Nel's New Day

June 20, 2014

Judge Overturns Tenure with Flawed Evidence

A little-noticed court decision last week amid the Iraq controversy was a California trial court ruling that five state statutes protecting teachers’ jobs discriminate against poor and minority children. Judge Rolf M. Treu argued that the 1 to 3 percent of teachers estimated to be “grossly ineffective” cluster in high-poverty schools resulting in harm to students that “shocks the conscience.” The decision in Vergara v. California evokes Brown v. Board of Education in condemning tenure, due-process laws, and policies that protect senior teachers.

Silicon Valley mogul David Welch bankrolled the lawsuit with a group called Students Matter. Because of his ownership of both charter and cyber-charter schools, Welch can financially benefit from the destruction of teacher tenure and unions. He also has a connection to the $9 billion-per-year textbook and testing giant Pearson. Welch’s non-profit organization, StudentsFirst, has a goal of privatizing all schools. Getting rid of tenure means that owners of charter schools can hire teachers cheaply and control what curriculum materials they use.

Because Welch lives in the most expensive zip code in the United States, he had to find nine children from low-income communities in his claim that teacher job protections harm their ability to get their constitutionally-guaranteed education. He didn’t do a very good job of picking them. Two attended charter schools with no teacher tenure or seniority, and two others attended a pilot school where teachers could be dismissed for any reason. One of the “bad” teachers had been named “teacher of the year” by the Pasadena school district; others had excellent records.

Fortunately, Welch had the money to hire a legal team co-headed by George W. Bush’s Solicitor General Theodore Olson. The law firm, known for a number of conservative causes, is representing Walmart in a gender discrimination suit, Chevron in its environmental dispute with Ecuador, and the Dole Food Company in a lawsuit involving allegations that pesticides used by the company caused sterility in farm workers.

Former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, another StudentsFirst leader, lauded the decision. Her obsession with standardized testing led the country to first declare her as “America’s most famous school reformer” before she parted ways with the District of Columbia, and they dropped her programs. Her results there were a disastrous “revolving door” of personnel as newly hired teachers left at much higher rates than nationally while students showed little or no gain in academic achievement.

At this time, 46 states grant teacher tenure, much to the displeasure of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Students Matter, the group that filed the lawsuit, includes people from his department including Russlyn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights who is also in charge of ensuring equal federal funding reaches schools, and Ted Mitchell, nominee for the position of under-secretary of the Obama administration and president and CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund. Democrats for Education Reform, whose board of directors holds a statewide list of former governors, state senators and city mayors, were also early supporters of Students Matter.

Also participating in the lawsuit was the California Charter Schools Association. The parent of one of the co-defendants in Vergara, Karen Martinez, ran for the school board of the town of Alum Rock and eventually unseated one of the main opponents of charter school growth in the district.

According to Dr. Kevin Welner, head of the National Policy Center of the University of Colorada, the ruling “attacks teachers and teacher unions instead of addressing the root of opportunity gaps.” The lawsuit didn’t address what drives educational inequality and what policies get teachers into the classroom. At least half the variation in educational outcomes is correlated with childhood poverty and family background. Educational inequality tracks more closely with rising income inequality than any other reason. Treu failed to mention these factors although the two legal precedents he cites deal with these inequalities. He can’t rule that poverty is unconstitutional, so he blames the teachers.

California declares tenure at 18 months as compared to the national average of 3.1 years and the 5 years that teachers find reasonable. As Penn Graduate School of Education professor Dr. Richard Ingersoll, author of many studies on student staffing and turnover, pointed out, there may be some validity to changing the length of tenure. Treu’s ruling, however, has thrown out all tenure. Ingersoll explained that the problem is more with the working conditions than the need to eliminate teachers. The best educators would be attracted through job protections, better pay, and workplace autonomy.

The judge quoted David Berliner, emeritus professor of education at Arizona State University, as saying that 1 to 3 percent of the teachers in the state were “grossly ineffective” and calculated that this would be thousands of teachers. Yet Berliner stated that his figure was a “guesstimate” and not based on any specific data. He said:

“I pulled that out of the air. There’s no data on that. That’s just a ballpark estimate, based on my visiting lots and lots of classrooms.”

During the trial, he also never used the term “grossly ineffective,” and he does not support the judge’s belief that teacher quality can be judged by student test scores.

Even if the “guesstimate” were anywhere near true, about 25 percent of teachers at the most disadvantaged schools leave each year. This demographic, in itself, damages the student population. Fast-track, limited-commitment programs such as Teach for America have made the turnover even worse, resulting in an average 50-percent annual turnover rates. When Ingersoll was asked to testify in a different lawsuit two years ago about exempting some Los Angeles schools with younger staff, he found that as many as 30 percent of teachers were already leaving these schools every year.

The teacher accountability movement has not made the profession more rewarding or the working conditions more stable—two necessary factors to attract and retain good teachers. High-stakes testing policies in urban schools, which cause centralized curriculum, teaching to the test, etc., also erode teachers’ discretion and autonomy. Teachers leave, and Vergara’s ruling won’t solve these problems.

The evidence in Vergara did not connect “bad” teachers to tenure statutes. One of the “grossly ineffective” teachers cited was a substitute employed at will without tenure. Even people opposed to teacher unions stated that the judge did not have any evidence for his ruling.

The judge’s ruling is so flawed that it might be overturned on appeal. Yet the opportunists who make money off standardizing testing and privatizing education are just starting. Students Matter has said it is considering filing similar lawsuits in New York, Maryland, New Mexico, Connecticut, Oregon, Kansas and Idaho, as well as any other states that may be responsive. They have no concern for quality education. Once again, it’s just a matter of “follow the money.”

For a picture of education in the 21st century, read this article from an award-winning teacher about why he has decided to leave his career and how people can change the educational system.


May 28, 2012

Teacher Unions Get a Bad Rap

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 7:32 PM
Tags: , , , ,

The minute that Scott Walker took over Wisconsin as governor—literally took over—the issue of unions, frequently teacher unions has been front and center in the national discussion. Conservatives believe that the right to collectively bargain is the spawn of the Devil, and that teachers (1) are lazy; (2) are overpaid; (3) don’t teach the kids; and (4) have a really easy job. The last one was disproved in Arizona 30 years ago when parents decided to substitute during a Tucson school district strike. Many of these people didn’t last even 30 minutes, and the strike was soon over with the public voting in their raises. But the other myths are still prevalent, especially as government gives corporations and the wealthy even more money while eliminating funds for education.

The teacher union battles have now arrived in my backyard. In both the Portland (OR) area and southern Oregon, teachers in four districts voted this past spring to strike, the most recent in the Reynolds district. They have since settled although the terms for Reynolds has not yet been revealed. That’s just the tip of the iceberg: other school cuts have been so devastating that they may go the same direction as these four districts.

The local mainstream media has left out a great deal information in their reporting. They did point out, as an afterword, that the Reynolds teachers have not had a contract for the past year, but they kept working. They have also pointed out that there was a gap of $5 million between the teachers’ proposal and the school board’s decision. What they left out is that the district claiming a budget crisis has $20 million in reserves and saw fit to increase salaries in the superintendent’s office, including the assistant, by 10 percent this year. Administrators’ pay increased by 2 percent last year while the number of certified and classified staff has been cut during the past two years.

Apart from the fiscal concerns, the board wants the right to fire teachers based on one anonymous written or verbal complaint, eliminate all planning time from student contact hours and professional development days, and add instruction days with no additional compensation. The board also wants to keep teachers from seeing student information concerning past safety, behavioral, or criminal reports. Other board demands would use biased student test scores in teacher evaluations, forbid teachers to take emergency leave days around holidays, and ignore seniority as a factor in layoffs. The icing on the cake is that the officials want the power to reopen the contract any time they say they are suffering financial constraints. Right now Reynolds has declared fiscal problems with its $20 million in reserves, three times the budget carryover recommended by the Oregon School Board Association.

Earlier contretemps between teachers and school boards in bargaining show support for the unions. The Gresham-Barlow strike lasted little more than three hours after hundreds of community members came out the night before in support of the teachers.

In their bargaining, teachers have shown a willingness to compromise. Parkrose reached an agreement just one day before a planned strike because teachers accepted 21 furlough days for no pay over three years and got no cost-of-living increases and only half their experienced-based step raises during the three-year contract. Gresham’s new contract also freezes teachers’ cost-of-living adjustments while preserving step increases.

The Eagle Point Education Association, representing not just teachers but also most classified staff, was pushed into big concessions.  Teachers are forced to work from 8 am to 3 pm with no prep time; a new pro-rated insurance plan reduces benefits for part-time employees. And like other districts, teachers get no cost-of-living adjustments, in this district for the fifth consecutive year.

Despite what lies the school board and politicians told, a starting salary at Eagle point is $34,277 and tops out at $66, 412 per year. Yet robocalls claimed, “Teachers only have to be in school for six-and-a-half hours a day. Teachers only work 190 days a year. On average, a teacher makes $68 an hour with benefits, four times more than the community average. Does that sound like overworked and underpaid to you?” Substitutes covering the strike were paid $330 daily, with no preparation needed for classes, a total of $62,700 for inexperienced, sometimes untrained “babysitters.” One of the most vigorous opponents to fair pay for teachers is Republican state Rep. Dennis Richardson, an attorney who specializes in business and real estate, a position that probably has a hefty hourly pay.

Portland teachers saved 110 teacher layoffs by delaying step increases. The district also cut $2.5 million from the central office, and the city gave the district $5 million out of the city budget. This saved the school district for the current year, but next year will see a much larger budget hole.

Meanwhile Beaverton’s second-largest union signed a two-year contract with pay cuts and nine furlough days. The district office still plans to lay off 344 people. Sports giant Nike is located in Beaverton; for the years 2008 to 2010, the huge corporation paid 4.9 percent average in state income tax. Co-founder and CEO Phil Knight, the 60th richest person in the world, has a net worth of $13.1 billion. The other Fortune 500 corporation headquartered in Oregon, Precision Castparts, paid 2.9 percent in state income tax. The state of Oregon has passed laws lowering taxes for corporations and the wealthy by 12 percent; schools lost 5 percent funding.

Conservatives who have never taught believe that anyone can do it, that it’s so easy that they can walk into the classroom and do a better job than trained, experienced teachers. Conservatives who begrudge teachers $20-$30 per hour cheerfully pay plumbers and electricians over $100 and lawyers up to $500.

When teachers strike, conservatives think that this is inappropriate behavior for “professional” people, that instead of protesting that teachers should just accept whatever they are given. Conservatives wrongly state that teacher unions are only for the teachers and don’t protect the students. Without these unions, huge class sizes would be far more extreme than they are now.

An example of the conservative approach comes from Mitt Romney, who told experts that class size doesn’t make any difference. Recently he selected ten educator advisors from George W. Bush’s administration including Bush’s Education Secretary Rod Paige, known for being Houston superintendent when the dropouts were vastly underreported. Paige has referred tothe NEA as “a terrorist organization.” Another Romney advisor, Idaho state superintendent Tom Luna, pushed bills protested by community leaders, parents, and educators to increase class sizes, reduce the teaching force, replace teachers with mandatory online classes, and eliminate educator rights.

Unions encourage teacher training and further education that betters the quality of teaching while protecting good teachers. When some administrators develop vendettas against good teachers because of differences of opinion, unions use due process to protect these teachers. Unions also keep salaries high enough that schools can have a quality staff.  Without unions, teachers can be fired after a few years without cause so that the school district can bring in new, cheaper teachers, resulting in poorer education.

In Forbes, Erik Kain wrote about the need for teacher unions:

I support teachers unions because they are the best chance this country has to improve and strengthen public education for the long haul. No other organization will step in to protect teachers from political blowback and the reform-trend-of-the-moment. The Gates Foundation may have its heart in the right place, but the big foundations can’t protect teachers from slashed budgets or political retribution. Charity-propelled education reform may very well be a sincere effort, but in the process its leaders have offered up a lot of bad choices for teachers. Too often charity reform translates into little more than corporate reform.

Teachers are on the front lines of the fight to keep America’s egalitarian system of public education public. Faux privatization schemes and for-profit schools threaten to undermine the system itself in the name of choice. But what about democracy? What about a system built around the ethic of society rather than that of the individual? Teachers are one of the last bastions of workplace democracy left in the country, and once they’re out of the picture anything goes. Including public education.

Conservatives are determined to destroy education for young people while complaining about badly educated students are. These conservatives are the same people who display ignorance about history, economy, languge, etc., who make fun of people who speak a foreign language, and who want to get rid of all the arts because they believe it has no value. These conservatives want students to be funneled through a cattle-shoot with a few of the basics, taught in a private school that focuses on Christianity and keeps everyone from  broadening their foundation of knowledge.

The old saying, “You get what you pay for,” applies here.


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