers do, too”. As for the White House? The president’s flacks didn’t bother to comment at all.

There are certainly some national reporters outside the education beat (along with a few newbies within it) who are finally, belatedly acknowledging what Dropout Nation and others have pointed out for at least the past six years: That neither the NEA nor the American Federation of Teachers can count on the Democratic National Committee for unquestioned support. So the NEA’s call for Duncan’s resignation is about as newsworthy as the fact that the union’s longtime second-in-command, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, was formally anointed as Dennis Van Roekel’s successor as its overlord.

At the same time, the NEA’s desperate move — along with the Obama Administration’s response to it — is noteworthy for this important reason: It epitomizes how far the NEA’s influence over education policy (as well as that of the AFT)  has declined at the federal level as well as within states.

Four decades ago, the NEA wouldn’t have even had to even go so far as issue a call for Duncan’s resignation. It had more than enough influence at the federal level to beat back all but the most modest of reform proposals. Thanks to the role the NEA and the AFT has long played as the biggest financiers of political campaigns at both the state and federal levels, the two unions could merely call in a favor from a senator or representative to weaken (if not always block) any administration’s reform plans. The strong ties the two unions had to Democrats and some Republicans in the executive branch also meant that the unions could kill off the most-radical of reform plans before they moved beyond bull sessions.

But while the NEA (along with the AFT) rested comfortably on its laurels, the school reform movement began its emergence. The tax revolts of the 1970s, along with school funding lawsuits, led states to take greater responsibility for financing education. This, in turn, aroused the interest of chambers of commerce and other business groups in southern states concerned with the nation’s education crisis. These groups would then team up with governors such as Bill Clinton in Arkansas and Lamar Alexander in Tennessee to begin the push for the first wave of reforms. By 1986, those efforts, along with the Reagan Administration’s publication of A Nation At Risk, spurred the creation of some 250 state and local panels working on reform.

By the 1990s, these efforts began to be embraced by big-city Democrat mayors such as John Norquist in Milwaukee, Richard Daley in Chicago, and Anthony Williams in Washington, D.C., who would then launch school voucher initiatives, take over existing districts, and launch charter schools. Young urbanites, collegians concerned with education, and minority families, many of whom voted Democrat, would also begin to push for reforms, even starting outfits such as Teach for America, the Knowledge is Power Program, and Black Alliance for Educational Options. These organizations, their leaders — and in the case of Teach For America, their alumni — would eventually become key players in education policymaking at the federal, state, and district levels.

Meanwhile reform-minded governors began ascending into higher political office. Clinton, who had launch the first effort to use testing to weed out low-performing teachers while in Arkansas, would support modest reforms once he became president. The Improving America’s Schools Act, the reauthorized version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, blessed and supported the launch and expansion of charter schools, as well as provided financing for states such as Texas to develop curricula standards. Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, would build upon Improving Schools Act (and upon the reform efforts he and other reform-minded governors undertook) by successfully convincing Congress to pass the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001.

While reformers gained influence, the NEA (along with the AFT), simply hoped that it and its allies could remain dominant over education policymaking. In 1997, the NEA’s public relations counselors, the Kamber Group, implored the union to go into “crisis mode.” by answering reformers and beating back their ideas. This didn’t happen. By 2005, four years after Bush convinced Republicans and Democrats (including then-Sen. Edward Kennedy, a longtime ally of teachers unions) to transform the Improving Schools Act into No Child, the NEA finally moved to beat back reformers by spending heavily on supposedly like-minded groups who can amplify its message. Between 2005-2006 and 2010-2011, the NEA increased its contributions to such groups from $4 million to $86 million. But while some outfits such as the Economic Policy Institute were willing to do the NEA’s bidding, other outfits (including Center for American Progress and the National Council of La Raza) ended up being some of the biggest supporters of systemic reform.

By 2008, the NEA’s influence (along with that of the AFT) was in decline. That’s when the union, along with the AFT, made its biggest strategic error: It backed Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination over that of Obama. With Obama able to win office without teachers’ union support — and with Obama, a supporter of charter schools, having strong relations with reformers — his administration had a freer hand in advancing reform. The resulting efforts the administration has undertaken — including (the sensible) Race to the Top competitive grant initiative and (the counterproductive) No Child waiver gambit — have helped further the very reforms (including the expansion of charters and overhauls of teacher evaluation systems) that have further weakened the NEA’s political standing.

Now with the call for Duncan’s resignation, the NEA has fully revealed the weakness of its influence. The NEA not only has to worry about efforts by governors such as Wisconsin Scott Walker to abolish collective bargaining and reform pensions that weakens its influence, it must also contend with an administration whose own policies have the same effect. It also has no way of waging any form of effective retribution against either the administration or its fellow Democrats. For one, Obama (along with Duncan) is now termed out of office, and thus, has no reason to do the NEA’s bidding. Just as importantly, given that Democrats have learned over the past four years that NEA support in political campaigns doesn’t translate into political victories, the party is now in the position of being the tail that wags the union’s dog. And with the public largely opposed to NEA’s agenda (even as they continue to give their support to teachers), the union, along with its traditionalist allies, are on their heels politically.

Meanwhile the NEA’s (and the AFT’s) decline in influence is exacerbated by gridlock at the congressional level. With both House Republicans and Senate Democrats refusing to give each other legislative victories (and the refusal of all Republicans in Congress to allow President Obama any wins on policymaking front), both unions can’t get anything done. Certainly the NEA’s goal of striking No Child’s accountability provisions from the books dovetails with that of House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, while it has strong ties to his colleague in the Senate , Tom Harkin. But since neither man can get any legislation passed beyond the floors of their respective chambers, the NEA can’t achieve much in the way of legislative progress. This gridlock is likely to remain the norm for some time, even with Republicans likely winning control of the Senate in November, because of their likely narrow majority, the peculiarities of Senate rules (which give individual members wide-ranging control over the progress of legislation), and the NEA’s lack of strong ties with Republicans at the federal level.

But the consequences of gridlock for the NEA lies not just with the inability to shape legislation. Although the Obama Administration is unable to pass legislation it favors, it can still advance its reform agenda through various other means. This includes issuing executive orders to implement its plans as well as through administrative rule-making that can lead to interpretations of laws on the books favorable to its goals. This makes the NEA’s move to call for Duncan’s resignation (along with last month’s move by AFT President Randi Weingarten to chastise Duncan for praising the Vergara v. California decision) especially counterproductive. Having been told by the NEA that nothing the administration does will find favor with it, Obama and Duncan could simply go radical and undertake anything pleases so long as it can be backed by a favorable interpretation of federal education law. As Obama has already shown in moves this year to initiate executive orders on climate change and immigration reform, this administration is willing to push matters to the legally possible limits when it so chooses.

This isn’t to say that the NEA no longer has any influence whatsoever. As seen in California, where it has successfully convinced Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators to roll back most reforms, the union can still win some defensive (and even offensive) victories. There’s also the fact that reformers are now divided among themselves over such matters as implementing Common Core reading and math standards as well as expanding accountability. But as seen with its call for Duncan’s resignation, the NEA (along with the AFT) is battling against reformers with a weak hand. And for the union, further loss of influence (along with loss of members and money) is likely in its future.


July 2, 2014 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle takes time this Fourth of July week to remember the World War II generation and how we should leave the world better than we found it the same way they have done.

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


As you may remember, Dropout Nation gave a preview of its analysis of the financial condition of Pennsylvania’s virtually-insolvent pension during Saturday’s report on the School District of Philadelphia. Since then, Keystone State Gov. Tom Corbett has failed to convince Keystone State legislators to pass his plan to increase contributions to the Public School Employees’ Retirement System. On Tuesday, the state’s lower house voted to effectively kill debate on the plan by steering the legislation into a committee chaired by one of Corbett’s fellow Republicans, Eugene DiGirolamo, who collected $19,750 in political contributions from public-sector unions (including $2,750 from the American Federation of Teachers affiliate there, and $1,000 from the National Education Association’s state unit) during the 2012 election cycle, according to data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. With DiGirolamo proclaiming that he will not hold any hearings on Corbett’s plan, and with the governor himself likely to lose the state’s top executive spot in November, there is no chance that the state government will address PSERS’ insolvency until after the new year begins.

Regardless of DiGirolamo’s unwillingness or that of Democrats in the Keystone State to take action, and no matter what happens to Corbett (whose tenure as governor has been weak, especially on systemically reforming public education), PSERS is still virtually busted. And based on Dropout Nation‘s analysis, the underfunding is increasing at alarming levels.

PSERS officially reports a pension deficit of $30 billion for 2012, the latest year available. That is an 11.4 percent increase over its officially-reported underfunding for the previous fiscal year. But as your editor pointed out in last year’s analysis, the Keystone State pension’s official numbers are not to be trusted. This is because it assumes an investment rate of return of 7.5 percent, which is far higher than the 5.3 percent five-year return rate experienced on the market, according to Wilshire Associates, and much higher than the 2.5 percent five-year return rate PSERS has actually experienced. Thanks to an inflated rate of return, the Keystone State teachers’ pension is understating its virtual insolvency.

Another problem lies with Act 10, the pension law passed four years ago that has exacerbated the pension’s insolvency with such moves as boosting annuities collected by teachers to equal 75 percent of final year’s salary. The law mandates that PSERS recognizes its gains and losses over a 10-year period, instead of an already-ridiculous five years. Because this approach, called smoothing, allows for the pension to not immediately account for losses or gains, it gives the false impression that its financial condition is in good shape.

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. [Moody's uses a rolling rate based on the return on a long-term bond index; Dropout Nation uses the 5.5 percent rate Moody's originally used in its preliminary analyses for the sake of consistency.] The result? DN determines that PSERS is underfunded to the tune of $37 billion, a 10.4 percent increase over the pension’s $33.5 billion insolvency as figured out by this publication in last year’s analysis. The $37 billion underfunding is 27 percent higher than PSERS’ officially-reported unfunded liability.

Based on a 17-year amortization rate, Pennsylvania taxpayers will have to shell out an additional $2.1 billion a year, 90 percent more than the $2.4 billion in contributions made in 2013. The Keystone State government’s plan to contribute an additional $600 million into the pension this year will do nothing to address the shortfall.

As with other teachers’ pensions, addressing PSERS’ insolvency is critical for Pennsylvania largely because of the number of Baby Boomers retiring from the teaching ranks. The number of retirees (net of deaths and other removals) added to PSERS’ rolls increased by 20 percent (from 168,026 annuitants to 202,015) between 2007 and 2012, while the payouts increased by 38 percent in that same period. Based on the pace of increases in annuitants in that six-year period, the pension will likely add 12,438 new annuitants (excluding deaths  and other removals) to the rolls ever year for the next decade before retirements. With each retiree likely collecting at least $28,501 a year, PSERS will have to pay out at least $354.5 million more in annuities every year, further increasing its insolvency.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett will likely end his rather weak tenure without addressing another key aspect of the nation’s education crisis. Photo courtesy of

Keep in mind that the numbers only cover the pension’s underfunding alone. There’s also PSERS’s unfunded retired teacher healthcare costs with which the state must also contend. PSERS officially reports unfunded liabilities of $1.2 billion. But hold on: 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 is $1.6 billion, 27 percent higher than PSERS officially reports. Based on a 17-year amortization rate, Keystone State taxpayers will have to pay $95 million more a year to pay down that shortfall, almost double the $109 million paid out last year.

At some point, given the increasing liabilities, Pennsylvania will have to deal realistically with PSERS’ insolvency. This must start with increasing contributions. But more-aggressive action must be taken.

While teachers officially pay 41 cents out of every dollar contributed last year. But as in most states, it is likely that districts are actually the ones covering the share of contributions teachers are supposed to make (on top of their own payouts to the pension). Embracing the approach taken by Detroit’s main city government to freeze the existing pension (save for paying out remaining contributions to retirees and whatever currently-working teachers are owed), and move current and new teachers to a hybrid pension. This would include a defined-contribution plan to which teachers can contribute as much toward their retirement as they so choose (with a five percent match from districts) along with a smooth accrual defined-benefit element similar to an approach advocated by Josh McGee of the John and Laura Arnold Foundation and Marcus Winters of the Manhattan Institute in a report released last month. As for PSERS itself? The state must end any cost-of-living increases for current retirees as well as reduce promised final-year salary payout percentages in order to get the pension’s financial house in order.

This move would help taxpayers and teachers by ending increases in PSERS’ unfunded liabilities as well as making the pension solvent. These moves woud also be helpful to younger teachers who are often the ones who bear the brunt of most pension reform plans. Given that defined-benefit pensions such as PSERS already do little for younger teachers because half of them are likely to leave classrooms within five years (and thus, unlikely to fully vest in the plans), moving away from the current pension would actually make teaching more attractive, both to those already working in the profession as well as to talented collegians who would otherwise look to gigs in the private sector.

But such a reform can only happen if Pennsylvania’s legislators and other political leaders actually address the long-term burdens facing the taxpayers and children they are supposed to represent. Sadly for the Keystone State, such action won’t happen anytime soon.

Featured photo courtesy of