Lawsuit Against Project Veritas May Shed New Light on Right-Wing Group’s Internal Operations

Originally published in The Intercept on July 23, 2018.
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A Michigan judge issued a ruling late last week granting the American Federation of Teachers the right to discovery in an ongoing legal battle with Project Veritas, the sting group launched by conservative provocateur James O’Keefe.

The escalating fight, which is being played out in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, began last September, when the teachers union filed a lawsuit accusing Project Veritas of infiltrating and illegally gathering proprietary information from its Michigan affiliate.

Project Veritas, a right-wing activist group known for releasing undercover video exposés of liberal organizations like ACORN and Planned Parenthood, has taken a special interest in targeting teacher unions over the last eight years. The group has been accused of routinely doctoring its videos, and last year it was caught trying to feed a false story about Roy Moore, then a U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama, to the Washington Post. The discovery in the Michigan case may shed new light on its internal operations.

According to the September complaint, which was filed in state court, Marisa Jorge, a political operative for Project Veritas, presented herself as a University of Michigan student named Marissa Perez who was interested in becoming a teacher. She applied for a summer internship with AFT Michigan and was hired in May 2017. For the next three months, she allegedly gathered a wide range of confidential information on the teachers union. The lawsuit claims that on multiple occasions Jorge was found alone in other employees’ offices, accessing information she, as an intern, had no right to see. In other cases, she requested to attend bargaining sessions, was given access to internal databases, and secretly recorded conversations, according to the complaint.

A Michigan judge responded to the lawsuit by issuing a restraining orderagainst Project Veritas in September, barring the group from publishing or disclosing any materials it may have collected from the union. The next month, following a motion by Project Veritas, the case was moved from state to federal court. In December, U.S. District Judge Linda Parker lifted the restraining order. Parker said the AFT had not sufficiently demonstrated it would be harmed by what Project Veritas had collected. In her decision she wrote that “a preliminary injunction most certainly will infringe upon Defendants’ First Amendment right.”

The union went back to court in early May to try once more to prevent Project Veritas from releasing any documents or videos it had obtained from its Michigan affiliate. Parker denied the AFT’s second request, again citing First Amendment concerns.

Project Veritas began releasing information from AFT Michigan immediately thereafter. In its first post, headlined “BREAKING: Alleged Child Molester Paid Off in Union Negotiation by Michigan American Federation of Teachers,” Project Veritas boasted of releasing documents and undercover footage “which reveals that the union protected a teacher after accusations of sexual misconduct with a seven- or eight-year-old girl arose.”

AFT president Randi Weingarten and  AFT Michigan President David Hecker released a joint statement following the video’s release, calling it a “heavily spliced” smear tactic intended to undermine educators and their unions.

“In this particular case, following accusations of a teacher’s misconduct with a child of a woman he was dating years before, the union and district officials worked together to separate a teacher from service and make sure students were protected,” Weingarten and Hecker stated. “To this day, the teacher denies the accusations, and no charges have been filed. AFT Michigan continues to prioritize the well-being of students and the promise of high-quality public education in Michigan.”

Parker’s new ruling, issued on Thursday, allows the AFT to amend its legal complaint to include information about the video Project Veritas released in May. It also paves the way for the union to begin requesting information through the discovery process.

“It’s going to get interesting now because we have the opportunity to dig pretty deep into Project Veritas and their activities,” AFT Michigan attorney Mark Cousens told The Intercept. “We can discover not only how they work, but what they did in Michigan.” Cousens said the union, through discovery, might request information on Jorge’s relationship to Project Veritas, background on Jorge, and what materials she may have taken while working as an intern.

Weingarten said in a statement that her union is “committed to holding Project Veritas accountable for its unlawful misrepresentations, infiltrations, and splicing and dicing of unlawfully obtained material to smear teachers and public schools.” Weingarten pledged to “move forward in our efforts to bring to light the deceptive, unscrupulous distortion tactics Project Veritas is known for.”

Marco Bruno, a spokesperson for Project Veritas, dismissed the decision. He told The Intercept that the AFT “is winning only the highest award for delusional self-congratulations. Contrary to its claims, AFT’s reckless efforts throughout this lawsuit to censor a Veritas publication failed repeatedly. As far as the case goes, they have won nothing, and their latest pleadings are as weak as their previous complaint. AFT is wasting union members’ dues on a frivolous lawsuit that it has no chance of winning.”

Project Veritas has long targeted teacher unions. In 2010, O’Keefe, the group’s founder, infiltrated a New Jersey Education Association leadership conference and produced a project called “Teachers Union Gone Wild.” His group produced another video last summer that purported to show a New Jersey teacher offering journalists cocaine at a union convention. After that video was released, O’Keefe went on the radio to say his teacher union exposés are not finished. “I don’t ever, ever expect the institutions to hold people accountable, so it’s up to exposures,” O’Keefe said, promising that “we have more coming out.”

And indeed, they did. In May, on top of its AFT Michigan work, Project Veritas released two more undercover videos of New Jersey union officials discussing how to protect teachers accused of abuse, which subsequently led to the suspension of two union presidents. New Jersey Democrats, including state Senate president Steve Sweeney and Gov. Phil Murphy, have since called for investigations into the union’s behavior.

The NJEA released a statement in response to the videos, saying it “does not, in any instance, condone the abuse or mistreatment of children or the failure to properly report allegations of abuse.” The union also announced it would be commissioning an independent review of its local affiliates to ensure that staff and leaders “understan[d] and clearly communicat[e] the responsibility of all school employees to report any suspected abuse of children.”

While the NJEA charged Project Veritas with being a political group “with a long history of releasing deceptively edited videos that later prove to have been dishonest and misleading,” Sweeney did not back down. “They can attack the videos and who did the videos all they want,” he told NJ Advance Mediareferring to the union“But those words were real, those actions were real, and they need to be dealt with.”

Also in May, Project Veritas released another video, showing teachers union officials in Ohio discussing how they would defend educators who abused students. State union officials called the videos doctored and edited to fit the organization’s agenda.

O’Keefe hinted at more videos in the future. Following the Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio videos, Project Veritas promised to release “more undercover videos of teachers unions from ALL ACROSS THE COUNTRY in the coming days and weeks.”

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After Janus, The Country’s Largest Public-Sector Union Takes Stock of Its Movement

Originally published in The Intercept on July 5, 2018.
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The annual meeting of the National Education Association, the country’s largest public-sector union, held in Minnesota this week was much more high stakes than in years past. Typically, the convention is a chance for educators to vote on bread-and-butter issues like budget priorities and advocacy target areas. But the 8,000 or so students, retired teachers, and NEA delegates who descended on the Minneapolis Convention Center had more existential questions on their minds. In the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that dealt a crippling blow to public-sector unions, they debated strategies to expand their membership, keep union members apprised of their rights, and recover from the impending financial loss that is sure to happen in a post-Janus world.

In Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, a 5-4 Supreme Court majority ruled last week that despite laws requiring public-sector unions to represent all workers in a workplace, fees charged to non-members to support the costs of collective bargaining violate the First Amendment. For more than four decades, the Court has held it constitutional for unions to collect money from non-members to support the costs of negotiating contracts on their behalf. Janus overturned that precedent, meaning that employees can now enjoy the benefits of collective bargaining without having to pay for it. Labor unions are bracing for substantial revenue loss.

Now, the choice before teachers is paying either hundreds of dollars in annual membership dues, or nothing at all. The NEA, which represents a little over 3 million members, is forecasting a loss of 370,000 members over the next two years. Approximately 88,000 educators have been non-members paying NEA agency fees, and the union anticipates at least several hundred thousand current members will also rescind their union cards.

“Janus was nothing more than a pretext for the Koch brothers and all their funded-friends to push for union members to drop out,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen García told The Intercept. “With Janus, they don’t care about the [agency] fee payers, they care about reducing our resources and our actual members.” She pointed to the multi-million dollar effort recently launched by a Koch-backed group to persuade dues-paying members to opt-out.

In light of these realities, the NEA approved a two-year budget at its convention that scales back union expenditures by $50 million. Union leadership maintains that this scaleback will not impact the organization’s political activities. “We’re looking at getting economies of scale as best we can,” explained Jim Testerman, the senior director at the NEA’s Center for Organizing. “How many more meetings can we do digitally, can we cut back on food, travel, are there different ways to approach the work. We also didn’t replace 40 staff who retired in January.”

While some states where NEA wields the most influence, like California, New York, and New Jersey, have required non-members to pay agency fees, the recent wave of teacher strikes that exploded across the nation in states like West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma occurred in right-to-work states — which purport to protect workers from being required to join unions, but make collective bargaining more challenging and don’t require agency fees. Conservatives point to the walkouts as proof that agency fees aren’t really necessary. But workers in right-to-work states say they understand their efforts are aided by the national unions, which will certainly take a financial hit from Janus.

Back in the 1980s, when Eskelsen García was a 6th grade teacher, she served as bargaining chair for her union in Utah, a non-collective bargaining state. “There’s still a lot you can do without anyone’s permission,” she said. Just as superintendents and school board members largely supported the teachers who went on strike in red states this year, Eskelsen García said many administrators have shown willingness to bargain with unions even when not compelled to by state statute.

Indeed, at the NEA convention, despite the looming financial threats, the thousands of attendees were palpably emboldened by the teacher walkouts, collective actions that gave them a renewed and clearer sense of their own power. Though the protests were not union-initiated — beginning spontaneously with the grassroots — Testerman, of the NEA’s Center for Organizing, said his union is working to marry “the organic and the organized” as actions erupt. “It’s something we got better with over time, and Arizona was a good example,” he told The Intercept. “You don’t want the union to take it over, but having some organized entity who can get you permits and porta-potties and things like that can help you get even more done.” According to Testerman, Arizona’s NEA affiliate has seen an 8 percent increase in its membership since last year. “I don’t think the walkouts are over,” he added, noting that the future of the movement will depend on what happens in upcoming legislative sessions.

Delegates Reject Proposal to Open Union Membership to Supporters

One of the most contentious items considered at the NEA convention was a proposed constitutional amendment to create a new category of union membership, open to “any person who demonstrates support in advancing the cause of public education” and “advocates for the mission, vision and core values of the Association.”

The idea was formed last year in the wake of Betsy DeVos’s nomination to lead the Department of Education, Eskelsen García explained, when parents and community members flooded the NEA with questions on how they could speak out in opposition to DeVos and better support public education. Then, in the midst of the teacher strikes, the NEA president said, the outpouring support from non-educators proved crucial in building a broad political coalition for the walkouts. Under the proposal, so-called “community ally” members would pay minimal union dues but would be ineligible to vote on union matters or hold governance positions. The biggest opportunity this membership category would create, supporters explained, would be to make it possible for community allies to contribute to the NEA’s political action committee; only NEA members can legally contribute to the PAC, and given the expected decline in membership, this change would have given the PAC an additional stream of funds. The proposal also would have enabled the union to contact supportive members of the public directly. “We’re organizers in our bones,” Eskelsen García told The Intercept. “Why not organize them?”

The proposal triggered heated debate on Tuesday afternoon. Some members voiced concerns about opening up the union to outside political influence. “Selling stockholder shares in our union is a dangerous one,” warned a delegate from Michigan. “When you purchase stock, you expect a return on your investment.” Marshall Thompson, a delegate from Minnesota, called the idea half-baked. “Does my union card mean something or not?” he asked. “Bill Gates should not be able to buy one.”

NEA leadership defended the proposal, explaining that four other major unions, including AFCSME, have a similar membership category for the public, and all but 14 of the NEA’s state affiliates do too. For example, the Pennsylvania NEA affiliate has a “Partners for Public Education” membership category. Plus, NEA leaders added, community allies would have the same $5,000 political contribution limits to the PAC as do regular members. Tripp Jeffers, a delegate from North Carolina, spoke in favor of the amendment, saying a version of it already works well in his state. “We get by with a little help from our friends,” he quipped. Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association, also defended the amendment, reminding the audience that the parents and community members who walked alongside educators during Arizona’s six-day teacher strike were instrumental in helping the union rebut the political narrative that their action was solely about teacher wages.

That was not enough to convince the 8,000 delegates, though. The measure was narrowly defeated on Wednesday, with just over 60 percent of delegates voting in favor. Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority to pass.

Reauthorization and Affirmative Consent

Janus has also sparked a legal and political debate over whether dues-paying members need to proactively reauthorize their union membership. The majority opinion, authored by Justice Samuel Alito, states that “neither an agency fee nor any other form of payment to a public-sector union may be deducted from an employee, nor may any other attempt be made to collect such a payment, unless the employee affirmatively consents to pay.” Conservatives have latched onto this “affirmative consent” idea to say that all those represented by a union, members and agency-fee payers alike, should have to affirmatively opt-in.

But labor groups have taken an alternative reading. At the NEA convention, the union’s general counsel Alice O’Brien told the crowd of delegates that Janus “does not mean that unions have to re-sign existing members. Janus is about fee payers,” she said. “Nothing in Janus supports an employer [who] insists a union must submit new proof that existing voluntary members want to remain members.”

Eskelsen García told The Intercept that the NEA has already received reports of school districts and school boards asking unions to submit new proof of membership. “But Janus doesn’t require that, and part of our mission right now is we have to make sure that our folks across the country understand that Janus was very specific in saying you can’t require a non-member to pay fees,” she said. “It doesn’t require re-signing up members, but we anticipated there would be a lot of misinformation from the Koch brothers and others. We’ll get this straightened out.”

The question over re-commitments first arose three years ago, when the Supreme Court heard the case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, an anti-public sector union case considered to be the predecessor of Janus. (Friedrichs also challenged public-sector agency fees, but Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death in 2016 resulted in a 4-4 decision that left the fees alive until Janus was brought before the court.) Despite the teacher union’s position that re-commitments are not legally necessary, both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers have been working since then on getting re-commitments from all their members. The AFT reports that out of 800,000 members in 18 states with agency fees, more than 500,000 members have pledged membership renewals since January.

“The re-commit campaigns have really been an organizing strategy to go out and talk to our members about what these Supreme Court cases mean, and the value of belonging and acting collectively,” Testerman told The Intercept. “If members don’t know who the union is and what the union stands for, they are not likely to remain a member and we’re not taking anything for granted.” He said the NEA has seen a growth in membership for the last three years in a row, at an average of 0.5 percent per year.

But the tactics some union affiliates have taken to secure member re-commitments have stirred controversy, and they may be legally vulnerable in the post-Janus world.

In Minnesota, for example, the 86,000-member statewide teachers union asked educators to fill out membership renewal forms for the 2017-18 school year, authorizing the union to deduct dues. The forms included a fine-print disclosure that said “this authorization shall remain in effect and shall be automatically renewed from year to year, irrespective of my membership in the union, unless I revoke it by submitting written notice to both my employer and the local union during the seven-day period that begins on September 24 and ends on September 30. (emphasis added)”

The general counsel for the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think tank, said the Minnesota teachers union was “betting that most teachers will just sign the card without reading it, or understanding what it means—and just keep paying.”

Los Angeles teachers took a similar approach. In its recommitment campaign, the United Teachers of Los Angeles asked members to sign membership forms with fine print that said, “This agreement shall be automatically renewed from year to year unless I revoke it in writing during the window period, irrespective of my membership in UTLA.” The legal language was first reported by Mike Antonucci, who runs the Education Intelligence Agency, a union watchdog site. “So a teacher who takes an administrative position, or leaves teaching altogether, and is then ineligible to be a UTLA member, will still be on the hook for dues payments until the next window comes around,” Antonucci surmised.

Both the Minnesota and Los Angeles re-commitment forms are constitutional under Janus’s “opt-in” requirement, said Charlotte Garden, a professor at Seattle University Law School. She added that she “also expect[s] the National Right to Work Foundation or other anti-union groups to challenge them in court, arguing they aren’t solicitous enough of objectors.” Garden said those types of challenges will “bring into conflict” two beliefs held by conservative members of the Supreme Court: that unions “must take various affirmative steps to facilitate the rights of objectors they represent” and that “employees should be held to the contracts they sign.”

Some conservative-backed litigation is already coming down the pipe.

Eight NEA state affiliates, including some in New York, Maryland, California, and Washington, are currently targets of class action lawsuits seeking to recover agency fees previously paid to the teacher unions before Janus. “The lawsuit we filed is a refund of the fees that were illegally retracted,” said John Bursch, the lawyer who filed the class action on behalf of California teachers. Alice O’Brien, the NEA’s general counsel, reminded delegates at the convention that whomever replaces Justice Anthony Kennedy, who announced his retirement just hours after siding with the majority in Janus, could help decide whether unions must pay back agency fees or not.

Another case, filed in February 2017, takes square aim at union opt-out rules. In Yohn v. California Teachers AssociationRyan Yohn and seven other California educators objected not only to paying agency fees but also to bureaucratic hurdles employees must go through if they want to opt-out of union membership. The teachers argue workers should have to affirmatively opt-in to a union, not opt-out. “We’re not free-riders, we’re forced riders,”one plaintiff told Education Week in February. The case is being brought by the Center for Individual Rights, the same libertarian law firm that brought the Friedrichs suit.

Sharon Block, the executive director of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, told The Intercept that she has no doubt that conservative groups will aim to push the limits of the Supreme Court’s holding in Janus for cases like Yohn. “I’m afraid that Janus has opened up additional fronts in the war these groups are waging on public-sector unions and the labor movement more generally,” she said. “We will see litigation for years.”

Union-Friendly Legislation in the Wake of Janus

In anticipation of a Supreme Court decision striking down agency fees, unions have been lobbying state legislators for the last few years to support new bills that could help labor strengthen its position. Specifically, labor organizations have pushed for new measures that would more easily allow union representatives to make the case for membership to new public-sector employees and to limit the services unions have to provide to non-members.

Last year in California, the legislature passed two such bills: one that allows public-sector unions to give presentations to new employees during their job orientations, and another that restricts what government employers can say to their staff about the pros and cons of joining a union. Two bills are pending now that would give labor groups an opportunity to weigh in on a worker’s intent to cancel their union dues.

Maryland legislators passed a bill this spring requiring new teachers to meet with a union representative within 30 days of their hiring or by their first pay period. It became law in April without the signature of Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, signed a more expansive bill in May that gives unions a number of new protections, including the right to meet with new employees for at least a half hour within 30 days of being hired and a guarantee that public employers will provide the union with exclusive representation contact information for all new employees.

In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo in April signed what he called “the Janus bill,” which in addition to providing unions with contact information for all new public-sector workers, also makes clear that unions are not required to provide non-members with the full range of union services. For example, non-members facing disciplinary charges will now have to obtain their own attorneys, whereas the union covers legal representation for dues-paying members. Last week, immediately following the Janus decision, Cuomo issued an executive order to protect public employee contact information from those who may try to target them in union opt-out campaigns. It was mostly a symbolic gesture, since the state already has similar privacy protections on the books.

Aside from these bills, Sharon Block of the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School and Benjamin Sachs, a Harvard Law School professor and editor-in-chief of the On Labor blog, put forth another legislative proposal to help unions cope after Janus. “The simplest, and the most effective, move would be for states to change, quite subtly, the accounting system for union dues,” they wrote last week in Vox. While unionized public-sector workers currently earn about 17 percent more than their non-unionized counterparts on average, the now-unconstitutional agency fees have comprised about 2 percent of that wage premium. Under the system reviewed by the Supreme Court, employers paid this 2 percent to workers, and workers then had to pay that money back to the union as an agency fee. “But if public employers simply paid the 2 percent directly to the unions — giving the same 15 percent raise to employees but not channeling the extra 2 percent through employee paychecks,” Block and Sachs wrote, “then there would be no possible claim that employees were being compelled to do anything, and thus no constitutional problem.”

“We’re up against something pretty scary,” Lily Eskelsen García said this week in Minneapolis, speaking before thousands of delegates. “Janus is the latest attack on our union, but this ain’t our first rodeo… We don’t get scared, we get ready.”

Conservatives Work to Undermine Oklahoma Teachers’ Raises After Walkout

Originally published in Rewire News on May 7, 2018.
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When Oklahoma educators headed back to school in mid-April after their historic nine-day walkout, they did so with mixed feelings. They hadn’t won all of their key legislative demands, but they didn’t return empty handed either: Teachers won salary increases of roughly $6,100 each, and raises of $1,250 for school support staff. The pay increases, set to take effect on August 1 would be paid for by new taxes on cigarettes, motor fuel, and oil and gas production. “We achieved something that we all thought might be impossible,” declared Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) when she signed the tax legislation into law.

But some conservative activists are saying, “not so fast.”

Members of Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite, an anti-tax group, filed paperwork last week to get a veto referendum on the November ballot. The group has until July 18th to collect about 41,000 signatures. The new taxes to fund the salary increases are scheduled to go into effect on July 1, but there’s debate over whether those would need to be put on hold if activists collect enough ballot signatures before that date.

A representative from Oklahoma Taxpayers Unite did not return Rewire.News‘ request for comment, but a member of the group, Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, told Oklahoma’s local NBC affiliate that they “believe very much that teachers need a pay raise” and that her group’s ballot initiative is “not personal.” Vuillemont-Smith argued that legislators should conduct statewide audits to eliminate waste from agency budgets before raising taxes.

Ed Allen, president of the Oklahoma City American Federation of Teachers, told Rewire.News there’d be “no way” the referendum would pass if it were voted on today. “There’s zero chance, I’d put big money on that,” he said. But Allen acknowledged that “a lot of things could happen between now and November” as anti-tax groups start raising money and doing advertising. “It’s a shame that we have to spend some of our attention and resources on defeating this when we want to defeat those representatives who don’t lift a finger to help education,” he said.

The Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), the largest teacher union in the state, is also gearing up to fight the ballot initiative.

Lawyers for the union believe the salary increases are locked in, and the veto referendum addresses only a funding mechanism for those raises. But a provision in the teacher pay bill stipulates it will not become law unless items from the tax increase bill are enacted.

“There are probably going to be conflicting views on this,” an OEA attorney told the Associated Press. “At the end of the day we’ll need some determination, from either the courts or the attorney general.”

Educators did manage to stave off a separate challenge last week, defeating what some public education advocates were calling a Republican “revenge bill.”

Taking aim at a bill designed to protect children from abuse and neglect, Oklahoma state Rep. Todd Russ (R-Cordell) introduced a last-minute amendment to prevent school districts from automatically deducting union dues from teacher paychecks. Educators instead would need to make other arrangements to handle membership payments. Russ’s amendment would have also mandated that a majority of educators in each school district vote every five years on whether they want to keep their collective bargaining unit; if a majority did not vote in favor, the school district would be stripped of union representation.

Doug Folks, a spokesperson for OEA, told Rewire.News that teachers, police officers, firefighters, and state employees inundated legislators’ phone systems and “in about 18 hours, we were able to get enough promises of no votes that the [amendment] was never heard.” The bill, SB 1150, was approved by lawmakers without the anti-union provisions. It now awaits the governor’s approval.

It wasn’t the first time state Rep. Russ has introduced legislative language like that and union leaders say they would not be surprised if he tries again in the future. “He’s just union-busting,” said Allen. “Plain and simple.”

Rep. Russ did not return Rewire.News’ request for comment, but he told NewsOk that he was looking out to protect teacher fairness.

State Rep. Forrest Bennett, a first-term Democrat representing Oklahoma City, told Rewire.News he did view Russ’s amendment as strike retribution on the part of the GOP leadership.

“Those of my colleagues in the legislature who are frustrated with teachers and other education advocates are showing their true colors,” he said. “They’re saying they are frustrated with the ‘tactics’ of the teachers and the unions, but in reality I think they’re pretty sore from being exposed. For years, legislators have been able to go home to their constituents and claim they’re all for education. But teachers across the state learned that their legislators talk about better schools out of one side of their mouth and then advocate for tax cuts out of the other. We can’t fund core services like education while we cut, cut, cut.”

Betsy DeVos Is Helping Puerto Rico Re-Imagine Its Public School System. That Has People Worried.

Originally published in The Intercept on February 22, 2018.
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Puerto Rico, in the midst of the chaos and instability following Hurricane Maria, is moving quickly forward with plans to institute a wide swath of education reforms, with the help of the aggressively ideological federal education department, helmed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Puerto Rico’s governor and education secretary have expressed openness to the concerns raised by parents, teachers and community members, and stress they are not looking to implement an extreme version of privatization. Yet at the same time, they have stoked fears by pushing forward a notably vague charter law that does little to address what people are most worried about. This “trust us” mentality has not been helped by the engagement of DeVos, nor by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s recent visit to a notorious charter chain in Philadelphia last week — a prime example of the kind of low-performing, fiscally reckless charter that school advocates warn about.

At a time when the island is starved of investment and inching slowly through a storm recovery, many Puerto Ricans worry that the government is treating this more as an opportunity to disrupt education, rather than stabilize it — while also potentially opening the doors for supercharged corruption.

Puerto Rico’s public school system remains severely ravaged since Hurricane Maria, the Category 4 storm that tore through the island in late September. “The recovery has gone very slowly,” said Aida Díaz, president of the island’s 40,000-member teachers union, the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico“We still have hundreds of schools without electricity, internet, and many of our teachers and students are having classes just half-day.”

Rosselló delivered a televised address in early February announcing a package of educational reforms he’d like to bring to the island – including charters, vouchers for private schools, and the first pay increase for teachers in a decade. Puerto Rico teachers earn on average $27,000 a year, and would see increases of $1,500 under the governor’s proposal. “The current educational system does not respond to what is needed to train our students to succeed in a world that’s ever more competitive and complex,” Rosselló  declared.

Rosselló’s big announcement came on the heels of a separate plan he outlined in January, to close 305 of Puerto Rico’s 1,100 public schools. Rosselló said these closures would lead to an estimated $300 million in savings by 2022 – and by extension help the island recover from Maria and its long-term debt crisis. Puerto Rican citizens have long worried the government’s interest in shuttering schools would be a first step on the road to privatization.

While Rosselló’s televised address garnered a lot of national attention, little has been paid to the 136-page bill that was introduced several days later, and the vocal debate it has sparked within the territory.

Who helped craft the bill is not entirely clear.

Díaz, the teachers union president, told The Intercept that her members played absolutely no role in drafting the proposals. “They didn’t consider us, they didn’t invite us, we didn’t participate,” she said.

Todd Ziebarth, senior vice president for the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, told The Intercept they “were not deeply involved in the bill drafting at all” but that they did have some conversations with people in Puerto Rico’s education department about charter legislation and how other states have handled certain issues. Ziebarth added that while his organization has not done a deep analysis of Puerto Rico’s bill, he thinks “it provides a good start for getting charters up and running.”

DeVos and her federal education department have certainly been involved. DeVos’s Deputy Assistant Secretary Jason Botel has been in “close communication” with Puerto Rico’s Education Secretary Julia Keleher for months since the storm, and in a blogpost published in January, Botelwrote, “We look forward to supporting students, educators and community members as they not only rebuild what’s been lost, but also improve, rethink and renew.”

In an interview with The Intercept, Keleher, Puerto Rico’s education secretary, said that a local law firm helped them craft the bill, two law firms from the mainland that had experience working with charter schools, and a team from the federal department of education. “We did have a series of technical assistance from the U.S education department,” she said. “They didn’t comment on the bill but they did help us think through it, and helped us define what we thought should be the final set of things to include.”

In November, Rosselló tweeted pictures of a meeting he and Keleher held with DeVos and her staff, noting they were “itemizing the areas that need the most attention in order to restore our education system.”

The Department of Education did not return The Intercept’s request for comment, but earlier this month DeVos told a group of reporters that she was very encouraged by Puerto Rico’s leadership for embracing school choice after the hurricane. She praised its approach for thoughtfully “meeting students needs … in a really concerted and individual way.”

In November, In the Public Interest, a research and policy organization focused on privatization and contracting, submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Act to the Department of Education requesting all communications between Jason Botel and Julia Keleher between July 1 and mid-November, and all emails sent or received by Botel during that period that mention charter schools or Puerto Rico. The Education Department confirmed receipt of the FOIA request a week later, and granted the group’s fee waiver request on January 12. Shar Habibi, the research and policy director at In The Public Interest, told The Intercept they’re still waiting to receive the records.

ONE CONTROVERSIAL ASPECT of Puerto Rico’s proposed legislation is its language to allow multiple charter school authorizers. Authorizers are entities – such as school districts, state commissions or nonprofits – that grant charter schools the right to exist. They are also then responsible for ensuring that the schools produce sufficient academic results and comply with relevant laws and regulations. If a school fails to do so, an authorizer is supposed to revoke the school’s charter and shut them down. The quality of charter school authorizing ranges widely throughout the United States.

Section 13.04 of the bill states that either Puerto Rico’s education department or a Puerto Rican university can authorize charter schools. This language has raised concerns that Puerto Rico will open the floodgates to many charter authorizers like in Michigan – a state that has earned a reputation for having notoriously lax charter oversight. The more there are, the easier it is for bad charters to shop around for an authorizer that will let them stay open.

Karega Rausch, the interim CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, told The Intercept that their group does not have a hard-and-fast rule, or even guiding data, on the number of authorizers a jurisdiction should have – but they have observed that the overall quality of a charter sector can be “diluted” in places with too many authorizers. (Places like D.C., New Jersey and Massachusetts have just one charter authorizer, while states like Michigan, Ohio and Minnesota have many.)

Keleher, Puerto Rico’s education secretary, said she expects the legislation to be amended to allow for just one authorizer. “I think we’d want to stay away from having two based on what we understand as effective practice,” she said. The island’s senate is still holding public hearings on the bill.

Multiple news outlets this month reported that Puerto Rico aims to start with 14 charter schools, two in each of the island’s seven provinces.

Keleher told The Intercept that this has never been a formal plan, and her off-the-cuff remarks were interpreted by the media as something she never intended. “People were asking me how many we would have, so I was trying to answer the question and suggested maybe two per region,” she said. “The next thing I know people are asking me where I’m going to get these 14 [charter] applications. I just said that number because two per region seemed reasonable to manage, so I thought it was a number that could help calm people down.”

Keleher says the department has no plans to do what New Orleans did following Hurricane Katrina, and that it should develop a formula to limit the number of charter schools in Puerto Rico. But, she said, that formula needs to be flexible and should be handled by education department after the law is passed. “If the schools are super successful and more people want them, we should allow that up to a point,” she said.

The proposed legislation would also allow for the creation of virtual charters in Puerto Rico – a particularly contentious type of online school, evenamong school choice supporters. (DeVos is a big proponent of virtual charters, and a former investor in them herself.)

Keleher acknowledged the concerns around virtual charters, but says she remains optimistic about their potential. “I’ve taught in online classrooms,” she said. “It requires discipline and fidelity, and it may not be right for everyone.” She emphasized the importance of providing “options,” which she said could help bring new infusions of funds to the island. “If you look at what the president is prioritizing in his new budget, there’s a lot of emphasis on educational options,” she said.

In general Keleher advocates for an approach that leaves the charter law fairly vague (or as she calls, it “flexible”) so that her department can then craft regulations as it sees fit.

“We don’t want the law to be so tied to the reality of today,” she said. “We want to make it function as a lever to get the [education] department to behave in a way that we will produce strong results.” She pointed out that their last education law was incredibly detailed, “but very poorly implemented” and so this time they tried to go in the opposite direction. “We want to be sure that the system is responsive, rather than every time you want to adjust your program you have to amend your law,” she said.

The idea of creating an ambiguous law understandably has not eased much anxiety amongst Puerto Rico residents concerned about the pitfalls of school choice.

Even Ziebarth of the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools says it’s better to put more into the charter law than less. “We tend to try to get as much into the law as we can, and while some decisions make sense left to regulation, I think if they have a chance to pass a strong charter law that’s better,” he said. “I think we know enough about what the fundamentals should look like – particularly around flexibility, accountability and funding – that they can put that in statute now and not go back later and deal with it.”

Ziebarth adds that especially if Puerto Rico is considering going down the road of virtual charter schools, the island should include their six policy recommendations. “They should definitely not repeat the mistakes that others have made in that area,” he said.

Vouchers for private schools are included in the education reform bill, but they would likely not be implemented until after charter schools get started. Keleher told The 74 that given their budget situation, “it’s not something we can execute right now for obvious reasons.”

In 1994, back when Rosselló’s father, Pedro Rosselló, was governor, Puerto Rico’s Supreme Court struck down a proposal to establish a school voucher program. Puerto Rico’s leadership believes a series of court decisions issued over the past two decades, including from the U.S. Supreme Court, have now paved the legal path for them to move forward with school vouchers.

A recent trip taken by Rosselló has exacerbated concerns that he is not seriously grappling with the risks of his proposed education reforms.

Last week he visited an ASPIRA charter school in Philadelphia, and tweeted out after his visit that it represents an “excellent charter school model.”

But just two months ago Philadelphia voted to close two ASPIRA charter schools for their low academic quality, as well as a host of financial scandals and mismanagement issues. For years there have been concerns that ASPIRA was self-dealing with public funds, and the situation was difficult to track because each ASPIRA charter is structured as an independent nonprofit, despite all sharing the same board of trustees through their parent organization. “It’s very difficult to follow the financial trail when there are so many complicated, connected entities, and money flowing throughout them,” said an official working in the Philadelphia School District official in 2014. A former accounts payable coordinator at ASPIRA also filed a federal whistle blower lawsuit in 2014, alleging that the charter operator misappropriated more than $1 million in federal funds. The employee charged that ASPIRA made “repeated false representations” to the U.S. and state Departments of Education “in an effort to defraud the United States of taxpayer dollars, under the guise of providing quality education to some of the nation’s neediest students.” ASPIRA dismissed the charges as politically motivated. Then in 2016 news emerged that ASPIRA’s CEO had paid a top employee $350,000 in a sexual harassment settlement. Another former senior employee filed a lawsuit claiming she had been wrongfully terminated for helping her colleague file that sexual harassment complaint.

Díaz, the teachers union president, told the Intercept that Rosselló has been unresponsive to their concerns.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said Puerto Rico’s governor should be ashamed of himself. “He pretends that he’s a Democratic governor, but his playbook on schools is right out of Trump and DeVos,” she told The Intercept. “He won’t even tell the people of Puerto Rico what he’s doing as he secretly travels to an ASPIRA charter for a tour.” Weingarten says his behavior is “just baffling” and “one wonders who he is listening to.”

Keleher, for her part, emphasized that she’s trying to be very transparent and accessible with Puerto Ricans to discuss the reforms. This week her department organized a forum and last week she met with parents from each region of the island.

“The governor appointed me and I am fully accountable to the people,” she said. “You can like my decision or not but I think I’m responsible for showing you how I got my decision, and at the end of the day I have to take the hit.”

Still, the education secretary’s engagement with the public hasn’t always gone smoothly. Last week during a union-sponsored Q&A, Keleher abruptly stormed outwhen one teacher said the education secretary should return when she’s more prepared to answer their questions.

“Before this bill we were working together, we understood each other, and we agreed on many things,” Díaz told The Intercept. “But right now communications are stopped, I don’t think [the government] wants to understand our point of view.”

Indeed the question of whether charter schools in Puerto Rico would be unionized remains an open one. The proposed legislation says nothing about it. Most states do not require charter teachers to be in unions – indeed being union-free is seen by many charter advocates as a key characteristic of the model – but a few states, including Maryland and Hawaii, require it.

Keleher told The Intercept that they are staying intentionally “silent on the union issue” though she’s “not adamantly opposed if in the context of Puerto Rico” unionized charters seem like the best way to do it. She said, though, that if charter school operators want to come and oppose doing so with a unionized staff, she “would also understand and respect that” and she’s “very much in a let’s-see-what-makes-the-most-sense” position.

The last time Puerto Rico passed major education reforms was in the 1990s, and some elements of the controversial bill have attracted support from union members. Aside from the $1,500 pay hikes, Díaz says her union also likes the new procedures outlined around making school budgeting more transparent, and creating regional education offices.

“But the rest of the bill is unacceptable to us, and we cannot support it,” she said. For now the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico will continue mobilizing against the charter and voucher proposals, and Díaz said they are also going to start more vocally championing for public schools that provide robust wraparound social services.

“These kids and their parents have been traumatized,” said Weingarten. “Let’s try to create some stability in Puerto Rico after this terrible storm.”

St. Paul Companies Are Spending Their Tax Breaks on Super Bowl Sponsorships. Teachers Are Crying Foul.

Originally published in The Intercept on January 26, 2018.
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With more than a million people headed to the Twin Cities over the next 10 days for the Super Bowl, local corporations, St. Paul school district officials, and civic leaders are bracing for what may be a public relations nightmare: the first teachers strike in St. Paul in over 70 years.

The St. Paul Federation of Teachers, nine months into its contract negotiation, authorized a strike vote for January 31. The move comes amid the union’s unconventional strategy of linking declining school funding to corporate tax cuts and narrowing in on local companies on the Super Bowl Host Committee as a potential source of funding for the cash-strapped school system.

The argument the teachers are making in their contract negotiations is straightforward. Cuts, they say, are not the answer. The school district’s financial situation can never really improve until corporations start paying their fair share. In particular, teachers are focusing on the companies that make up the founding sponsors of the Super Bowl Host Committee – companies the union says have avoided paying $300 million in state income taxes over the last five years alone.

The companies say they have made up for some of that with donations, but the generosity has limits. According to a public records request filed by the teachers union, only seven of the 25 Super Bowl Host Committee founding partners donated to the St. Paul public school district last year – for a total of $1.1 million. All 25 companies, by contrast, paid $1.5 million to be founding Super Bowl partners.

Nick Faber, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, stressed that the 3,700 educators in his union do not want to go strike. What they do want, he said, is to see the school district commit to supporting changes to the state tax code, under which corporations have enjoyed massive breaks in recent decades.

Last March, the St. Paul Public Schools announced that it faced a $27 million budget deficit, necessitating staff and program cuts to a district that had already been slashing art, music, and gym, with nurses, librarians, and social workers in short supply. It’s a familiar, vicious cycle – the state reduces its funding for public schools, which also lose revenue when students leave for charters, and districts suffer even more cuts and budget strain.

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December 2017 report: SACKED: How Corporations on the Super Bowl Host Committee Left Minnesota’s Public Schools Underfunded and Under Attack.
Chart: St. Paul Federation of Teachers

The wealthiest Minnesotans have seen their taxes decline over the last four decades. Back in 1977, they paid 18 percent in state income taxes. Over the next 36 years, the legislature reduced that top rate to 7.85 percent. In 2013, the state legislature bumped it back up to 9.5 percent, a move strongly opposed by the state’s influential business leader coalition. With the decline in income taxes has come a drop in real per-pupil state aid, which remains “significantly below” what districts received in 2003. While some of the major local corporations make voluntary philanthropic donations to public schools, the teachers union says those contributions have never come close to the amount the businesses have saved in reduced taxes.

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Chart: North Star Policy Institute

To try and shift the conversation around public education, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers has been highlighting tax havens, loopholes, corporate subsidies, and executive compensation. For example, in a report it published in December, the union noted that 3M – a technology company headquartered in St. Paul – holds $1.4 billion in offshore tax havens, including in places like Hong Kong, Panama, and Switzerland. Likewise, the union said, UnitedHealth keeps over $700 million in overseas havens like Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, citing a 2017 report by the Institution on Taxation and Economic Policy.

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December 2017 report: SACKED: How Corporations on the Super Bowl Host Committee Left Minnesota’s Public Schools Underfunded and Under Attack.
 Chart: St. Paul Federation of Teachers

Kathryn Wegner, an education studies professor at Carleton College and a parent of a student who attends Groveland Park Elementary in St. Paul, has been active in supporting the union’s efforts to highlight corporate tax avoidance. She has joined teachers for rallies outside of banks downtown and been educating other families and community groups about the fiscal situation.

“At my kid’s school, we lost the kindergarten teacher aides, then a librarian, then the music teacher, and our four kindergarten classes went down to three, bumping up class sizes,” she told The Intercept. “Parents are getting upset and wondering how to make sense of it, and understanding the historical context around corporate tax rates has been really useful to grasp the disinvestment.”

The teachers union has been asking corporate leaders to meet with them since October, and finally last week, they had the chance to sit down with representatives from EcoLab and U.S. Bank. At those meetings, the union asked for the companies’ partnership in pressuring state lawmakers to adequately support public education – specifically the state’s unfunded special education mandates.

“They said no,” said Faber. “The only way the state could really close the gaps would be to tax them more.”

U.S Bank did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.

Mesa Denny, an Ecolab spokesperson, told The Intercept that the company does not consider the situation “to be a dispute,” and it is “merely trying to correct the inaccurate and untrue information” promulgated by the teachers union.

“Ecolab believes that strong public schools are vital to a healthy community, and that’s why we have supported the St. Paul Public School System for more than 30 years,” Denny said. “Over the last five years, the Ecolab Foundation has provided more than $3.6 million to the St. Paul Public Schools, supporting strategic imperatives outlined by the school district leadership. Given that we are headquartered in St. Paul and many of our headquarters employees live in St. Paul, we are happy to devote our foundation dollars to these efforts.”

But those donations, Faber said, are not enough to bridge the school funding gap that was created in part by tax cuts. “Given how much school funding has declined, philanthropy just can’t have a real transformative change when we’re so underfunded on a basic level,” he said. “We can’t just accept little grants from corporations; we have to start thinking differently.”

The teachers want the school district to join them in pressuring local corporations to pay more. So far, they say, district officials have refused. Laurin Cathey, human resources director for St. Paul Public Schools, did not return The Intercept’s request for comment.

To address the budget deficit, the school district has proposed that teachers agree to applying to “Q Comp” – a voluntary state program established in 2005 that theoretically could bring up to $9 million to St. Paul schools. But even if St. Paul did apply, the state already distributes all the money it has allocated for the program, so no money would flow to St. Paul unless the legislature decided to appropriate more money. And even if the state did bump up funding, 22 Minnesota charter schools and school districts are ahead of St. Paul in line for the money.

Tyler Livingston, acting director of school support at the Minnesota Department of Education, told The Intercept that St. Paul would not be allowed to jump ahead of the other districts waiting for money if it applied for Q Comp. “The law says explicitly that applications are treated in the order they’re received,” he said.

The union says it is not holding its breath that the state will increase Q Comp funding, especially not during an election year. “The money just isn’t there,” said Faber, “and even if it were, Minneapolis is a Q Comp district and they have a budget shortfall about the same as ours or greater, so obviously Q Comp isn’t going to really address this problem.”

In addition to corporations, the union wants to see wealthy nonprofits, like local colleges and hospitals, pay their fair share in taxes. According to St. Paul’s mayor, a third of the city’s properties are exempt from property tax.

One option is to establish a so-called Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT, program – something that exists in more than 200 cities, towns, school districts, and counties across 28 states. PILOTs are essentially initiatives to induce tax-exempt institutions to make voluntary payments to the cities in which they’re based. A civic task force formed last year to explore the idea and released a report in September, emphasizing that PILOTs “cannot – and should not – be viewed as a ‘solution’ to St. Paul’s significant budget gaps or long-term financial challenges.” A representative from Citizens League, the Twin Cities public policy group that published the report, did not return a request for comment.

“It’s really frustrating to our members that while HealthPartners” — a local health care provider and insurance company — “avoids taxes and doesn’t want to talk to us about PILOTs, they’re charging us through the roof for our health insurance,” said Faber.

The potential upcoming teachers strike would be the first since 1946, when the St. Paul Federation of Teachers went on strike for six weeks – the first organized teachers strike in U.S. history. The union also voted to strike in 1989, but ended up reaching a last-minute agreement that mooted the strike.

The St. Paul teachers union is considered among the most progressive teacher locals in the nation. Since 2013, it has joined with other progressive unions to organize under the banner of “Bargaining for the Common Good.” Inspired by the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012, unions like St. Paul’s have taken a different approach to their contract negotiations, partnering with local organizations to bring a wider range of community-oriented demands to the bargaining table.

Last spring, the union released a report to evaluate how much progress it had made toward reaching the goals it set for itself in 2013. While highlighting some real accomplishments — including reducing student-teacher ratios for low-income students and expanding full-day pre-K programming — the SPFT acknowledged that without more sources of revenue, it would be impossible to really tackle its agenda.

The report helped form the demands the union has since been pushing for in its contract negotiations. The union’s very first proposal is in line with its pre-Super Bowl campaign: a commitment from the school district to push major local corporations and nonprofits to increase revenue for St. Paul Public Schools and support “changes in state tax policy to make these contributions sustainable over time.”

“We’re hoping to see some movement from the school district so we don’t have to take the next step,” said Faber, meaning the strike. Faber says the district can continue to accept corporate charity, but it needs to push them to also “be better neighbors.”

That’s a very different kind of pressure, he said, “and that’s hard work, but I don’t think we have any other choice.”

Under Trump, Liberals Rediscover School Segregation

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 11, 2017.
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At the American Federation of Teachers’ biannual TEACH conference in July, union president Randi Weingarten gave a provocative speech about school choice, privatization, and Donald Trump’s secretary of education. “Betsy DeVos is a public school denier, denying the good in our public schools and their foundational place in our democracy,” Weingarten declared. “Her record back in Michigan, and now in Washington, makes it clear that she is the most anti–public education secretary of education ever.”

But it was Weingarten’s remarks about choice and segregation that ultimately drew the most fire: She highlighted politicians who had used school choice as a way to resist integration following Brown v. Board of Education; she argued that the use of private school vouchers increases racial and economic segregation; and she emphasized that privatization, “coupled with disinvestment, are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation.”

Her speech came on the heels of a new Center for American Progress report, entitled “The Racist Origins of Private School Vouchers,” which presented similar historical arguments. CAP and the AFT—liberal institutions that sparred over education reform during the Obama years—held a joint event on the report the week before, emphasizing that voucher programs generally benefit the most advantaged students, lead to increasingly economically segregated schools, and divert needed resources from public education. With Trump in the White House, teachers unions and the influential liberal think tank have apparently found some common ground.

The backlash from conservatives and education reformers was swift and fierce. TheWall Street Journal editorial board argued that Weingarten’s speech demonstrated that she “recognizes that the public-school monopoly her union backs is now under siege, morally and politically, for its failure to educate children, especially minority children.” Rick Hess, the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, called CAP’s report “misguided, misleading and historically inaccurate.” And Peter Cunningham, who runs an education reform advocacy group, wrote in response that Weingarten was just projecting the flaws of traditional public schools and unions onto her opponents.

While many of these critics have long championed dismantling much of the public sector, there is something conspicuous about American liberalism’s newfound focus on school segregation.

Though CAP and teachers unions regularly speak about educational “equity,” it’s no secret that neither have been very vocal about school segregation in the past few decades. CAP, which strongly touted charter schools during the Obama years, had nary a word to say then about charters’ impact on racial and economic isolation. Even now, as CAP takes a new outspoken stand on private school choice and segregation, it has stayed silent on the segregative risks of chartering.

The relationship between teachers unions and desegregation efforts has been complicated, too.

In some respects, teachers unions served as leaders for the pro-integration liberal establishment during the years following Brown v. Board. Historian Jonna Pereillo traces these dynamics in her book Uncivil Rights. Teachers unions joined forces with civil rights activists to push for integrated schools, reduced class sizes, increased health and social services, and improved school facilities. Charles Cogen, who served as the president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers between 1960 and 1964, and then as AFT president from 1964 to 1968, took strong stances in support of rezoning and school integration. Pereillo notes that Cogen pushed his union “to fight the tendency of many Northern liberals to see both sides of the integration debate,” emphasizing that liberal teachers should “stand by a forthright and consistent decision” to push for integrated schools. The UFT’s highest ranking black officer, Richard Parrish, also filed an amicus curiae in the Brown caseand the AFT later expelled some Southern locals that refused to cooperate with the Supreme Court’s decision.

But while unions backed efforts to integrate and equalize public schools, they generally opposed initiatives that would have required transferring educators into schools they didn’t want to work in. Focused on the unequal work environments between black and white schools, unions argued that to transfer teachers against their will would represent yet another example of teachers’ lack of agency over their professional lives.

Put differently, the AFT and its affiliates played an important role pushing for integration, but when teachers were asked to make the same sacrifices as bused students, unions pushed back, firmly asserting that working conditions in black schools would have to be improved first.

By the late 1960s, many black parents grew increasingly frustrated with the teachers unions’ stance—one they felt was cowardly and racist, and an excuse to avoid serving their children. Many also grew increasingly disillusioned that public schools would ever actually integrate, and, as part of an ideological and strategic shift away from integration to black power, they began pushing for greater decision-making power over their local segregated schools, including who should be allowed to teach, and what subjects educators should be allowed to teach. Teachers, in turn, balked at having their job requirements dictated to them by non-educators, internalizing it as yet another sign that they lacked agency over their professional lives.

And as the teachers-union movement grew—UFT membership, for instance, soared 66 percent between 1965 and 1968—thousands of the newer members proved to be more conservative in political orientation. “Unionists who had once enacted progressive social and political works through their unions now found themselves at odds with a growing number of new members who wanted little to do with civil rights projects,” Pereillo writes about the period.

In the 1970s and 1980s, court decisions that mandated busing for integrational purposes became an explosive issue for many white parents of school-age children. In such presumably liberal bastions as Boston and Los Angeles, busing opponents won elections to school boards and other public offices, at times shifting public discourse and policy well to the right, and not only on education issues. The fierce political opposition to so-called “forced busing” led much of the liberal community, including teachers unions, to turn its attention, resources, and political capital elsewhere. Activists within the African-American community also began to focus less on integration and more on issues such as funding disparities and school discipline. While school desegregation had always been controversial, the busing backlash transformed it into a third-rail issue.

But beginning in 2014, issues of racial justice began to re-enter liberal rhetoric in a more overt way. Following a wave of high-profile police shootings and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the public started to grapple more openly with the legacies and realities of American racism. Teachers unions were not immune to this reckoning.

In the summer of 2015, at the National Education Association’s annual meeting, members voted on a historic new resolution to fight institutional racism, which they defined as “the societal patterns and practices that have the net effect of imposing oppressive conditions and denying rights, opportunity and equality based on race.” That same summer, the AFT formed its own Task Force on Racial Equity to outline how the union could move schools away from zero-tolerance policies, reform discipline practices, and create more supportive environments for young black men.

Yet despite powerful new cases against segregation from a diverse set of thinkers—including writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and researchers like Raj Chetty—neither the AFT nor the NEA had yet to tackle segregation head on, even with their increased focus on issues of race and discrimination. And elsewhere in the liberal community, fears of provoking more white backlash in a nation where white nationalism was on the rise put a damper still on discussions of desegregation.

This tension was illustrated last summer, at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, when I had the opportunity to interview NEA President Lily Garciaabout her views on education policy.

Rachel Cohen: There’s been a renewed national discussion around school integration since the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education two years ago. School segregation was notably absent from the Democratic Party’s K–12 platform. Why isn’t school segregation getting more attention, and do you think the NEA could play a bigger role in pushing desegregation forward?

Lily Garcia: If you take a look at the most highly segregated schools, if you’re looking at all Latino kids, or all African American kids, then you’re mostly looking at charter schools. Poor communities usually end up being described as “poor, minority” communities. Why do those words go together? Why do those two adjectives have to describe the same communities? You can’t just treat the school. You have to treat the entire community. You have to treat poverty.

Integrating schools will not cure the poverty that affects those students. What they’ve done to integrate schools in some places where I’ve been is that they’ve closed down the school in the black neighborhood, and put those kids on a bus, and shipped them for an hour to the white school. They usually broke up the community so that you wouldn’t have a majority-minority school. We’ve seen [integration] done so poorly. What we really want to focus on is equity.

Cohen: Do you draw a distinction between the movement to integrate schools and equity?

Garcia: When you talk about school integration, there’s so much more than let’s just have black, brown, and white children sit together in the same classroom. You can do that simply by assigning kids to different schools. But why are there deep pockets of poverty where black and brown children live? You have to be talking about the roots of what’s going on.

Garcia’s responses were emblematic of the union’s fraught position. They expressed an obvious concern with questions of racial justice, broadly defined, but a resistance to engaging the specific, narrower question of racial segregation. Indeed, Garcia’s criticism of busing, and especially her dismissal of integration as “hav[ing] black, brown, and white children sit together in the same classroom,” might strike civil rights advocates as akin to the talking points deployed by conservative defenders of segregation. This language is not unusual in certain education reform circles, but less common coming from a more progressive organization. And while AFT President Randi Weingarten had spoken more supportively about integration efforts than her NEA counterpart, she too had avoided directly answering questions about her union’s role in addressing segregation, and acknowledged that busing opposition has made integration advocacy difficult. As recently as last year, almost no one in the liberal establishment seemed inclined to tackle school segregation head on

Until now.

There is no question that the election of Donald Trump and his appointment of Betsy DeVos to lead the Department of Education has created a new political landscape for liberal organizations, including on the issue of school integration. The attacks on the Trump administration’s school choice agenda as segregationist have both reflected and led to a wave of liberal concern over segregation.

Over the past six months, the focus of liberals’ education policies has changed. DeVos was rightly skewered in February when she praised leaders of historically black colleges and universities for being the “real pioneers of school choice,” failing to recognize that HBCUs were created as a response to unabashed racial discrimination. Critics seized upon this blunder as evidence that the school choice movement does not care about or understand segregation.

Liberals and teachers unions have also jumped at the opportunity to assail school privatization as racist, a perspective many had long believed but far fewer had verbalized. Now, when attacking DeVos’s enthusiasm for tax credit scholarships and private school vouchers, progressives point to Trump’s support for such racist policies as immigrant deportations and police brutality; his administration’s enthusiasm for vouchers and charters, they say, must be understood as yet another extension of the president’s discriminatory agenda.

“Racism is unfortunately and undeniably part of the context through which policy proposals emerging from this administration must be considered,” wrote Catherine Brown, CAP’s vice president of education policy.

The Century Foundation, another influential liberal think tank, published research in March that emphasized the risks that private school vouchers pose for integration efforts. (CAP and the AFT relied on this research when crafting their recent talking points on school choice.) Century Foundation senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg wrote in The Atlantic that policies to promote school integration took “a significant hit” from the Trump administration when it recently killed a $12 million grant program to support local districts boosting socioeconomic diversity.

While these critiques are overdue and welcome, the timing sometimes seems politically convenient. For instance, the grant program Kahlenberg lamented was only months old at its time of death, established in the final days of Obama’s eight-year presidency. Prior to that, his administration by and large refused to promote desegregation in the bulk of its major education initiatives. In some instances, Obama’s education team even incentivized policies that exacerbated racial and economic isolation, in part by treating competitive grant applicants who served segregated populations more favorably than those targeting diverse ones.

Many liberal institutions have modified their rhetoric on issues of segregation since Donald Trump came to power, but some still only invoke it when referring to vouchers. CAP and the Century Foundation, for example, have directed their focus on the segregative effects of vouchers, but much less so on charters.

Political tribalism plays a role here.There was great pressure, both explicitly and implicitly, for progressive organizations to defer to the charter-friendly agenda of the Obama administration. And it’s simply easier for labor to politically oppose Trump and DeVos than to fight Obama and Arne Duncan (Obama’s education secretary), even when the latter could be relatively cold to teachers unions (and they to him).

But now, with Trump in office, the NEA has adopted its first new policy position on charter schools since 2001—and it’s far more harsh than its old one. Among other things, the new policy blasts charters for helping to create “separate and unequal education systems” that harm communities of color, language that clearly harkens back to the Brown decision. The AFT has long been more generally critical of charters than the NEA, in part because charters are more heavily concentrated in cities where AFT locals dominate. But now with Trump, the AFT has also begun incorporating sharper critiques of segregation into its criticism of school choice. (The latest comes this week in a Dissent article by Leo Casey, the executive director of the AFT’s Albert Shanker Institute.)

A longtime NEA staffer has noticed “a real uptick in interest” in discussions of segregation at union headquarters over the last year. For a very long time, the staffer said, unions have been influenced by the same political climate that affected other liberal institutions, viewing many earlier desegregation efforts as either abject failures or politically toxic. In recent years, though, as the union-friendly Economic Policy Institute has published more and more on the harm caused by racial and economic segregation, the NEA staffer says they can tell it’s having an impact internally within their union. “Having an organization like EPI, with its stature in the labor movement, focusing on this issue really does change the dynamics,” the staffer said. While for decades progressives have looked at desegregation as a political dead end, the calculus—at least in some ways—appears to be changing.

If unions and think tanks are recent arrivals to the reinvigorated movement to promote school integration, they’re still ahead of much of the country, and civil rights advocates will surely welcome their help. But they may also have an opportunity to learn from organizations that have been fighting these battles far longer. Notable among these is the NAACP, which has long focused on the intersections of school choice and racial segregation. Partly due to concerns about segregation, the organization approved resolutions in 2010 and 2014 raising issues about charter schools. This was followed by a resolution in 2016 calling for a moratorium on new charters until more research could be done, and last month the civil rights group published a new report outlining policy improvements they plan to push for in the charter sector going forward. The NAACP’s campaign against segregation more broadly has been central to its mission since its founding over a century ago.

It’s important to recognize the complicated factors that bring groups to the 21st century’s burgeoning civil rights movement, because right-wing critics will certainly not hesitate to cry hypocrisy or opportunism. But there’s opportunity here too: opportunity for labor and policy organizations to develop a stronger commitment to school integration, learning from the experience of civil rights veterans; and opportunity for those veterans, who need allies now more than ever, to hold newly vocal advocates accountable for long-professed commitments to integration and justice. Political coalitions are always imperfect at their start, but that’s never meant a powerful movement couldn’t be forged from them in the end.

 

Public Education under Trump

Originally published in The American Prospect winter 2017 issue.
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On November 8, 2016, the man who vowed to be “the nation’s biggest cheerleader for school choice” won the presidential contest. About two weeks later he announced that Betsy DeVos, a billionaire Republican donor who has aggressively lobbied for private-school vouchers, online education, and for-profit charter schools, would serve as his education secretary. In early December, Jeb Bush told an audience of more than 1,000 education reformers in Washington, D.C., that he hoped “there’s an earthquake” in the next few years with respect to education funding and policy. “Be big, be bold, or go home,” he urged the crowd.

To say education conservatives are ecstatic about their new political opportunities would be an understatement. With Republicans controlling the House and Senate, a politically savvy conservative ideologue leading the federal education department, a vice president who earned notoriety in his home state for expanding vouchers, charters, and battling teacher unions, not to mention a president-elect who initially asked creationist Jerry Falwell Jr. to head up his Department of Education, the stars have aligned for market-driven education advocates.

Donald Trump neither prioritized education on the campaign trail, nor unveiled detailed policy proposals, but the ideas he did put forth, in addition to his selection of Betsy DeVos, make clear where public education may be headed on his watch. And with a GOP Congress freed from a Democratic presidential veto, conservative lawmakers have already begun eyeing new legislation that just a few months ago seemed like political pipedreams.

Many aspects of education policy are handled at the state and local level, of course, but Republicans will govern in 33 states, and Trump will have substantial latitude to influence their agenda. The next few years may well bring about radical change to education.

School Choice

“President-elect Trump is going to be the best thing that ever happened for school choice and the charter school movement,” former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has proclaimed. “Donald is going to create incentives that promote and open more charter schools. It’s a priority.”

Giuliani’s comments reflect the enthusiasm that Trump expressed about choice and charters while campaigning for president. During a March primary debate, Trump said charters were “terrific” and affirmed they “work and they work very well.” A few months later he traveled to a low-performing for-profit charter school in Cleveland to say he’d invest $20 billion in federal money to expand charters and private-school vouchers as president. His campaign has not outlined where the money would come from, but suggests it will be accomplished by “reprioritizing existing federal dollars.”

Trump’s ambitions will likely be aided by his vice president-elect, Mike Pence, who worked vigorously to expand charter schools and vouchers while serving as Indiana’s governor. Pence loosened the eligibility requirements for students to obtain vouchers, and eliminated the cap on voucher recipients. Today, more than 30,000 Indiana students—including middle-class students—attend private and parochial schools with public funds, making it the largest single voucher program in the country. Pence also helped double the number of charter schools in his state; he increased their funding and gave charter operators access to low-interest state loans for facilities.

In the House and Senate, Republicans are eager to expand Washington, D.C.’s private-school voucher program, which has paid for about 6,500 students to attend mostly religious schools since the program launched in 2004. “I think [the Republican Congress and new administration] could eventually turn D.C. into an all-choice district like we see in New Orleans,” says Lindsey Burke, an education policy analyst at the right-leaning Heritage Foundation.

Congress also allocates $333 million per year to the federal charter school program, and groups like the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools are calling for that number to rise to $1 billion annually. Martin West, an education policy professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, noted that to the extent the federal charter school program is well funded, states will continue to feel pressure to position themselves competitively for those dollars.

Conservative leaders at the state level are also looking to expand private-school vouchers and so-called education savings accounts, which are voucher-esque subsidies that can go toward expenses like tutoring and homeschooling, in addition to private-school tuition. At the Washington conference where Jeb Bush keynoted, panelists spoke enthusiastically about setting up vouchers or education savings accounts in all 50 states. On the campaign trail, Trump called for expanding private-school vouchers for low-income students, but his vice president-elect and his nominee for education secretary both support giving vouchers to middle-class families, too.

Congressional Republicans may also try to establish federal tax-savings accounts for K–12, which are similar to the 529 plans that already exist for higher education, and which mainly benefit well-off families. They also may push for federal tax credit scholarships, which would provide tax relief to individuals and businesses that help low-income children pay for private school.

In a sense, the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations softened the ground for a federally incentivized expansion of vouchers and other forms of privatization. In the bipartisan deal that led to the enactment of No Child Left Behind in 2002, Bush and Democrats led by Senator Edward Kennedy traded federal standards for more federal funding. The subtext was the Republican narrative that public schools were failing. This in turn led to the era of standardized testing and punitive measures against “failing” schools. Later, by appointing former Chicago Public Schools Superintendent Arne Duncan to lead the Education Department, and passing over such progressive reformers as Linda Darling-Hammond, Obama sided with those who sought measures like the nationalization of academic standards. The new backlash from conservatives against testing and the Common Core should not be interpreted as a rejection of a federal role. The right loves it when Washington intervenes—if it serves the right’s purposes.

The Department of Education

Trump has boasted that he would reduce the size of the federal government, and his DeVos-led Department of Education is one likely place he’ll start. Though threatening to dismantle that federal agency is a long-standing Republican tradition, surrogates say it is more likely that Trump will try and “starve” the department, and downsize its responsibilities, rather than kill it outright.

In October, Carl P. Paladino, a New York real-estate developer who was briefly considered for education secretary, took to the stage on Trump’s behalf at a national urban education conference and said the department’s Office for Civil Rights—which oversees initiatives like tackling college sexual assault and reforming school discipline—was spewing “absolute nonsense.”

Obama’s Education Department has given unprecedented attention to reducing racial disparities in school discipline, issuing the first set of national guidelines in 2014 and making clear that it would hold districts accountable for discriminatory practices. Policy experts think these efforts will fall quickly by the wayside in the coming years.

In a press conference following Trump’s victory, David Cleary, the chief of staff for Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said his boss believes the Office for Civil Rights should be reined in. “There will be aggressive oversight from Congress to make sure it shrinks back to its statutory authority and responsibilities,” Cleary said.

Another major threat to the Education Department is a significant loss of institutional knowledge. Politico reported that the agency is already experiencing a loss of morale since the election, and bracing for a serious brain drain: Many veteran employees who have served for decades, in addition to younger staff who entered government under Obama, are considering leaving because they don’t want to work for a President Trump.

Common Core

One crowd-pleasing element of candidate Trump’s stump speech was his promise to “kill” Common Core—the standards launched in 2009 that lay out what all K–12 students are expected to learn in English and math. The standards, which were created by a coalition of state governors, and incentivized by the Obama administration through the federal Race to the Top program, have been a flashpoint for conservatives, who see them as a threat to “local control.” Trump vowed to eliminate Common Core through the so-called School Choice and Education Opportunity Act—part of the legislative agenda he says he’ll focus on during his first 100 days. DeVos now stresses that she does not support Common Core, although an organization she founded—the Great Lakes Education Project, which she also funded and served as a board member for—strongly backed the standards in 2013.

While there are limits to what Trump and DeVos could do to end the Common Core standards (they are state standards, after all), Trump’s executive bully pulpit could certainly help embolden Common Core opponents on the local level.

Still, Catherine Brown, vice president of education policy at the Center for American Progress, is not so worried about the future of the national education standards. “I don’t even think Donald Trump knows what the Common Core is,” she says. And despite candidate Trump’s demagoguery, Brown points out that states haven’t really abandoned them, even in more conservative parts of the country. “To the extent that states have changed their standards, they basically renamed them and kept the basic content,” she says.

Teachers Unions

This past year, public-sector unions faced an existential threat from Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a Supreme Court case seeking to overturn a 40-year-old ruling that required public employees represented by a union to pay fees to cover the union’s bargaining and representation costs, even if they do not pay full membership dues. Five of the nine justices were clearly primed to rule against the so-called “agency fees” and upend decades of legal precedent, but Justice Antonin Scalia unexpectedly died in February, before the Court could rule. The case ended up in a 4–4 tie, leaving the law, and collective bargaining, in place.

Now that the Republican Senate has refused to hold a vote on Obama’s appointment of Judge Merrick Garland, Trump will nominate a conservative Scalia successor to the Court. With a number of Friedrichs look-alike cases headed to the Supreme Court, it’s a near certainty that a reconstituted majority of five conservative justices will strike down agency fees, which could considerably reduce the resources available to the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—two of the nation’s largest unions. Were that not trouble enough, the massive support that the AFT and NEA gave to Hillary Clinton’s campaign is not likely to endear them to a president with a well-known penchant for revenge.

Every Student Succeeds Act

At the end of 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the successor to the controversial Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act, which tied federal funding to school performance. The new law is set to take full effect during the 2017–2018 school year. While there was broad recognition that ESSA marked a positive step forward from the test-and-punish regime that had reigned for 13 years under No Child Left Behind, a diverse coalition of civil-rights groups has worried that its replacement, which substantially reduced the federal government’s role in public education, will not do enough to hold states accountable for the success of racial minorities, students with disabilities, and English language–learners. “The hard-learned lesson of the civil rights community over decades has shown that a strong federal role is crucial to protecting the interests of educationally underserved students,” wrote the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in a letter to Capitol Hill during the ESSA negotiations.

For the past year, the Obama administration worked to draft regulations that would help maintain some level of federal accountability for student learning and funding equity, particularly for disadvantaged students. These executive-level regulations, which have been controversial among congressional Republicans, are likely to be abandoned, or weakened, under President Trump.

One policy that congressional Republicans might push for under a President Trump is known as “Title I portability,” which would allow states to use federal dollars earmarked for low-income students to follow students to the public or private school of their choice. While still a candidate, Trump brought in Rob Goad, a senior adviser to Representative Luke Messer, an Indiana Republican, to help him flesh out some school-choice ideas. Messer co-sponsored a bill during the ESSA negotiations that would have launched Title I portability, but Obama threatened to veto any version of the law that contained it. A White House report issued in 2015 said that Title I portability would direct significant amounts of federal aid away from high-poverty districts toward low-poverty ones, impacting such districts as Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia particularly hard. Conservatives may see a more politically viable route to push this policy under Trump.

Brown of the Center for American Progress doesn’t think Congress will likely pursue Title I portability, however, in part because it has a lot of other legislative priorities to attend to. “The ink is barely dry on ESSA; states haven’t yet submitted their plans. I think [portability] is probably dead on arrival, but maybe six years from now,” she says. Even then, Brown thinks the policy will never be all that popular, since huge swaths of the country lack many school options, making them poor candidates for private-school vouchers.

But other education experts say that the lack of brick-and-mortar schools in rural communities just means that the door could open more widely for for-profit virtual schools, which DeVos has strongly supported. In 2006, Richard DeVos, her husband, disclosed that he was an investor in K12 Inc., a national for-profit virtual charter school company that has since gone public. As of mid-December, Betsy DeVos had not clarified whether her family still holds a financial stake in the for-profit education sector.

Higher Education

Trump, who founded the now defunct for-profit college Trump University, recently agreed to pay $25 million to settle a series of lawsuits alleging fraud. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociologist at Temple University who studies college affordability, predicts America will be “open for business” under President Trump when it comes to promoting for-profit colleges. “This means cutting regulation and oversight, and defunding public higher education so that students view for-profits as a good deal,” she wrote on her blog following the election. The Higher Education Act, which governs the administration of federal student aid programs, is also up for reauthorization in 2017.

Trump didn’t devote much time while campaigning to talking about colleges and universities, but he did say in an October speech that he’d look to address college affordability by supporting income-based repayment plans, going against many Republicans who say such initiatives are fiscally reckless and create incentives to acquire too much higher education. Conservatives have also proposed rolling back Obama administration reforms that federalized all new student loans and applied stricter regulations, particularly to for-profit institutions. If President Trump does ultimately re-privatize student loans, consumer protections would likely disappear, and the cost of borrowing would rise.

University leaders are also worrying about what a Trump administration could mean for research funding. The government is likely to cut back on investments on budgetary grounds, but also on ideological grounds, since universities tend to be seen as liberal enclaves. Experts say that non-ideological scientific research is particularly vulnerable. House Republicans, led by Representative Lamar Smith, who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, have tried before to cut federal funding for social sciences and climate and energy research, and having a president who refers to global warming as a hoax “created by and for the Chinese” doesn’t augur well for federal research investments.

Moreover, as the president-elect frequently rails about political correctness, higher education leaders worry that a Trump administration will not look kindly on student free speech and protest. Ben Carson, who was briefly considered for Trump’s education secretary, said that if he were in control he would repurpose the department to monitor colleges and universities for “extreme bias” and deny federal funding to those judged to have it. Decrying alleged campus bias is a staple of “alt-right” (read: white nationalist) media outlets like Breitbart, whose chief, Steve Bannon, will be Trump’s strategic adviser and senior counselor.

The Path Forward for Progressives

For a week following the election, it wasn’t clear how exactly the liberal groups that backed Obama’s education reform agenda—Common Core standards, test-based accountability, and charter schools—would respond to their new choice-friendly president. The fact that the school reform agenda has long had bipartisan backing has always been one of its strongest political assets.

As pundits tried to guess whom Trump would pick for various cabinet-level positions, rumors started to float that Trump might be eyeing Michelle Rhee, the controversial former D.C. Public Schools chancellor, or Eva Moskowitz, the founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools in New York City, for education secretary. Both women back the Common Core standards, and are broadly revered among Democratic school reformers.

But on November 17, just over a week after the election, the president of Democrats for Education Reform, Shavar Jeffries, issued a strongly worded statement urging Democrats to refuse to accept an appointment to be Trump’s secretary of education. “In so doing, that individual would become an agent for an agenda that both contradicts progressive values and threatens grave harm to our nation’s most vulnerable kids,” Jeffries said. He condemned Trump for his plans to eliminate accountability standards, to cut Title I funding, to reduce support for social services, and for giving “tacit and express endorsement” to racial, ethnic, religious, and gender stereotypes, and he called on the president-elect to disavow his past statements.

Shortly thereafter, Moskowitz announced that she would “not be entertaining any prospective opportunities” in the administration, but defended the president-elect, saying there are “many positive signs” that President Trump will be different than candidate Trump. His daughter, Ivanka Trump, took a tour of a Success Academy charter in Harlem later that week. Rhee, following a meeting with Trump a few days later, issued a statement saying she would not pursue a job in Trump’s administration but that “[w]ishing for his failure” would amount to “wanting the failure of our millions of American children who desperately need a better education.”

The equivocating didn’t end there. Democrats for Education Reform soon walked back their original declaration of opposition to Trump. In a statement sent to the group’s supporters, Jeffries wrote that DFER was not saying Democrats should not work with Trump on education, but just that no Democrat should work for him as secretary of education. “[W]e draw a distinction between working with and working for Trump,” Jeffries wrote. “Where appropriate, we will work with the Administration to pursue policies that expand opportunity for kids, and we will vocally oppose rhetoric or policies that undermine those opportunities.”

In a political climate where teachers-union strength may dramatically diminish, opposition to Trump’s agenda from liberals who supported Obama’s education reforms could be an important deterrent to Trump’s rightward march on education. But with DFER already signaling that it’s open to working with Trump, with high-profile reformers like Moskowitz and Rhee also giving him a public nod of approval, and since some of the same billionaires who fund the charter school movement also back the president-elect, the chances aren’t great that Democratic education reformers will staunchly oppose Trump’s school reform agenda.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is under no illusions about the enormous challenges that loom for the future of public education. Yet she notes that over the past half-decade, educators and their unions have worked with their communities like never before. “If Donald Trump opts for privatization, destabilization, and austerity over supporting public education and the will of the people,” she says, “well, there will be a huge fight.”

The complicated history of America’s first ‘union-backed’ charter authorizer

Originally published in MinnPost on December 21, 2016.
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Despite its name, the Community School of Excellence in St. Paul has not distinguished itself with excellence. Instead, the Hmong-focused charter has become one of Minnesota’s most scandal-ridden schools. Battles between teachers and the administration have been common, with educators repeatedly reporting threats and retaliatory behavior. And since 2012, the school has been found not only to have suppressed multiple reports of suspected child abuse at the urging of its controversial superintendent, but also to have misdirected federal funds for subsidized student lunches — even after receiving a hefty fine for the practice.

Nor has the Community School of Excellence excelled academically. Since its inception, the school has produced poor test score results. In 2016, just a third of its students met state reading standards.

Yet these troubles have not prevented the school’s rapid expansion. When it opened in 2007, the CSE had 176 students; today, it’s one of the largest charter schools in Minnesota, with nearly 1,000 kids enrolled.

After a state investigation and reams of bad publicity — within just a few years the school had been investigated by the FBI, the Minnesota Department of Education, the federal Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, local law enforcement, and the National Labor Relations Board — the powers-that-be had had enough. When efforts to jettison the school’s superintendent failed, the school’s legal backer abandoned it altogether, a move that could have effectively shuttered the flailing charter.

Instead, something else happened. The Community School of Excellence was bailed out — just hours before it would have been closed permanently — by an unlikely savior: The Minnesota Guild of Public Charter Schools, a nonprofit created by the local teachers union and funded in part by its national parent, the American Federation of Teachers.

A unique law

To understand what a union-backed group was doing rescuing a notorious charter school — and why that was so unusual — you have to dive into the little-noticed world of charter authorizing.

Charters aren’t unregulated, of course, but their monitoring system isn’t well understood, either. Across the country, charter schools are generally overseen by another organization: most often a public school district, but it could also be anything from a university to a state commission. This third party — called an authorizer — grants a charter the right to exist, and in turn, takes over much of the work of ensuring that the school complies with relevant laws and regulations. Authorizers are also tasked with monitoring schools’ academic performance. In theory, if a charter strays too far from the straight and narrow, authorizers are expected to shut it down.

Minnesota, long regarded as a leader in education reform, virtually invented the authorizer system when it opened up the nation’s very first charter school 25 years ago. By the early aughts, however, state officials recognized that they had accumulated an awfully high number of charter authorizers (then referred to as “sponsors”) that were not taking their oversight responsibilities very seriously, a situation that enabled some charter leaders to seek out especially lax authorizers.

In response, in 2009, legislators decided to increase the responsibilities assigned to Minnesota authorizers. When all was said and done, the reforms reduced the number of authorizers in the state from 51 to 13, and education reform advocates took the dramatic drop as an encouraging sign: an indication that bad actors were weeded out, or at least those not serious enough about monitoring school quality.

Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, says Minnesota’s 2009 reforms were “certainly the most rigorous form of accountability for authorizers that has occurred anywhere in the country, then and today.”

But at the same time that Minnesota cracked down on negligent charter authorizers, state officials opened a new can of worms. Within the same 2009 legislation, lawmakers created what are known as “single-purpose charter authorizers” — unique nonprofits that exist nowhere else in the United States. Only two states, Ohio and Minnesota, currently have nonprofits authorizing charter schools, but these have traditionally been pre-existing entities like universities or social-service organizations.

A “single-purpose charter authorizer” was a new idea: a nonprofit that exists only to open, close, and monitor charters. The thinking was that such an organization could devote all its attention to diligently overseeing charters, thus boosting education quality more broadly.

An unusual alliance

Today, the Minnesota Guild is one of four single-purpose authorizers in the state, though that’s not the only reason it’s unusual. To see why, it’s important to know that teacher unions and charter schools have long had a fraught relationship. Most charter teachers are at-will employees, and the more students that charters attract, the less union jobs are likely to exist at traditional public schools.

And while a growing number of charter school teachers have received support from the labor movement to organize at their schools, teacher unions still generally lobby to limit charter expansion, pointing to negative fiscal impacts they have on traditional public schools, among other things.

The idea for the Minnesota Guild came from Lynn Nordgren and Louise Sundin, two former presidents of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, the AFT’s local affiliate. In 2010, they applied for an AFT Innovation Fund grant, money for local unions in pursuit of creative projects. Nordgren and Sundin proposed creating an authorizer that would open schools “in the spirit of Albert Shanker” — the former AFT president who originally propelled charter schools onto the national stage.

Shanker envisioned charters as small, independent schools, where teachers could experiment with new ideas, and bring the most successful ones back into traditional public schools.

At the time, Sundin and Nordgren said their plan would elevate teacher voices and secure unions a seat at the education reform table. An AFT press release called the Guild “a bold and unprecedented opportunity for teachers to approve charters.” Writing in the Star Tribune, Nordgren said it would “approve new, high-quality schools” and ensure that teachers “are respected and have a voice.” Arguing that unions want and need to be part of the charter school conversation, Nordgren stressed the Guild would “accelerate the oft-delayed process of opening schools that aim to close the achievement gap.”

In late 2011, the Guild was officially approved as a single-purpose charter authorizer, the new type of overseer the State of Minnesota had approved two years before. In its formal application to the state, the Guild pledged to open 35 charters during its first five years. 

A complicated relationship

It didn’t work out that way. The Guild was slow to get started, and two years in it had zero schools in its portfolio. Now, though, the Guild is opening new charters and taking over existing charters at a much more rapid clip. It is now the authorizer for 11 charter schools, five of which came under its control this fall. Eleven more are in the pipeline, and the organization says it’s still committed to its original plan of authorizing a total of 35 schools.

Though one might expect a union-backed authorizer to oversee a bunch of unionized charters, especially given its public comments at the time of its inception, that’s not the case. The Community School of Excellence is actually the only Guild charter school to have a union, and it was organized in 2014, two years before coming under the Guild’s auspices.

That made more sense after talking to Brad Blue, who has served as the Guild’s director since its inception. Blue is an eclectic figure: He’s played professional hockey, owns a farm, holds a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence — and, as it turns out, isn’t really so jazzed about unions. In fact, he goes to great lengths to emphasize how neutral he is on the subject. “We don’t work directly, or even indirectly, with unions, or locals,” he said. “We’re neutral about that — we’re neither for unions, nor against. It’s a school’s decision.”

Over the years, many have wondered if the Guild represents a subversive attempt to unionize charters. After all, one of its unique aspects is that it requires employers to stay neutral if teachers decide to launch an organizing drive. But Blue flatly rejects that notion. “How many Guild schools are even unionized?” Blue says. “Only one, and they just transferred in July. For us it’s a really moot point.”

For the past five years, the AFT has given the Guild roughly $500,000 in total grants. But when AFT representatives were asked if they thought it was an issue that so few of the Guild’s schools were unionized, officials said they weren’t worried, noting that charter teachers overseen by the Guild are well positioned to move forward with union campaigns. “There’s no way to wave the wand and make a union happen,” says Mary Cathryn Ricker, the AFT’s executive vice president. “There were no hard deadlines [for organizing unions]. It was more aspirational.”

Ricker also seemed unconcerned about Blue’s remarks regarding unions at the Guild’s schools. “The Guild has to approach authorizing with integrity,” she says. “If you look at the original purpose of the Guild, and the authorizing agreement, there is an effort to deliberately recognize the rights of workers to organize in their workplace. At the same time, the Guild cannot both authorize and organize them. At the end of the day, the organizing itself is our responsibility as current union members.”

Given the unprecedented nature of an authorizer like The Minnesota Guild, I asked Greg Richmond, the president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, if he thought it would violate authorizer norms if the Guild were openly pro-union. “I think it’s more than fine. It’s even good,” Richmond answered, noting that one of the benefits of having multiple charter authorizers in a state is precisely so they can encourage different types of schools.

Locally, the Guild has gained notoriety among traditional public school teachers, many of whom consider the schools it authorizes to be in direct competition with their own schools. Robert Panning-Miller, a 25-year veteran teacher of the Minneapolis public schools and a former MFT president, says there was absolutely no debate or discussion among rank-and-file members about whether their union should back a charter authorizer.

“The first time I learned our union planned to authorize charter schools was when Lynn Nordgren announced it in the Star Tribune,” echoes Valerie Olsen-Rittler, a high school social studies teacher who has been working in Minneapolis for 27 years. She now serves on the MFT executive board, and tries to find ways to protest the Guild’s activities.

Panning-Miller, Olsen-Rittler, and several others I spoke with told me emphatically that their local union has not invested time in organizing the Guild’s charter schools. The current president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, Michelle Wiese, did not return multiple requests for comment.

For the Guild’s first several years of existence, the MFT provided the group office space, free of charge. “Those of us who are MFT members had no say in the creation of the Guild, and now we continue to subsidize our own demise,” Panning-Miller wrote in the winter of 2015. (The MFT voted to have the Guild leave its building before the start of the 2015-16 school year.)

Some members have also raised concerns about potential conflicts of interests between the Guild and the union. For a while, Lynn Nordgren was both the MFT’s president and a Minnesota Guild board member. Louise Sundin still serves as the MFT’s lobbyist in addition to being a Guild board member. Panning-Miller has floated the idea of taking legal action, saying that a union leader supporting the creation of nonunion schools should be seen as a violation of their fiduciary obligations.

From the ‘spirit of Albert Shanker’ to ‘financial pragmatism’

In theory, single-purpose authorizers are supposed to be better able to devote their attention to regulating and monitoring the charter schools under their purview. As Nordgren wrote when the Guild was founded, “In order to receive this approval, the Guild had to meet very high standards, established in Minnesota in 2009, that require authorizers to adhere to national standards for charter school oversight and quality.”

Yet unlike traditional nonprofit organizations that authorize charters, single-purpose authorizers are limited in their ability to fundraise. Aside from grants, they can only raise revenue from authorizing fees, which are paid by the schools being authorized on a per-student basis. In other words, if a single-purpose charter authorizer closes down a school, or turns down an authorizer-seeking charter school, it would be directly harming its own bottom line.

Blue, for one, has been upfront about the reason for the Guild’s ambitious goal of overseeing 35 charter schools: financial pragmatism. “We need to build a portfolio of schools that’s substantial enough for our expenses,” he says.

Blue says those expenses currently include office space, contractors to help review charter applications and monitor schools, an employee who manages the Guild’s projects and portfolio, and a web-based tool for authorizers, Epicenter. Those expenses also include Blue’s salary. In 2013 — before the Guild authorized any schools — he took home $110,000 in compensation from the organization, 72 percent of the Guild’s overall expenses that year. In 2014, the organization raised his pay to $128,000.

Yet Blue’s responsibilities with the Guild have not prevented him from serving in other positions in the charter sector. In 2013, in addition to serving as the Guild’s director, he founded a St. Paul charter school, where he was paid $33,000 in 2014. Tax forms also stated that Blue worked 40-hours per week for each organization. (The school, Upper Mississippi Academy, is not authorized by the Guild.) He has since left that school to found another charter, which will open in the fall of 2017.

“I’m a Canadian, I’m a social welfare guy at heart. I’m also a capitalist, which is why I live in America,” Blue tells me.

Performance issues

Often lost in the Guild’s complicated history is a fundamental question: How are its schools actually doing?

Five years ago, the union insisted the venture would enable it to open up high-performing charters that help close the achievement gap. Or as Nordgren wrote in the Star Tribune: “The Guild will ensure applicants’ proposals include a clear mission, detailed curriculum, high student achievement benchmarks, healthy governance and sound finances.”

In its drive to add schools to its portfolio, however, the Guild has become the authorizer of some of the worst achieving charters in Minnesota. Take the Augsburg Fairview Academy, a charter school that opened in 2005, and that the Guild added to its portfolio this past summer. According to state data, just 5 percent of the school’s students tested proficiently in math in 2016. Or College Prep Elementary, where just 17 percent of students met state reading standards, compared to 60 percent statewide. The state found 26 percent of College Prep Elementary students were on track for math success this past year, down from nearly 50 percent in 2012. Or Lincoln International High School, where just 2.7 percent of students met math standards in 2016, and 6 percent met reading standards.

And while it’s possible that these schools will improve under the Guild’s stewardship, the odds are against it. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers discourages authorizers from taking over low-performing charters, as there’s very little evidence to suggest that new authorizers can turn them around. In fact, such takeovers tend to help poor charters avoid closure and accountability, the very thing single-purpose authorizers were designed to curtail when the law was passed seven years ago.

If the Guild meets its goal of opening 35 charter schools, it would become one of the largest authorizers in the state, though there does remain one possible obstacle. Every five years, Minnesota officials are required to review the performance of charter authorizers, and the state’s evaluation of the Guild is set to be issued by the end of January.

It’s highly unlikely that the Guild won’t pass that evaluation, given the way those reviews are conducted. So far, most authorizers have passed, even if they receive low scores on important metrics, like their criteria for opening or closing a school.

And with each new school that it authorizes, the Guild becomes less financially dependent on the AFT; its most recent grant from the union was for just $50,000, as the Guild now earns sufficient revenue on its own through authorizing fees.

The irony underlying the country’s first “union-backed” charter authorizer is that it soon may not be backed by, or accountable to, any union at all.

Rethinking School Discipline

Originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of The American Prospect

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On a Friday morning in early September, all the middle school students at Hampstead Hill Academy, a pre-K–8 school in Baltimore, filed into the gym. The Ravens were playing on Sunday, which meant that students could take a day off from wearing their navy-blue collared uniforms if they wanted to dress in purple in support of the city’s football team.

The roughly 240 students sat on the gym floor, forming a big circle. Each week, all sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders come together for this half-hour event—to formally recognize the good deeds of their peers and teachers, to offer apologies to those they had wronged, and to share upcoming personal announcements. Matthew Cobb, an eighth-grade science teacher, helped facilitate the morning’s community circle. Encouraging students to make eye contact with one another and to project their voices, it was an exercise in public speaking as much as it was in relationship-building.

Matthew Hornbeck, the school’s principal, has been leading Hampstead Hill for 14 years. For the past nine, he and his staff have actively incorporated “restorative justice” into their school’s culture, a model that involves holding structured conversations to facilitate relationships and reconciliation. While Hampstead Hill still has suspensions and detentions, Hornbeck says restorative justice has dramatically reduced the need for them. Hampstead Hill holds school-wide circles, class-wide circles, and when someone misbehaves, teachers hold circles that include the offending student, the victim, and anyone else who may have been affected. “It’s not a silver bullet, it’s not going to save the world, but it’s a huge piece of the puzzle and I think principals would be crazy not to check it out and take it seriously,” Hornbeck says. “It’s not a fad.”

Every teacher at Hampstead Hill is required to lead at least three class-wide circles per week. These don’t take very long, perhaps 10 to 12 minutes, but the idea is to regularly create the space for students to share their feelings, ask each other questions, and build trust.

Later that Friday morning, Mr. Cobb led a restorative circle for the 20 students in his science class. The day’s question was a silly one: Would you eat a worm sandwich if you could meet your favorite TV star or musician? One by one, each student went around the room and answered the question. “No way,” Nyya told her classmates. “It would depend on how much time I’d have with the stars, but I would probably do it if I could meet the Dolan twins,” said Hannah. Taras said he’d eat a worm sandwich if Drake were waiting for him at the end.

“I would eat a worm sandwich to meet who, class?” Mr. Cobb asked his students.

“Beyoncé!!!!” they all yelled back, laughing.

IN THE ERA OF BLACK LIVES MATTER, the movement that has spotlighted racist policies afflicting black Americans, a new national focus on school discipline disparities has taken hold. Activists point to staggering statistics—for instance, that the number of high school students suspended or expelled over the course of a school year increased roughly 40 percent between 1972 and 2009, while the racial disciplinary gaps also widened. During the 2013–2014 school year, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights reported that black students were 3.8 times more likely than white students to receive an out-of-school suspension. Similar disparities held true even for black preschoolers. Advocates have pressured school officials and policy-makers to end these suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests, which they say push too many students into the criminal justice system—a process commonly referred to as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Many districts have responded to the calls for change. By the 2015–2016 school year, 23 of the 100 largest school districts in the United States had implemented policy reforms requiring limits to the use of suspension and/or the implementation of non-punitive approaches to discipline, according to Matthew Steinberg, an education researcher and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Some cities have banned certain types of suspensions, while others have reduced the length of suspensions, or curtailed the types of penalties students could receive for lower-level offenses.

When it comes to exemplary models of discipline reform, Hampstead Hill stands tall. Yet the racially integrated public charter is rather unusual in its ability to devote meaningful resources to implementing restorative justice. The school employs a full-time psychologist, social worker, guidance counselor, family therapist, and a director of restorative practice. Many cash-strapped schools have none of these, but are still being asked to revamp their policies, and fast.

Much of the liberal and education establishment has thrown its weight behind school discipline reform. In February, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton took the stage in Harlem to discuss societal barriers facing African Americans—among them, the school-to-prison pipeline.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in police involvement in school discipline, especially in schools with majority-black students,” she declared. “We’re seeing an over-reliance on suspensions and expulsions.” Investments in school districts, Clinton said, will help leaders reform their school discipline practices. She pledged to commit $2 billion to the effort, and promised to push the Office of Civil Rights to intervene if schools and states refuse to change their ways.

Five months after Clinton’s Harlem speech, the Democratic Party platform adopted at its convention included language to end the school-to-prison pipeline, and to oppose discipline policies that disproportionately affect students of color and students with disabilities. Embraced by the highest echelons of Democratic politics, the battle against the school-to-prison pipeline has traveled a long way since researchers first coined the term back in 2003.

But challenges remain for progressive reformers. Research has well established that removing students from class has negative impacts on their academic achievement, and there’s broad recognition that suspensions and expulsions do very little on their own to address the underlying issues that cause most students to misbehave. However, good evidence on potential alternatives is fairly thin, and the linkages between school discipline and the criminal justice system are also less clear than advocates tend to acknowledge. While there’s a lot of energy to move forward, to do something about the glaring racial inequities, this same pressure threatens to produce policy change that could inadvertently hurt other students, teachers, and schools. Tackling such deep structural inequities as segregation and resource allocation is likely necessary to really address school discipline disparities—lest we face yet another instance of educators being asked to throw local solutions at systemic problems.

LONG BEFORE HILLARY CLINTON gave her speech on the school-to-prison pipeline, activists, lawyers, and researchers were figuring out how to raise public awareness about the harms of punitive school discipline.

“It’s been incredible to hear the Democratic candidate speak specifically about the school-to-prison pipeline. That really didn’t just come out of the year; it was through a movement that has been built over the past decade and a half,” says Judith Browne Dianis, the executive director of Advancement Project, a civil-rights group.

Critics describe the school-to-prison pipeline as the policies and practices that push American public school students—particularly students of color and students with disabilities—out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The American Civil Liberties Union says the pipeline begins with overcrowded classrooms, unqualified teachers, and a dearth of funding and supports like school counselors and special education resources.

Advocates point to “zero tolerance” policies—which automatically impose predetermined punishments for certain types of student misconduct—as another major factor contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. Judith Kafka, an education historian and author of The History of “Zero Tolerance” in American Public Schooling, traces the phrase “zero tolerance” back to a U.S. Customs Service antidrug program from the 1980s, which was soon adopted by states and districts for school discipline. The idea was elevated into federal law in 1994, when Bill Clinton signed the Gun-Free Schools Act, requiring schools to expel for one year any student found with a gun. Since 1994, most jurisdictions have passed additional zero-tolerance policies that extend well beyond those mandated by federal law.

By 1997, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that 94 percent of all schools had zero-tolerance policies for weapons or firearms, 87 percent had them for alcohol, and 79 percent had them for tobacco. Critics say that these nondiscretionary policies are regularly used in response to low-level, nonviolent student misconduct. And the greater the number of suspended and expelled students there are, they say, the greater the likelihood there is that unsupervised young people will engage in negative behaviors, leading them ultimately to the criminal justice system.

The school-to-prison pipeline is also linked to the growth of police assigned to work in schools—known euphemistically as “school resource officers.”According to the Vera Institute of Justice, a research and policy nonprofit, between the 1996–1997 and 2007–2008 school years, the number of public high schools with full-time law enforcement and security guards tripled. Advocates say this has yielded an increase in school-based arrests, many of them for nonviolent offenses.

Monique Dixon, deputy director of policy at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, ideally wants to see no police in schools, because they’re too often used to handle disciplinary problems traditionally managed by school administrators. But, Dixon says, if they are going to be in schools, then they should be evaluated annually on their effectiveness, based on clear data on who is getting arrested, the reasons why, and what available alternatives could have been used. One analysis of federal data revealed that more than 70 percent of students involved in school-based arrests or referred to law enforcement in 2010 were black or Hispanic.

More than four decades of research has shown that black students are suspended at two to three times the rate of white students. These disparities have been consistently found in all sorts of studies, across and within school districts.

In 2008, an American Psychological Association task force released a literature review on zero tolerance, concluding that not only do such practices fail to make schools safer or improve student behavior, but they also actually increase the likelihood that students will act out in the future.

“In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a sense that our schools were becoming more violent,” says Russell Skiba, a long-time researcher on school discipline issues, and the lead author of the American Psychological Association report. “A careful examination of the data, though, showed there never really was an increase in youth violence in schools. But it made for a good sound bite for policy-makers to say we’d be tough on school crime.” When better data emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Skiba says it became clear that zero tolerance was ineffective.

After the release of the American Psychological Association’s report, along with the advent of scandalous news stories featuring students expelled for infractions like bringing nail clippers to school, more focus was directed at finding alternatives to zero tolerance. Citing districts like Oakland and Indianapolis, which have revised their codes of conduct to emphasize more preventative approaches to school discipline, Skiba says there’s been tremendous interest in reforming punitive policies over the past three years.

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Restorative Circle at Hampstead Hill Academy | Photo Credit: Rachel Cohen

THE 2014-2015 SCHOOL YEAR marked the first time white students no longer comprised a majority of the nation’s public school students. And after Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice were killed by police officers in 2014, followed by subsequent police killings in 2015 and 2016, an increasing number of activists and political leaders began drawing connections between the disproportionate discipline black youth face in school and the unequal treatment of black adults by law enforcement.

This national focus on racism prompted attention from teachers unions, too. In the summer of 2015, the National Education Association passed a resolution committing the nation’s largest labor union to fighting institutional racism. The NEA pledged to provide support for programs that end the school-to-prison pipeline, and expand professional development opportunities that emphasize “cultural competence, diversity, and social justice.”

The American Federation of Teachers also took action following the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, forming a Racial Equity Task Force to outline how the union could move schools away from zero-tolerance policies, reform discipline practices, and create more supportive environments for youth, especially young black men.

Individual districts prioritizing school discipline reform, like Denver and Baltimore, also began to attract national attention. In 2007, Baltimore hired a new school CEO, Andres Alonso, who worked to overhaul the district’s discipline policies. He scaled back the scope of offenses that could warrant out-of-school suspensions and expanded the number of non-punitive discipline measures to keep kids in class. The results were dramatic: During the 2009–2010 school year, Baltimore issued fewer than 10,000 suspensions, a decrease of more than 50 percent from 2004.

The federal government took notice. In 2014, then–Education Secretary Arne Duncan and then–Attorney General Eric Holder came to Baltimore to unveil the first-ever set of national school discipline guidelines, calling on districts to “rethink” their policies. The joint guidance from the U.S. Justice and Education departments instructed schools nationwide to examine their discipline data and to end racial disparities.

The government’s rethink was also informed by a key report, the “Breaking Schools’ Rules” study, released in 2011 by the Council of State Governments and Texas A&M University. This study tracked school records for all Texas seventh-graders in 2000, 2001, and 2002, and analyzed each student’s grades for at least a six-year period, comparing this information to the state juvenile justice database.

“That particular study made it crystal clear, it gave a clear vision of what the school-to-prison pipeline really looked like,” a Department of Education official says. “It made clear that when a child is suspended or expelled from school, their risk of involvement with the juvenile justice system goes up, as does their likelihood of dropping out of school, and repeating a year.”

The discipline policy shifts by a range of governments have yielded real change: In 2014, California became the first state in the nation to ban “willful defiance” suspensions for its youngest students—a category of misconduct that includes refusing to remove a hat, to wear the school uniform, or to turn off a cell phone. Consequently, the number of California students suspended at least once during the 2014–2015 school year declined by 12.8 percent from the previous year. Similarly, in Chicago, out-of-school suspensions fell by 65 percent between the 2012–2013 and 2014–2015 school years after the district revised its policies, while New York City, after a policy shift, issued 31 percent fewer suspensions in the first half of the 2015–2016 school year than it did in 2014.

In July 2015, the White House convened a “Rethink Discipline” conference, highlighting progress made by the school districts of Oakland, Los Angeles, Broward County (Florida), and others. This past June, Education Secretary John King went to the National Charter Schools Conference in Nashville to urge charter school leaders to “rethink” their discipline policies. And this September, the Departments of Justice and Education released the first-ever federal guidance for districts that employ school police officers.

In terms of concrete alternatives, advocates point to models that focus on improving relationships within the school building. Supporters of these approaches—that have names like “Social and Emotional Learning” and “Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports”—say that teaching students positive social skills can help prevent or eliminate such risky behaviors as drug use, violence, bullying, and dropping out.

Another popular reform, backed by teachers unions and civil-rights groups, aims to train educators on ways to overcome any racial biases they may harbor. Many worry that middle-class white educators in particular lack the cultural understanding that could help them work more compassionately with poor black and brown students.

The last major alternative is restorative justice, the kind of climate-based improvement program that Matthew Hornbeck has been building in his school over the past nine years. The amount of high-quality research on the effectiveness of restorative justice is limited, but academics at the Johns Hopkins School of Education are currently engaged in a rigorous evaluation of schools implementing the model. Cities aren’t waiting around, though: From Chicago to Los Angeles to New York City, many districts have already moved to implement restorative justice pilot programs.

Kathy Evans, an education professor at Eastern Mennonite University, helped start the nation’s first graduate program focused on training teachers to use restorative justice. “It’s not just that I think restorative justice is more effective, it’s that I think suspensions and expulsions hurt a lot of kids,” she says. “They experience suspensions or expulsions not as a deterrent, but as just one more message that ‘You’re not worthy,’ ‘You’re not important,’ and ‘You don’t matter.’”

“I think reform really comes down to leadership, and how well we’ve managed to get information in the hands of leaders that are willing to take on this challenge,” a Department of Education official told me. “And it is a challenge. You have had educators who for so many years may not have been trained to manage classrooms without the use of exclusionary discipline, and have become reliant on their ability to send children out of the classroom.”

BUT EVEN AS DISTRICTS TURN away from the harsh disciplinary policies of recent decades, few studies exist on alternative approaches. This is partly because so many reforms are only just emerging, and it will take time for academics to evaluate their impacts. However, some researchers also question how much we can really conclude based on the studies we currently have.

There is, for instance, little evidence that black students and white students within the same school receive different kinds of school discipline. In 2011, Josh Kinsler, an education economist at the University of Georgia, ran a study that looked at roughly 500,000 students across 1,000 elementary, middle, and high schools in North Carolina. He found that within schools, black and white students were treated similarly, but that student disciplinary outcomes varied significantly across schools.

Another recent study released by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research echoes some of these findings: Researchers found that the specific Chicago public school students attended was a much stronger predictor of whether they would be suspended or expelled than any individual student characteristic, including race or gender. Chicago schools with high rates of suspensions and expulsions served extremely vulnerable, segregated populations, while those with low levels of exclusionary discipline did not.

There are also limitations to the “Breaking Schools’ Rules” study, which produced correlational, not causal, findings. “The Texas study … would fail the Department of Education’s own research evaluation tool,” says Kinsler, referring to a rubric for high-quality research by the Institute of Education Sciences.

Nevertheless, the immediate challenge for school leaders is figuring out how to balance the harm a disruptive student would face from losing more class time with their responsibility to effectively teach the rest of the class. We already know that those students who arrive at school with the most serious challenges, those who need the most instructional support, are also among those who are most likely to be suspended.

Academics with the Civil Rights Project at UCLA say that softening disciplinary practices would be minimal and manageable, and that resolving unequal discipline is necessary to reduce the racial achievement gap. They point to the Denver Public Schools, a district that has made concerted efforts to reduce suspensions and expulsions. Researchers found that at the same time that Denver’s punitive discipline went down, the district showed “a steady and substantial increase” in the percentage of students scoring proficient or higher in nearly every subject for six consecutive years. Another recent study found that the impact of Chicago shortening the length of suspensions for more serious misconduct from ten days to five did not seriously disrupt or harm other students.

“We summarily reject this narrative that if you just identify the kids that don’t deserve to be in school then everyone else is going to thrive,” says Kesi Foster, a coordinator with the Urban Youth Collaborative, a youth-led group focused on the school-to-prison pipeline in New York City. “Communities thrive when [people] see that everyone in the community is valued and supported. This theory that some people are disposable is what has led to mass incarceration and continues to ensnare young black people.”

ROBUST AGREEMENT IN FAVOR of exploring less-punitive disciplinary measures has not prevented the emergence of controversy, however, especially as elected officials and districts move to implement broad policy changes quickly.

When the federal government released its school discipline guidelines at the start of 2014, the American Federation of Teachers praised the effort, but warned that new policies would succeed only if additional resources were made available.

It’s been difficult for teachers like Kimberly Colbert, an English teacher in Saint Paul, who feels passionate about social justice and reducing exclusionary discipline. Colbert has taught for 21 years, and has helped lead her local union to push for reductions in suspensions and expulsions. In their recent round of collective bargaining, her union negotiated increased funding for restorative justice pilots. “We’re looking at racism, we’re calling it out, and we’re trying to interrupt it,” she says.

Colbert remains hopeful about change, but also worried that the expectation to fix everything will fall, as usual, on the shoulders of under-supported teachers. She notes that not every public school has a librarian or a school nurse, and Minnesota has one of the highest student-to-counselor ratios in the United States. Last year, a series of violent school incidents in Saint Paul served as harsh reminders of the daunting challenges that persist. In October, a student showed up to one Saint Paul high school with a loaded handgun in his backpack. Two months later, a student at Colbert’s own school slammed a teacher against a concrete wall, choked him unconscious, and ultimately gave him a traumatic brain injury. A few months later, at a third Saint Paul school, two students assaulted a teacher, punching him in the face, and throwing him to the ground.

“It was really difficult for everybody,” recalls Colbert. “We don’t want to see our colleagues hurt, we don’t want to be hurt, and at the same time we understand that we have students who get angry and have needs.”

These concerns extend beyond Saint Paul. Several years into various efforts across the country to scale back suspensions and expulsions, more and more teachers are saying they feel they are being put in untenable situations.

In 2013, the teachers unions in California initially opposed the statewide “willful defiance” suspension ban, which many felt went too far in limiting teachers’ discretion. “Some legislators don’t understand, they haven’t been in the environment, so when they say let’s eliminate all suspensions and expulsions, we’ve had to work to make sure the teacher still has authority in the classroom,” says Jeff Freitas, the secretary treasurer for the California Federation of Teachers. “And we need doctors, mental-health specialists—you’re going to take away this [disciplinary] tool without providing strategies? That’s been our struggle.”

Teachers aren’t the only ones worried about losing their discretion. Mark Cannizzaro, the executive vice president for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union representing New York City principals, says that while the renewed focus on school discipline has been very welcome, his members worry about the degree to which school leaders are losing their authority. He cites a new rule the city’s education department implemented last year, requiring principals to seek permission to suspend students for infractions related to “defying the lawful authority of school personnel.” Local political leaders are also considering a citywide ban on suspensions for students in kindergarten through second grade. Both Cannizzaro’s union and the New York City teachers union have raised objections to this proposal.

“The school leader is the person who knows the community, knows the circumstances, and that person is in the best position to make that discipline call,” says Cannizzarro. “You can’t legislate every type of social interaction into a code of conduct. We agree that suspensions should be extremely rare, but there are cases where something egregious happens, and there are often few other tools in a principal’s toolkit.”

Kenneth Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a school safety consulting firm, says the push to ban all suspensions is just zero tolerance by another name.

“Suffice to say that suspending and expelling students from school certainly is not a real solution to the underlying negative behaviors and problems of individual students,” he says. “That said, there are very legitimate cases when student misconduct poses a serious threat to other students and even the student demonstrating the unsafe behaviors.”

Trump also thinks the public should be more critical of districts that tout dramatic drops in school suspensions. “Have school officials reduced negative behaviors or have they just reduced their discipline numbers? Rarely does behavior change overnight, nor do even the most successful programs have dramatic drops of 30, 50, or greater percent in one year,” he says.

Reports have been surfacing of teachers who say they feel they can’t discipline out-of-control students because their district wants to “keep their numbers down.” Relatedly, many educators are saying they feel unsupported, and even unsafe, as they try to keep up with new school discipline policies.

Los Angeles was the first city in California to ban suspensions for “willful defiance” and was also hailed for its commitment to roll out restorative justice pilots. But last fall, the Los Angeles Times reported that teachers at only about a third of the district’s 900 campuses had been trained in restorative justice, and that the district was failing to budget sufficient funds for its implementation. The report cited one Los Angeles middle school where teachers felt overwhelmed by their inability to respond to students who pushed, threatened, and cursed at them. Two teachers took leaves of absence as a result.

Change always brings resistance, but finding ways to sustain support from teachers and school administrators will matter greatly moving forward. That means figuring out how to engage local stakeholders so they don’t feel that a series of unfunded mandates are descending upon them.

One challenge will be to find the dollars necessary to invest in non-punitive policies and practices. To be sure, as some advocates point out, when districts need to expand the number of school police officers or implement expensive testing programs, somehow there seems to be far less anguish scraping up the funds. Redirecting school budget line items to better reflect progressive priorities will no doubt be a critical aspect of discipline reform.

But to truly overcome racial disproportionality in school discipline, leaders will need to do more than just shuffle local dollars around. It will require more than just sending individual teachers to anti-racism trainings. Important though those things are, the evidence suggests that systemic problems like the concentration of racially and economically segregated schools must also be addressed if the real, if narrower, issue of racial school discipline disparities is to be resolved.

California’s Ed Reform Wars

Originally published in The American Prospect on August 2nd, 2016.
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This past April, the California Court of Appeals unanimously struck down the controversial Vergara v. California decision, in which a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled that five longstanding teacher protections—including a two-year probationary period for new teachers and a layoff system based on how many years one’s been teaching—violated students’ constitutional right to an equal education. The lower court judge had argued that these labor protections make it harder to fire bad teachers, and bad teachers significantly undermine a child’s education. In a 3-0 decision, the appellate judges concluded that the labor protections themselves are not responsible for harming students, even if school administrators sometimes implement them injudiciously.

Students Matter, a nonprofit backed by Silicon Valley entrepreneur David Welch that’s representing the Vergara plaintiffs, has filed an appeal to California’s Supreme Court. Their supporters argue that children pay the price for such job protections as teacher tenure and seniority. They also point to research that suggests making it easier to fire teachers has positive effects on student achievement. Critics counter that the real problems students face—particularly low-income students of color—are not teacher job protections, but their under-resourced, highly segregated schools that fail to attract and retain high-quality educators. At a time when states like California face real teacher shortages, they say, the focus on firing teachers is misplaced at best.

Since the lower court’s Vergara ruling two years ago, similar suits challenging teacher job protections have been filed in New York and Minnesota.

While David Welch and his allies remain committed to waging legal battles against tenure, seniority, and other job protections, they are also pushing for statutory changes via the California legislature. Following the original Vergara decision, Republican lawmakers introduced a package of three bills to extend the time it would take a teacher to earn tenure, to repeal the “last-in, first-out” statute that makes layoff decisions based on seniority, and to establish an annual teacher evaluation system. These bills, however, got nowhere in the Democratic-controlled statehouse.

“I think the Vergara decision helped increase public demand for improvements in our education system, but I always think it’s better when we can make policy changes through the legislature rather than the court system,” says Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, the Republican who sponsored the teacher evaluation bill.

Back during the original Vergara trial, unions and some education experts also argued against making policy changes through the courts. A spokesperson for the California Teachers Association told The Wall Street Journal that legislators were already looking at ways to amend the contested laws, and Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said that extending the time it takes to get tenure in California is a legitimate idea, but that such changes should be done through the political process, not the judiciary.

Today, however, local unions are fighting back against attempts to change employment laws through the legislature. California is one of just five states that grants teachers tenure after two years—32 states require a three-year probationary period, and nine states require four or five years. And, as critics are quick to point out, the reality is that California administrators must file paperwork for tenure status after a teacher has been working for just 15 to 18 months if they’re to meet state deadlines. Even those who are very supportive of teacher tenure feel lengthening the amount of time it takes to earn it makes sense. Before granting genuine job security, they say, make sure it’s for an individual you’d really want in front of students for the long haul.

But the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers have both strongly opposed bills aimed at modifying tenure, even legislation from which their adversaries have withdrawn support. While the final outcome of the Vergara case remains to be seen, the unions’ firm stance against reform could help prompt tenure opponents to mount an initiative campaign—a routine occurrence in California politics. That may not bode well for the unions: A 2015 poll of registered California voters found that most respondents think teachers in their state receive tenure too quickly, and that seniority should count less during the layoff process. If changes to tenure and seniority were to come before the voters, there are decent odds that such a measure would pass.

The concept of teacher tenure in American public education, as Dana Goldstein documents in her book The Teacher Wars, was an idea originally imported from Germany. Progressive-era reformers saw that giving teachers more job security was often a good way to incentivize people to join the low-paid profession. Tenure also made it harder to fire teachers, which consequently made it more difficult for the urban political machines that then dominated cities to dole out teaching jobs as political favors.

Though teachers unions have existed in the U.S. for a long time, the idea of collective bargaining didn’t take off until the second half of the 20th century, as membership in teachers unions grew, and public sector unionism gained strength more broadly. The first teachers union to win collective bargaining rights was New York City’s United Federation of Teachers in 1963, and by the end of the 1970s, after a series of labor strikes across the country, 72 percent of public school teachers were covered under collective bargaining agreements.

As a result, teacher tenure in unionized school districts means being covered under a “just cause” provision in a collective bargaining agreement. In a non-unionized workplace, employees can be fired simply because an employer doesn’t like them. The added job security that comes with tenure means that a boss would need to legally demonstrate that firing their employee was justified—that there is “just cause” for the worker’s termination. Tenured employees also have the right to contest their firing.

Tenure critics rightly note that in many school districts, the process an administrator has to go through in order to dismiss a teacher for cause ends up being so lengthy and expensive that it can feel nearly impossible. In many cases, it’s easier, and a lot cheaper, to keep an ineffective teacher employed, rather than jump through the legal hoops to remove them. In New York City, officials who make failed attempts to terminate teachers often end up just issuing fines.

Union contracts generally distinguish between two kinds of dismissals. The first is termination for cause; for example, an administrator should be able to fire you if you’re an ineffective teacher or if you sexually harass a student. The second type of dismissal is through a layoff due to an economic circumstance—generally, cuts to school district budgets during recessions.

Many teacher tenure critics also want to end the process of “seniority”—which requires that districts make layoff decisions based on the number of years a teacher has been working. Opponents of these “last-in, first-out” statutes say that high-quality young teachers are penalized under this system, since their few years in the profession makes them more likely to be canned, regardless of their job performance. This also disproportionately hurts students in high-poverty schools, critics say, because young teachers are generally assigned to those schools.

Some states, including many that are substantially unionized, have already explicitly banned seniority when making layoff decisions, and others require teacher job performance to be the primary factor considered. Ten states—including New York and California—however, still require that the number of years a teacher has taught be a partial, or the primary factor for districts when making layoff decisions.

Defenders of seniority say that if you want to fire someone for poor performance, then do it for cause, not disguised through the layoff process. In effect, tenure and seniority work together to give employers the flexibility to lay people off when economic circumstances require it, but in a way that protects teachers from being arbitrarily targeted, or targeted because they were paid more than more junior faculty. Seniority-patterned layoffs exist specifically to protect the “just cause” rights.

“Until very recently, these rules were fairly uncontroversial,” says Leo Casey, the executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. “They prevented older, more expensive teachers from being discriminated against during lean economic times, and administrators often appreciated the simplicity of ‘last-in, first-out’, especially because there was no consensus on how to best evaluate teachers’ performance.”

In February, before the Vergara appeals court decision came down, California Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, a Democrat, introduced a bill aimed at finding some legislative common ground for the various employment statutes being challenged in court. While the three bills sponsored by Republicans in 2015 got nowhere, some believed an effort led by a Democrat might get more traction. Both the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers have donated to Bonilla’s campaigns.

Bonilla proposed, among other things, giving principals the option of waiting until a teacher’s third or fourth year to grant tenure, and placing poorly performing teachers in a program that would provide increased professional support. If the ineffective teacher received another low performance rating after a year in this program, Bonilla’s legislation would enable schools to fire the teacher through an expedited process. The LA Times editorial board said her bill would make the rules “more reasonable and practical, while preventing capricious or vindictive firings of teachers by school administrators.” Education reformers initially took no position on her bill, but following April’s Vergara appeals decision, Students Matter, the group that brought the case, decided to back it.

However, Bonilla still lacked support from school administrators and teachers unions, and the California Teachers Association was urging its members to fight her bill. EdSource, a nonprofit news site focused on education in California, reported that the union posted an “action alert” for teachers to call their lawmakers, labeling the proposed legislation “an all-out assault” by “corporate millionaires and special interests.”

In June, Bonilla introduced an amended version of her bill, one that would require new teachers to work for three years before becoming eligible for tenure. Her bill no longer included provisions to create a new teacher evaluation system, to require teachers with poor performance reviews to be laid off before those with less seniority, and to remove many of the dismissal rules that administrators found frustrating. In an interview with The American Prospect, Bonilla explained that she needed to narrow her legislation’s scope because that’s what the Senate Education Committee requested. “They are looking for policy change, but my original bill was too wide-ranging,” she says.

Despite being significantly watered-down, the bill was still opposed by the unions, while the education reform groups that originally offered support came out in strong opposition, too. However, the Association of California School Administrators and the California School Boards Association now came forward with endorsements of the amended legislation.

“In my opinion, I really needed administrators’ support. That’s why we took LIFO [last-in, first-out] completely out and worked with the superintendents and the school board association to craft a version they could back. They’re part of the education community, they really understand what needed to be changed,” says Bonilla. The Association of California School Administrators is listed as one of Bonilla’s top campaign contributors.

Students Matter called the amended bill “a bad deal for California students” and urged members of the California legislature to reject it.

“The reform groups wanted everything, and some wanted everything but only if it was written exactly by them,” says Bonilla. “They didn’t want to come on board if it didn’t come out of their house.” She says Students Matter, and another reform-oriented group, Teach Plus, withdrew their support when her legislation no longer addressed seniority.

“If I had to choose who I was going to go with, I’d choose the administrators, the people actually running the schools. That was my priority in terms of really getting sound policy,” says Bonilla.

The California Teachers Association called upon its members to organize against the amended bill, saying it would take rights away from educators, and negatively impact students.

On June 29, the California Senate Education Committee held a hearing,ultimately rejecting Bonilla’s amended bill. Just two of the committee’s nine senators voted in favor—and both are terming out in November. (Five opposed it, and two others didn’t vote.)

“I do feel that at least having the hearing on the bill, which went on for about an hour and a half, was really important,” says Bonilla, who is also leaving office in November. “I felt it was important, as a Democrat, that I stand up and say, we as legislators have an obligation to our constituencies to find a solution and not pretend that the status quo is alright, just because the union says it is.”

One senator to vote in favor of Bonilla’s bill was Carol Liu, the chairwoman of the education committee. Liu told Bonilla that she could amend her bill further over the July recess period if she wanted to try and get more support. Bonilla took Liu up on this and submitted a new version that does not extend the time it takes a new teacher to earn tenure. All Bonilla’s latest version does now is grant school districts the authority to negotiate an alternative dismissal process with their local bargaining units, if they so choose. Right now, under California state law, local bargaining units are prohibited from negotiating the terms of their dismissal process. In 2014, the teachers union in San Jose tried to do this, and asked the California state board of education for a waiver so they could extend their probationary period to three years. But the state board denied the San Jose school district and its union their request. (The California Teachers Association argued that such changes should only come from the state legislature, not through waivers.) Bonilla’s twice-watered-down bill, then, would make such a change.

As of August 1st, it was still unclear whether Bonilla’s new bill would receive a waiver and come up for a re-vote. The American Prospect was unsuccessful in getting an interview with the California Teachers Association, despite repeated attempts over several weeks.

I asked Josh Petchalt, the president of the California Federation of Teachers, why his union opposed Bonilla’s amended bill in June. Wasn’t a one-year extension of the probationary period a fairly good compromise?

Petchalt, though, does not think the tenure law needs to be changed, and believes changing it would not solve the underlying issue of how tenure is assessed. “I think all the commotion about making it three years or five years really misses the point about what it means to have a rigorous procedure for evaluating teachers,” says Petchalt, who taught high school for more than two decades. “I don’t think it takes very long to decide if an adult should be working with kids. I think it happens relatively quickly if that person is being observed on a regular basis by properly trained administrators who know what they’re doing.”

Some leading academics share Petchalt’s assessment. During the Vergara trials, Jesse Rothstein, an economics professor at UC Berkeley, testified that two years was long enough for principals and school administrators to determine whether or not to award tenure. He cited his own research, which suggests that granting tenure earlier, rather than later, is better for students. Rothstein also argued in favor of using seniority to handle layoffs, which he says is a less costly, subjective, and controversial method than using annual performance evaluations.

If Bonilla’s revised-again bill, which has been stripped of its probation provision, comes up for a revote, she says she really hopes there will be “three courageous legislators” who will vote for its passage. “Allowing a union to bargain locally is not an anti-union position,” Bonilla says.

If her amended bill does not pass, or even if it does, the education reformers may seek to place an initiative on the 2018 ballot. Bonilla says she’s heard that there already been some money raised to start that effort.

If such a measure is placed before voters, I asked Petchalt, wouldn’t it look bad to oppose a bill that wouldn’t end seniority, wouldn’t end tenure—just merely extend the probationary period to three years, which is how long it takes in most states anyway?

“I don’t doubt that the optics are not great, but our members spend a career in the classroom, they are committed to public education, to children, and so it’s not good enough to say well there’s an element of goodness in this specific bill if the overall effect would make things worse,” he says. Petchalt points to the Vergara trial, and the broader political effort to weaken teachers unions and collective bargaining. At a time when public sector workers are under attack, when public education is under attack, he says, his union feels compelled to fight back against “a broad narrative.”

“The teachers union supported No Child Left Behind and it got them nowhere,” Petchalt adds. “And they supported [NCLB] for exactly what you’re saying, they didn’t want to be seen as folding their arms and being opposed to everything. [Some union leaders] said if we support [NCLB], then they’ll stop their attacks. But it furthered the attacks, creating a dynamic that resulted in very bad things happening.”

Petchalt is probably right to suspect that even if his union and the CTA backed Bonilla’s bill, even if union leaders agreed to change the probationary period to three years, education reformers would be unlikely to stop fighting for more concessions. In Pennsylvania, where teachers are eligible for tenure after three years, reformers are pushing to extend it to five years, insisting that three years is too short. In this political climate, unions have decided that ceding no ground and putting forth alternatives is preferable to compromising and hoping the disputes get resolved.

Whether this is the most strategically savvy move, though, is unclear. A survey released in 2012 of 10,000 educators found that, on average, teachers felt it was reasonable to work 5.4 years before being evaluated for tenure. Another survey released in 2015, sponsored by the pro-reform group Teach Plus, found that 65 percent of California teachers think that a probationary period between three and five years makes sense for administrators making tenure decisions.

“In California, when legislators can’t come up with a solution, it ends up going on the ballot,” says Bonilla, who worries about lawmakers abdicating their responsibilities, and the electorate voting on issues they’re not well informed about. “We as legislators have to be the ones to demand that the reformers and the centrally-controlled unions be reasonable. There is no one else who is going to do it.”