A Panel Discussion on How to Fix Education in California
Report by Howard Myers
An interesting thing happened on the way to The Forum March 5th; we ended up with 3 of our four panelists being Democrat.
Our panel discussion on how to fix schools in California did not have this balance by accident. This was the result of careful planning and a lot of work on the part of Jerry Mungai, President Elect. The mix was one conservative, the head of a teachers union, and two Democrats opposed to much of what the teachers union stands for but with different solutions.
The panelists were:
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 with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.
Gloria Romero is a retired Democrat state senator and author of the famous ‘Trigger Law’ and head of Democrats for Educational Reform. The Trigger Law allows parents, if they don’t feel the schools is doing a good job, to sign a petition forcing the enforcement of one of four choices of federal law that is already on the books.
Dean Vogel is the president of the California Teachers Association. The union’s primary objective is to represent teachers and the teacher’s interest.
Terry M. Moe is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a member of the Institution's Koret Task Force on K–12 education, and the Willia1m Bennett Munro Professor of political science at Stanford University. A major.
Larry Sand begin by telling us the cost of educating a child in California is more like $20,00 instead of the $10,000 you hear. And still our schools are near the bottom. We hear the dropout rate is 30% but we don't know the real number. Some never go to high school, so they don't get counted. It is at least 33%, which inexcusable. Of those that reach college many need remediation when they enter college; up to 90% at the community college level. The government schools run on tenure and seniority. Larry believes if we could get rid of 5 - 10% of the worst teachers, we would have a world class system like Finland. He says 6% of teachers, (18,000 in CA) should not be in a classroom. It is education by zip code. You have to go to school down the street no matter how bad it is. This is not a good thing to do to our children.
It’s like the old AT&T, “We are the phone company. We don’t care. We don’t have to.” You get AT&T, you get a black phone, and that's that.
There is some hope; a) the trigger law, b) 150-200,000 are home schooled, and c) 1,000 charter schools. If charter schools don't do their job, they close. If regular schools don’t do their job we throw more money at them. Also charter schools spend 85 - 90 cents on the dollar that regular schools spend. Then there are vouchers. Even in a socialist country like Sweden they us a free market solution. If a public school isn't doing a good job they can move to a different school, even a private school; the money follows the child. Every study except one said vouchers result in better education. That one study said there was no difference with vouchers. (But the charter schools still did it with less money.) There is a proposal being kicked around called tax credit scholarships that is similar in nature.
Gloria is a democrat, liberal, and union member, from wrong side of tracks. (Not surprising she wants to spend more money, but differently. Ed.)She pointed out we spend more on prisons than schools, need to reinvent public education but we can’t spend money the same old way. Teachers are the key. She believes this is the civil rights issue of our time. What we have is more of a public works program more than an education program; it is geared more towards adults than students. We need to set aside the ideological divide and join together to fight for the students.
When in the CA senate she felt if the bureaucrats are content with not using the laws that exist to change these schools that are failing our children then get out of the way and let the parents do it. The Trigger Law says if 50% +1 of parents from one school sign a petition wanting change the change has to take place. The change is described in the petition and defines one of four options available according to federal law. The adults already have the authority to make changes but don't. She said when she wrote this little law she had no idea what it would be published all over the country and featured in the wall St journal. Other states are copying the Trigger Law. This was fought by the unions and liberals but the fight was won.
Dean Vogel introduced himself as a kindergarten teacher from Vacaville and president of California Teachers Association, one of the state’s largest teachers unions. He says we believe, speaking for class room teachers, (something we all agree upon) we want kids to be successful, want quality teachers, clean and safe environment and the resources necessary. We look at the data and wonder how can we improve the results. How do we get the parents involved? We are about giving parents choices. (I tried to take accurate notes of what was said but most of what I heard was, yes we are in control but are not responsible for any of the results. Ed.)
What are the obstacles? Look at the dynamics of the environment. The CTA put money into specific schools through the Quality Education Investment Act after analyzing what is needed. He claims the QEIA was successful in that test and the results improved. He wants to put more money in every school. Dean says we have been arguing with one another so much we have almost lost the ability to make decisions due to partisanship. Maybe I am an optimist he said, if we are people of good will, and we can come together, even if we have different ideas about funding and the role of unions in schools, we should be able to come together. Dean says he talks to teachers that tell him there is too much testing; so much to the point they can't teach. Parents ask why are my kids being tested so much. We need testing but the testing should be relevant and appropriate.
Terry Moe, We have been trying to reform schools and improve them since 1965; we have been talking about making changes and opposing unions.
It has been 30 years and we are talking about evaluating teachers on performance.. what a joke, we need more. We are making incremental improvement but there is a revolution coming, under the radar. That revolution is technology. Technology is changing everything about how we interact with each other. This can't help but transform how schools work and children are educated.
When the child is having an interaction with a computer it can teach that child at their own pace, it will know what the child knows. Rather than sit in a class room a predetermined time, the student will move at their own pace. This is a huge boost for social equity; the computer doesn't know or care about the ethnicity of the student. This will substitute technology for labor. We will still need teachers, just not as many of them. He envisions the students taking 70 - 80% of their classes on computers, in classes.
There are already virtual charter schools that can enroll students anywhere in this state with 275,000 kids in state led virtual charter schools. Most people don't want to home school but the kids can go to school and take classes on line. Rocket Ship school is nearby and is doing very well beating all the other schools. Unions are opposed to on line classes and want schools to be as labor intensive as possible.
When summing up Larry Sand points out that throwing money at a bad situation often makes it a more expensive bad situation. He is supporting a law suit called ‘Students Matter’. This law suit would change the California Education Code, modifying some of the power of the union to protect teachers and make it possible to fire a bad teacher.
When summing up Gloria Romero points out that CAT is the most powerful war chest in the state. Until the Democrats stand up to the unions the children will still come out poorly. Unions see the students as little debit cards, that bring money into the school. We need to blame the administrators also. They can make changes but don’t. We can't just step back, we don’t have time. We can't wait 6 years, we need the urgency of now. When I was in Sacramento I saw every, every, reform told no, no, no. I tried to pass incentive pay, I even said it could be collectively bargained. But no. I tried to give bonus pay to those teachers that were willing to try and improve. CTA fought it although the LA teachers union supported it. All reforms, no, no, no. It is time for a change. If we don't let parents vote with their feet, give them choice, we will educate or incarcerate.
Dean Vogel summed up by saying “I agree with the sense of urgency but we are not building surf boards here.” There has to be a person involved, it is people coming together. If you put more money into a situation but don't change anything you won't improve it. You work together with a plan you can do the right thing and improve learning.
We opposed the ‘Trigger Law’ from the start and still do. He said some parents were asked to sign a petition w/o being told what it was for. If you want to bring people together have a town hall meeting. The tenure after 18 months may be a little short but for the first 18 months the teacher is an at will employee and can be fired for nothing. (Sounds like he is saying we broke it but you need more of us to fix it. My whole working like I was an at-will employee. Human nature being what it is I expect it improved my job performance. Ed.)
Terry Moe started his summation by noting that it was unfortunate everyone piles on Dean, “But what else can I do?” It isn't about Dean, it is about the unions. They have an interest in jobs; that is what they are about. Unions are about making and protecting jobs. It is important not what people say, it is what they do, what their organization does. If the union is part of the collaboration, they will stop it if they can. They are opposed to charter schools, the Trigger Bill, etc. They oppose this because it is their mission to protect jobs.
Terry described many ways that tons of money is wasted. Regarding tenure, if you have a great young teacher, when there is a layoff he will be fired when there is a layoff.
With four speakers we didn’t have as much time for Q&A as normal but it was lively as you might imagine. On this subject three of the panelists were in agreement that the Teacher’s Unions are a major impediment to school improvement. And as was pointed out, the mission of the union isn’t to improve schools. The parents and the students are not the union’s customer, the teachers are. And Gloria knows first hand the unions have a stranglehold on Sacramento.
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