Category Archives: NEA

The Washington State Supreme Court’s Charter School Ruling: What it Means and What it Doesn’t

If you have paid much attention to school choice news from across the country, you’ve heard that the Washington State Supreme Court delivered a monumental ruling on September 4th regarding the state’s new charter school law. In a 6-3 decision, the state’s high court ruled that the state’s charter school law (Proposition I-1240) violates the Washington State Constitution. At issue was whether charter schools in Washington may be characterized as “common schools”. This is important in Washington because the state’s constitution requires that state public school funding only be used to support common schools. In its decision, the Court deemed that because the boards of Washington’s charter schools are appointed and not elected, they may not be considered common schools, and thus are ineligible to be funded by common school funding.  

Forty-two states and the District of Columbia now have charter schools in operation. The nation’s first charter school law was passed in Minnesota in 1991. The Washington Supreme Court’s ruling marked the first time a state court has found charter school funding be be in violation of a state constitution. So as you can imagine, the ruling has sent shock waves through the charter school and school choice communities, not only in Washington, but across the United States.

What Does the Future Hold for Charter Schools in Washington State?

While charter school advocates and parents of children attending the new charter schools in Washington are working around the clock to save their new schools, in the short term, the likelihood of saving them is slim. While fundraising efforts of charter school supporters in Washington and nationally have been valiant, it”s not likely to be enough. Further, if the schools are not tax-payer funded, in my estimation at least, they may no longer be considered to be public schools.

There is no appeal’s process for the court’s decision. The Washington Supreme Court has spoken and their word is final. Just as with the U.S. Supreme Court and matters relating to the U.S. Constitution, the Washington Supreme Court is as far as it goes in Washington. In short, the Washington state constitution says what the Washington Supreme Court says it says.

All is not lost, however; at least not in the long term. Charter school advocates in Washington intend to revisit the state’s law. The Washington Supreme Court’s ruling was that charter schools in the state cannot be considered common schools because their boards are appointed and not elected. Charter advocates are now gearing up for another ballot initiative (Washington’s charter school law came as the result of a ballot initiative) which would amend the law to have charter schools boards as elected rather than appointed. Such a change would likely/maybe/possibly satisfy the Washington Supreme Court. As we saw with this case, however, the Washington Education Association is an extremely formidable foe for charter school advocates. We’ll just have to see what happens.

Implications for Charter Schools Across the U.S.

Outside of Washington state, education leaders, and policymakers, and parents are asking what the implications of the Washington Supreme Court’s decision might be for charter school policy and charter schools in other states. While the Washington state ruling does not apply to charter schools or charter school laws in other states, I do expect to see teachers unions lead (with renewed vigor) campaigns in other states to challenge the constitutionality of charter schools. My guess is the vast majority of those efforts will be unsuccessful, but there is definitely the possibility of success in some places. Charter school laws are different from state to state, and state constitutions have different provisions from state to state. Further complicating the issue is the reality that state courts have different political leanings from state to state; some which lean Right and tend to be more supportive of choice policies, and some which lean Left and tend to be much less supportive of school choice policy.

In short, the Washington ruling doesn’t signal the beginning of the end for charter schools in the U.S. As I’ve said many times and in many places before, charter schooling is now a permanent fixture of the public education landscape in the U.S. The ruling does, however, highlight a potential strategy for charter school opponents in other states. The politics of school choice has always been interesting, and it promises to remain that way.

The NEA’s Call for Duncan’s Resignation: Latest Strike in a Battle the NEA will Lose

The leadership of the National Educational Association (NEA) is mad, and on July 4th that anger reached a boiling point when delegates passed a new business item calling for the resignation of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. While historically, teachers unions including the NEA have been staunch supporters of Democrat administrations, the relationship between the NEA and the Obama administration has been a strained one, largely because of the Obama administration’s support of key elements of an education reformist agenda which includes financial support for the expansion of charter schools, the continuance of the DC school voucher program, reform of teacher evaluation to include student performance, and most notably now, reform of teacher tenure and seniority rules. The Obama administration’s support for such reforms has earned President Obama and Secretary Duncan a place on the NEA’s ‘not so nice’ list. Officially, the new business item stated that it was necessary to call for Secretary Duncan’s resignation because of the U.S. Department of Education’s “failed education agenda focused on more high-stakes testing, grading and pitting public school students against each other based on test scores, and for continuing to promote policies and decisions that undermine public schools and colleges, the teaching education professionals, and education unions.”

Duncan has flat out dismissed the NEA’s call for his resignation. In a recent AP article, Duncan is quoted as saying, “I always try to stay out of local union politics. I think most teachers do too.” Though brief, Duncan’s comment is clever dig at the union. Duncan is making the claim, which I largely agree with, that although the NEA’s leadership claims to be the voice of teachers, most teachers are not involved in the development of the union’s policy agenda and are not typically well-informed on the inner-workings and maneuvering of the union’s leadership. I go even further than Duncan and assert that many teachers, particularly younger teachers, are not supportive of the policy agenda, policy stances, and tactics of the NEA. And for that reason, I am very careful to distinguish between the voice the NEA’s leadership and the voice of teachers; I am convinced that on a variety of important policy issues their voices are not in harmony.

This call for Secretary Duncan’s resignation is the NEA’s latest move in a battle that’s gone on for about a decade now; a battle that in the end, the NEA is sure to lose. Democratic administration’s have historically been the NEA’s allies, holding off the progressive education reform ideas of conservatives. That day has passed. Much of the education reform agenda is supported and even advocated for by growing numbers of Democrats and political independents. If the next president elected is a Republican the NEA is sunk. They don’t stand a chance of reversing the education reform tide which includes the expansion of school choice, tenure reform (and in some states tenure elimination), teacher evaluation based in part on student performance, and tying teachers’ pay to their performance. But even if the next president is a Democrat, the likelihood of that Democrat being from the extreme liberal end of the party is none; it will not happen. Whether the next president is a Democrat or a Republican, s/he will have to live and lead from a more moderate than extreme position; and it is the more moderate Democrats, or neo-liberals, that are becoming more and more supportive of the education reform agenda that the NEA is fighting against.

In the end, the NEA will lose this battle. Education policy does have a tendency to shift somewhat like a pendulum, but there are pieces of the current education reform agenda that are here to stay. Charter schools and public school choice aren’t going anywhere. Public school choice will become central to public schooling, everywhere. Teachers will be evaluated at least in part based on the performance of their students; what that measurement will look like will vary from state to state and may change over time, but the days of teacher evaluation not having a student performance component are soon to be over. Tenure for teachers will go away in some places and will look radically different in most other places. School administrators will have increased authority with the hiring and removal of teachers. The days of collective bargaining agreements protecting ineffective senior teachers while more junior effective teachers are dismissed will be ending very soon. Teaching will no longer be a profession where you can go a job pretty easily, join the union, get tenure for sticking around for four years, and have a safe position for the rest of your career.

The NEA is fighting for relevance and survival. ‘The organization’s leadership knows that Secretary Duncan won’t consider resigning based on their call, and the fact that the largest teachers union in the country can call for the Secretary of Education’s resignation and most Americans won’t even take their call seriously is an indicator of the organization’s waning influence on educational leadership and educational policy. I do believe there is a future for the NEA, but not as a labor union. Teachers are not labor. Teachers are professionals. My hope is that the NEA’s new leadership will take the opportunity during this time of transition for teachers and public schooling to reform itself into the world-class professional association that America’s teachers need and deserve.

Why There Is No Charter School Law in Kentucky

I run into friends and colleagues quite often (in Kentucky) who are surprised when I tell them that there is still no law allowing for the creation of charter schools in Kentucky. I would say their surprise is warranted given that 47 states and the District of Columbia now have some form of charter school legislation. So today’s post is for my fellow Kentuckians; those friends and colleagues that after finding that we have no law, ask me why not. The truth my friends is that teacher unions’ money and Kentuckians’ contentment with our schools have stopped us from passing a charter school law. 

  • Believe it or not, Kentuckians are pretty pleased with the outcomes of our education system. In fact, some of us think our state’s schools are pretty darn good!! And maybe they are; the new Quality Counts rankings in Edweek came out just today and Kentucky ranked #14 in the nation! Out of sight!! Never mind the enormous, shameful achievement gaps that have persisted for generations in schools all across Kentucky; or that there are schools in parts of our state that should be shut down and never reopened; or that only a small fraction of our high school graduates leave high school prepared for the rigors of college. If you can just get past those little things, we’re really doing a hell of a job in Kentucky! And who would have thought it? I know I had no idea. It is truly the best kept secret in America. But probably not for long; with the release of the Quality Counts rankings we are likely to have a hard time keeping parents from Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee from sneaking across the state line to get their kids into our Kentucky schools. 
  • Kentucky’s teacher unions/professional associations have lots of Democrat legislators under their thumb. These organizations heavily fund the campaigns of many Democrat legislators. The unions pretend that they oppose charter schools on the grounds that charters will be detrimental to Kentucky children, but in reality they oppose charter schools because they would threaten the job security of ineffective teachers. Can’t have that, now can we!! So they persuade/bully Democrat leaders in the Kentucky legislature to oppose even open and honest conversations about the issue; and they spread lies to their members (teachers) and to the public about charter schools. And are these legislators willing to stand up to the unions, their campaign funders, and say that we must have an open and honest dialogue about charter schools? Of course they are not. Why not? Because their next election is just around the corner, and they can’t count on the parents of children in failing schools to fund their campaigns.
The political landscape in Kentucky is pretty complicated for sure. I don’t mean to trivialize or oversimplify the issue, but the simple reality is that Kentucky has no charter school law because Kentuckians are pretty content with the schools we have, and the very well funded teacher unions/professional associations do a great job of keeping the Democrats in the legislature in line. Until one or both of those realities change, there will be no charter schools in Kentucky.

Teacher Unionism Must Evolve (Part I)

Teacher unionism has found itself under attack across much of the Midwest for most of the last year. The purpose of this post is not to debate the finer issues of the proposed policy changes affecting unions in states like Indiana and Ohio; rather, my intent here is to begin to articulate a vision for what teacher unionism could and I would argue should become.

I believe the conceptualization of teacher unions as labor unions, and thus teachers as labor, is an outdated one, and in some ways I would argue that it never truly fit. Teachers are not laborers. Teaching is a high skilled profession which requires considerable educational preparation and continued education and professional development for the rest of a teacher’s career. Good teachers devote an inordinate amount of time, effort, and resources to their own professional development and continued improvement. These realities make the professional association a much better fit for the form of an organization whose intent is to support teachers. But the shift from unions to professional associations is much more than just a shift in terminology. Along with the shift in name must come some rather substantive changes in how these organizations function.
  • First, teacher professional associations would need to a better job of holding their memberships to high professional standards. Put differently, teacher professional associations must do a much better job of policing the teaching profession. Gone is the day when these groups could pretend that all teachers are alike. Just like any other profession, teachers’ performance and abilities exist along a continuum, ranging from the high performing and very talented to those who should find another profession. It is very clear that performance accountability at the school, leader, and teacher levels are becoming and will remain a part of public education. I believe teachers’ professional associations have the opportunity to lead this charge and help inform important policy decisions about how to best hold teachers and schools accountable. But as a precursor to this, associations must recognize and openly admit that there are teachers that should be put out of teaching. Simply paying dues to the organization does not mean that a teacher is worth fighting for. Teacher professional associations must get to the place where they are more invested than administrators or policy makers in removing bad teachers from schools. That is the way it should be. It is teachers’ profession and teachers should be the ones most interested in protecting it.
I will continue to articulate my vision for teacher unionism in coming posts. For anyone who questions my intentions, let me say for the record that I am not one who believes organizations like the NEA or the AFT should go away. In fact, I believe quite the opposite. I am a past member of both organizations (United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) & North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE). I believe these organizations and their local affiliates can and should play a major role in education reform and improvement, but they must change.

NEA Change of Heart on Merit Pay?

Speaking to members of the National Education Association (NEA) at their annual meeting, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan challenged union members to consider the idea of linking teacher pay to student achievement- www.usatoday.com/news/education/2009-07-02-teacher-pay_N.htm?obref=obinsite  Surprisingly, Duncan’s comments were met with what USA Today reported as “raucous applause and only a smattering of boos.” I think this is pretty big news. Both the NEA and the AFT (American Federation of Teachers) have been incredibly resistant to this idea. I don’t want to read to much into this, but could their response be a sign that the NEA is in the midst of an ideological shift regarding their stance on teacher merit pay. Or could it be that they see the writing on the wall that big reform is coming, like it or not, and it might be more advantageous to sit at the table and help decide what it’s going to look like than to continue to fight a battle that they will inevitably lose. 

What do you think?