Teachers in Los Angeles Delay Strike Till Next Week; District Faces Long and Catastrophic Fiscal Crisis

After months of failed negotiations, the United Teachers of Los Angeles had scheduled a strike beginning today. They have now postponed the strike until Monday, January 14th. The problems in the district that have driven teachers to strike are complex; their situation is impossibly simple. Their pay has not risen adequately and the conditions in the city’s schools for children and for teachers are deplorable. For the NY Times, Jennifer Medina and Dana Goldstein report: “Some classes have as many as 45 students… and school nurses, art and music teachers must serve thousands of students by traveling to multiple schools.”

We are told that, with its huge economy, California is unlike the other states where teachers walked out last spring. They were Red states for the most part—exemplars of supply-side, tax cutting and promoters of marketplace choice through charter schools. Instead, we are told, California is a Blue state.

A long, long time ago, California had Blue-state education funding, but that was from 1959 to 1967, under Jerry Brown’s father, Governor Pat Brown. For forty years, however, California has, in reality, been the primary exemplar of Red-state school funding and school privatization.  In 1978, California voters passed Proposition 13, the state law that began the state-by-state, anti-tax slide which has undermined public school funding across the country.  In 2012, with Proposition 30, California Governor Jerry Brown pushed through new taxes for education, but they have not been enough to undo the impact of Proposition 13.

In a profound 1998 book, Paradise Lost, about what happened in California, Peter Schrag, the long-time editorial page director of the Sacramento Bee, defines the principles that have dominated California school funding since 1978: “Proposition 13 and the initiatives that followed in its wake—the tax and spending cuts, the growing constraints on both state and local government and the accompanying shift from a communitarian ethic to a market ethic—have in fact had a profound effect in lowering expectations and in blurring the vision of what good government and a high standard of public services could be like. In recent years, as revenues have grown, the California political debate about the support and quality of its public services has inadvertently confirmed the effects of twenty years of Mississippification:  even in the midst of prosperity, that debate has not been about… any ideal of quality; it has been focused, rather, on the question of how far behind the national average the Golden State still finds itself, and how long it will take to catch up.  It has been a dispute about how to get to mediocrity.” (Paradise Lost, p. xiii)

Proposition. 13 froze local property taxes. Schrag explains: “What the taxpayers gained the tax collector lost. Overnight, property tax revenues for local agencies declined between $6 and $7 billion annually. (They would lose more later.) This amounted to roughly 27 percent of all revenues for cities, 40 percent of all county revenues, nearly half (on average) of what school districts had been getting, and up to 90 percent for some fire districts.”(p. 154) “The cumulative effect of those measures was not only the massive transfer of control from local government to Sacramento… but a massive constriction of the power of all government to manage revenues.” (p. 162)

Medina and Goldstein report that today, in 2019 Los Angeles: “The impending strike highlights the fact that despite California’s reputation as a center of liberal policy, it spends relatively little on public education. School spending levels, about $11,000 per student in 2016, are far below those in other blue bastions; for example, California spends about half as much as New York on the average child… More than a fifth of public school students in California are… learning English, the highest percentage in the country… With many wealthy and white families opting to choose charter or private schools, or move to other surrounding school districts, the Los Angeles school district is disproportionately African-American and Latino. A study from U.C.L.A.’s Civil Rights Project found that Latino students in Los Angeles are more segregated than anywhere else in the country.”

In its 2017 report, Charters and Consequences, the Network for Public Education examines the impact of the expansion of charter schools in a number of states. Here are some facts about California: “California has the most charter schools and charter school students in the nation. In 2000, there were 299 charter schools in the Golden State. By 2016 there were 1230… While most are brick and mortar schools, 20% of California’s charters are either online schools or schools where students drop by to pick up work. Such schools are often fronts for for-profit corporations. In general, their results are dismal.”

In a May 2018 report for In the Public InterestBreaking Point: The Cost of Charter Schools for Public School Districts, political economist Gordon Lafer describes the devastating fiscal impact in California for a local public school district of the expansion of charter schools: “To the casual observer, it may not be obvious why charter schools should create any net costs at all for their home districts. To grasp why they do, it is necessary to understand the structural differences between the challenge of operating a single school—or even a local chain of schools—and that of a district-wide system operating tens or hundreds of schools and charged with the legal responsibility to serve all students in the community. When a new charter school opens, it typically fills its classrooms by drawing students away from existing schools in the district. By California state law, school funding is based on student attendance; when a student moves from a traditional public school to a charter school, her pro-rated share of school funding follows her to the new school. Thus, the expansion of charter schools necessarily entails lost funding for traditional public schools and school districts. If schools and district offices could simply reduce their own expenses in proportion to the lost revenue, there would be no fiscal shortfall. Unfortunately this is not the case… If, for instance, a given school loses five percent of its student body—and that loss is spread across multiple grade levels, the school may be unable to lay off even a single teacher… Plus, the costs of maintaining school buildings cannot be reduced…. Unless the enrollment falloff is so steep as to force school closures, the expense of heating and cooling schools, running cafeterias, maintaining digital and wireless technologies, and paving parking lots—all of this is unchanged by modest declines in enrollment. In addition, both individual schools and school districts bear significant administrative responsibilities that cannot be cut in response to falling enrollment. These include planning bus routes and operating transportation systems; developing and auditing budgets; managing teacher training and employee benefits; applying for grants and certifying compliance with federal and state regulations; and the everyday work of principals, librarians and guidance counselors.” Imagine the impact in Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school district with 900 schools and roughly 600,000 students.

U.C.L.A. education sociologist, Pedro Noguera published a commentary in the Los Angeles Times earlier this week to situate the pending strike in the context of the long and devastating fiscal challenges faced by the Los Angeles Unified Schools District: “In 2015, then-Supt. Ray Cortines assembled a blue-ribbon committee to conduct an objective analysis of the district’s finances and to make recommendations for how projected deficits should be addressed. The report’s conclusions were stark: ‘The expanding gap represents a serious challenge to the LAUSD’s financial stability in the near term, one that insists upon immediate action today.’  It warned that immediate and difficult measures would be required if the district hoped to continue adequately serving its students beyond the 2019-20 school year, noting that ‘failure to do so could lead to the insolvency of the LAUSD….’ ”

Noguera explores the school district’s complex fiscal realities: “The district, as the teachers union has pointed out, does have a reserve fund of close to $2 billion. These funds could definitely help in reaching a settlement with the union. However, the existence of the reserve can’t make up for the fact that LAUSD currently spends about half a billion dollars more each year than it takes in… Without painful corrective action, its financial situation will worsen considerably over the next few years.” “The potential strike by teachers must be understood in this larger context. The teachers and their union have raised important and legitimate concerns, and the fiscal condition of the district does not negate the validity of their demands. The district must invest in its schools and its personnel if it hopes to have a future… In addition to providing education to nearly 600,000 students, the school district is also the city’s largest employer.”

As he wraps up his column, however, Noguera defines a much deeper problem lurking underneath the district’s long term funding crisis and the issues over which teachers plan to strike: “A few months after moving to Los Angeles I was invited to speak to a group of influential Angelenos about the need to invest in high quality after-school programs to support the well-being and development of children.  During my remarks, I asked those present how many had attended a Los Angeles public school themselves. Most of those in the audience raised a hand.  I then asked how many of them had children or grandchildren who were enrolled at district schools. Only a few hands went up. This is a huge problem. When those with power and influence are disconnected from the school system and more concerned with making preparations for the 2028 Olympics than they are with schools that serve most of the city’s children, we are in serious trouble.”

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National “Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education” Campaign Re-Launches This Week

On Tuesday afternoon, a group of educators and key policy experts gathered in Washington, D.C. to re-launch a campaign for holistic education and social policy reform to surround America’s poorest children and their families with the kind of educational opportunities their middle class peers take for granted. Seizing the occasion of the passage of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act to replace No Child Left Behind, advocates for expanding opportunity in America’s public schools have relaunched the Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education, a campaign designed to push public policy away from blaming teachers and toward constructing a policy framework to support children and schools in poor and marginalized communities.

Broader, BOLDER’s new mission statement proclaims: “The Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education is grounded in the understanding that the kinds of educational opportunities—both within and outside of schools—that help well-off children thrive are the same opportunities that would most benefit children who lack access to them… Achievement gaps in test scores are not the root problem, but important symptoms of the underlying problems facing our schools…. Since poverty manifests itself in various ways and places in children’s educational trajectories, BBA addresses them at each stage….”

In a column published by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, Elaine Weiss, the campaign’s national coordinator, explains why the relaunch of the Broader, BOLDER Agenda is designed to coincide with the recent passage of a new federal education law: “ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act) claws back some of the most problematic federal accountability requirements, and it emphasizes the need for social and emotional, as well as traditional academic, measures of success.  It also sets aside new money for investments in quality pre-kindergarten and for wraparound supports that help provide disadvantaged students equal opportunities to learn.  That said, ESSA comes nowhere near evening the education playing field…. ESSA fails to put forth a coherent strategy to address the high levels of poverty, (and) racial and socioeconomic isolation… that present major barriers to success for millions of American students and the schools serving them… With its relaunch, BBA establishes the framework for developing those policies.”

Broader, BOLDER’s new agenda folds together social and health support for families with school improvement: “As rates of child and family poverty grew during and in the aftermath of the Great Recession, poverty also became more concentrated in certain cities and neighborhoods.  This exacerbated the already difficult circumstances of children of color, who have long been disproportionately clustered in our country’s least resourced… and most isolated communities.  Widespread joblessness, crime, violence, and dysfunction combine with scant public and private resources to isolate families…. Indeed, research documents the severe obstacles to school success posed by these circumstances.”  The campaign links four strategies to alleviate out-of-school barriers to success:

  • Early Childhood Experiences: “That every student arrives at kindergarten with the benefit of high-quality early learning and necessary health, wellness, and family support services from birth.
  • After-school and Summer:  “Indeed, it is particularly critical that students who are less likely to be exposed to organized sports, activities such as the fine arts, music, and trips to museums, and challenging games like chess in other contexts enjoy those opportunities as part of their schooling.”
  • Health: “Not only should we expand the presence of health clinics in schools serving high-risk student populations, but enact policies to support those programs.”
  • Nutrition :”Every child should have consistent access to nutritious food all day and all year, and the school system, with support from other agencies, should be structured to provide it without stigma or barriers to access.”

The new campaign also presents four strategies to narrow opportunity gaps within and across schools:

  • adequate school funding, equitably distributed;
  • school accountability that measures not just test scores but also school conditions such as access to quality teachers and curricula;
  • an emphasis on preparing and fostering “a strong, experienced corps of professional educators”; and
  • robust and transparent regulation of charter schools to ensure they serve all children, avoid conflicts of interest, and responsibly steward our tax dollars.

In marked contrast to the past two decades’ accountability-driven agenda, framers of the new campaign confront what research confirms are the primary barriers to school achievement.  Leadership by chairs—Helen Ladd, Pedro Noguera, Paul Reville and Joshua Starr—and the appointment of a diverse and broadly experienced advisory board ensure a wide audience for the new campaign’s work.

In “The Nation” Noguera and Ravitch Demand Support for Public Schools and Tough Regulation of Charters

Pedro Noguera’s pithy and hard-hitting piece, Why Don’t We Have Real Data on Charter Schools?  was just posted on the website of The Nation as part of an October 13 special edition of the magazine that will explore issues in education.  Noguera is the New York University sociologist who has written extensively on the challenges for public schools in our nation’s big cities.  Examining the discrepancy between what it used to be imagined that charter schools would become and today’s reality, Noguera concludes: “Charters were supposed to be laboratories for innovation  Instead, they are stunningly opaque… In several cities throughout the country, there is a fierce conflict raging over the direction of education reform.  At the center of this increasingly acrimonious debate is the question of whether or not charter schools—publicly funded schools that operate outside the rules (and often the control) of traditional public-school systems—should be allowed to proliferate.”

Noting that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan continues to say—without doing anything about it— “we ‘need to be willing to hold low-performing charters accountable,'” Noguera charges: “The problem here is that charter schools are frequently not accountable… To begin with, unlike public schools, which are required by law to show how they use public resources, most charters lack financial transparency… Transparency is especially important with for-profit charter schools to prevent fraud and the misuse of public funds.  The Pennsylvania auditor general found that the state’s largest charter operator had pocketed $1.2 million in ‘improper lease-reimbursement payments.’… In New York City, Eva Moskowitz has emerged as a national spokeswoman for the charter movement; she makes over $500,000 a year—more than double what the city’s public-schools chancellor makes, even though Moskowitz is responsible for only a fraction of the number of students.”

Noguera explains that while charter schools pretend to accomplish better test results for the same kind of students, charters serve fewer students with severe disabilities, fewer extremely poor children, fewer English language learners, and fewer students with severe behavioral problems.  His depiction of the danger of such disparities is blunt: “When this occurs, local pubic schools end up enrolling a disproportionate number of ‘high-need’ children—and not surprisingly, their performance statistics decline…  If charter schools are going to serve as models of innovation, they should be required to operate on a level playing field and adopt clear guidelines concerning the rights of students and parents.”

The Nation‘s education issue also features a piece by education historian Diane Ravitch on Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy charter network in New York City: The Secret to Eva Moskowitz’s ‘Success.’   Ravitch explains that Moskowitz serves many fewer homeless students than the New York City Public Schools; no students with severe disabilities while severely disabled students make up 14.1 percent of the student population in Harlem’s public elementary schools; and half as many English language learners as neighboring public schools.  According to Ravitch, Moskowitz also refuses to replace any students who drop out: “The only Success Academy school that offers grades three through eight (the testing grades) tested 116 third graders but only thirty-two eighth graders… Why the shrinking student body?  When students leave these schools (for whatever reason), they are not replaced by other incoming students.  In public schools, students also leave, but they are usually replaced by new students… What we can learn from Success Academy is that it is possible to winnow out the most intractable students and be left with the best and most compliant ones by selective attrition. But that is no model for public education.”

In Our Public Education System Needs Transformation, Not ‘Reform’,’The Nation editorializes on the need for stronger traditional public schools in the poorest communities where the charter experiments now proliferate: “A truly progressive vision for public education shouldn’t focus on stories of how a few kids competed their way out of blighted neighborhoods. Instead, it should focus on taking back that stream of money going to charter chains and corporate tax cuts and redirecting it toward schools anchored in strong communities and using proven methods for teaching kids—the very methods deployed in schools where the rich send their children.  Indeed, the most disadvantaged kids should get even more support for their schools than their privileged suburban counterparts.  Without education equity, we don’t have an educational system at all—we have a rigged rat race that starts in kindergarten.”

Public Schools—the Mortar that Holds the Community Together (Garrison Keillor)

Jeff Bryant, who writes a weekly column for the Educational Opportunity Network, recently discussed the difference between conceptualizing education reform around inputs and outcomes.  Today our federal testing law, No Child Left Behind, and all the federal competitive grant programs like Race to the Top that prescribe punitive turnarounds for schools that can’t produce high test scores are designed to measure outcomes.  The very concept of achievement gaps is defined by test scores—outcomes.

Outcomes are important surely.  As parents we hope for successful outcomes for our children: a high school diploma—college graduation—a job.  Then there are the intangible outcomes we look for: mental health, contentment, ethical character, the capacity to stick with whatever one undertakes. Parents quickly realize there are too many variables; their children are human and invariably complex.  We do the best we can, but we cannot guarantee outcomes.

Neither can the community guarantee positive outcomes for all of its children, though in 1889, John Dewey, our premier education philosopher challenged us to do our best:  “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.”  Dewey’s idea is about inputs, however.  He challenges us to hold ourselves personally responsible for educating all children.  Today there is ample evidence that we are not even coming close to providing adequate educational inputs for our society’s poorest children.

Brand new census data demonstrate that, “Public elementary and secondary education revenue fell in fiscal year 2012 for the first time since 1977, when the U.S. Census Bureau began collecting public education finance data annually.  Public elementary and secondary school systems received $594.5 billion in total revenue in fiscal year 2012, down $4.9 billion, or 0.8 percent, from fiscal year 2011….”  “State governments were the leading source of revenue ($270.4 billion), closely followed by revenue from local sources ($264.6 billion).  Almost two-thirds, or 65.3 percent, of revenue from local sources came from property taxes.  Public school systems received $59.5 billion in revenue from the federal government, a decrease of $14.2 billion, 19.2 percent, from the previous year.”

While society cannot promise to close achievement gaps (outcomes), we are fully capable of addressing opportunity gaps—the differences in resources that society provides for children and schools from place to place.  Notice, for example in the census data, that over half of local funding derives from property taxes, among the most unequal forms of tax revenue. Heavy reliance on local property taxes only magnifies disparities in family resources in an America where some children live in pockets of concentrated poverty and others in pockets of concentrated affluence.

Here are some input-based reforms that ought to be our priority because we know they would support and improve the public schools in our nation’s poorest neighborhoods.  We could fully fund the Title I formula to assist all the schools serving very poor children.  The federal government could condition receipt of Race to the Top or School Improvement Grants on states’ making their school funding formulas more equitable.  We could seriously consider expanding pre-kindergarten in every state; the federal government could help make this significant reform affordable and could create incentives for states to consider it.  We could ensure that all children have well-qualified teachers with college-based certification; strengthen class offerings in all high schools to ensure that all students have access to physics, chemistry, and advanced math; reduce class size;  bring back an adequate number of counselors, school nurses,  libraries and librarians in the poorest schools; add challenging classes in the humanities and instrumental music in the schools that have lost such programs.  These are mere examples of ways to close opportunity gaps—all inputs-based improvements our society could easily guarantee.

Today policy makers argue about school reform abstractions defined via outcomes: the Common Core standards and tests, value-added-measures to rate teachers, third-grade reading scores as a mechanism for determining grade promotion, or awarding letter grades to schools based on their test-score rankings. Promoters of outcomes-based school reform claim test-based accountability is unbiased and objective.  Another way to describe such policy is “distant” and “calculating.”  The Rethinking Schools editorial board even recently pronounced that outcomes-based school reform “disguises class and race privilege as merit.” (Check out this blog’s reflection on that editorial here.)

Speaking about Newark, New Jersey, New York University sociologist Pedro Noguera decries today’s outcomes-based school reform because it is cold and impersonal while school improvement would pull together the efforts of educators and the entire community to support its children: “It’s often driven by these outsiders who have no ties, no history with a community, no long-term relationship.”  Garrison Keillor, like Noguera, reminds us that public schools are very human institutions: “When you wage war on the public schools, you’re attacking the mortar that holds the community together.  You’re not a conservative, you’re a vandal.” (Homegrown Democrat, p. 190)

Jeff Bryant Compares Duncan–Hess and Harris-Perry–Ravitch Videos

In his weekly column for the Education Opportunity Network (a project of the Campaign for America’s Future and the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign), Jeff Bryant compares and contrasts videos that represent the polarization of the debate about public school reform.

The first video presents Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.  Bryant comments: “Like dueling fog machines, over-stuffed with rhetoric we’ve come to expect from D.C., Hess spoke of ‘slippery slopes’ and ‘bright lines’ while Duncan waxed effusively about the apparent evils of ‘dummying down standards’ and ‘letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.’ Outside the Beltway, almost no one talks like this or imbues these kinds of phrases any significant meaning.”

The rest of Bryant’s essay covers a three-part video-clip interview of author Diane Ravitch by MSNBC‘s Melissa Harris-Perry.  In the last two clips, Harris-Perry, the moderator, brings in NYU sociologist Pedro Noguera and MSNBC reporter Trymaine Lee to join Ravitch.

Check out Bryant’s engaging essay and the video clips he reviews.  The three interviews by Melissa Harris-Perry are embedded right in Bryant’s piece.