Brown’s Budget Sends Message to UC

Fresh from his historic inauguration to a fourth term as governor, Jerry Brown unveiled his proposed 2015 budget with a Friday press conference that swiftly attracted reactions from Sacramento and beyond. All told, Brown envisions a general fund totaling $113.3 billion. It’s an eye-popping figure to some, but a relatively modest one for California observers who have watched Brown curb the excesses of his party’s more profligate wing.

Amid rampant speculation that he would make up for this winter’s embarrassing loss on the University of California tuition-hike issue, Brown made education one of the centerpieces of his approach — giving UC more money, but not as much as they sought. It was a characteristic maneuver, showing how Brown’s main challenge in his final term will involve placating big-budget Democrats without drawing the ire of Republicans focused in a pre-election year on economic growth.

But it also can be seen as just an opening salvo in his battle with UC President Janet Napolitano, who wants to raise tuition 28 percent over the next five years.

Feast or famine?

The college controversy surrounding the UC budget took center stage during Brown’s presentation. Not only was his reputation on the line. Last year the Board of Regents secured itself a raise while hiking student tuition.

But Brown’s basic governing strategy went to work. He offered UC $120 million more for the year. From his standpoint, the allocation was generous, with some other parts of the government in Sacramento receiving no increases at all.

But for UC, it was a miserly, even retaliatory, gesture. As the Fresno Bee reported, Napolitano is on record claiming that Brown’s sum isn’t adequate to keep up UC’s current level of quality.

In fact, Brown’s dig at UC went deeper, as shown in K-12 and community college spending. “Brown’s proposal includes a $2.5-billion funding increase for schools and community colleges, the result of higher-than-expected tax revenue,” reported the Los Angeles Times.

The lopsided approach to funding schools appeared to do what Brown had hoped — tamping down criticism despite leaving the door open for a renewed battle with the University of California.

In a quick roundup of reactions from Democrats, the Sacramento Bee found a common theme: praise for the K-14 figure, paired with somewhat muted criticism on the subject of increased social services spending. Tom Torlakson, the union-backed Superintendent of Public Instruction, gave Brown “an ‘A’ for K-14 education,” although he paradoxically suggested “we still have a long way to go.”

State Sen. Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia, called himself “extremely pleased” with Brown’s $8 billion allocation. While Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, called the budget “great news for California’s kids” and suggested legislators only “prudently examine restoring cuts” to what he called “vital social services.”

Courting Republicans

Although GOP power in Sacramento is still a shadow of its former self, Brown indicated through his budget that he hopes to avoid a full-blown conflict with Republicans on fiscal-responsibility issues. Calling California’s financial situation “precariously balanced,” he indicated his desire to “avoid” the “boom and bust” of budgets in years past.

Warning against “exuberant overkill,” he gave Republicans a rare opportunity to offer measured praise without showing weakness. As the Los Angeles Times observed, Brown pointedly excluded funds that would provide Medi-Cal to unlawful and undocumented immigrants — a measure currently under consideration in the Legislature. Further, he vowed he’d work together with both parties to address California’s basic infrastructure problems, including Republican grievances like state roads.

Assembly Republicans reached by the Bee struck a common theme resonant across the GOP: Brown’s budget could be taken seriously, even if it was a disappointment. Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, and Republican Leader Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, both emphasized the state’s need for a plan for economic growth.

With voters approving the recent Republican-backed rainy day fund, Proposition 2, and Brown willing to sustain the reserve, Republicans have reason to believe putting careful pressure on Brown over the course of this year could pay dividends.

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GOP Lawmaker: Fund Schools With High-Speed Rail Bonds

A Republican lawmaker wants to turn money for California’s high-speed rail project into funding for schools.

Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, introduced Assembly Bill 6, which would cancel outstanding bond funds approved by Proposition 1A, a 2008 voter-approved initiative to fund the state’s high-speed rail project with $9 billion in bonds. In its place, voters would be asked to spend the remaining funds on constructing and modernizing dilapidated school facilities throughout the state.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love trains and would be happy to be able to take one from Los Angeles to San Francisco for ‘dinner and a show’ and back,” Wilk wrote in a recent piece at the Los Angeles Daily News, “but not at the expense of the people of California.”

Before allocating up to  $8 billion for school construction, AB6 first would first pay off the outstanding debts incurred for the state’s high-speed rail project. The bill requires two-thirds approval of the state Legislature and a majority approval of voters.

“Our students deserve to have well-maintained facilities and it is irresponsible to continue prioritizing the crazy train over our schools,” Wilk said, echoing a favorite phrase coined by GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari, who on Nov. 4 lost to Gov. Jerry Brown. “The high-speed rail boondoggle has been a proven failure and it’s time we spend taxpayer dollars in a responsible way.”

State Allocation Board: California needs as much as $12 billion for schools

Wilk points to a Jan. 2014 report by the State Allocation Board that contends California needs to devote as much as $12 billion toward new school construction and another $5 billion to modernization of existing facilities. The obscure board, which includes representatives from the governor’s office and the Legislature, couldn’t definitively peg the total cost of school modernization.  Other State Allocation Board estimates put the figure between $5.9 billion and $6.6 billion.

“There is demand for new construction and modernization funding,” the State Allocation Board School Facility Program Review Subcommittee concluded earlier this year. “The Subcommittee did not come to a consensus on a total dollar amount needed for future school facilities or the exact structure of a future bond.”

The committee struggled to identify the state’s total school modernization costs, in part, because “California does not track the number of schools and classrooms available for use. …

“Currently, data on the number of school sites and classrooms and/or the age of the facilities in the State is unknown.”

Wilk: Put schools before bullet train

highspeedrail-300x169How likely is Wilk’s idea to gain traction in Sacramento? Brown remained a steadfast supporter of the project during his reelection campaign. However, support is wavering among other Democratic leaders and state lawmakers. Wilk’s proposal to transfer rail funds to schools could provide liberal Democrats a reason to join a burgeoning right-left alliance against the state’s rail project. contributor Chris Reed, who has reported extensively on the problems with California’s high-speed rail project, noted that one of the  biggest critics has been Kevin Drum, a reporter for the liberal Mother Jones magazine.

Drum has questioned the ridership assumptions produced by New York-based Parsons Brinkerhoff, which claimed “the high-speed rail system could carry 116 million passengers a year, based on running trains with 1,000 seats both north and south every five minutes, 19 hours a day and 365 days a year.” Drum also pointed out the potential conflict of interest: Parsons Brinkerhoff  helped fund the initiative and has a stake in the outcome.

Flaws in California’s use of school facilities

Wilk’s idea is likely to gain support among conservatives and taxpayer groups, who view the state’s high-speed rail project as an irresponsible boondoggle that enriches private companies at public expense. Since 1998, state voters have approved $35 billion in school construction and modernization bonds. The most recent state bond package, $5 billion approved in 2006, has nearly been exhausted, with just $187.3 million remaining for school construction and $142.4 million left for seismic repair.

California’s school facility repair program, much like the state’s high-speed rail project, has faced similar questions about flawed oversight and accountability. School bond funds have been spent to modernize portable school buildings, despite their shorter life spans.

“Some concerns about the current program included whether a portable can be truly modernized, as well as the concern that was also expressed in the new construction section that 30 year funds were being spent on buildings that would not have a 30 year life span,” the State Allocation Board found in its Jan. 2014 report.

Any attempt to shift the high-speed rail bonds to schools would different state political functions to the head of the class. Brown has made the rail project his baby, but also is working on reforming school finances.

The teachers’ unions are strong Brown allies. But in addition to the need for school construction and repairs, the California State Teachers Retirement System needs $4.5 billion a year from the general fund to remain solvent.

With such financial problems ahead on the train tracks, high-speed rail may be a ready candidate for the junk yard.

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Public Turning Against Dems On Education

Democrats are losing their longstanding advantage on the issue of education, according to a new poll by the centrist think tank Third Way.

As recently as 2012, voters trusted Democrats over Republicans on education by 25 percentage points or more. Now, that advantage has shrunk to only eight points, a drastically narrowed margin. Thirty-four percent of voters trust Democrats most to handle K-12 education issues, compared to 26 percent who trust Republicans most.

The poll also probed voters more deeply to see how they assessed each of the party’s positions on education, and the sentiments were often not good for Democrats. Forty-eight percent of voters and even 40 percent of teachers described Democrats as “pouring money into a broken system,” while 30 percent of voters and 25 percent of teachers agreed that Democrats put “the interests of teachers above the interests of students.” Democrats were also associated with defending the existing K-12 system and with being captured by educational special interests.

Not everything was awful for Democrats, as Republicans were more likely to be accused by both teachers and the voting public of being complacent about public schools and unwilling to make changes that could boost student performance.

However, merely breaking even with Republicans is a bad sign for Democrats, argues Third Way social policy director Lanae Hatalsky. Traditionally, she says, Democrats have relied on a big advantage in education to offset a perceived weakness in other areas, such as on national security.

Third Way argues that the poll indicates Democrats need to stop relying on voter inertia and instead take more substantive efforts to embrace reform in education. That doesn’t necessarily require them to endorse charter schools or vouchers, but could instead involve simply doing more to improve the raise expectations for teachers.

“Folks who are watching the education debates, when they do see somebody who is talking about a new idea…it seems to be more and more the Republicans who are stepping up to do that,” Hatalsky told The Daily Caller News Foundation. ”One of the things I think has been frustrating has been the unwillingness of Democrats at both the state and national level to engage with the issue. They’ve been able to avoid the question and let the Obama administration do the heavy lifting.”

Whatever Democrats do, they need to start acting fast, Hatalsky said. Republicans are expected to propose significant legislation to update No Child Left Behind in 2015, and if Democrats don’t engage with them they could decisively seize the initiative on that issue.

The poll was conducted from Nov. 11 through 16, and had a sample size of 808 general election voters along with 201 public school teachers. The margin of error for the first group was 3.5 percentage points, while for the latter group it was 7 percentage point.

This article was originally published by the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Report: New Teachers Aren’t Ready For Common Core

Even though nearly half a decade has passed since a large majority of U.S. states began converting to Common Core, most states are failing to prepare new teachers for the shift in standards, says a critical new report released today by the National Council on Teacher Quality.

NCTQ’s annual State Teacher Policy Yearbook investigates and rates states based on what policies they have in place to ensure high quality for new teachers.

This year’s report puts particular focus on the recent push by both the White House and most state governments to raise educational standards in an effort to ensure that high school graduates are “college and career-ready.”

Common Core, which is the current set of standards used in over 40 states, was designed to be “college and career-ready” and is the main set of standards referred to when policymakers talk about the topic.

College and career-ready standards are generally considered to be more demanding than those that came before, and they also involve new expectations about how educators will teach material. The most significant shifts are in reading, which is supposed to be taught with a higher number of informational texts and with a greater degree of incorporation into subjects other than English or language arts.

Despite these changes, however, the majority of states have taken half-hearted or no action whatsoever to make sure that incoming teachers grasp how reading is supposed to be taught going forward.

States fall short in a variety of ways when it comes to makes sure new teachers are prepared, NCTQ finds. For example, 14 states still do not require prospective elementary school teachers to demonstrate that they understand the science of teaching children to read, while another 19 require it but use inadequate tests. Only five states require high school teachers to pass content tests in each of the subjects they will be certified to teach.

The report does see areas of significant improvement, however. More and more states are toughening up the admissions requirements to teacher preparation programs by requiring them to have at least a 3.0 GPA or an above-average score on college admissions tests such as the SAT or ACT.

Ironically, of the five states NCTQ praises for making sufficient changes to adapt to higher standards, three of them — Texas, Indiana, and North Carolina — either do not use Common Core or are transitioning away from it.

“With such a profound change occurring in K-12 student standards across the country, it would stand to reason that parallel changes would occur on the teacher side,” said NCTQ vice president Sandi Jacobs. “States need to ensure that new teachers are adequately supported in the transition to higher standards and beyond. And there is no better place to start than where new teachers begin to learn their craft—in teacher preparation programs.”

Some of the funding for the report came from philanthropic organizations with ties to Common Core, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

This article was originally published by the Daily Caller News Foundation. 

CA Senate Jumps Into UC Tuition Fracas

Maybe kids and their parents won’t have to pay higher University of California tuition.

Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown tried to reverse UC President Janet Napolitano’s 25 percent tuition hike over five years. But she outmaneuvered him at a Board of Regents meeting.

Now the California Senate is moving to the head of the class. Senate Bill 15 is by state Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego. As his website explains:

“The proposal upgrades the State’s current financial aid system so it can support all California students more effectively and provide incentives for completing college within four years. The plan also proposes a higher tuition premium for non-resident UC students and a transition of the Middle Class Scholarship program.”

It was co-introduced by new Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles. The tuition increase for out-of-state students would top $4,000.

Although the UC and CSU systems have expressed interest in the bill, its fate will be out of their hands. The Assembly has not yet offered any enthusiasm.

The bill was a response, according to the San Jose Mercury news, of how Napolitano “put the onus on the Legislature and the governor to repair the damage: If they came up with more money, she suggested, the tuition increases would not need to be as large.”

Ending independence

A more radical bill is Senate Constitutional Amendment 1, by state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens. The bipartisan bill was co-authored by Sens. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, and Joel Anderson, R-El Cajon.

SCA1 would amendment the California Constitution to take away the UC’s independence.

“The bill doesn’t list specific powers lawmakers would have over UC, where the governor-appointed regents are currently the highest authority,” the Chronicle reported. “But, under the bill, the elected officials would have the final say over any policy approved by the regents, from tuition levels to executive compensation.”

While the UC system has controlled its finances autonomously since the original California Constitution was signed in 1848, the Cal State system faces oversight from Sacramento — an arrangement seen as a model by Lara and Cannella.

As a constitutional amendment, SCA1 would need a two-thirds vote of of both houses of the Legislature to be put before voters in 2016.


California voters have not yet weighed in on SCA1, but current polling has showcased their own frustration.

The Public Policy Institute of California found strong opposition to tuition increases and tax increases alike, with 77 percent opposing hikes that hit students, and 58 percent siding against hits to their pocketbooks.

Yet the poll also found just over half of respondents felt funding for public higher education was too low.

The desire for more spending but lower taxes and tuition will be hashed over in the Legislature, by the governor and by voters over the next several years.

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The Unapologetic Teachers Unions

The cover of the November 3rd edition of Time Magazine set off a firestorm among union leaders and many their acolytes. The offending picture is of a judge’s gavel about to smash an apple, while the accompanying text reads, “It’s nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher; some tech millionaires may have found a way to change that.”Time magazine cover teachers

The story behind the photo, “The War on Teacher Tenure,” is mostly about the Vergara decision – in which a judge found that the tenure, seniority and dismissal statutes in the California education code are unconstitutional. The article focuses on Vergara’s benefactor – David Welch, a tech titan who has found a second career as an education reformer. It’s an even-handed piece, and one certainly worthy of discussion.

But instead of addressing the merits of the article, teacher union leaders and supporters went ballistic over the mildly provocative cover. American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten said she “felt sick” when she saw it. She promptly organized a protest and circulated a petition demanding an apology from Time Magazine. The AFT claimed the cover “casts teachers as ‘rotten apples’ needing to be smashed by Silicon Valley millionaires with no experience in education.”

To its credit, Time refused to cave in to the protesters, inviting aggrieved parties to respond online instead. The teachers union claque complied, many expressing outrage at the magazine and at education “outsiders” as well. The president of the behemoth National Education Association, Lily Eskelsen Garcia, attacked the “wolves of Wall Street.” Some members of the Badass Teachers Association – a group that claims to represent 53,000 teachers – solemnly intoned, “The gavel as a symbol of corporate education, smashing the apple – the universal symbol of education – reinforces a text applauding yet another requested deathblow to teacher tenure.”

But the regnant themes of outrage and apology demands are a bit much. In fact, maybe it’s the teachers unions that need to do some mea culpas. For example:

  • Maybe AFT’s Weingarten should apologize to Marshall Tuck, who ran unsuccessfully for California School Superintendent. Her union financed a slanderous TV ad showing a businessman stealing a child’s lunch, and because some rich businessmen donated to his campaign, ridiculously asserted that Tuck would allow corporate fat cats to take over our schools. (Because there has been an influx of money from businessmen who are concerned about failing schools, the unions have concluded that school privatization is nigh. It’s a silly argument, but one that the unions try to use to rally teachers.)
  • Maybe the California Teachers Association should apologize for spending teachers’ dues money on union bosses’ personal political choices. CTA ended up spending over $10 million to defeat Tuck. But as teacher union watchdog Mike Antonucci pointed out, with the millions CTA invested in the race, only 31 percent of union households supported Tom Torlakson, while 23 percent backed Tuck and 46 percent were undecided. But the union didn’t seem to care. As Antonucci said, “The answer is that CTA practices representative democracy in reverse. Decisions are made by the small handful of officers and shop stewards who participate in union activities. Then they justify, promote and sell these decisions to the membership-at-large – using the members’ own money to do so.”
  • Maybe Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, should apologize to critics of the Common Core State Standards, which include many teachers. Doing his best thug impersonation at a recent AFT convention, he threatened, “If someone takes something from me (control of the standards), I’m going to grab it right back out of their cold, twisted, sick hands and say it is mine! You do not take what is mine! And I’m going to punch you in the face and push you in the dirt because this is the teachers’!”
  • Maybe CTA should also apologize to the children of California for appealing the Vergara decision that rendered the seniority, tenure and dismissal statutes in the state’s education code unconstitutional. In California, due to the union-inflicted tenure and dismissal statutes, on average just of two “permanent” teachers a year lose their job due to incompetence. That’s two bad apples out of about 300,000. In my almost 30 years in the classroom, there were always at least two teachers (out of 50 or so) at my school alone who shouldn’t have been in the classroom. This is not an anomaly; if you were to go into any school and ask who the incompetents are, you would hear about the same few teachers from faculty, students, their parents, the principal, the assistant principal, guidance counselors, janitors, bus drivers, school secretaries and lunch ladies.

But don’t count on teachers unions to apologize for anything. And don’t expect them to ever willingly surrender any of the onerous work rules that they have foisted on our public schools. Instead, they try to divert attention by whining about a mildly controversial magazine cover, while the rest of us – including parents, serious teachers, community members, Democrats, Republicans and yes, corporate types and tech gurus – must revert to the courts to force reforms on our failing system. American children can’t wait a minute longer for the unions to mend their ways, let alone apologize for them.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Obama Admin Plots New Teacher Training Regulations

Fed up with teacher education programs it believes routinely underperform, the Obama administration wants to compel states to start rating the programs programs based on how well they prepare students for the profession.

And teachers are not happy about it.

Recently, more focus has given to the perceived need to boost the quality of America’s teachers, especially in the country’s most struggling schools. Activists on every side of the debate have pushed a variety of solutions, from restricting tenure so that ineffective teachers can be easily fired to greatly boosting teacher pay so that better teaching candidates are attracted to the profession.

A new rule announced by the Obama administration on Tuesday night attempts to influence teacher quality at the source, in the country’s hundreds of different teacher education programs. The rule will, for the first time, compel each state to establish standards for evaluating and rating training programs for teachers. Programs that are found lacking in each particular state will in turn be punished with the loss of certain federal funds.

Currently, the federal government dispenses TEACH grants to education students who agree to begin teaching in disadvantaged schools after graduating. The grants are up to $4,000 per student and amount to over $150 million per year. Under the newly announced rule, TEACH grants will no longer be universally available, but will instead only be granted to aspiring teachers attending programs that are found to be performing well by their state.

Whether a teacher-training program is up to snuff will be based on a variety of factors, including what percentage of its graduates quickly find jobs, how well the program is evaluated by graduates, and, critically, how well graduates’ students perform on standardized tests.

The proposal to incorporate testing into the evaluation of teacher programs has many traditional Obama allies up in arms. Since students in disadvantaged schools almost always perform worse on standardized tests, they argue, the rule could end up cutting off funds to the programs that are sending the most new teachers into disadvantaged schools.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the country’s second-largest teachers union, swiftly released a statement condemning the plan, saying it showed a lack of vision.

“By replicating the K-12 test-and-punish model…the administration is simply checking a box instead of thoughtfully using regulations to help craft a sustainable solution that raises the bar for the teaching profession,” said AFT president Randi Weingarten. Weingarten added that the administration’s action would be ludicrous if applied to any other field. ”Would you rate the dental school programs that serve low-income communities, where patients come in with a high number of cavities, unsatisfactory? No,” she said.

The National Education Association (NEA), the country’s largest teacher union, was more charitable in its outlook, lauding the desire to improve teacher education but also noting that they “are opposed to the use of flawed tests and value-added measures to make high stakes decisions about students, teachers, or teacher preparation.”

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan defended the government’s proposal, telling the press that test scores are necessary to see whether students are improving under certain teachers. More broadly, he said, a federal nudge was needed because many states are failing to hold teacher education programs accountable in any way.

Foes, however, might be able to use the Department of Education’s own rhetoric against it. In a press release announcing the planned rule, the Department lauded recent efforts in over ten states to either collect more information on their teacher prep programs or hike the admissions requirements at the schools themselves. If so many states are making progress as-is, opponents might reasonably suggest that a federal intrusion is unnecessary and could potentially hinder further innovation at the state level.

Unhappy teachers will have ample time to work against the proposed rule if they so choose. While the final rule publication is planned for 2015, states would only be expected to start gathering the relevant data in 2016, and full implementation with the potential loss of federal funding will only arrive at the end of the decade, as Obama is leaving office.

This article was originally published by the Daily Caller News Foundation

L.A. Superintendent Deasy’s Defeat

John Deasy is a blunt man with little use for nuance. At times, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District seems to enjoy getting in people’s faces. As Doug McIntyre observed in the Los Angeles Daily News,“Even Deasy’s supporters acknowledge he can be prickly, humorless, stubborn and thin-skinned.” Others describe him as bull-headed and impatient. School board member Steve Zimmer observes that Deasy often used a sledgehammer—sometimes joyfully so—when a scalpel would have sufficed. Deasy’s deficit of politesse drew the ire of the teachers’ union from the beginning of his three-and-a-half year tenure and eventually cost him friends and allies on the board. Sensing his days in Los Angeles were numbered, he tendered his resignation on October 16.John Deasy

Deasy’s record is mixed. He had some success in bringing teacher evaluations into the twenty-first century. He championed charter schools. He supported California’s parent-trigger law, which empowers parents at an underperforming school to force a change of governance. After the Miramonte Elementary School sexual-abuse case in 2012, Deasy enacted a zero-tolerance policy that led to the dismissal of more than 100 teachers for misconduct and the resignation of about 200 others in lieu of termination. He also testified on behalf of the plaintiffs in Vergara v. California, the class-action lawsuit in which Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu ruled that the state’s archaic seniority, tenure, and dismissal statutes were unconstitutional.

Reformers give Deasy credit for the district’s improved test results. Even though test scores did go up somewhat under his tenure, it’s difficult to attribute that improvement to Deasy. A recent Brookings Institution study found that superintendents on average account for just “0.3 percent of differences in student achievement.” Deasy’s supporters also say he reduced the district’s dropout rate, but their argument relies on some fuzzy math. In April 2013, LAUSD reported a 66 percent graduation rate. Last month, the district proudly announced its graduation rate had improved to 77 percent. That higher rate was made possible by excluding students in “alternative schools” — where the graduation rates can be as low as 5 percent—and so-called “invisible dropouts,” who leave during or after middle school. They don’t count as high school dropouts because they never dropped in.

Deasy undercut his successes with expensive, unforced errors. A wildly ambitious, $1.3 billion plan to put Apple iPads into the hands of every district student was a debacle. Last year’s rollout began amid confusion. Would the students be allowed to take the devices home? Who would be responsible for tablets that were lost or stolen? Many students breached their iPads’ security locks and used the devices for non-academic purposes. Deasy halted the program in August after e-mails revealed he had discussed a possible contract with Apple before the official bidding process began. The “MiSiS crisis” followed on the heels of the iPad scandal. The district launched an online school-information system that was nowhere near ready, resulting in thousands of students starting the school year without class schedules. The new system also couldn’t generate transcripts that seniors needed for college applications.

The superintendent’s ambitious reforms and high-profile failures made him an easy target for the United Teachers of Los Angeles. In April 2013, the union launched a “Whoopsie Deasy” campaign with the goal of ousting him. The UTLA encouraged teachers to give the superintendent a “no-confidence” vote, listing ten reasons it considered him a menace to the teaching profession. These included a six-year salary freeze; the allegation that “testing was overtaking teaching”; and the assertion that Deasy was too cozy with “billionaire outsiders.” The effort resonated with the union rank-and-file, who obligingly delivered the no-confidence vote by a roughly ten-to-one margin. But the UTLA regularly savaged Deasy for the same reason the reformers cheered him on: He came to the job seeking to shake up the sclerotic system, and viewed the union and its cronies on the school board as impediments to his pro-child agenda.

Overseeing the second-largest school district in the United States is a thankless and difficult job even for managers with less appetite for reform than Deasy. Consider the parade of L.A. school superintendents over the past 14 years. Former New York City schools chancellor Ramon Cortines held the job briefly in 2000, before former Colorado governor Roy Romer replaced him in July of that year. Retired Navy admiral David Brewer succeeded Romer in 2006. Cortines returned for two years in 2009. Deasy replaced him in 2011. Now the octogenarian Cortines is back for a third stint, this time as “interim” superintendent. How long he’ll stay is anyone’s guess.

Deasy’s departure raises the question of whether LAUSD is manageable by anyone. Is a district encompassing 31 cities, covering 720 square miles, with 655,000 students speaking 87 languages, taught by 32,000 teachers, and aided by a support staff of 35,000 simply too big to succeed? Wouldn’t it make more sense to break up the district? It’s not a new idea. The San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles tried to secede from the city in 2002, in part over dissatisfaction with the schools. Voters outside the valley overwhelmingly opposed the secession referendum, so it failed. In 2004, former state assembly speaker turned mayoral candidate Bob Hertzberg promised he would lead “a task force of teachers, parents, principals and other experts to come up with a plan to create smaller, community-based districts.” Hertzberg lost. Two years later, state Assemblyman Keith Richman introduced a bill to split LAUSD into more than a dozen smaller districts, overseen by a commission of mayors, university professors, and the state superintendent of public instruction. The bill didn’t pass. Most recently, Marc Litchman, who unsuccessfully challenged veteran Democratic congressman Brad Sherman to represent a district in the western San Fernando Valley, promised his first bill would be aimed at splitting up L.A. Unified. “The schools have to perform,” Litchman said. “They’re not performing to the level we all hoped they would. In Los Angeles, the biggest barrier to that is the school district.”

If the district is the biggest barrier to student success, it is also the biggest barrier to dissolution. Former state senator Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles Democrat, told me that splitting L.A. Unified “would be the messiest, most costly divorce ever.” She says the various laws and regulations governing the district are “written in such a way, with so many twists and turns and back alleys to navigate, that even those who control that dysfunctional maze … probably [couldn’t] find a way out.”

Absent a change in the law or a radical shift in public opinion, L.A. Unified students and families likely will remain stuck with business as usual. And it’s difficult to imagine the school board hiring another provocateur as Deasy’s permanent replacement. As National Council on Teacher Quality president Kate Walsh told L.A. School Report after Deasy’s resignation: “I don’t know a single person on earth who would want that terrible job. It won’t be a change agent. It will be a status quo candidate who will make life pleasant for himself by enjoying all the wrapping of the superintendency and being smart enough not to try and change a thing.” That might be a politically savvy move — but a complete disservice to L.A.’s kids.

This article was originally published at

Thousands Boycott Colorado Standardized Tests

A much-feared boycott of standardized tests has come to fruition in Colorado, with thousands of students in some of the state’s top-performing school districts opting out of new standardized tests in an act of collective protest.

The boycott was expected, but its scale was not. According to data collected by the Denver Post, about 1,900 students at nine different high schools in Douglas County have refused to take the tests, a number that represents over half the relevant student body at those schools. In Boulder County, another 1,200 are believed to have defied the tests. In some individual schools, the boycott is almost total with over 95 percent of students participating.

The tests in question are Colorado’s CMAS tests in social studies and science. In particular, ire is being directed at the administration of the tests to high school seniors, which is happening for the first time this year. While there has been a great deal of fuss nationwide over Common Core multistate standards and their intersection with standardized tests, the protests in Colorado are actually unrelated, as Common Core only covers English and math.

Provided the students had their abstentions justified, they are not in danger of being punished for their actions.
Still, many students held protests outside their schools to make the point that they were seeking change rather than simply playing hooky.

The changes sought by students are summarized in a YouTube video created by some student leaders.

The criticisms leveled against the new CMAS tests are diverse. One major complaint is the cost of the tests. Developing and administering the tests costs tens of millions of dollars that could be put towards other education priorities like better books or improved facilities.

Students also complain that testing highs school seniors is gratuitous, as the tests’ fall administration interferes with college applications and produces results that aren’t even released until after students graduate.

Even if testing were a good idea, students complaint that the test as currently written doesn’t closely align with what they are taught. For example, the social studies test includes an economics component, even though Colorado does not require high schoolers to take any economics.

Others have criticized the effect the tests have on other students’ learning. At several high schools classes for freshmen, sophomore, and juniors were canceled entirely for the two days it takes to administer.

Several educational officials, including the state’s education commissioner and local superintendents, have expressed a degree of sympathy for the demonstrating students, but the only body with the power to alter the state’s test regimen is the Colorado legislature. A task force commissioned by the legislature is currently evaluating the state’s tests and will make recommendations come January.

Some school officials had begged parents to not launch the boycott, since schools that fail to sustain at least 95 percent test participation and have their accreditation rating lowered by the state. Consistently poor accreditation can trigger a host of penalties that schools would rather avoid.

This article was originally published on the Daily Caller News Foundation.

Parent Power Returns In Los Angeles

The new superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District has announced an abrupt reversal of a policy limiting parents’ ability to fix underperforming schools.

Since 2010, California’s public schools have subject to a so-called “parent trigger” law. The law allows the parents of children attending schools that have repeatedly demonstrated low performance to band together and take over the schools’ managment. Parents taking such an action can do things such as fire the principal or convert a school into a charter school.

While the law has only been used a handful of times in the past four years, the prospect of having LAUSD’s authority overthrown by a coalition of parents was off-putting to many of LAUSD’s educational bureaucrats. In August, then-Superintendent John Deasy boldly asserted that LAUSD was actually exempt from the law. Because LAUSD had received a special federal waiver from No Child Left Behind requirements that are also used to determine whether a school can be triggered, Deasy said the district’s schools were also by extension could not trigger a parent takeover.

Just two months after staking his claim, though, Deasy tumbled from power, pressured into resigning after a series of controversies that included the bungled implementation of a billion-dollar program to give an iPad to every LAUSD student.

Now, Deasy’s replacement, Ramon Cortines, has abandoned Deasy’s position on the parent trigger law, though he has refused to describe the move as a policy reversal.

“I think it is a part of giving parents a choice,” Cortines told the Los Angeles Times. “If they want to do something I need to support it.”

The announcement will protect LAUSD from any potential lawsuits spearheaded by the groups Parent Revolution, an LA-based reform organization that spearheaded the trigger law’s creations and has organized trigger campaigns in the city. Parent Revolution deputy director Gabe Rose, who told The Daily Caller News Foundation last August that a lawsuit was possible if the district did not change course, told the Los Angeles Times Tuesday night that the organization is already planning several different parent trigger campaigns in the city. The group, Rose said, had never viewed Deasy’s position as remotely tenable and had done nothing to curb its organizing efforts while the policy was in place.

Cortines’s shift on parental triggers is the latest in a series of rapid changes he has made since replacing Deasy. After scarcely three weeks in office, he has already induced the district’s chief technology officer to resign over the iPad debacle and a similar problem implementing school scheduling software, and has also announced an ambitious plan to reorganize the district to increase the autonomy of regional administrators.

This piece was originally posted on the Daily Caller News Foundation