December 31, 2006

Working Toward Education Reform

Marc Comtois

It being the end of the year, the ProJo produced a piece detailing the public policy goals of various Ocean State political leaders. Among the topics was education reform:

Lawmakers dole out more than $699 million in school aid to their home cities and towns, but it has been years since the state had a fixed formula for determining who gets what.

Since school costs are a major component of local property taxes, House Majority Leader Gordon D. Fox said, there has to be a discussion of “what is adequate funding of education.”

Fueling the discussion will be a legislative study commission’s report on education financing, due March 1.

Fox expects it “will come with a high number of what you need per pupil to adequately educate a student,” and that will force discussion about a whole array of cost-saving issues “that people sort of whisper about, but really haven’t wrapped their arms around and tackled.” He cites as an example: how much can be saved by “regionalizing or centralizing” school purchasing.

“I don’t think you are going to see anything substantive coming this year based upon the timing of the report,” but “I think there is going to be enough information generated … where we will be remiss if we don’t begin those discussions.”

Does that mean the lawmakers are open to discussion about a single statewide teachers contact? “Absolutely.” A single health insurance contract? “Absolutely.” A further consolidation of school districts? “Absolutely,” Fox said.

Montalbano and Paiva Weed agreed it might be difficult to implement changes in the same year the report comes out, but they expect it to lead to action by 2008.

Asked about a statewide teacher contract, statewide health insurance contract for teachers and consolidation of school districts, they didn’t close the door, but Paiva Weed said, “Generally speaking, the executive branch has taken the lead on those issues.”

For his part, Carcieri also wants to continue to focus on education – but don’t expect him to head to lawmakers for much in that area. Instead, he plans to push officials at the Department of Education to implement more changes through their own rule-making procedures to – among other things – improve English skills, especially in the urban school districts.

He also envisions a closer link between the Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls school districts. Last session, he proposed and lawmakers rejected, a combined district. This time, the governor says, he wants “some type of cooperation.”

“Let me put it that way,” Carcieri said, “because when you talk about consolidation everybody gets nervous. But clearly the state’s got the biggest stake in all of those systems.”

But when it comes to consolidation, Montalbano, whose district includes a slice of Pawtucket, said: “I don’t see that happening this year.” Those districts “have very difficult populations to begin with,” he said.

Looks like a lot of talk and no action in 2007. Meanwhile, Julia Steiny writes about a new report, "Tough Choices or Tough Times," put out by The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. Steiny quotes specifically from the Executive Summary and also provides analysis regarding some of their proposals. The New Commission recommends more local control at the school level--though funding would still be dispersed, if more equitably, through the state. That would mean that teachers and parents would decide how money was spent and how to design the curriculum (so long as state and federal guidlines were followed). According to the report, however, the current system has inherent roadblocks that make any reform extremely difficult. That is why The New Commission is basically calling for a complete restructuring of our nation's education system. As Steiny concludes:
Opponents of site-based management and charter schools, which are self-managed, fret that autonomous school personnel might make a lot of horrible mistakes and crash the car. Too late. The car already crashed.

But as the report says, “The problem is not with our educators. It is with the system in which they work.”

Bureaucracies are great at organizing food service, transportation and back office functions. But they are no good at caring for kids.

In the end, the commission believes that applying a 19th century industrial mindset to the organization of schools in the 21st century is no longer tenable if the U.S. hopes to compete in the global marketplace. For Rhode Island, it's high time our Legislature come up with an equitable, student based funding structure. It's an attainable goal and will be the first step in much needed reform. It's also time for adults to put their egos aside and stop worrying about who controls what and how much and from where. The goal is to provide the best possible education system for our children. What adults "get" is secondary.

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To achieve quality in this arena would require introducing basic quality management practices:

Competent people coming in the door (not the products of diploma mill “Colleges of Education”);

Meritocracy within the workplace, i.e., elimination of tenure and seniority;

Risk / reward mechanisms tied to actual accomplishment, i.e., real possibility of termination for poor performance coupled with incentives (financial and otherwise) for improving and/or achieving superior performance.

All of the above are anathemas to the teachers unions, ergo, the teachers unions are diametrically opposed to quality “public education” … if for no other reason than to protect its current membership, which experience tells us is overwhelmingly semi-skilled coming in the door, and mediocre thereafter, and so view any regime promoting performance or accountability as a potentially fatal threat to their “professional” careers.

In turn, the teachers unions enjoy a symbiotic relationship – if not controlling relationship - with the Democrat Party. Naturally, it’s even worse here in RI.

So as long as teachers unions are allowed to exist, “public education” will remain mired in mediocrity (and worse).

In theory, Rhode Island, being a small state, could repeal the 1966 statute permitting teacher unions in this state, and with that step of becoming a state that is “teacher union free” start down the path toward being a trendsetter to restoring “public education” to being the primary first step of the ladder of upward mobility, rather than its current status as extended daycare until graduation into adult burger-flipper status.

Of course, so long as the Democrats remain in control in this State, they will protect the teachers unions, and thus “public education” will inevitably remain of poor quality.

In the short term, the best we can do is:

Try to hold the line on further increases in school budgets, as experience has shown that it is wasted money, doing nothing but further enriching (and empowering) the teachers unions;

Keep spreading the word that there is an inherent contradiction between the philosophies and practices espoused by teachers unions and being a “professional” … and if teachers really wish to be professionals (both in fact and public perception) they themselves should be advocating to become “union free”;

Keep spreading the word that the continued presence of teachers unions in Rhode Island is a civil rights issue, because their continued presence is holding down the upward mobility of minority students (wealthier families can escape the “public school” system);

Keep spreading the word that the Democrat Party’s fealty to the teachers unions is also a civil rights issue, for the reasons cited above;

Keep spreading the word that the Democrat Party’s fealty to the teachers unions is also a senior citizens issue – property taxes are so high because of the teachers unions’ outrageous compensation packages (when adjusting for equivalent work hours and pensions, the average teacher makes the equivalent of well into a six-figure income). Explain that perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad if the school systems were producing results commensurate with the financial input, but that they haven’t and won’t … so that so long as the Democrats remain in control, and take orders from the insatiable teachers unions, seniors should expect continuous increases in property taxes and thus, potentially, the loss of their homes.

Keep spreading the word that the teachers unions exist here only because the Democrat General Assembly has given them permission, they have no Constitutional or inherent right to continue to darken this state with their continued presence. The elimination of teachers strikes, “work to rule” and the beginning down the path to restoring quality education is a mere “repeal” away – the Democrat General Assembly can do that at any time. So why won’t they?

Keep spreading the word that the Democrats’ continued protection of the teachers unions demonstrates that, notwithstanding their rhetoric, once “push comes to shove” Democrats are anti-child, anti-minority advancement and anti-senior homeowner.

Rhode Island is small enough that we could set a realistic goal of having not just one of the best public school systems in the United States, but one which is truly “world class” (the U.S. overall only ranks about 24th in the world). Not only would this benefit the children of today, it would provide a great impetus of economic development in this State.

But so long as the teachers unions are allowed to exist here, it will be but a pipedream. The Democrats know this - have you ever heard a Rhode Island Democrat even pay lip service to the idea of “word class” public education here? Of course not!

This purposeful, cynical and destructive Democrat support of the teachers unions demonstrates that when it comes to a bankruptcy of morality and ethics, Rhode Island Democrats do not limit themselves solely to political corruption.

Posted by: Ragin' Rhode Islander at December 31, 2006 12:58 PM

Ahhh. Every word, Ragin' Rhode Islander.

The rhetoric employed when a new contract is negotiated is priceless: the requisite tax increases are "for the chi-hhh-ldren". Of course, anyone who succeeds in making this statement with a straight face deserves an Oscar nomination as the skyrocketing cost per pupil seen in all Rhode Island school districts for the last ten years has in no way been paced by student performance.

The ugly little secret about unionization is that bad teachers get protected and promoted. How is this "for the chi-hhh-ldren"?

Further to RRI's observation "rather than its current status as extended daycare", if the only response of teacher union reps to the increasing chasm between teacher compensation and student performance is, "it's everyone else's fault", then we need to have done with contracts and a system that puts mediocrity far ahead of students and bring in baby sitters for twelve years.

Posted by: SusanD at December 31, 2006 3:37 PM

If I recall correctly, there was a Republican candidate running against Joanne Giannini, a Dem who needs to be taken down. Was the fact that this guy was a Mass. teacher the reason the GOP wouldn't get behind him? (I realize there's a lot of teacher bashing here, but his union activity there would have no impact here.)
P.S. One of the best teachers I had in high school was a Republican state rep.

Posted by: Rhody at December 31, 2006 8:03 PM

You know, I don't necessarily disagree with a few of the points Ragin' made. Well, perhaps the one about unions protecting mediocre performers.

However, as a denizen of the corporate world, I've got to tell you that performance reviews aren't always the great tool Jack Welch claims they are. Rather, they are often subject to...subjectivity and personal opinion rather than strict adherence to "metrics" of whatever sort.

The real reason that teachers' salaries seem so outrageous is because the median wage for Americans is something like $800 LESS than it was in 1977. That means that taxpayers salaries are not keeping track with teachers' salaries. Hence, the squeeze caused by property taxes.

Oh, and those "tax cuts" Reagan and Bush "gave" you? Well, guess what. A lot of that was swallowed by significant increases in state and local taxes, since local gov'ts had to make up the shortfall caused by reduced federal revenues.

What's the solution to that problem? Break the unions so we can drive teachers' salaries into the dirt?

Really, what I read here is less a legitimate attempt to come to grips with a problem (and I admit one exists) than an ideological screed against Unions and Democrats. Now, both may be warranted, but will that really address the issue?

IMHO, consolidation of school districts is the essential first step. To have 39 separate districts in a population of 1 million is highly redundant. And yet, suggest that and listen for the howls of protest.

The attempt to pin this all on the unions is a diversion, based on ideology, not facts. Corporate profits are at record levels; productivity has been through the roof, but the vast majority of Americans have not benefited. Address that issue, share the wealth with the workers and the problem teachers' salaries will take care of itself.

Posted by: klaus at December 31, 2006 9:31 PM

PS. And, of course, not a one of those 23 countries who placed ahead of the US in that ranking Ragin' refers to have teachers' unions.

I mean, Finland, or Sweden, or Germany, or (horrors!)France, wouldn't happen to be ahead of us, would they?

Of course not. Your ideology says that can't possibly happen.

Posted by: klaus at December 31, 2006 10:20 PM

The GOP did not get behind the teacher running against Giannini because the guy was a gay man.The GOP would never back a gay for any post.
Remember Steve Laffey's college "rants"

Posted by: jay at December 31, 2006 11:49 PM

As you stated - "Corporate profits are at record levels; productivity has been through the roof." This has happened in the private sector, while the public sector has witnessed no productivity gains whatsoever, ie student performance, and massive deficits, etc.
You can chirp all you want and defend public sector unions, however, it is quite clear where the problem lies. The structure of governments and all that they run is dictated by public sector unions. These are unlike private sector unions that, if they overreach, will have companies shut down and jobs eliminated. Public sector unions enjoy absolute monopolies and are true socialist organizations. Socialism is a failed ideology. While you are not alone, klaus, it is your thinking that is flawed.

Posted by: Jim at January 1, 2007 12:07 PM

faulty premise on the tax cuts - revenues went up not down. Check your facts. And comparing to other countries is not apples to apples. Sweden for one has a voucher system.

Posted by: WJF at January 1, 2007 4:54 PM

Unions are not ashamed to admit their job is to support the teachers, but rarely do they admit that this will come at the expense of students. Here is proof that it can - a teacher sends (sexually) inappropriate emails to a student. Due to the union protection, it takes 6 years to terminate the teacher (while he continued to get paid).

Posted by: WJF at January 1, 2007 5:04 PM

Excerpt from the article WJF cites:

"The regulations are so onerous that principals rarely even try to fire a teacher. Most just put the bad ones in pretend-work jobs, or sucker another school into taking them. (They call that the "dance of the lemons.") The city payrolls include hundreds of teachers who have been deemed incompetent, violent, or guilty of sexual misconduct. Since the schools are afraid to let them teach, they put them in so-called "rubber rooms" instead. There they read magazines, play cards, and chat, at a cost to New York taxpayers of $20 million a year."

Posted by: SusanD at January 1, 2007 8:04 PM

Jim: read the whole post. Corporate profits are UP, in large part, because wages are DOWN.

In other words, companies are sitting on piles of cash because they're not giving raises that keep up with inflation.

WJF: No. You are flat, dead wrong.

REAL gov't revenue fell every year after the tax cuts of 2001. Revenue only recovered to 2001 levels in 2005. I suggest you check your facts. And that's facts: not what Rush, or Hannity, or O'Reilly or any of those bozos tell you. Try the CBO, BLS, BEA...

Or do I need to explain the difference between Real and Nominal increases?

It just blows my mind that pro-business types don't seem to have much of a clue about how business operates.

Posted by: klaus at January 2, 2007 8:29 PM

Klaus, the employees of these profitable corporations have entered into their employment agreement voluntarily. They are free to end that relationship at any time if they are unhappy. They could go find a better situation at another company, find a better position at the same company, or even try to start their own company if they wish. It is all up to them, they can act using their own free will. That is what makes the free market much more honest, if you will (though not perfect), and more efficient. Competition is a healthy characteristic in any arena.

Look at RI for a moment. What percentage of RI’s population represents the disadvantaged employees that work for the corporations you are harping about? A very small percentage would be my guess. How are the majority of us, all the non employees, hurt by these corporations? Don’t forget most us have retirement plans that depend on the increased value that is derived from these corporate profits. In a sense we are all very dependent on corporate profits when it comes to our pensions and retirement plans. We all directly benefit from their profits.

Now what percentage of RI’s population benefits from the teacher unions? Clearly only the rank and file of teachers themselves stands to benefit. The rest of us are directly negatively impacted by unnessarily high property taxes that come at the expense of all else at the local level. And their product is mediocre, which hurts our children.

No one wants to drive teacher pay into the dirt nor did Ragin suggest that. What people (including local elected officials) want and should have is a real say into how their money is spent at least at the local level. The leverage that the teacher unions wield over the towns thanks to RI state law prohibits this. Pointing this out in the hope of correcting what has turned out to be a terrible mistake offers hope. Shifting the blame to corporate America is the diversion.

Posted by: frank at January 3, 2007 12:03 PM
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