Archive for the ‘teacher union’ Category

A Mayor Seeks to Stymie His City’s Only Successful School

November 17, 2018

WSJ OPINION COMMENTARY CROSS COUNTRY

In struggling New Bedford, Mass., the Alma del Mar charter faces opposition to its expansion plan.

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By Tunku Varadarajan
Nov. 16, 2018 6:41 p.m. ET

Ivyanna, Moises, Jenielys, Giselly. The names on the bulletin board of a kindergarten classroom reveal the notably Hispanic demographics of Alma del Mar, a K-8 charter public school in this blighted city that was once America’s foremost whaling port. In fact, the majority of the school’s kindergarten is comprised of students whose first language is Spanish. By the time they get to first or second grade, many will speak better English than their parents.

Housed in a sprawling new building, the school’s interior is a clean, hushed hive of industrious students and teachers. There is no obvious indiscipline, no unruly children bouncing off the walls. At the playground outside, students hop off monkey-bars and swings to greet the principal, who accompanies me on a tour of the school. She greets them back by name.

Alma del Mar (which means “soul of the sea”) is a success story in a city that badly needed one. Started in August 2011, it now has 446 children on its rolls—and even more than that on a waiting list, clamoring to be admitted. There is a lottery every year, explains Kaitlin Goldrick, the school’s 30-year-old principal. Every child at Alma del Mar “is here because their families want them here,” she says. “The lottery can be a heartbreaking night,” says Ms. Goldrick. “There are families that enter the lottery year after year, and never get in.”

Families are drawn to Alma del Mar’s record as well as its optimistic spirit. “They want their children to get a good, serious education, and they know they’ll get it here,” says Ms. Goldrick. That seriousness is evident in the almost obsessive insistence at the school that its students be referred to as “scholars.” On a three-hour visit there I heard a teacher say “students” only once—followed by a sheepish “Oops, I mean scholars.”

The majority of New Bedford’s students must endure dysfunctional district schools that are among the worst in terms of performance in all of Massachusetts. By contrast, says Will Gardner, Alma del Mar’s founder and executive director, “our third-graders performed last year at the same level as a third-grader in Wellesley on the state’s test in math.” (Wellesley is among the most affluent suburbs in Massachusetts.)

For all its success, Alma del Mar is embroiled in local controversy. In August, the school applied to the state to get 1,188 more seats for students, the entire quota for new charter seats for the school district of New Bedford. (Massachusetts, like many other states, puts caps on the numbers of students in charter schools.) The school aims to add two new campuses, one next year and another in 2020. Yet the city’s mayor, Jon Mitchell, has declared he will fight Alma del Mar’s expansion.

“I intend to oppose it,” the mayor said recently, “because I don’t believe that this is the right thing for the city.” He added, without supporting evidence, that Alma del Mar “has demonstrated itself not to be a constructive partner with the school district.” A recent article in CommonWealth magazine by supporters of the mayor and the teachers union criticized Alma del Mar for getting political support from “the think-tank crowd”—a reference to the Boston-based free-market Pioneer Institute, which has promoted the school.

At the root of the resistance, supporters believe, is a panic in the mayor’s office about relinquishing control over education in the city. Alma del Mar reports directly to the state, not to the city’s elected school committee. There are competing petitions online—one for and one against the school’s expansion.

The state will rule on Alma del Mar’s application in February, but the opposition to her school leaves Ms. Goldrick more perplexed than indignant. Speaking of opponents of the expansion, she says, “Their perspective is that they want all of the money to go to the district, because they feel, ‘How can we get better if we aren’t getting the money we deserve?’ They say they need time to get better, and that charter schools make it harder for that to happen.” (Each student at Alma del Mar brings state funding with him, subtracted from the district’s share of state aid. Massachusetts is required to compensate the district.)

“My response to this,” says Ms. Goldrick, “is, ‘Why should these families have to wait for things to get better?’ For our families, New Bedford is a failing school district. So if something doesn’t change, why should a child have to wait 10 or 15, or who knows how many, years? By then they’ll be out of school.

“Besides,” she adds, “isn’t it important that our families—and all the families in New Bedford—have a choice?”

Mr. Varadarajan is executive editor at the Hoover Institution.

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‘How Schools Work’ Review: The Worm in the Apple

August 14, 2018

A former education secretary doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to teachers’ unions; still, the Obama administration didn’t take them on. Naomi Schaefer Riley reviews “How Schools Work” by Arne Duncan.

Striking Chicago public school teachers in 2012.
Striking Chicago public school teachers in 2012. PHOTO: SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES

Political memoirs are rarely tear-jerkers, but Arne Duncan’s look back at his time as secretary of education under Barack Obama may make school reformers want to cry. It’s not so much that Mr. Duncan, who served from 2009 to 2015 after a stint as head of the Chicago public schools, was bad at his job or in any way unprepared for its challenges. In fact, as “How Schools Work” makes clear, he understood a great deal about the problems plaguing American education. But that very understanding makes his cabinet tenure—recounted here alongside other tales from his public life—feel like a painful missed opportunity.

Mr. Duncan’s theme is that our education system is built on lies. He tells the story of volunteering, while he was in college, at his mother’s after-school tutoring program in Chicago, where she helped neighborhood kids with their schoolwork. His principal charge was a young African-American named Calvin, a rising high-school senior who had more than enough basketball talent to play for a Division I team. Mr. Duncan assumed that Calvin, a solid B-student from an intact, hard-working family, just needed some help studying for the ACT ahead of applying for college—until the first day that Mr. Duncan sat down with him and realized that he was reading at the level of a second-grader. Despite a summer of hard work, Calvin wasn’t going anywhere.

“The lies told to Calvin,” Mr. Duncan writes, “were not told to torture him. . . . More often than not they existed to protect resources, or to safeguard jobs, or to control what kids were taught and how or whether they were tested on what they knew.” Calvin was ill-served by a system that kept passing him along to the next grade level when he hadn’t mastered the basic skills of the one before.

‘How Schools Work’ Review: The Worm in the Apple
PHOTO: WSJ

HOW SCHOOLS WORK

By Arne Duncan
Simon & Schuster, 243 pages, $26.99

When it comes to the role that teachers’ unions play in the problems of public education, Mr. Duncan doesn’t pull his punches. Upon taking charge of the public schools in Chicago in 2001, he discovered (with the help of the Chicago-based economist Steven Levitt ) that at least 5% of the city’s teachers were helping their students cheat on standardized tests. He was appalled but felt stymied: “If I’d asked Mayor [Richard] Daley to fire 5 percent of all Chicago teachers, then there would have been hell to pay.” The episode is emblematic beyond its particular circumstances: In what other profession is it acceptable to retain people who you know are falsifying results?

Mr. Duncan notes that for teachers’ unions it’s controversial to say—as Mr. Obama did during the 2008 campaign at the National Education Association’s annual meeting—that school districts should be able “to reward those who teach underserved areas or take on added responsibility. As teachers learn new skills or serve their students better or if they consistently excel in the classroom, that work can be valued and rewarded as well.” This statement in favor of merit pay, Mr. Duncan observes, got candidate Obama “treated to a round of boos.”

Mr. Duncan supports charter schools—though not as vocally as Betsy DeVos, the current education secretary—because, free of union contracts and bureaucratic burdens, they offer an alternative to underprivileged kids stuck in the classrooms of the lowest performing teachers. (He opposes school vouchers because he thinks they steal money from public schools; not surprisingly, the voucher program for poor children in Washington, D.C., repeatedly saw its funding cut during the Obama years.) In the end, the Obama administration either couldn’t buck the unions or didn’t want to.

Oddly, Mr. Duncan’s most publicized fights were with parents. In Chicago, they hounded him for closing failing schools. But he was right: There is sometimes no way to improve a terrible school short of shutting it down; keeping it open because it’s a fixture in the neighborhood does kids no favors.

In Washington, Mr. Duncan made the mistake of criticizing the “suburban moms” who were opting out of standardized testing for their kids, worried that test preparation would stress out their children and get in the way of more enriching classroom activities. But again he was right. If we don’t test kids across the full performance spectrum (including wealthy children on Long Island), Mr. Duncan argues, we won’t know how those at the bottom are really doing

Along the same lines, he defends No Child Left Behind—the George W. Bush-era program that required each state to create assessments at various grade levels—because it disaggregated student data by race, giving a fuller picture of where help was needed. At one point, a parent from a closing school accuses Mr. Duncan of being a racist. He replies: “If I were a racist, then I would leave this school exactly as it is.” As Mr. Duncan’s account makes clear, it would be hard to devise an educational system that is more harmful to racial minorities if we tried.

Mr. Duncan offers a lot of trivial solutions at the end of the book that he says could also improve things—universal pre-K programs, more after-school programs, more counselors to prevent gun violence—but most of these ideas would simply give more jobs to union employees and make it that much harder to achieve real reform. For the most part, though, Mr. Duncan does understand “how schools work.” The tragedy is that he and his boss didn’t have what it takes to make them work better.

Ms. Riley is the author, most recently, of “Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat.”

Appeared in the August 14, 2018, print edition as ‘The Worm In the Apple.’

Milwaukee’s Public School Barricade

August 14, 2018

The bureaucracy defies a state law on selling vacant buildings

Teachers’ unions and their liberal allies are desperately trying to preserve the failing public school status quo. Witness how the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) system is defying a state mandate to sell vacant property to charter and private schools.

Milwaukee’s public schools are a mess. Merely 62% of students graduate from high school in four years, and proficiency rates are 15% in math and just over 20% in English. Families are escaping to charter and private schools, which has resulted in 11,000 vacant seats and a budget shortfall that’s expected to swell to $130 million within five years.

Milwaukee’s Public School Barricade
PHOTO: ISTOCK/GETTY IMAGES

We wrote in 2015 about how MPS blocked charter and private school purchases of empty school buildings, which prevented high-performing schools like St. Marcus Lutheran from expanding. The state legislature then passed a law ordering the city and school district to sell vacant public school buildings.

Well, what do you know, the district still hasn’t sold a single vacant building to other schools despite 13 letters of interest from private and charter operators for 11 vacant buildings, according to the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. Following protests from the teachers’ union, a local zoning board denied a bid by Right Step, a private school for children expelled from Milwaukee public schools. The city hasn’t even classified many unused buildings as “vacant.”

Milwaukee’s recalcitrance is denying thousands of students a better education—St. Marcus Lutheran alone has 264 students on its wait list—while draining tax dollars. Annual utility bills for vacant buildings cost $1 million, and the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty calculates that the district could recover $5 million from selling its unoccupied real estate.

The legislature ought to punish Milwaukee for flouting the law by, say, snipping its share of state funding. But State Superintendent Tony Evers, the Democratic front-runner to challenge Gov. Scott Walker in November, would likely do the opposite. He wants to freeze and then phase out vouchers, which help nearly 28,000 low-income students across Milwaukee attend private schools.

If Democrats defeat Gov. Walker and take the statehouse in November, there will be nothing to stop Milwaukee or any other district from barricading students into lousy public schools.

Appeared in the August 14, 2018, print edition.

The Teachers Union’s Public Enemy No. 1

September 2, 2017

Betsy DeVos is Trump’s stylistic opposite, but she stirs more antagonism than any other cabinet member.

 By

Tallahassee, Fla.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos liked what she saw Tuesday when she visited a pair of schools in Florida’s capital. When we met that afternoon, she had just come from the Florida State University School, a K-12 charter sponsored by the FSU College of Education. “I had a little roundtable with teachers,” she says. They raved about the school’s culture, which enables them “to be free to innovate and try things in the classroom that don’t necessarily conform with the instructor in the next classroom.”

Earlier in the day Mrs. DeVos had been at Holy Comforter Episcopal, a parochial school that serves pupils from prekindergarten through eighth grade. “They started STEM programs before STEM became the cool thing to do,” she says, “and it was just great to visit a variety of the classrooms and see some of the fun things that they’re doing to get kids interested.”

Local officials in this heavily Democratic area were less enthusiastic. “It’s obvious that the secretary and our federal government have very little respect for our traditional public-school system,” Rocky Hanna, Leon County’s superintendent of schools, groused to the Tallahassee Democrat. “And it’s insulting that she’s going to visit the capital of the state of Florida, to visit a charter school, a private school and a voucher school.” (A correction on the newspaper’s website noted that she did not visit the voucher school, Bethel Christian Academy, but rather attended a “private roundtable event” at the church center that houses it.)

ILLUSTRATION: KEN FALLIN

Mrs. DeVos, 59, stirs more passionate antagonism than any other member of President Trump’s cabinet—and that was true even before she took office. Two Republicans dissented from her February confirmation and no Democrat supported it, resulting in a 50-50 vote. She is the only cabinet secretary in U.S. history whose appointment required a vice-presidential tiebreaker.

Since then Mrs. DeVos has hit the road and visited 27 schools. Her first call, three days after she was sworn in, was Jefferson Middle School Academy in Washington, less than a mile from the Education Department’s headquarters. She was met by protesters, who blocked the entrance and shouted: “Go Back! Shame, shame!” When I ask about that incident, she plays it down: “There were just a few people that really didn’t want to see me enter the school. I don’t think they had anything to do with that school. But we, fortunately, found another way to get in, and I was greeted very warmly by all of the teachers.”

The Albany School Sellout

July 3, 2017

The politicians all get something, but poor kids are the losers.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Judging from the 11th-hour deal they reached giving mayor Bill de Blasio the control he wanted over New York City schools, Albany’s Republicans appear as determined to discredit themselves on education reform as their counterparts in the Republican Congress seem to be on repealing ObamaCare.

Last week we reported how the New York state legislature had adjourned for the year without lifting the charter-school cap that is beloved by the teachers unions. The GOP state Senate’s only negotiating leverage was mayoral control. Mayor de Blasio wanted it renewed but he and Carl Heastie, Democratic speaker of the State Assembly, were adamant that it not be done in exchange for allowing more charters.

They won. This week, after Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the legislature back into special session, Albany reached a compromise. It’s not being called the “big ugly” for nothing: It has something in it for every politician. Gov. Cuomo gets the new Tappan Zee Bridge named after his late father, Mario; Republicans gets some county sales tax extensions they wanted; fireman and cops get some pension sweeteners—and Democrats get mayoral control for Mr. de Blasio while successfully resisting any opening to new charters.

The losers are the non-politicians, especially the students who needed someone in Albany to fight for them to get a better chance for a better education. We’re thinking of the 50,000 kids in New York City who are on a waiting list because there aren’t enough charters to meet the demand.

Republicans control only the state Senate, and Gov. Cuomo could have made the difference if he had stood up for charters. But Mr. Cuomo is planning to run for President in 2020 and needs to mollify the unions, while the Republican Party claims to be on the side of charters, choice and education reform.

Everyone knows the Democratic Party long ago sold its soul to the unions. What Albany’s “big ugly” teaches is that if Republicans don’t stand up for charters, few others will.

Appeared in the July 1, 2017, print edition.

Los Angeles Charter Uprising

May 22, 2017

Voters elect a pro-reform majority on the local school board.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

One reason public schools in big cities are so lousy is union control of local school boards. This has long been true in Los Angeles, but last week charter-school advocates dealt a major blow to the failing status quo by winning a majority on the district’s Board of Education.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has some of the country’s lowest-performing public schools. In 2015 only one in five fourth-graders rated proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. While Los Angeles boasts more charter schools than any district in the country, they still account for merely 16% of enrollment. Two years ago the Great Public Schools Now initiative, which is backed by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, set a goal of enrolling 50% of the district’s students in charters. The unions naturally went nuts.

As union schools lose students (and thus taxpayer funds) to charters, the school board has become even more reactionary. Last month the board voted to support three bills before the state legislature in Sacramento that aim to limit autonomy for charter schools. One would prevent charters from appealing rejections by local school boards to county and state boards. The appeals process is one reason charters in Los Angeles have been able to expand despite school-board resistance.

Anti-charter board members have tried to convince parents that rising graduation rates show that traditional public schools are improving. But the real explanation is that the board dumbed down graduation requirements and allowed students to pass courses with a D grade. Half of last year’s graduating seniors were ineligible for state public universities, according to the education nonprofit The 74.

School board president Steve Zimmer, who was ousted last week, declared that “teachers are not failing. Students are not failing. Schools are not failing.” Parents who voted in the local elections believe otherwise.

Unions tried to vilify pro-charter candidates Nick Melvoin and Kelly Gonez by portraying them as tools of Donald Trump, though both were endorsed by President Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the state’s progressive former Senator Barbara Boxer. There’s nothing progressive about failing low-income minority kids.

Appeared in the May. 22, 2017, print edition.