Commentary: Vergara’s dissenting justices write for history

Judge Rolf Treu affirm vergara decisionIn the long struggle to make the United States more just and perfect, court majorities have made some horrific mistakes. When that happens, the burden falls on dissents to provide hope for the future arc of the moral universe.

Such dissents often come from the most distinguished jurists. Benjamin Curtis, for instance, was the first formally trained lawyer on the United States Supreme Court. In 1857, he dissented from the Dred Scott case that eviscerated the civil rights of African Americans, arguing that: “free persons, descended from Africans held in slavery, were citizens of the United States.” John Harlan dissented in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) with the following famous lines:

“Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. … The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.”

Justices Curtis and Harlan were vindicated by history, as were Justice Louis Brandeis in Olmstead v. United States (1928) regarding the right to privacy, and Justice Harlan Stone in Minersville School District (1940) regarding freedom of religion.

Today, justices unable to persuade their peers write for history, as in the 2011 dissents of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg (the Dukes v. Walmart case regarding workplace rights of women) and Sonia Sotomayor (the United States v. Jicarilla Apache Nation case regarding the rights of the Apache Nation).

These examples come to mind in light of recent news from California, the nation’s largest state, and education reform, which the Urban League’s Esther Bush and many others have called the greatest civil rights issue of our time.

As background, in 2012 public school student Beatriz Vergara and 8 other schoolchildren sued California for violating their constitutional rights by providing them with systematically inferior education. In 2014, Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu agreed with the students, ruling that the California educational system “shocks the conscience” in its mistreatment of students of color. Judge Treu’s decision met with immediate and widespread approval from almost every major newspaper editorial board of the left, right, and center, as well as longtime progressive education leaders such as California’s former Congressman George Miller.

Unfortunately, three California appellate judges, led by Justice Roger Boren, made a clearly flawed decision to overturn Vergara.

As I wrote at the time, I was confident that the California Supreme Court would overturn Justice Boren’s clearly flawed ruling, in part because of my confidence in two of the individual justices of that court: Goodwin Liu and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar. Both Liu and Cuéllar have sterling reputations and have been discussed as future justices of the United States Supreme Court.

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Commentary: UTLA head should seek to avert state crisis, not create one

Alex Caputo-Pearl strike talks UTLABy Caroline Bermudez

Nearly two years ago, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez posed a question in an op-ed worth revisiting.

Is the L.A. teachers union tone deaf?

Based on a recent speech given by Alex Caputo-Pearl, the head of United Teachers Los Angeles, the answer is a definitive yes.

The juvenile world of heroes and villains Caputo-Pearl described, one where evil corporations and billionaires look to profit from public education while scrappy, earnest underdogs try to stop them, bears no semblance to reality.

Teachers unions in California comprise one of the most powerful political forces in the state.

Rather than admit this, Caputo-Pearl issued a battle cry worthy of a Bugs Bunny cartoon in his speech given at the UTLA Leadership Conference:

“With our contract expiring in June 2017, the likely attack on our health benefits in the fall of 2017, the race for Governor heating up in 2018, and the unequivocal need for state legislation that addresses inadequate funding and increased regulation of charters, with all of these things, the next year-and-a-half must be founded upon building our capacity to strike, and our capacity to create a state crisis, in early 2018. There simply may be no other way to protect our health benefits and to shock the system into investing in the civic institution of public education.”

What is glaring in Caputo-Pearl’s speech is that aside from mentioning his own two children, the word “children” was said only once. This speaks volumes as to the rationale behind his leadership, a role serving the interests of adults before those of students. Threatening to strike should be an absolute last resort, not the first order of action.

It calls to mind a classic paradox.

Unstoppable force, meet immovable object.

The unstoppable force is the rising cost of health care and pensions in this nation. As a result of these sharply increasing costs, LAUSD faces a staggering amount of debt, to the tune of more than $11 billion, that threatens to cripple the entire system because the district is on the hook, per demands made by UTLA, to provide lifetime health benefits and retirement pensions to its employees.

According to a report written by an independent financial review panel that was commissioned by LAUSD, the district owes more than $20,000 per student for unfunded liabilities (see page 44) although per pupil expenditure in California is less than $10,000 per student. Placed in further context, the liability for retirement benefits LAUSD is obligated to pay for is four times that of other large urban school districts. Twenty-seven percent of state funding LAUSD receives goes to paying pension and health care costs before factoring in teacher salaries, school supplies and textbooks.

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Commentary: Why teachers are burning out — reimagining the American education system

Screen Shot 2016-08-18 at 9.00.17 AMBy Jane Mayer and Jesse Soza, Ed.D.

This is the second in a five-article series about teacher sustainability in Los Angeles and California public schools and the available solutions to reversing teacher turnover. Read the first article here.


Teacher turnover, otherwise known as burnout, is a multi-faceted and complex problem currently plaguing the public education system in our country. And it’s one that hits relatively close to home. Education is a unifying element of American society—we’re hard-pressed to find many institutions that have influenced the lives of every citizen.

Because there are approximately 3.5 million to 5.5 million teachers in our country, which amounts to 1-2 percent of the population (reports vary based on categorization of administration, grade levels, etc.) almost everyone knows and loves a teacher. And 40-50 percent of them are leaving our schools within five years of entering, unable to sustain careers within the current education system.

On the whole, teachers are passionate, compassionate, innovative and intelligent members of our society. Ask any teacher why he or she got into teaching, and almost everyone will give you some variation of wanting to mentor young people, pass along a passion for a subject, serve the way a childhood teacher had served him, or—in no uncertain terms, “change the world.” No one gets into teaching because of the prestige, the easy work or the money. Teachers go into teaching because they are called—and because they have a vision of themselves as change agents in the world.

So, the question becomes (and rightly so, as pointed out by several comments on the first article), why are these passionate, committed and bright people, who set out to serve our communities, leaving at such astounding rates?

The knee-jerk response often revolves around poor salaries, though the answer isn’t as simple as giving people a raise (but with a national starting salary of $35,672, raises wouldn’t hurt). There are places in our country where the increased cost of living dramatically outpaces teacher salaries (like Los Angeles and San Francisco) and actually dissuades people from becoming teachers at all.

But despite pay, many of our nation’s teachers would happily continue working in schools if other conditions that lead to burnout were changed. And the other good news is that there are concrete and effective ways to address the conditions that are driving our teachers out of classrooms across this state and our country.

So, back to the question at hand—if it’s not simply money, why are they leaving?

Richard Ingersoll, one of the foremost experts on teacher attrition and a former teacher himself, reflected on this question personally in an interview with The Atlantic: “‘One of the big reasons I quit was sort of intangible,’ Ingersoll says. ‘But it’s very real: It’s just a lack of respect. Teachers in schools do not call the shots. They have very little say. They’re told what to do; it’s a very disempowered line of work.'”

Could it really be so simple that all teachers need to stay in the classroom is to feel heard, respected and empowered?

Yes.

When there is a workforce that is intelligent, well-educated, compassionate and committed to service, the best way we can honor them is to trust them to do their jobs. Trust them to teach what needs to be taught, trust their experiences in the classroom are valuable sources of information, trust that they are experts at teaching.

Unfortunately, the educational system we have today is not set up to honor teachers as experts—and it actually prevents them from speaking their voices, experiencing personal power and having agency to affect change. Complicated federally mandated testing, district-mandated behavior systems and ineffective school-wide policies affect every teacher in every classroom. As I have heard again and again from teachers around our city and state, our current education system actually keeps them from the being best versions of themselves as educators.

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Commentary: Los Angeles is losing good teachers because of this policy

teacher (blonde) at blackboardBy Benjamin Feinberg

Teachers unions often argue that the “last in, first out” policy is the only fair way to lay off teachers. Reformers say that LIFO protects bad teachers while indiscriminately getting rid of young and creative new teachers.

The way we lay off teachers will become more important as Los Angeles Unified School District enters yet another budget crisis.

Let’s ignore the policy argument for a moment and instead focus on LIFO’s effect. Ironically, this policy supported by teachers unions ends up benefiting charter schools.

To get a good understanding of LIFO’s impact, we should look back to 2009, when LAUSD laid off 1,806 teachers.

THE YEAR I WAS LAID OFF

This happens to be a very personal subject for me because I was laid off that year.

I started my teaching career in 2008. Three weeks after the first day of school, Lehman Brothers collapsed, and the economy went into a tailspin. At first, this didn’t really hit the teaching sector hard, but by February it became clear that layoffs were coming. And then, on May 15, 2009, 5,618 LAUSD teachers received layoff notices.

Many of those layoffs were rescinded, and those whose notices were not rescinded were told that we could sub for ourselves and stay at our schools. But from a more personal perspective, getting a layoff notice makes you panic.

That is exactly what I did. I. Freaked. Out.

As a relatively risk-averse person, I chose to apply for a new teaching job.

And who was hiring?

Charter schools. Oodles and oodles of charter schools.

I was hired at Aspire Public Schools, one of the fastest-growing charter networks in Los Angeles. My girlfriend was hired at Partnership to Uplift Communities (PUC Schools). My friends got jobs at Green Dot, Synergy, Para Los Niños, Inner City Education Foundation Public Schools (ICEF), the list goes on.

In fact, of my Teach For America (TFA) cohort who received layoff notices that year, only 21 percent were rescinded, 18 percent decided to sub for themselves, and 57 percent headed to charter schools. LIFO took a bunch of young, excited teachers who already had a year of experience under their belts and pushed them into charter schools.

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John Deasy: Bridging the chasm between the world and me — my promise to Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates

By John Deasy 

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is absent of tension to a positive peace which is in the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’ … Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

An open letter to Mr. Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Mr. Coates, I have read with great interest your many provocative and painful articles and books over these past few years. I feel I must speak louder and broader about my reaction, my realizations, and my responsibilities; in writing to you, I am acutely aware of the imprecision of my language, so I ask forgiveness for my prose, and seek acceptance of my purpose.

I cannot come to any other conclusion about our country’s current state of affairs than that I believe we are now engaged in an uncivil war. The evidence is everywhere: our streets, our schools, our courts, our financial system, our borders, our neighborhoods — and, of course, our politics. I watch people being killed, being re-enslaved in poverty, being removed from the middle class; I watch as walls are erected to prevent upward mobility; I watch seemingly incomprehensible reactions to murder, market manipulation, and monstrously hateful rhetoric; I watch a criminal justice system that seems detached from justice, the willful and deliberate incarceration of our youth, and the deliberate means of school punishment perverted in ways to sort out young black men, and other youth of color.

I watch adults model rhetoric and incivility at a level of such hate and invective that it shames the soul.

This uncivil war is being fought in boardrooms, classrooms, jails and housing patterns; on street corners and throughout our political process. It has many causalities, and I by no means make light of death or destruction (for I am sick and tired of burying children), but I fear the greatest casualty is yet to come: that of a destruction of belief. Belief in our system of governance, education, finance — and most of all our structures built around belief in one another.

Layered in the paralyzing prose you have penned is the chilling statement that you have come to expect nothing from us.

Mr. Coates, you so eloquently place the conditions and plight of the black family in front of us, starkly, without apology. But then I put down your book, and see nothing being done to remedy these wrongs. Again, I read, like so many others, the chilling implications of our collective inaction. (One need only review the New York Times article by David Leonhardt on The 1.5 Million Missing Black Men to fully understand your points of pain.)

As a career educator and public leader, I know much the same could be written about our Latino brothers and sisters, our yet-to-be-documented youth, our families who have recently descended into poverty. Your words also aptly apply to our rehabilitated felons who are seemingly no longer considered full citizens, and also our workers who earn minimum wage for work no politician will do, even as those same leaders push back against efforts to raise the minimum wage.

However, the excruciating impacts of America’s twin original sins — slavery and segregation — leave you no choice but to focus on our black brothers and sisters and their families. Wage justice, criminal justice, social justice, community justice, health justice and environmental justice seem to have been removed from “Equal Justice Under the Law.”

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Commentary: The hidden crisis of teacher turnover in Los Angeles’ public schools

teachers

*UPDATED

This is the first in a five-part series about teacher sustainability in Los Angeles and California public schools and the available solutions to reversing teacher turnover.


When I was growing up in Birmingham, Ala., nearly 30 years ago, the same teachers taught kindergarten year after year. It was almost a given that my sister would have the same four options for teachers at each grade level as I had two years before. Everyone in our community knew that Ms. Mayfield loved giraffe gifts and Ms. Dorsett sang to her students. Teachers only left the classroom when they retired, or perhaps moved to another city.

Today, in most public schools in Los Angeles, somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of teachers leave the classroom within five years. Let me put that into perspective. That means, on any given school site, that if you have a child who starts kindergarten in 2016, and another one who will start in 2021, approximately half of the staff will be new by the time your second child enters a classroom. In Oakland, that number is a staggering 70 percent.

Teacher turnover isn’t just a problem in California. Nationwide, more than 46 percent of teachers leave the classroom within five years (see chart below from researcher Richard Ingersoll). This costs our school districts nationwide over $2.2 billion every year.

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(Credit: Richard Ingersoll’s teacher attrition study)

You can calculate the cost of teacher turnover in your own district by using this calculator from the National Council on Teaching and America’s Future.

But this isn’t just a money problem.

When a great teacher leaves a school site (or more than a few a year, which is more of the current average), there are many effects on the school site ecosystem:

  1. Expertise is lost. Ask any teacher how long it took them to get really good at his or her job, and you’ll hear almost unanimously, “At least five years.” Teaching is hard—and it takes a handful of years to feel like you know what you’re doing, how to manage a classroom and affect the academic outcomes that you, your principal and the government want. Every time a teacher leaves, academic and social expertise is lost. And who does that hurt the most? Kids.
  1. Community connections are lost. Most good teachers work very hard at making positive connections with their students and their students’ families. Many great teachers build powerful partnerships with community organizations (like after-school tutoring programs with local businesses or college students). When the teacher who created those connections leaves, it’s very difficult to maintain that same level of engagement with those specific families and community organizations. Schools should be active community spaces, and teacher turnover makes that more difficult to maintain.
  1. Emotional stability for students suffers. In many of our communities, especially in underserved urban areas, school sites are one of the most stable fixtures in students’ lives. Most pre-teens and teenagers actively emotionally develop by attaching to adults outside their nuclear families. In addition, students affected by autism, homelessness, childhood trauma and the foster care system need stability in their teaching populations at an even higher level. When teachers make vital connections to these marginalized youth and then leave, the students in our public schools are affected emotionally and academically.
  1. School site productivity is affected. Every year, administrators across Los Angeles invest time and money into professional development for teachers. The goal of professional development is to use continuing education to continually increase the productivity and cohesion of a faculty. When teachers leave on a regular basis, administrators must waste time and money repeating professional development for new teachers and never get to move their entire staff forward with higher levels of academic and organizational development. Teachers must spend time and energy investing in new department teams, new personal relationships and “catching new staff up” on school culture, student needs and community expectations.

If we intend to provide educational spaces where all students (especially those in underserved, urban schools) thrive emotionally and meet the continually increasing standards set out by the Common Core and the Next Generation Science Standards, we must create educational policy and systems which value the sustainability of the teaching force.


Jane Mayer is a former LA Unified and charter school teacher in Los Angeles. She currently directs the Los Angeles region of a nonprofit organization, The Teaching Well, committed to transforming education by prioritizing teacher well-being and sustainability.

*UPDATED to add author’s note:

I am thrilled at the energy around this topic, as evidenced by the comments and shares of the article on Facebook since yesterday. It’s part of my life’s work to engage educators in reimagining solutions to public education, especially as a former teacher. Over the next several weeks, LA School Report will publish four more articles on the topic which detail WHY teachers leave and how we can solve it. If you are interested in sharing your story, email me at janemayer@theteachingwell.org. I would love to hear and integrate your voices into the exposure of this critical issue.

Commentary: LA teachers head is ready to incite a ‘state crisis’ if union demands are not met

Alex Caputo-Pearl

Alex Caputo-Pearl

Alex Caputo-Pearl is the president of United Teachers Los Angeles, a union that has a long and storied history of discarding presidents elected as firebrands but who reign as defenders of the status quo. Caputo-Pearl seems determined to end that cycle and bring teacher union militancy to the entire state of California.

In a July 29 speech to at the UTLA Leadership Conference, Caputo-Pearl outlined the union’s plans as it readies for the expiration of its contract next year and a gubernatorial election in 2018.

“The next year-and-a-half must be founded upon building our capacity to strike, and our capacity to create a state crisis, in early 2018,” Caputo-Pearl told an audience of 800 activists. “There simply may be no other way to protect our health benefits and to shock the system into investing in the civic institution of public education.”

While it’s not clear what form a “state crisis” would take, Caputo-Pearl described a series of actions the union will undertake in coming months, beginning with a paid media campaign denouncing “billionaires … driving the public school agenda” and a “massive” political mobilization to ensure the November passage of Proposition 55, which would extend a 2012 measure that raised taxes on high-earning residents to fund schools.

UTLA will then set its sights on the next Los Angeles Unified School District board elections.

“We must face off against the billionaires again in the School Board elections of 2017, and WE MUST WIN,” Caputo-Pearl said, explaining that the next board would vote on a new contract. The union needed to help elect a board that would resist a “vigorous campaign to cut our benefits” by district leaders, he suggested.

But Caputo-Pearl isn’t content to shape LAUSD’s agenda. He hopes to organize the entire state.

“All of the unions representing LAUSD workers and the teachers unions in San Diego, San Bernardino, Oakland and San Francisco share our June 2017 contract expiration date,” he said. “We have an historic opportunity to lead a coordinated bargaining effort across the state.

“Coordinated action could dramatically increase pressure on the legislature and fundamentally shape the debate in the 2018 Governor’s race.”

Caputo-Pearl stopped short of calling for a multi-city teacher strike, but pointing to a common contract expiration date that enabled “coordinated action” put it on the table.

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Commentary: Making sense of state’s new school evaluation system is practically impossible

Los-Angeles-Times-logoBy the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board

It’s not easy to measure the performance of a school, because there are so many things that go into providing a good education. But neither should it be as hard as the State Board of Education is making it.

After three years of work, the board recently revealed a draft of its new annual accountability system for California schools. These are the report cards, in effect, that are to replace the old single-number Academic Performance Index by which schools have been judged for the last decade and a half. The API was based almost solely on the results of the annual standardized tests taken by students.

The board’s determination to measure schools by more than merely test scores is laudable and has led national thinking on the topic. But the new system is more than overly warm and fuzzy. Making sense of it is practically impossible.

Click here for the full article from the Los Angeles Times.

Could Donald Trump make social security great again — and win over 7 million voters in the process?

#EDlection2016By Kirsten Schmitz

Donald Trump has promised to make America great again. One thing he says he won’t look to change? Social Security. While maintaining the Social Security status quo might seem at the very least unobtrusive, it neglects an opportunity to extend coverage to the over 1 million teachers and 6.5 million government workers whose jobs go uncovered.

On February 29, Trump told Georgia rally attendees, “we’re going to save your Social Security without making any cuts. Mark my words.” He made similar remarks at an April rally in Wisconsin — both states, interestingly enough, extend social security coverage to only some of their teachers — and spoke favorably (though without specific recommendations) about preserving the program in a statement to AARP. Though no official stance on the topic appears on his website, and recent adviser statements seem to hedge toward cuts, let’s assume Social Security under Trump remains as is. He’s missing — perhaps not for the first time — an opportunity for real greatness.

• Read more on the live blog: The 74 and Bellwether Education Partners are partnering to cover both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

While existing state pension plans aren’t offering all workers adequate retirement benefits, Social Security at least offers them a solid floor of benefits. Expanding Social Security would help millions of uncovered workers, including all teachers in California, Illinois, and Ohio (where Trump will be accepting his party’s nomination tonight). Further, universal Social Security coverage would actually reduce the program’s existing deficit by 10% — yes, reduce — by more evenly distributing the program’s legacy costs. While Social Security isn’t designed to take the place of a stand-alone retirement benefit, it would provide all teachers with a much deserved and too often missed baseline of secure, nationally portable retirement benefits.

Neither candidate has broached the idea of universal coverage, though Hillary Clinton has proposed its expansion by increasing benefits for high-need groups, including widows and caretakers. Trump has yet to commit to any one approach – only promising not to make cuts. But to this point neither Clinton nor Trump has taken any steps towards addressing the benefit coverage gap that impacts millions of educators, many of whom will ostensibly head to the polls in November.


Kirsten Schmitz is an analyst with Bellwether Education Partners.

This article was published in partnership with The74Million.org.

Flashback: That time Arne Duncan, Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton traveled the country talking about education

#EDlection2016By Peter Cunningham 

In the spring of 2009, newly-elected President Barack Obama took a meeting in the Oval Office with civil rights leader Al Sharpton. Reverend Sharpton told the White House he wanted to talk about education so Education Secretary Arne Duncan also attended. Sharpton also brought along an unlikely guest: former House Speaker and GOP firebrand Newt Gingrich.

By all accounts the meeting went well but towards the end, according to Secretary Duncan, the President suddenly suggested that the three of them go on the road together to talk about education. “You’ll get tons of media,” he said.

Duncan was somewhat flabbergasted by the idea but nodded. When he got back to the department, he stuck his head in my office and said, “You won’t believe what just happened.”

• Read more on the live blog: The 74 and Bellwether Education Partners are partnering to cover both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

As the Assistant Secretary for Communications at the U.S. Department of Education, I had the delicate task of organizing school visits with Reverend Sharpton, Speaker Gingrich and Secretary Duncan. Reverend Sharpton wanted to see schools serving low-income kids of color. Speaker Gingrich wanted to see charters. Turns out they are mostly the same.

As a lifelong Democrat and strong supporter of President Clinton, the notion of spending quality time with his nemesis Newt Gingrich was not high on my bucket list. Nevertheless, I became friendly with one of his top staffers and the Speaker himself turned out to be pretty agreeable. A few months later, at my request, Speaker Gingrich even came to the administration’s defense in social media over a little dust-up involving the president’s back to school speech.

The Sharpton-Gingrich tour visited schools in Philadelphia, Baltimore and D.C., where we chatted with teachers and kids. Before talking to the media, we typically spent a few minutes together in a holding room collecting ourselves.

“Who wants to go first,” I asked. Everyone pointed to the others.

“What do you want to say?” I asked.

“The kids are learning,” said Sharpton.

“Charters are working,” said Gingrich.

“This is amazing when people come together around education,” said Duncan.

“Let’s do it,” said I.

And we did – just a few times before scheduling more visits became difficult. The episode was one of the more surreal experiences I had in Washington.

In today’s polarized political environment, it’s hard to imagine Newt Gingrich, Al Sharpton and a Democratic cabinet member on the road together. Hard to imagine perhaps, but more needed than ever.

Newt Gingrich is scheduled to speak tonight at the Republican National Convention, where the theme is “Make America First Again.” Who knows, maybe he’ll bring up his visits to some of America’s best schools.


This article was published in partnership with The74Million.org.

GOP convention commentary: Is obsession with local control of public education out of control?

#EDlection2016A new RNC dispatch from Peter Cunningham, executive director of Education Post:

If Republican conservatives stand for one thing above all else when it comes to public education, it is local control. Just as some conservatives see tax cuts as the only answer to an ailing economy, some also see local control as the antidote to everything wrong with schools. Yet, the evidence for local control as a strategy to improve schools is weak, at best.

Consider standards. By law, the federal government is prohibited from setting learning standards and, historically, states have set them all over the place. To their credit, governors and state education leaders on both sides of the aisle came together and created the Common Core State Standards, believing that common standards across state lines make sense.

• Read more on the live blog: The 74 and Bellwether Education Partners are partnering to cover both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

But, after the federal government offered incentives to adopt the standards, local control zealots fought back and prompted some states to abandon the standards they helped create, including Indiana, the home state of the Republican Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence. Ambitious, common standards may be good for kids and for American competitiveness, but they now violate conservative principles. The quality of the standards is, of course, irrelevant.

Look at integration. Sixty-two years after the Supreme Court ruled segregated schools illegal, local control has undermined most efforts to promote integration in the world’s most racially diverse country. Today, our schools are more segregated than ever.

When it comes to innovation in education, conservatives often point to charter schools, which are authorized at the state and local level. But the biggest threat to charter schools is not centralized oversight, but rather its absence. While the best charters have closed achievement gaps, on average only a third out-perform traditional neighborhood schools. The real problem facing charters is quality control and local control does little to address it.

The accountability argument against local control also applies to traditional public schools. Until the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, there was no real accountability in public education. Low-performing schools languished for decades. Graduation rates in thousands of high schools serving low-income students hovered around 50 percent.

For the last 15 years, the federal government has forced states and districts to provide objective proof that kids are learning and to take action when they aren’t. Alas, under the new federal education law passed in 2015, local control zealots on the right conspired with the left to weaken federal oversight of schools.

On issue after issue – teacher training and evaluation, curriculum, funding equity – local control trumps fairness and quality, but don’t expect to hear any complaints at the Republican convention in Cleveland.


This article was published in partnership with The74Million.org.

Commentary: California — the state of magical thinking when it comes to education

Westside Rentals signBy Caroline Bermudez

The great Joan Didion rose to literary fame chronicling her love-hate relationship with her native California. In Where I Was From, she unleashed a cool invective about the state’s less than firm grasp of reality that still applies today:

“A good deal about California, in its own preferred terms, does not add up.”

California, in particular Los Angeles, is defined by its contradictions. It’s a place of indescribable beauty teetering on the edge of environmental disaster. It exudes a glamour and carefree spirit that draws thousands of hopefuls, but as you stroll through the city’s rejuvenated downtown area, you see rows of tents nearby inhabited by the homeless. The University of California system is the nation’s crown jewel of public higher education, yet prisons comprise a bigger chunk of the state’s budget.

Perhaps the most glaring contradiction of California is how it regards K-12 education as both a priority and an afterthought.

A report cited by a recent article in L.A. Weekly shows how out of reach a good school is not only for its many residents scraping by, but also for those who, if they lived in other regions of America, would have a surfeit of options:

“The jaw-dropping takeaway here is that the average home price near the highest-ranking public schools in L.A. is $1,430,000, the report from RentCafe found.”

The same RentCafe report the article refers to determined most high-achieving schools are concentrated in one wealthy area of Los Angeles:

“It defines highest top-ranking campuses as those with ratings of between 8 and 10 on the GreatSchools site. Those compose 12 percent of public elementary schools in L.A. Most of these campuses are on the Westside, the report states. That makes sense, since the median home price on the Westside is now $1.2 million.”

To live in proximity to an excellent public school, a resident of Los Angeles will have to pony up seven figures.

Pause here for a second.

But what about renting?

The outlook does not improve much, according to the report:

“Renters spend approximately $617 more on rent every month to live near top-performing elementary schools in L.A. than those living near low-ranking schools,” a RentCafe spokeswoman said. “That amounts to more than $7,400 a year.

The average rent in a bad-schools neighborhood is $1,614, while the same in a good-schools area is $2,231, the site says. That’s a 38 percent rent difference.”

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Commentary: Democrats rewrite education platform behind closed doors, abandon core party values

Clinton-Obama panelBy Peter Cunningham

The Democratic Party has always stood for one thing: we fight for the little guy. In the field of education, the little guy is the student. He can’t vote. He doesn’t have much say about his school. He mostly has to do what he’s told. And he is trusting us to do right by him and set him on a path to success.

That should mean that we are giving him a good school filled with hard-working adults who set high expectations and hold themselves accountable for results. It should mean that when the student isn’t learning the adults in his school don’t blame factors outside the classroom. Instead, they make the most of things under their control – like time, curriculum, technology, parents and the trusted relationship between teacher and student.

It should mean giving him and his guardian the freedom to find the right school for his unique needs, whether he is gifted or struggling, non-English speaking, poor, gay, straight, trans, athletic, artistic, emotionally stable or vulnerable. It should mean that we don’t allow adult rules about governance or working conditions to inhibit the child’s right to a quality public school and an effective teacher. The needs of the student come first.

Unfortunately, the new Democratic platform does not fully commit to any of these things. Instead, the one adopted behind closed doors in Orlando last weekend affirms an education system that denies its shortcomings and is unwilling to address them.

For example, Democrats are now against “high-stakes standardized tests that falsely and unfairly label students of color, students with disabilities, and English language learners as failing.” No argument here, but what about standardized tests that truthfully and fairly identify underperforming schools and struggling students? The platform is silent.

Democrats are also against “the use of standardized test scores as a basis for refusing to fund schools or to close schools.” OK, but are there any circumstances when Democrats support closing schools? What if those schools show little to no growth? What if parents stop choosing those schools? Would we keep them open anyway? Again, the platform is silent.

Democrats are also against “the use of student test scores in teacher and principal evaluations.” Obviously, they didn’t check with America’s most-prominent Democrat, President Barack Obama. He thinks test scores, along with other measures like classroom observations, examples of classroom work, and feedback from peers, parents and even students, should inform evaluations.

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Response: What NPR’s ‘hit piece’ got wrong in attacking Rocketship’s ‘impressive results’

(Photo credit: Ms. Nguyen taught a social-emotional lesson while an NPR reporter visits her class / Rocketship)

Ms. Nguyen taught a social-emotional lesson while an NPR reporter visited her class. (Photo credit: Rocketship)

Last month, NPR’s Education blog published what is being called a “takedown piece” on Rocketship Education. As co-founder and CEO of Rocketship, a leading network of nonprofit public charter schools, I have grown accustomed to anti-charter attacks like this. But my staff and parents are not. They flooded my inbox with outrage over the voices missing from this story. As for the voices included in the story, six of the nine Rocketship sources contacted me to express their frustration over how NPR’s blogger mischaracterized their comments (more on that below).

The story did get one thing right. Our students’ “results are undoubtedly impressive.” But rather than dig in and really understand what underlies our Rocketeers’ impressive achievements, NPR’s blogger, Anya Kamenetz, went to great pains in trying to undermine our success and defend her personal anti-testing thesis.

Eliminating the achievement gap is hard work. As Paul Tough’s latest work highlights, it is particularly hard for people who have not worked or lived in low-income communities to understand the unique challenges of teaching in high-poverty schools like Rocketship. And I’m sure it was very hard for Anya Kamenetz to understand, as she herself did not visit a single Rocketship school.

WHY DID 90% OF OUR STUDENTS RETURN TO ROCKETSHIP THIS YEAR?

If our schools are really what NPR’s blogger portrayed, the critical question she didn’t ask is: Why did 90% of Rocketship students return this year? They don’t have to enroll at our school. They have a seat at their zoned district school waiting for them. But they come back, year after year. And they tell other families to do the same.

Over 250 parents of Rocketship Mosaic Elementary crowd into a standing room only reauthorization hearing in February 2016 to demand their school stays open another 5 years. (Photo Credit: Rocketship.)

Over 250 parents of Rocketship Mosaic Elementary crowd into a standing room only reauthorization hearing in February 2016 to demand their school stay open another 5 years. (Photo credit: Rocketship)

 

In our most recent parent survey, 72% of parents stated that “I have recommended Rocketship to another family.” To be clear, these are parents who actually recommended Rocketship, they are not simply saying “they would recommend.” 2,276 parents responded to this annual survey. Sure, not every parent is happy every day. But most days, most parents love their Rocketship school. So much so that they tell other families to enroll.

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Commentary: How to weed out bad-apple teachers? Ask parents

bad-applesBy Lindsay Sturman

The epic battle over how to improve public education in California grew more stratified last week when a bill to mildly reform California’s onerous teacher employment laws was gutted beyond recognition and quickly died. With it went the hope that our elected officials would finally decide the question which is at the heart of the debate: Is there a fair way to fire a teacher? 

Assembly member Susan Bonilla’s AB 934 was meant to address (and head off) the issues raised in Vergara v. California, a lawsuit brought by nine students who argued the laws are too protective. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge agreed; an appeals court did not. Now the state Supreme Court is expected to decide this summer whether to take up the case. While both sides agree there are ineffective teachers in our public schools, and they are concentrated in low-income communities, they can’t agree on what to do about it. Unions say there is no objective way to evaluate teachers, arguing principals can be biased and incompetent, and test scores are influenced by factors outside of a teacher’s control (such as poverty). The default system is that teachers get almost no scrutiny, and terrible teachers are left in the classroom indefinitely because no one is identifying the bad ones.

No one, that is, except for parents.

When a teacher is mean, lazy, chronically drunk in class or “grossly ineffective,” the parents know immediately. They know from their friends, from their kids or simply from observing a class. What has been overlooked by all parties in the debate is that in the absence of workable teacher dismissal laws there is an outsize role parents play in what happens to truly bad teachers. In affluent and high-performing schools, PTA parents — with booster club money, political clout and enough free time — will march into the principal’s office, file petitions with the district and protest until someone does something about a poorly performing teacher. That something is coaching (or nudging) the teacher to improve, and if that doesn’t work, “coaching them out.”

The phenomenon of “coaching out” is when administrators are forced to work around the stringent dismissal process, which can take a decade and cost $250,000and convince incompetent teachers to leave on their own. Teachers only agree to this when there is another job waiting for them. That job is very often in a low-income, low-performing school, where turnover and vacancies occur more frequently. This shuffle of teachers is known as the “Dance of the Lemons” and was part of the testimony in the Vergara trial.

But the parent part of the equation went unnoticed amid bigger headlines (such as teachers calling students racial epithets and slurs such as “whore” and no one doing anything about it, and that students can lose nine to 12 months of learning from one year with a grossly ineffective teacher). Mark Douglas, assistant superintendent of personnel services at the Fullerton School District, referenced the role of parents. He said the Dance of the Lemons results in the transfer of less effective teachers to economically disadvantaged schools because an “(ineffective) teacher can exist without parent pressure at a lower-end school.”

In other words, bad teachers cannot survive in affluent and high-performing schools because they can’t survive the parents. Empowered parents will hold everyone’s feet to the fire until a poorly performing teacher gets support, improves or moves on. If parents are constantly pressuring a school to stay on its toes and strive for excellence, is it such a surprise when affluent students do well? It’s important to note that parents in low-income and low-performing schools do protest and fight to get rid of ineffective teachers, but their voices go unheard in the same way voices from low-income communities across the country go unheard. Just look at Flint, Mich.

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Commentary: A promising bill on teacher effectiveness is gutted in backroom deal

Beautiful young teacher writing on the blackboard

By Ben Austin

Last month, my organization, Students Matter, issued its support of California’s AB 934 – a state bill that, though imperfect, honestly attempted to address the grave defaults in the state’s teacher tenure, dismissal and layoff laws challenged by the student plaintiffs in Vergara v. California. (A 2014 ruling in that case sided with the students but was overturned by an appellate court earlier this year; the plaintiffs are now appealing to the California Supreme Court.)

Students Matter worked with California Assemblymember Susan Bonilla’s office for months to craft commonsense legislation that supported effective teachers and prioritized quality across California’s public education system. When introduced, the bill drew praise from parents, educators, community leaders and newspaper editorial boards across the state.

All that progress was eliminated last week with the strike of a pen.

Late last Tuesday night, Students Matter got notice of a new version of AB 934, revised in advance of an upcoming vote before the California Senate Education Committee. Watered down and gutted beyond recognition, the new AB 934 preserves the unconstitutional and unjustifiable disparities in students’ access to effective teachers caused by the current laws.

• Read more: Parents want legislature to act on teacher tenure

Rather than bring California in-line with the states making strides toward educational equity, AB 934 continues California’s decades-long tradition of robbing students of the quality education they deserve. In an about-face betrayal of California’s students and hardworking families who depend on our public schools, AB 934 now abandons California’s 6 million public school students and hard-working public school teachers by embracing a harmful, unpopular and unconstitutional “business as usual” mindset.

So what happened? A backroom deal that was manufactured by the state’s most powerful special interest groups, which swapped a promising bill out for a reinforcement of the status quo. And while the new AB 934 might work for those groups and their lobbyists, it’s a bad deal for California students, parents, teachers and voters, who trusted their elected representatives to serve and protect the people.

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Commentary: Parents want legislature to act on teacher tenure

SpeakUP-Logo-horizontalBy Jenny Hontz

 When LA School Report reported this week that 181 LAUSD staffers are currently being paid to sit around and do nothing while they are investigated for alleged misconduct, costing the district $15 million a year, school board members expressed surprise.

The numbers are staggering, but it should be no surprise to anyone that this is happening. This so-called “teachers jail” system is the result of terribly flawed teacher tenure and dismissal laws that students and parents have been trying to fix for years in court and in the state legislature – so far to no avail.

In surveying our Speak UP members, 92 percent of parents said that “excellent teachers” were “very important” in their choice of a school – more than any other factor. 

But current state law and union contracts make it very difficult for districts like LAUSD to ensure that all students have effective teachers in every classroom. Unionized public school teachers currently receive lifetime job tenure after just 18 months, often with no meaningful performance review.

And once teachers receive tenure, it can take almost a decade and up to $500,000 to dismiss an ineffective teacher – rendering the process so costly and time consuming that districts like LAUSD rarely even bother to try.

That’s why LAUSD opted to pay Mark Berndt $40,000 to quit his teaching job at Miramonte Elementary School five years ago, despite photographic evidence that he spoon-fed semen to his students, blindfolded them and placed cockroaches on their faces.

These flawed laws also contributed to a level of bureaucratic indifference that led LAUSD to ignore repeated warnings of teacher sexual abuse, an atrocity that has now cost LAUSD $300 million over the past four years in sex abuse settlements.

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Commentary: Time to end the great charter school debate in Los Angeles and create great public schools now

Great Public Schools Now holds a news conference Thursday where it announced $4.5 million in initial grants. Center is GPSN Executive Director Myrna Castrejon.

Great Public Schools Now’s executive director, Myrna Castrejon, announces the first grants at a news conference last Thursday.

By Caroline Bermudez

More than once in California, it has taken a major lawsuit to try to propel long-awaited change for its schools. In 1999, the State Allocation Board was sued because of overcrowding in Los Angeles public schools. Last year, a coalition of groups brought a lawsuit accusing the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) of diverting money away from low-income, foster children, and English-language learners.

So it’s a welcome development when instead of looking to the court system to improve schools, educational inequities can be addressed through partnerships among schools, nonprofits and philanthropies.

Great Public Schools Now (GPSN), a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles, is awarding grants to successful programs and schools—be they traditional public schools, charter schools or magnet—to replicate or expand their efforts to improve schools for 160,000 students in 10 low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods.

On Thursday GPSN announced its first three grants—$2 million for Teach For America to focus on training more special education teachers for traditional schools, $2 million for Equitas Charter Network to build a school and expand its new K-4 campus, and $500,000 for new space for an after school program run by Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA).

The fact that Great Public Schools Now is open to supporting any type of high-achieving program (and not just charter schools) is a refreshing development in a city whose school board has been hostile to the expansion of charters.

For parents who reside in the low-income neighborhoods GPSN will focus on, they say it’s time for the conflict between traditional public schools and charter schools to end.

Mary Najera, community liaison for Extera Public Schools and a veteran parent organizer who lives in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, said she was excited by the collaborative nature of Great Public Schools Now.

“If charter schools are going to work with traditional public schools, then let’s go for it,” she said. “I love the idea that they’re all sitting at the table together. At the end of the day, it’s not your money, it’s the kids’ money.”

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What’s really in LA Unified’s online credit recovery courses?

Logo_LATimesBy the Times Editorial Board

Because of new rules designed to raise graduation standards, officials of the Los Angeles Unified School District woke up in December to the grim news that only half of its students were on track to graduate, down from 74 percent the year before. The problem was that this was the first year all students had to pass the full range of college-prep courses — known as the A through G sequence – required by the University of California and California State University for admission.

But just a couple of months later, the situation suddenly, startlingly improved, with 63 percent on track to graduate. By the end of March, 68 percent had completed their A-G courses, and an additional 15 percent were close enough that they might be able to make it. The actual graduation rate will not be known for several months.

How did this remarkable turnaround happen, and what does it mean?

Partly, it was that Michelle King, LA Unified’s new superintendent, moved swiftly and decisively, plunging the district’s high schools into a full-bore effort to bring students up to snuff, with extra counseling, Saturday classes and after-school classes.

But also, the district relied heavily on what are known as online credit-recovery classes. These courses, which have helped boost graduation rates locally and across the country, have grown quickly from a barely known concept a decade ago to one of the biggest and most controversial new trends in education.

This is how they work: Students who flunk a course can make up the credit by taking classes either in computer-equipped rooms at school, or at home if they have the equipment and Internet access. Teachers lecture on videos, the computer displays the readings or practice problems, and students take tests that are automatically graded. Written work is supposed to be reviewed by a district teacher. The courses have certain benefits: Students can replay a lecture for missed material, something that can’t happen in a regular classroom. When they can’t concentrate any longer, they can put the course on hold and take a break.

But professors and other education experts are concerned that there is too little quality control to ensure that students have completed the equivalent of a regular classroom experience.

Click here for the full story in the Los Angeles Times.

• Related story: By the numbers: Did ‘all hands on deck’ save LA Unified’s sinking graduation rate?

Commentary: Unified enrollment levels the playing field for high-need public schools

Mauro Bautista

Mauro Bautista

By Mauro Bautista 

Most of us who grew up in Los Angeles in the 20th century had limited choices as to which school we attended. Most attended the local public school as determined by a zone of residence. Some of us, like me, attended a magnet high school and a few others attended private high schools. The 21st century, however, is a great time to be a parent and student living within LAUSD boundaries because there is greater choice.

As the principal of a local LAUSD high school and as a parent of four children who attend LAUSD schools, I can identify with this opportunity of choice. Families in Los Angeles have access to more school options than ever, including zones of choice, magnets, charters, and open enrollment. However, each of these options has different requirements, applications, processes and timelines. This unnecessary complexity makes the process confusing for families and puts traditional public high schools at a great disadvantage.

I experience the negative impact of this fragmented system on traditional neighborhood schools like my school—Mendez High School. Mendez is part of a “Zone of Choice” where families in our neighborhood can choose between three different public high schools. Unfortunately, the Zone of Choice process comes after charters and magnets have concluded, putting us at a competitive disadvantage.

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