Friday, October 7, 2011

Candidate Ethics

I wrote an article that ran earlier this week:

Detroit News: Big money helps teacher unions stack elections (10/04/11)

For those involved with school board politics, none of this will come as a surprise. But for those unacquainted with the MEA... welcome to the rabbit hole.

A reasonable rebuttal to the article will question whether teachers are citizens and taxpayers too, and whether they have the right to advocate for a candidate they support.

Yes, as individuals, they most certainly do.

The difference is whether the union should get involved. They are the organization responsible for negotiating contracts. I think there is a clear conflict of interest when you help get someone elected, only to sit across the table from them weeks later and bargain a contract.

==> Mike.

I have posted the article below, in case the link does not work.

Last Updated: October 04. 2011 3:32PM

Big money helps teacher unions stack elections
by Mike Reno

From Wisconsin to Ohio, the pendulum is swinging away from union dominance of government, back to a focus on taxpayers and citizens.

But this isn't just a remote national conflict; the struggle is happening in local communities throughout Michigan, and merits attention this November.

Look no further than your local school board election to examine union influence in government.

Michigan's largest teachers union, the MEA, works diligently to insure it is represented on both sides of the bargaining table. They conduct statewide "Elect Your Boss" rank-and-file training classes, and the MEA-PAC (Political Action Committee) is one of the wealthiest and most powerful lobby committees in Lansing.

State campaign finance records show that the MEA-PAC gives generously to school board candidates. Individual teachers and local union PACs contribute money as well. But more importantly, locals furnish boots on the ground.

The locals organize phone banks and literature drops, where teachers will contact parents and ask them to support the recommended candidates.

This union stranglehold over local school boards
has been so effective that our state government has been compelled to intervene, passing new oversight and regulation of our public schools and how they compensate teachers.

Consider this example from Rochester.

I still have a copy of the "mobilize and motivate" letter widely distributed in the last Rochester school board election, signed by the president of the local MEA unit.

In this call to arms, she writes, "We need all bodies at the polls… We believe we can work with the four declared (school board) candidates…"

And boy, did they work with them.

The newly elected Rochester Board of Education, all seven being union-backed, dealt with the worst economic crisis in our generation by laying off learning consultants and media assistants, while giving salary increases and bonuses to the district teachers. In that same year, they raised the local debt millage by 30 percent.

Of course, the trustees will deny that the union support influenced their decisions, and will point to token concessions in the last contract.

Yet they remain silent on why they continue to increase salaries and benefits year after year in the face of declining revenue and deficit budgets.

Most people are astounded this kind of union and trustee relationship is even legal, but it is, and repeats itself every election cycle.

Just recently, the MEA local issued its bi-annual summons for this year's crop of board candidates to appear before them, hat in hand, to seek its "recommendation" and all of the benefits that accompany it.

Fortunately, we see signs that the pendulum is swinging. Candidate Jeremy Nielson published a letter in which he politely declined the MEA invitation. Nielson says he "wants to earn the endorsement and respect of each and every teacher based on the merits of his candidacy," but will not seek the approval of an organization that he will ultimately bargain with as a trustee.

Contrast this with two of the other candidates, who themselves are members of a teachers union, one of whom actually wrote a book on union involvement in the public sector.

Rochester is the example, but this isn't just a Rochester issue. These dramas play out in most of the 500-plus school districts across the state. The voting public remains largely unaware of this union stamp on the ballot box.

Given that local school board trustees collectively spend one-third of the state budget — some $15 billion, with 85 percent going to union jobs — the public must face this situation head-on if public education is to remain sustainable for future generations.

This will be a watershed election year as union special interests battle for the hearts and minds of voters.

Watch these local school board elections, for they will be the canary in the coal mine, and will signal whether union dominance of elections — and tax dollars — is becoming history in Michigan.


Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Diane Ravitch / Alter / Brooks Debate

Education Historian Diane Ravitch is at the center of a dust-up that has been swirling around for a month now.

I've collected a series of articles that can help to give a flavor of the reform debate. For a better taste... follow this on Twitter (I'm on as @K12Reformer).

I'm not going to comment on it for now... there is plenty of reading below!

This chapter began with a New York Times opinion piece by Diane Ravitch (@DianeRavitch)

New York Times: Waiting for a School Miracle (05/31/11)

Jonathan Alter (@JonathanAlter), formerly of Newsweek, and now with Bloomberg, writes:

Bloomberg: Don’t Believe Critics, Education Reform Works (06/03/11)

The debate raged on the blogosphere for a month, and included a blog posting by Matthew Yglesias (@MattyYglesias) that has yet to be answered:

ThinkProgress: What Does Diane Ravitch Think We Should Do To Improve Education In The United States? (06/23/11)

The debate really intensified with this piece by Martin Brooks:

New York Times: Smells Like School Spirit (06/30/11)

Jonathan Chait (@JonathanChait) adds to the discussion:

The New Republic: David Brooks Is Slightly Too Nice To Diane Ravitch (07/02/11)

Valarie Strauss (@ValerieStrauss) attempts to minimize / neutralize the rebuttals:

Washington Post: ‘Ravitch Rage’ — cause, symptoms, treatment (07/05/11)

(Funny comment made on the Strauss article: "Oh, when I saw "Ravitch Rage" I just assumed it was the case of rabies Ravitch has seemed to develop over the past ten years.")

From my perspective, the rebuttals to Ravitch are not an illness, they are the antidote!

Anyway, Ravitch goes on to respond here:

New York Times: Letter to the Editor (07/05/11)

There are numerous teacher blogs that bash Brooks/Alter/Chait, etc, and numerous "reformer" blogs that comment on Ravitch. If you find'em, post'em in the comment section below.

Interesting debate, for sure!

==> Mike.


Two Steps forward, One Step Back.

Here's a follow up to a post I made in May, 2010, (found here) that addressed my concerns with dropping the Valedictorian / Salutatorian awards. The video tells it all; people comment to the school board, and the board responds in muted silence.

The Rochester Community Schools Board of Education eventually created a level of awards that makes sense. Honors are awarded based on GPA, ACT Score, and AP participation. I love it!

Two steps forward!

But the, then one step back: they took away the award for the very top achievers.

I write about that here:

Oakland Press: Schools wrong to drop top honor student designations (06/14/11)

Here is the full text of the article, in case the link does not work:


Schools wrong to drop top honor student designations
Published: Tuesday, June 14, 2011
By Mike Reno

Tis the season of graduation, and the Oakland University Meadowbrook amphitheater will be filled every night with high school commencement ceremonies.

Watch ’em closely this year, so that you can get a glimpse of an endangered species.

Many schools are ending the practice of recognizing the valedictorian and salutatorian. In fact, they are not only ending the practice of honoring those top students, they are even eliminating all “relative performance indicators,” such as class rank.

This does not just impact those few “eggheads” that earned perfect scores in every class. It’s bigger than that. Consider the message this misguided action sends to our children about drive, self-discipline and achievement.

It puts scholarship dollars at risk. But more importantly it speaks to the very core of how your school board views academic achievement — and the message isn’t pretty.

Rochester schools just changed
its academic recognition policy and will abandon the honors for the highest achievers. They have replaced it with a “grouping” of kids who meet certain criteria such as overall GPA and participation in Advanced Placement Classes.

It’s like the honor roll — on steroids.

Creating this award is great and students who achieve to these levels absolutely deserve recognition. But these “groups” could’ve been an honor supplement, it didn’t need to replace top honors.

Why take away the brass ring? Picture the Olympics, where a “precious metal pin” is awarded to the top three athletes instead of gold, silver and bronze.

School boards offer excuses to explain why they have decided to stop honoring the top achievers.

To rank high in a class, and be at the “top,” the school must rank the students. Imagine the ego damage to those who are not at the top, or rank near the bottom.

Some note that the valedictorian honor has become diluted now that it’s common to have more than one from the class. And some will argue that kids with really good grades may stop taking challenging classes for fear of lowering their GPA and losing their shot at the title. But those concerns can be addressed by giving additional weight to challenging classes. An “A” in an advanced placement class might be worth five points instead of 4. This way, the student who earns a 4.0 taking basket-weaving classes won’t tie with the one who earns a 4.0 in advanced placement courses.

Schools recognize their top athletes by awarding them varsity letters. Rather than eliminating winners, they instead construct trophy displays and hang record plaques on the gymnasium wall. Have you seen similar public recognition and celebration of top academic achievement?

But this is not just about public recognition. There are scholarships awarded to valedictorians and salutatorians. And class rank matters, too, with scholarships available to those placing in the top 10 percent of their class.

So, as you attend graduation ceremonies and graduation parties, be sure to give a sincere hat-tip to vals and sals in the class. They are a dying breed.

Mike Reno is a former trustee of the Rochester Board of Education.


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Undermining Confidence In Schools

When school boards continue to spew misinformation, it undermines public confidence in the whole system.

I write about it here:

Detroit News: Local schools haven't made cuts (04/07/11)

==> Mike.

Here is the whole article in case the link does not work:


Governor Snyder affirmed his commitment to education by dedicating a full thirty percent of the state budget to education. Snyder’s budget also prudently balances spending with revenue, and necessitates a 4% reduction in education funding; the first substantial cut since this economic crisis began.

School administrators now predict our children are doomed. Unions are threatening an illegal strike. School boards are insulting their legislators and the governor, and spinning a deceitful message designed to manipulate the public.

Make no mistake: these protests are not selfless concern about the well-being of our children. This is all because the adults in the system don’t want to pay a little towards their health care and retirement benefits, and school boards lack the will or the skill to reform a stale public education system.

If ever there was a time for taxpayers to stand up to this greedy special interest… this is it. The long term stability and viability of public education is at stake.

The Rochester school board provided a great forum in which
we could watch this drama unfold. Within a two-week period, they held a “study session” on the budget, as well as conducted public interviews for a new superintendent. Observers were exposed to the district’s homegrown budget misinformation, and also heard funding sentiments of superintendent candidates who came from other Michigan districts.

Rochester claims they are being forced to accept cuts of over $1100 per pupil, even though Snyder’s proposed reduction is only $300 per pupil. The balance of the “cuts” are not really cuts; they are the end of the supplemental federal bailouts – the so-called “stimulus funds” and the “edu-jobs” money.

School boards knew full well that those were one-time dollars, and have had two full years to plan for the expiration, but have done nothing whatsoever to prepare.

In fact, during that two year period many school boards, including Rochester, committed to expensive employee contracts, even though they knew those federal dollars were set to expire.

The Rochester board approved a union contract they label as concessionary. But over its three-year duration the contract was projected to save one-tenth of one percent. With retirement increases this year, it probably saves nothing.

Since 2005, the Rochester board voluntarily agreed to allow the cost of its union contract to increase by a total of $950 per pupil.

The board goes on to say they’ve cut $28 million since 2001. The budget in 2001 was around $110 million. If they cut $28 million, then it should be around $82 million now, right? Wrong. This year the budget is $158 million.

Only in government does that math work.

What schools do is cut student programs and layoff their youngest teachers in order to make room for salary and benefit increases for the older ones. They report the cuts, but not the simultaneous increases.

And other “cuts” correct the absurd contracts they have been defending for years, such as paying custodians upwards of $60,000 per year in salary and benefits.

So what did the superintendent candidates have to say about this?

They are all from Michigan, and it was no great surprise that they were all in lockstep.

One indicated that if selected, he’d collaborate with the union, and seek support from parents to descend on Lansing and make them understand that “we’re not going to neglect our kids!”

Another believes that our legislators and the Governor are simply ignorant and uninformed, and agreed with the school board that Lansing and the public need to be “educated and informed”, presumably by those that got us into this mess.

What these candidates – and school boards around the state – fail to recognize is the legislature, the governor, and the public is becoming increasing well-informed about mismanagement of our public school system.

Clearly, school boards and superintendents are living in denial, and it’s our job as taxpayers to help them wake up to the reality of today.

If local school boards don’t start spending the billions they receive with better care, then it’s our job to un-elect them.