Latest in Detroit Schools Tragedy: Possible Resolution on Teacher Pay for Days Worked

My husband’s aunt, who would be 115 years old if she were alive today, did not believe in teachers unions.  As a young woman in West Virginia she taught for several years.  She boarded in someone’s home, occupied a second floor bedroom, and ate meals with the family.  As she got older, she came to believe that teachers today are spoiled. Early in the 20th century, teaching was the occupation of young women who stopped working when they married and their husbands supported them. My husband’s aunt didn’t believe school teachers needed a living wage. Times have changed, but apparently many people fall back on unexamined habits of thought.

If there has ever been a time when the importance of a teachers union ought to be obvious, we’ve reached it right now in Detroit.  Thank goodness Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, could drop everything yesterday and rush to Detroit to support the local Detroit Federation of Teachers as they negotiated a better outcome for Detroit’s teachers.  Weingarten is quoted by the Detroit Free Press: “It is outrageous and appalling that people who have been the glue of this system cannot even be guaranteed a salary for the work that they do.”

After two days’ of teacher sickouts, the Associated Press reported last night that after intense negotiations between the school district and the Detroit Federation of Teachers, with the added weight of national AFT staff, came an assurance from Detroit Schools Emergency Manager Steven Rhodes that teachers will be paid for all of their work during this school year. The Michigan Senate has already passed a $720 million long-term rescue plan originally proposed by Governor Rick Snyder to aid the school district. Late yesterday the Michigan House Appropriations Committee finally voted to approve its own rescue plan; it will move forward for a vote by the full House later this week. However, the plan approved by the House committee yesterday reduces the rescue plan from $720 million to $500 million and will restrict labor agreements and collective bargaining in the future for Detroit’s teachers. If the House passes its own plan, House and Senate will still need to reconcile their bills.

Treatment of school teachers has been a real problem this week in Detroit, where there has been wrangling in the Michigan legislature about cutting teachers’ pay for work they have already done during this school year. Lori Higgins reported for the Free Press that two-thirds of Detroit’s teachers are on what is called “an extended pay plan” by which they have arranged that their pay for the nine-month school year is instead broken into twelve installments to ensure that part of their income arrives over the summer.  It is very common for school teachers all over the country to be paid on twelve-month schedules.

The current Detroit Schools’ emergency manager, Judge Steven Rhodes, held a news conference on Tuesday to explain that emergency state aid of $48.7 million allocated to the district last month by the legislature will cover expenses only through June, and that teachers on 12 month pay schedules would not be paid over the summer, as promised in their contracts, for work completed.  Higgins quoted Judge Rhodes: “We said all along that the $48 million… was only enough money to fund our expenditures through June and any expenditures we were obligated to pay after July 1 would have to come from the reform legislation.” The plan was that upcoming reform legislation in the form of a $720 million rescue plan would cover the summer paychecks.  Higgins added that leaders of the Detroit Federation of Teachers remember Rhodes’ telling them in March that the $48.7 million would be enough to pay all the teachers for their work this year, including those on 12 month contracts. Rhodes told teachers earlier this week that he did not recollect that conversation.

Yesterday was the second day of a “sickout” organized by the Detroit Federation of Teachers to protest the legislature’s failure to solve the fiscal crisis for Detroit’s public schools.  Higgins reported that, Kevin Cotter, the Speaker of Michigan’s House of Representatives does not seem sympathetic to the teachers participating in the protests: “These egotistical teachers have lashed out at the children who rely on them and accomplished nothing but disrupting their students’ education.  Their selfish and misguided plea for attention only makes it harder for us to enact a rescue plan and makes it harder for Detroit’s youngest residents to get ahead and build a future for themselves.”  This is, of course, the sort of rhetoric for which Michelle Rhee was famous.  She was fond of castigating teachers for prioritizing their own needs over the needs of  “StudentsFirst.”

Richard Perez-Pena, writing for the NY Times provides the background about the financial crisis in Detroit’s schools, a crisis that has developed under appointed state fiscal managers: “Several years in a row, the district has done short-term borrowing just to keep operating; and with little ability to repay, nearly all of that debt just gets rolled over into the next year’s budget.  The district’s year-end budget deficit ballooned to a projected $320 million this year from $94 million in 2013—nearly half the total $667 million general-fund budget.  And that doesn’t count the district’s immense long-term obligations: $3.5 billion in debt, pensions, and other costs.”  Perez-Pena adds: “A year ago (Governor Rick) Snyder, a Republican, proposed a $715 million aid package for the Detroit district, but it has been bogged down in the Republican-controlled legislature…  In January, the district warned it would simply run out of cash and have to shut down in April, with more than two months left in the school year.  To avoid that, the governor and the Legislature approved $48.7 million in emergency aid in March, but that was enough to keep the doors open only through the end of the year.”

Perez-Pena adds that the district’s financial crisis has made working and learning in Detroit’s school very difficult.  Class size in grades 6-12 is set at 38 students, though a shortage of teachers has created even larger classes in many schools.  “Many of the schools are literally falling apart, with crumbling plaster, water damage and leaks, roaches, rats and mold in the buildings.”

In addition to huge expenses for debt service, Perez-Pena attributes the crisis to, “the sharp decline in the city’s population. In addition, more than half the students going to publicly funded schools in the city attend charter schools, which have proliferated in the last generation.”  Ideological support for charter schools among Michigan’s legislators has resulted in the closure of neighborhood public schools and at the same time sucked money out of the public system. Expansion of market choice through charters has not worked as intended in Detroit.  The state legislature has neither adequately regulated charters nor reigned in the for-profit charter chains that dominate Michigan’s charter sector.

Last year the alarm was sounded by Robin Lake, the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, the organization that launched the movement for “portfolio school reform” and that generally enthusiastically supports school choice through the expansion of charters. In the summer of 2014, after Lake visited Detroit, she offered this critique of Detroit’s charter school sector: “Whose job is it to fix the problems facing parents in Detroit?  Our interviews with leaders in the city suggest that no one knows the answer.  It is not the state, which defers oversight to local education agencies and charter authorizers.  It is not DPS (Detroit Public Schools), which views charters as a threat to its survival. It is not charter school authorizers, who are only responsible for ensuring that the schools they sponsor comply with the state’s charter-school law. It is not the mayor, who thus far sees education as beyond his purview. And it is not the schools themselves, which only want to fill their seats and serve the children they enroll. No one in Detroit is responsible for ensuring that all neighborhoods and students have high-quality options or that parents have the information and resources they need to choose a school.  ‘It’s a free-for-all,’ one observer said. ‘We have all these crummy schools around, and nobody can figure out how to get quality back under control….’”

In the meantime, some legislators have seemed willing to use the financial crisis in the public schools as a way to avoid paying school teachers for days they have already spent working with the city’s children.  It is a good thing that some resolution seems to be emerging, but it has been very clear this week that Detroit’s teachers have needed their union to protect their basic rights. The situation in Detroit is appalling.

Arne Duncan’s Misguided Policies

Last Friday after U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan submitted his resignation as of the end of 2015, I heard President Barack Obama describe Duncan: “Arne’s done more to bring our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anybody else.”  It is worth considering carefully what the president’s words mean in the context of the priorities, programs, and operation of Duncan’s Department of Education.

In a recent and very moving New Yorker piece about the significance of the closure of New York’s storied Jamaica High School, his alma mater, Jelani Cobb considers education reform in the context of history: “Like ‘busing’ and ‘integration,’ the language of today’s reformers often serves as a euphemism for poverty mitigation, the implicit goal that American education has fitfully attempted to achieve since Brown v. Board of Education.  Both busing and school closure recognize the educational obstacles that concentrated poverty creates.  But busing recognized a combination of unjust history and policy as complicit in educational failure.  In the ideology of school closure, though, the lines of responsibility—of blame, really—run inward.  It’s not society that has failed in this perspective.  It’s the schools…  The onus shifted, and public policy followed.  The current language of education reform emphasizes racial ‘achievement gaps’ and ‘underperforming schools’ but also tends to approach education as if history had never happened.  Integration was a flawed strategy, but it recognized the ties between racial history and educational outcomes.”

School policy ripped out of time and history: in many ways that is Arne Duncan’s gift to us — school policy focused on disparities in test scores instead of disparities in opportunity — a Department of Education obsessed with data-driven accountability for teachers, but for itself an obsession with “game-changing” innovation and inadequate attention to oversight — the substitution of the consultant-driven, win-lose methodology of philanthropy for formula-driven government policy — school policy that favors social innovation, one charter at a time.  Such policies are definitely a break from the past. Whether they promise better opportunity for the mass of our nation’s children, and especially our poorest children, is a very different question.

School policy focused on disparities in test scores instead of disparities in opportunity:  Here is what a Congressional Equity and Excellence Commission charged in 2013, five years into Duncan’s tenure as Education Secretary:  “The common situation in America is that schools in poor communities spend less per pupil—and often many thousands of dollars less per pupil—than schools in nearby affluent communities… This is arguably the most important equity-related variable in American schooling today.  Let’s be honest: We are also an outlier in how many of our children are growing up in poverty. Our poverty rate for school-age children—currently more than 22 percent—is twice the OECD average and nearly four times that of leading countries such as Finland.”  Arne Duncan’s signature policies ignore these realities.  While many of Duncan’s programs have conditioned receipt of federal dollars on states’ complying with Duncan’s favored policies, none of Duncan’s conditions involved closing opportunity gaps.  To qualify for a Race to the Top grant, a state had to remove any statutory cap on the authorization of new charter schools, and to win a No Child Left Behind waiver, a state had to agree to evaluate teachers based on students’ test scores, but Duncan’s policies never conditioned receipt of federal dollars on states’ remedying school funding inequity.  Even programs like School Improvement Grants for the lowest scoring 5 percent of American schools have emphasized school closure and privatization but have not addressed the root problem of poverty in the communities where children’s scores are low.

A Department of Education obsessed with data-driven accountability for teachers, but for itself an obsession with “game-changing” innovation and inadequate attention to oversight:  The nation faces an epidemic of teacher shortages and despair among professionals who feel devalued as states rush to implement the teacher-rating policies they adopted to win their No Child Left Behind waivers from the federal government.  Even as evidence continues to demonstrate that students’ test scores correlate more closely with family income than any other factor, and as scholars declare that students’ test scores are unreliable for evaluating teachers, Duncan’s policies have unrelentingly driven state governments to create policy that has contributed to widespread blaming of the teachers who serve in our nation’s poorest communities.

However, Duncan’s Department of Education has been far less attentive to accountability for its own programs.  In June, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a coalition of national organizations made up of  the American Federation of Teachers, Alliance for Educational Justice, Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, Center for Popular Democracy, Gamaliel, Journey for Justice Alliance, National Education Association, National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, and Service Employees International Union, asked Secretary Duncan to establish a moratorium on federal support for new charter schools until the Department improves its own oversight of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which is responsible for the federal Charter School Program.  The Alliance to Reclaim our Schools cites formal audits from 2010 and 2012 in which the Department of Education’s own Office of Inspector General (OIG), “raised concerns about transparency and competency in the administration of the federal Charter Schools Program.”  The OIG’s 2012 audit, the members of the Alliance explain, discovered that the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, which administers the Charter Schools Program, and the State Education Agencies, which disburse the majority of the federal funds, are ill equipped to keep adequate records or put in place even minimal oversight.

Most recently, just last week, the Department of Education awarded $249 million to seven states and the District of Columbia for expanding charter schools, with the largest of those grants, $71 million, awarded to Ohio, despite that protracted Ohio legislative debate all year has failed to produce regulations for an out-of-control, for-profit group of online charter schools or to improve Ohio’s oversight of what are too often unethical or incompetent charter school sponsors.  The U.S. Department of Education made its grant last week despite that Ohio’s legislature is known to have been influenced by political  contributions from the owners of for-profit charter schools.

The substitution of the consultant-driven, win-lose methodology of philanthropy for formula-driven government policy:  Title I is the federal civil rights program created in 1965 as the centerpiece of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to equalize opportunity by sending federal money to schools serving a large number or high concentration of very poor children.  The Title I formula has been a primary tool for equalizing educational opportunity as a civil right for every child.  In 2009, however, Arne Duncan’s Department of Education began spending some Title I funds outside the formula program for competitions like Race to the Top.  Because one-time grants cannot cover ongoing operations, school districts have used the money for technology or staff development but have hesitated to reduce class size or hire teachers.  For example, an evaluation determined that consultants and grant writers collected 35 percent of School Improvement Grant Funds spent in Colorado between 2010 and 2012.  Another serious problem with the federal competitive grant programs is that races with winners always have losers.  Redirecting funds away from the Title I Formula and into competitive grants under Arne Duncan’s leadership drove federal funds to a few winning states and created a host of losing states—and millions of children who lost out.

School policy that favors social innovation, one charter at a time:  Public education in the United States has historically been driven by a philosophy of expanding systemic inclusion. Over time public policy has been devised to require that schools address the needs of all children as a civil right. The policies that followed the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, for example, were designed to address past injustices that derived from racial segregation and poverty.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act protected the rights of children with special needs.  The policies of Arne Duncan’s Department of Education have instead favored a strategy of social innovation through the establishment of charter schools.  The idea is that committed individuals, with grants from the government, design schools that will serve a few children, with the innovation injected back into the public schools.  There is considerable evidence that many charters—especially the huge for-profit charter chains—have not innovated, that a philosophy if social innovation through charters (that serve about 6 percent of our nation’s 50 million children today) fails to consider the scale of our education challenges, that whatever innovation there has been has not spread widely, that charters have served primarily the children of parents who know how to play the school choice game, that considerable money from charter schools has flowed into private profits, and that the growth of charters in many city school districts has sucked out money and promising children and left students with serious disabilities, English language learners, and the very poorest children including homeless children behind in what are becoming public school districts of last resort.

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At the very end of the 19th century, John Dewey wrote: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”

A hundred years later, Senator Paul Wellstone told the students at Teachers College, Columbia University: “That all citizens will be given an equal start through a sound education is one of the most basic, promised rights of our democracy. Our chronic refusal as a nation to guarantee that right for all children…. is rooted in a kind of moral blindness, or at least a failure of moral imagination…. It is a failure which threatens our future as a nation of citizens called to a common purpose… tied to one another by a common bond.”

In December of 2010, already two years into Arne Duncan’s tenure as Secretary of Education, I heard the Rev. Jesse Jackson indict Duncan’s education policies for abandoning the very idea of American public education that Dewey and Wellstone had described so eloquently:  “There are those who would make the case for ‘a race to the top’ for those who can run.  But ‘lift from the bottom’ is the moral imperative because it includes everybody.”

If, as President Obama says, Arne Duncan has “brought our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century,” I hope we will stop to reconsider.  Has our society decided to strive for innovation and to abandon universal provision of services and equality of opportunity as overarching goals?  And have we become satisfied to blame the teachers in our poorest communities instead of ourselves for the vast injustices that appear at school in the guise of the achievement gaps?

Chicago School District Financial Crisis: What Does It Mean?

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is a district in serious financial crisis. Here is how Chicago Catalyst describes what happened last week: “Chicago Public Schools announced Wednesday that it would cut $200 million in spending for the coming school year by eliminating 1,400 positions, leaving special education vacancies open and cutting stipends for elementary school sports coaches, among other reductions.”

Here is some background.  The Chicago school district, where our current U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan served as CEO from 2001 through 2008, is important for several reasons. Chicago is the nation’s third largest school district, a district coping with the issues that most seriously challenge urban schools these days—concentrated poverty, intensifying racial segregation, and inadequate state funding to address well-documented problems arising from widespread concentrated poverty.  In its new report that compares school funding across the states, the Education Law Center gives Illinois an “F” in the category of state school funding distribution: Illinois is described as “regressive”—providing less funding overall for its high-poverty school districts.  In its most recent report on overall school funding, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains that Illinois is one of the states where state funding for schools remains below what it was in 2008, prior to the Great Recession—9.3 percent below its 2008 investment in inflation-adjusted dollars. And the Chicago schools have been the laboratory for “portfolio” school reform based on the expansion of school choice—closure of neighborhood schools, expansion of charter schools, and private contracting.

How did today’s financial crisis arise for Chicago’s schools?  Actually, it wasn’t sudden, explains Chris Fusco, reporter for the Sun Times:  “Over the past two decades, the nation’s third-largest school system has dug itself a massive financial hole by repeatedly borrowing money—from lines of credit to bonds to risky interest rate ‘swap’ deals—even as it skipped payments to the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund…. CPS still owes billions on borrowing deals dating to the mid-1990s, when then-Mayor Richard M. Daley took formal control of the school system, which then began renovating and building schools using borrowed money.  After Emanuel took office in 2011, the school board continued to borrow, including a bond deal of nearly a half-billion dollars this spring.  Those bond sales, in March and April, allowed CPS to refinance debt and repay a line of credit used to finance construction projects that brought air-conditioning, computer science labs and other improvements to schools the past two years… The more the district turns to the bond market, though, the more fees it must pay to banks, financial advisers and other borrowing professionals.”  The Sun Times reports that $18.1 million in fees has been paid to financial and legal firms since 2011.

The immediate crisis last week arose when the state refused to let CPS delay and renegotiate a payment that had come due to its teachers’ pension program.  The Chicago Tribune reports that the district made the payment it owed—$634 million—but will have to impose austerity measures as a first step to improving its overall finances: “CPS has yet to finalize a budget for the fiscal year that began Wednesday.  Last year’s operating budget totaled about $5.8 billion and the district in 2014 employed about 40,000 workers.”

Things won’t turn around immediately, however, despite cuts that will inevitably hurt the classroom. Although politicians in Illinois are blaming the pensions that have over the years been negotiated in good faith by the teachers’ union, the real problem has been politicians who have deferred required payments into the pension system and who have then borrowed from the pension fund to pay operating expenses while continuing to defer repayment of the loans. After making its payment of $634 million to the teachers’ pension fund last week, CPS turned around and requested a loan from the pension fund.  Crain’s Chicago Business explains: “In one bizarre note, officials confirmed that CPS has asked for what amounts to a $500 million loan from the Chicago Teachers’ Pension Plan—the agency that just got the $634 million that triggered the current crisis. The loan technically would be a deferral of additional payments required later this year, with CPS promising to pay it back with interest in fiscal 2017.”

As part of a solution, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has asked the state to pay a greater share of teachers’ pensions and tried to shift the blame to teachers by demanding that they substantially increase their own contributions to their pensions.  According to the Chicago Tribune, Mayor Emanuel has also pledged to restore a dedicated property tax levy for teacher pensions, a levy that would, according to Emanuel raise $175 million annually.  Such a tax existed before 1995, when it was eliminated by Mayor Richard M. Daley.

The Chicago Teachers Union has put together a thorough analysis that counters some of the rhetoric coming from the mayor and school administrators, who claim to have been saving money by reducing significantly the costs for school administration in recent years: “But we can see that despite its narrative of increasing supports and delegating control to the schools, CPS continues to invest in departments to implement its top down agenda.  The Office of Strategy Management was newly created in 2012, and was budgeted for just under $1 million this fiscal year.  Combined with other rearranged departments involved in standardized-testing (Department of Assessment), expanding school choice (Innovation and Incubation), and test-based management of schools (Accountability), CPS now budgets a total of $6.1 million just for the position salaries across these departments.  Departments with similar functions in 2011, including New School Development, the Office of Performance, Office of Student Assessment, and School Demographics and Planning, budgeted a total of $5.5 million for position salaries…  As they have rearranged network offices numerous times, a notable trend is that more of the salaried positions across those offices are for upper and middle management.”

The Chicago Teachers Union report scathingly criticizes the false economies of a vast increase in contracting-out of services once performed by school employees: “The $260 million three-year contract with Aramark for custodial services has already gone $22 million over budget in its first year,” leaving schools poorly served and even without adequate bathroom supplies for the children.  “The $20 million no-bid contract for SUPES was approved even though a principal training initiative was already in place through the Chicago Leadership Collaborative.”   CPS has increased the outsourcing of school nursing services, “reaching over $30 million in FY 2015.  CTU nurses have reported that nurses from the temporary staffing agencies have not shown up for work… (O)utsourced services only create another managerial obstacle for schools to navigate—instead of a dependable resource.”

According to the Sun Times, “CPS’ credit rating has plummeted to ‘junk’ status, forcing up interest rates on its most recent bond sale.”