Monthly Archives: June 2017

Teachers Unions

Seventeen years and a host of education reforms separate public declarations by its highest-ranking officials that the nation’s largest labor union should become a leader of education reform. Children who were just entering the public school system when National Education Association (NEA) president Bob Chase addressed the National Press Club in 1997 are adults now, perhaps with children of their own. NEA executive director John Stocks issued the same call to arms in 2014.

The teachers unions now face an environment in which their traditional enemies are emboldened, their traditional allies are deserting, and some of their most devoted activists are questioning the leadership of their own officers.

The events of the last five years have led the two national teachers unions to what normally is referred to as “the moment of truth.” But truth is tricky to define when perceptions are an integral part of the unions’ influence. Even weakened, together the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) constitute the single most powerful force in American education policy. Nothing moves forward without an answer to one question: What will the union do?

Will the NEA and the AFT continue to exert veto power over education reform? Are their recent setbacks the beginning of an irreversible decline? Will they become more militant or less as the years go on?

Predicting the future is a hazardous business, but if what’s past is prologue, we can at least make a reasonable estimation that assumes no unprecedented, revolutionary change in direction. Considering the quotes above, that seems to be a safe assumption.

A Nation at Risk may have jolted the education world, but it had no effect on the growth and power of teachers unions. They enjoyed substantial boosts in membership each year, as the hiring of teachers and education support employees grew at historic rates. There were periodic national efforts at education reform, such as Goals 2000, but the unions weathered these storms, and the winds eventually died down.

President George W. Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act into law, with Representative George Miller and Senator Edward Kennedy behind him (from left)

The first sign that the world was changing around them was the passage of the No Child Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001. Staunch union allies such as Representative George Miller of California and Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts co-authored the bill, and it passed Congress by wide margins, with more Democratic votes than Republican ones.

The accountability provisions of the law bedevil the unions to this day, but the large increase in federal education spending ended up helping the unions’ bottom line, as still more teachers and support workers were hired.

The situation was further complicated by Obama’s embrace of education reforms the NEA found anathema. He gave moderate praise to performance pay. As a U.S. senator, he was the only Democrat to introduce an NCLB-related bill that the union opposed. The NEA analysis of the proposed legislation claimed it favored “1) establishing a teacher evaluation system using gains in student test scores; 2) allowing ‘community stakeholders’ to have a role in designing teacher evaluation systems; and 3) providing merit pay for teachers based upon gains in student test scores.”

As a result, the NEA did not get around to endorsing Obama until after he had clinched the nomination. They worked hard to help elect him in 2008, but it was clear that he felt no special obligation to the unions when he named Arne Duncan as U.S. secretary of education, instead of union favorite Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford.

Duncan has since become the bête noire of the teachers unions, but his selection and subsequent actions signified a clear continuity in education policy from Obama the candidate to Obama the president. Coupled with the growing influence of Democrats for Education Reform, it was now OK to be a Democrat without kowtowing to the unions on every education issue.

But let’s not go crazy. When the recession hit, the Obama administration’s first instinct was to protect the jobs of educators. Secretary Duncan claimed the stimulus package of 2009 funded more than 300,000 education jobs. Follow-on legislation, the so-called “edujobs” bill of 2010, was purported to save 160,000 more.

President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan visit a school in Chicago in December 2008, just after Duncan’s nomination

As mammoth as the spending was, these were short-term fixes. Education hiring actually grew 2.3 percent during the recession, but then fell off a cliff when the money ran out. Educators experienced the Great Recession about two years after everyone else.

Reductions in force meant fewer teachers-union members, which meant reduced revenue for the unions. Budgetary concerns also provided the impetus for Republicans seeking to curb the power of teachers unions, the primary example being the passage in 2011 of Act 10 in Wisconsin, which greatly restricted the bargaining power of NEA and AFT affiliates in the state, and ultimately reduced their dues-paying membership by more than one-third.

Right-to-work legislation followed in Indiana and Michigan, and in places where teachers unions were already struggling—like Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee—membership fell by 20 percent or more. The 3,000-member University of Hawaii Professional Assembly left the NEA and became independent.

Today, the NEA’s membership is down more than 9 percent over the last four years. The AFT claims its membership is steady, though it has maintained it by affiliating unions outside the field of education, and not by recruiting a horde of new teachers. The percentage of teachers who are union members has dropped (see Figure 1).

The question dogging both national unions and their affiliates is how to turn this state of affairs around. There seem to be two alternatives, roughly analogous to a choice between war and diplomacy.

One faction, existing in both unions, wants to man the barricades, fight over every inch of territory, and take no prisoners. It sees education reformers outside of the union sphere as either corporate privatizers seeking to grasp some of the $640 billion this country spends annually on public schools, or their tools.

The most identifiable leaders of this militant faction are Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Alex Caputo-Pearl of United Teachers Los Angeles, Bob Peterson of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, and Barbara Madeloni of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

union officers address an audience of union activists, the world is described in Manichaean terms. Standardized testing is not just misused, it is “toxic.” Opponents are not just opponents, they are adversaries “who want to destroy our democracy and our public schools”—for money. These enemies are identified by name: the Koch Brothers, the Cato Institute, Americans for Prosperity, Pearson, Inc., Democrats for Education Reform, Michelle Rhee, and Arne Duncan.

The only force standing in their way is the teachers union—“the champions of equity,” who “define solutions that drive excellence and success for all students,” as described by former NEA president Dennis Van Roekel in his keynote address to the Representative Assembly in July 2014. Union activists, in the words of John Stocks, spoken two years earlier, are “social justice patriots” who “put the power of our soul to work to defend democracy, to fight for equal opportunity, and to create a more just society.”

That plays well with the troops, whose enthusiasm and commitment are needed to advance the agenda. Unfortunately for the teachers unions, the wider world is not an echo chamber of their beliefs. To the general public, many of whom have little idea what the NEA and the AFT actually do, it sounds more than a little hyperbolic and self-congratulatory.

The external message cannot be so bellicose. Both the NEA and the AFT need allies, including those who might not sign on to the totality of the unions’ vision for public education and American politics. Even with their opponents, they cannot escalate every confrontation to Armageddon. Compromises occur.

Union officers are also aware that it is detrimental to their cause to be constantly saying “no” to so many proposals for school reform. Thus the external message is devoted to depicting an organization that is forward-thinking and innovative when it comes to operating the nation’s schools.

The problem for the unions’ establishment wing is that the internal message leads their devotees to believe that such compromises, collaborations, and accommodations are selling out the movement. They are not always wrong about that.

While both national unions decry the corporate influence on education, they have partnerships with large corporations on many levels: sponsorships of union events, discount arrangements and credit cards as part of member benefits packages, funding for joint projects, etc. The NEA even went so far as to team up with Walden Media on a book-buying initiative for needy children. Walden Media produced Waiting for Superman, a documentary about families trying to get their kids into charter schools. It was especially critical of teachers unions.

Union activists often depict the Gates Foundation as the mastermind behind corporate education reform. But in 2009, when the foundation announced it would award $335 million to a number of school districts and charter schools to promote teacher effectiveness, the union response was a far cry from the anticorporate rhetoric it regularly delivers to its internal audience.

“These districts, working with their unions and parents, were willing to think out of the box, and were awarded millions of dollars to create transparent, fair, and sustainable teacher effectiveness models,” said AFT president Randi Weingarten.

“Collaboration and multilevel integration are important when it comes to transforming the teaching profession,” said then NEA president Van Roekel. “These grants will go far in providing resources to help raise student achievement and improve teacher effectiveness.”

The NEA’s own foundation received $550,000 from the Gates Foundation to “improve labor-management collaboration.” The AFT accrued more than $10 million from the Gates Foundation, until internal pressures forced the union to end some of the grants. And of course, the Gates Foundation helped bankroll the development of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which both unions continue to officially support (see “Teachers Unions and the Common Core,” features, Winter 2015).

The militant wing is mostly hostile to CCSS, seeing the standards as part and parcel of the corporate education-reform agenda. The establishment wing has been forced to triangulate by defending the standards but attacking the way they have been implemented.

The split between the two factions was illustrated at the 2014 AFT Convention. The delegation from Chicago introduced a resolution to place the AFT in full opposition to CCSS, but it was handily defeated in committee, a committee dominated by New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, the backbone of the AFT’s establishment wing.

Instead, AFT delegates passed a resolution stating the union would “continue to support the promise of CCSS, provided that a set of essential conditions, structures and resources are in place.”

The future of high school education

Class Families Choose Charters

Extraordinary about this December morning gathering of about 40 middle-school parents in the multipurpose room at BASIS San Antonio North charter school. The topic: a “charters 101” presentation about Texas charter-school politics.

Then came the pitch: Are you willing to write a letter to state officials asking permission for BASIS to open up K–5 schools to feed into their existing middle schools? Sure, many of the parents answered.

Parents lobbying on behalf of charter schools is nothing new. Who doesn’t remember the massive march in New York City—thousands of children and parents trudging across the Brooklyn Bridge wearing T-shirts with slogans such as “My Child, My Choice,” all to protest the crackdown on charters by New York’s new mayor?

But there’s more to this story. The two BASIS charter schools in San Antonio, along with a Great Hearts Academies charter, are part of an effort to lure top charter schools into the city, and not just into the low-income neighborhoods where charters are traditionally found. San Antonio and the surrounding Bexar County are served by 17 independent school districts,

he rise in middle-class students attending charter schools is largely masked by the overall growth of charter schools: over the last five years, the number of charter schools has grown nationally from 4,690 to just over 6,000. There are now 43 communities where at least 20 percent of the students attend charters, reports the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Most of that growth is found in low-income, high-minority neighborhoods such as those in Los Angeles. Between 2005 and 2010, the percentage of suburban charters actually fell from 25 to 21 percent of the total. Thus, what’s happening in San Antonio, Washington, D.C., Denver, and cities across the country remains hidden.

There are some compelling reasons why growth in charters that appeal to middle-class parents is likely to continue. As researchers have documented (see “U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests,” features, Fall 2014), even middle-class and suburban parents have reason to find fault with their schools. And while most still trust their local schools, those who don’t are enough to fill schools such as BASIS and Great Hearts.

Changing the Game in San Antonio

BASIS Schools and Great Hearts Academies were the obvious choices, and they quickly set up San Antonio operations (BASIS in 2013 and Great Hearts in 2014) that they plan to expand. Their schools couldn’t be more different. BASIS, which offers students a chance to pursue world-class academics at their own pace, also grants its students (and teachers) world-class freedoms. Wear what your mood that morning dictates and express yourself loudly in the hallways and cafeteria seem to be the rules. Considering the heavy homework load at these schools, the trade-off seems fair.At Great Hearts Monte Vista, also in San Antonio, students wear uniforms, file quietly through the halls, and study the Great Books.

By contrast, Great Hearts students wear uniforms, file quietly through the halls, and study the Great Books. Found on each classroom wall are the Great Hearts nine “core virtues”: humility, integrity, friendship, perseverance, wisdom, courage, responsibility, honesty, and citizenship.

At Great Hearts, prospective teachers are first reviewed for their character. At BASIS, teachers are first reviewed for their content knowledge; PhDs are not uncommon (see “High Scores at BASIS Charter Schools,” features, Winter 2014). But while the schools have radically different feels, what I found interesting was the number of parents with one child in BASIS and another in Great Hearts. To them, what mattered most were the highly rigorous academics. After that, choosing a school was more about the personal style of the child.

As I discovered in my interviewing, there’s an unexpected sweet spot for charters: middle-class parents who are desperate for a curriculum that will challenge their bored sons and daughters but who are unable or unwilling to pay private school tuitions (see “The Right Choice” sidebar below). For those parents, schools such as BASIS may lack lush soccer fields, but the academics equal or surpass those of many private schools, all at the right price: free.

Anyone expecting these schools to be white enclaves will be surprised. At the two BASIS schools, 36 percent of the students are white, 33 percent Hispanic, and 24 percent Asian/Pacific Islander. The schools appear to be especially appealing to South Asian families. At Great Hearts, about half the students are white; few are Asian. This school attracts a great many middle-class Hispanics, including families who want their children to be part of the next-generation San Antonio leadership. The metropolitan area is about 55 percent Hispanic.

Intentionally Diverse Schools

That diversity was achieved by building a regional coalition that includes two suburban communities, Lincoln and Cumberland, and two urban, Central Falls and Pawtucket. A lottery pulls equal numbers from all four, but the lottery is also weighted toward low-income students.

Blackstone is an ideal school for answering a key question: do charters that serve a socioeconomic mix of students look and feel different from charters that target only low-income students? In short, yes. Leslie Royal, a BVP parent who works as dean of operations at a Blackstone elementary school, previously worked at an urban “no excuses” charter school. That strict culture was appropriate for the students there, she said, but not necessarily for her son. “Many middle-class parents who are relatively successful in their fields know how to prep their kids to start kindergarten and what experiences they need to expose them to for their kids to be well-rounded, and eventually get to college (for example, trips to museums and zoos). In my experience at an urban no-excuses school, the rigid discipline and structures we put in place allowed us to focus on the urgent academic intervention that our students there desperately needed. Our focus was closing the achievement gap, which meant that academics were the most important thing.” Royal had no hesitations about enrolling her son at Blackstone.

Unlike Blackstone, E. L. Haynes Public Charter School is subject to the same lottery used by all charters in Washington, D.C., which forbids weighting that would allow them to favor some students over others. That said, from its beginnings in 2004, Haynes founder Jennifer Niles was determined to both educate underserved students and preserve racial and socioeconomic diversity. “She didn’t think we should be working toward having a community that was racially and socioeconomically segregated,” said Rich Pohlman, acting head of school. (In December 2014, Niles was appointed D.C.’s deputy mayor for education.)

Leaders at Haynes, however, are not giving up on boosting diversity in the upper grades. “This is the first year for our senior class,” said Pohlman. “It’s the first year where we’ll have proof points about where kids go to college. After a few years of that, I anticipate having the demographics become more stable.”

School Reform

Changes in Support for School Reform

In retrospect it looks as if 2014, an election year that swept Republicans into power in Congress and many state capitals, propelled school reform to a high-water mark that has proven difficult to sustain. For three years in a row now, we have asked either identical or quite similar questions on several issues. On a surprising number of them, support for policy changes has slipped in 2015 from peaks attained in 2014, though sometimes the fall is to a level that remains above the one reached in 2013. None of the changes are large, and some of the shifts fall short of statistical significance, leaving it unclear as to whether a true change has taken place. But consider the overall pattern of responses across major parts of the school reform agenda (see Figure 4):

· Charter schools. Support for charter schools has dipped from a high of 54% in 2014 to 51% in 2015, the same level as in 2013. However, the percentage supporting charters remains twice that of the 27% expressing opposition.

· Tax credits for scholarships for low-income students. Support for a tax credit for businesses and individuals who contribute to private-school scholarships for low-income families has also fallen, to 55% from 60% in 2014. (This question was not asked in 2013.)

· Vouchers for low-income students. Backing for the use of “government funds to pay the tuition of low-income students who choose to attend private schools” has fallen steadily—from 41% to 37% between 2013 and 2014, with a further (though not statistically significant) drop to just 34% in 2015.

· Universal vouchers. Public enthusiasm for universal vouchers without regard to income has slipped from 50% in 2014 to 46% in 2015, just a bit higher than the 44% level reported in 2013. (However, these changes are not statistically significant and the comparison is not exact, as the question in 2015 for the first time included the word “all,” clearly presenting vouchers as a universal benefit for every family.)

· Merit pay for teachers. People are not fully embracing policy reforms affecting teachers. Between 2014 and 2015, public support for merit pay has slid from 57% to 51%, about the same as in 2013, when merit pay garnered support from 49% of the population. Even so, just 34% of the population opposes merit pay, with the remainder taking a neutral position.

·Tenure. Between 2014 and 2015, public opposition to teacher tenure has also slipped, from 57% to 51%, just above the 47% level attained in 2013. Nonetheless, current public support for teacher tenure is just 29%, a little more than half the size of the opposition.

One hesitates to read too much into shifts in opinion that are only modestly larger than what a statistical aberration might account for—and in some cases, not even that big. Perhaps the higher levels of support we observed in 2014 reflected temporary shocks to public opinion stemming from events such as Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s recall election and the landmark Vergara v. California decision that struck down California’s teacher evaluation and tenure laws, both of which took place while our survey was in the field. But school reformers might take the 2015 findings as a red light on the dashboard, a warning that efforts to alter the public’s thinking on education policy may be faltering.

Expenditures and Salaries

In its 2016 budget, the Obama administration has proposed a new billion-dollar federal program, Teaching for Tomorrow, which requests an additional $1 billion in federal funding for services to children from low-income families. It also calls for more money for English language acquisition programs, civil rights enforcement, and special education services. Reporters nonetheless have pronounced the budget “dead on arrival,” as Congress is reluctant to increase spending at a time when the country is running a large fiscal deficit. Consistent with these reports, the House of Representatives has passed a budget resolution that calls for a more than 8% cut in federal spending.

Missing from virtually all the media coverage of these developments are answers to a few basic questions: How much do we currently spend per pupil? How much does the federal government contribute to the total expenditure? And does the public think spending should be increased? To gauge people’s knowledge and views on these matters, we asked our respondents a series of questions concerning school spending.

Americans greatly underestimate the amount of money spent on schools. According to the federal government’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the school districts in which our survey respondents resided spent an average of $12,440 per pupil in 2012 (the most recent data available). But when we ask respondents to estimate per-pupil expenditures in their local school district, they guess, on average, just $6,307, a little more than half actual spending levels.

Our survey found that people are often willing to alter their thinking when given additional information. Before asking our respondents if they thought spending in their districts should be increased, we told half of them what the current spending levels were. The other half were left uninformed. Among those not informed, 58% favor increases in spending. That support drops to 42% when people are told the actual level of expenditures (after having provided their own estimate).

Respondents who most seriously underestimate spending levels are the ones most likely to change their minds when told the facts. When those who underestimate school expenditures by $5,000 or less are told real spending levels, their support for increased spending drops by 12 percentage points. Among those who underestimate expenditures by more than $5,000, the downward opinion shift, upon being informed of real levels, is 20 percentage points. On the other hand, those who overestimate expenditures barely budge in their opinions when told their districts spend less than they thought.