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January 17, 2006

1)  Thoughts on "Stupid in America." Normally you can go a whole year before you see two "buzz-worthy" stories on public education, but we've already had two in 2006. On the heels of the Wall Street Journal highlighting the financial disclosure report of the National Education Association came a report by ABC News' John Stossel called "Stupid in America: How Lack of Choice Cheats Our Kids Out of a Good Education."

Stossel's message board received almost 24,000 responses, including one by someone who posted an internal NEA e-mail to its activists that tries to tie Stossel to The Bell Curve. When it comes to webs of conspiracy, NEA needs lessons from these guys.

Evidently when NEA gives money to People for the American Way or the Council on Foreign Relations, it is merely a grant to groups "who share NEA's commitment to public education and to the human and civil rights of all Americans." But when Stossel delivers a speech to the Cato Institute, it is evidence of "his personal ties to right-wing organizations" and "lack of objectivity."

EIA will leave it to others to thrash out the story's implications. But let us note Stossel's decision to place in a school quality/school choice story the issue of school district boundary enforcement. Stossel detailed the stories of people lying about where they lived so that their kids could attend better schools, and the efforts of school districts to stop them, including the hiring of private investigators. Stossel even referred to this as a "black market" in school choice.

Where have we heard this before?

August 27, 2001: "The Black Market in School Choice"

March 18, 2002: "Districts Hunt Down Out-of-District Students Like Common Criminals"

May 20, 2002: "Connecticut Schools Have Their Own Border Patrol"

September 16, 2002: "Baltimore County Makes Latest Attempt to Snuff Out Black Market in School Choice"

September 23, 2002: "School Choice Black Market Dragnet Nabs Teacher"

November 25, 2002: "The Return of the Black Market in School Choice"

December 2, 2002: "Florida Union Defends School Choice for Member"

August 11, 2003: "School Choice Black Market Revisited"

September 13, 2004: "Upholding the Law in Public Education"

February 7, 2005: "Black Market in School Choice: Teacher Edition"

School choice – the concept, if not the voucher system by which it is best known – is a fact of American life. Rich people exercise it by moving to the suburbs. Poor people exercise it by pretending to move to the suburbs. Fighting it is like trying to prevent waves from reaching the shore.

2)  How Will Collective Bargaining Affect Unions' Own Finances? Since EIA has spent so much time recently on teacher union expenditures, it is only fitting to discuss the factor that most greatly affects the costs of operating a large teachers' union: union contracts.

Long-time readers of this newsletter know that union employees are themselves represented by unions that negotiate under the normal rules of collective bargaining. I once wrote an entire report on this phenomenon within NEA for the Capital Research Center. One can witness some amazing antics when union executives act as management, with their own labor negotiators on the other side of the table.

It's ironic, though not surprising, that teachers' unions have the same cost concerns as any other large-sized business. In particular, NEA and its affiliates are very worried about the rising costs of retiree health care (though it is less than understanding when school districts are worried about the same issue).

NEA's contract with its largest staff union expires in May 2006, and it would behoove members and union activists to keep an eye on the negotiations. Last month, the union representing the employees of NEA Member Benefits concluded a five-year deal with raises ranging from 24 percent to 43 percent over the life of the agreement, while protecting all benefits.

The California Teachers Association will also have to address major labor issues in the wake of the November 2005 special election, in which the union spent upwards of $60 million. Two CTA staff unions, representing both professional and support employees, will be negotiating new deals to replace those that will expire in August 2006.

While CTA hopes the next state budget will help the union replenish its coffers, its plan will stand or fall on the attitudes of union staff. Will CTA employees forego major salary increases to help the union back to its feet? Or will CTA employees demand compensation for the effort they put forth to defeat the governor's initiatives in the first place? CTA's financial health, and the dues level of its members, will be affected by the answers to those questions.

3)  AFT Tries to Devise Charter School Strategy. Officers of the American Federation of Teachers met last week to discuss the union's strategy "for dealing with the burgeoning number of charter schools across the nation."

It is unlikely the conference included an examination of why charter schools are burgeoning.

"The AFT response to charters will include supporting federal, state and local legislation to bring transparency and accountability for student achievement to charter schools; identifying strategic opportunities to organize employees; and reinforcing traditional alliances with community groups that have long stood with the union in the fight for excellent public schools. There are also promising examples of how union contracts in some states have helped ensure that charter schools are staffed by well-supported educators," reads the union's weekly organ, Inside AFT.

Meanwhile, AFT Pennsylvania has this request: "If you have family or friends working in charter schools, we need your help. Please contact Candy Lerner, AFT Pennsylvania staff representative, at 215-587-6784 to provide contact information for a union organizing effort at charter schools. The AFT Pennsylvania has already organized two Philadelphia charter schools and would like to meet with staff at other schools."

4)  Georgia Juxtaposition. EIA was struck by the listing of items on the web site of the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE), the NEA affiliate in the state.

The first item is an op-ed by GAE President Merchuria Chase Williams titled "Merit pay for teachers too flawed to be fair" that was published in the January 12 Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Dr. Williams wrote, "It [merit pay] has proved problematic in a profession as complex as teaching, where professionals don't have control over their students' innate ability and where they must discern the most effective way to reach and motivate each student to learn."

Agree or disagree, that is the union's position. But the very next item on the union's web site is "GAE congratulates newest class of National Board Certified teachers." In the press release, Dr. Williams says, "They deserve all of the accolades, prestige, and rewards that accompany such a designation."

The rewards are substantial. Georgia teachers receive a 10 percent raise upon achieving national certification. Since there is no evidence to suggest that nationally certified teachers do "have control over their students' innate ability," it must be GAE's position that the national board knows how to evaluate teachers' ability. If the board is capable, why aren't others?

The final irony is this story from the December 11 Augusta Chronicle, headlined, "Certification no guarantee of excellence." The story suggests the board may not be capable of evaluating teachers' ability. But there is no accompanying GAE editorial headlined "National certification for teachers too flawed to be fair."

5)  Recommended Reading. * Jay Mathews of the Washington Post continues his sterling work with today's "Self-Discipline May Beat Smarts as Key to Success." Mathews reports on research published in the journal Psychological Science that states, "We believe that many of America's children have trouble making choices that require them to sacrifice short-term pleasure for long-term gain, and that programs that build self-discipline may be the royal road to building academic achievement."

The researchers described an experiment in which they offer students $1 immediately, or $2 if they'll wait a week, as a means of measuring their tendency to delay gratification. Mathews gets bonus points for this quote from Bob Schaefer of FairTest: "I'd assume it was some kind of scam, take the buck and run."

* I doubt EIA shares very many areas of agreement with Peter Dreier, director of the urban and environmental policy program at Occidental College. But he is right when he states, in today's Los Angeles Times, that the newspaper is "Falling down on the job on labor coverage."

Responding to a recent Times exposé of the United Farm Workers, Dreier correctly notes that "Up until the 1980s, most major newspapers, including The Times, had a regular labor reporter. Today, few papers, The Times among them, have even one reporter exclusively assigned to cover labor," adding, "Lately there have been rumors that The Times may be planning to put a reporter on the labor beat soon. Good. That would be a start. In fact, the paper should have several reporters covering labor unions and workplace issues full time."

Where EIA and Dreier part company is the shape such coverage should take, such as "Why doesn't The Times regularly cover the exciting efforts of such unions as Unite Here, the Service Employees International Union, the United Food and Commercial Workers and the California Nurses Assn. to organize hotel workers, janitors, security guards, grocery workers, nurses and other healthcare employees?"

Dreier even suggests that poor newspaper coverage is a cause of declining union membership, ignoring the fact that union membership has been declining for more than 40 years, long before newspapers started giving up their labor coverage.

What Dreier wants is for the Times to publish union press releases. EIA will settle for labor coverage that mirrors the paper's coverage of city hall, Big Tobacco, or HMOs.

6)  Big City Blogs. There may be a lack of regular labor coverage in the nation's newspapers, but the Internet has the potential to pick up the slack. Fortunately, two of America's big labor towns, New York City and Chicago, now have new blogs with writers who know about the overarching role organized labor plays in the delivery and policies of public education.

New York has Joe Williams running The Chalkboard for the New York Charter Schools Association. Joe is a former education reporter for the New York Daily News and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, and the author of "Cheating Our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education."

Chicago has Alexander Russo writing District 299, with "an unhealthy obsession with education in Chicago." Alexander continues to host the highly recommended This Week in Education from his perch in the Windy City.

7)  Quote of the Week. "One has to admire the daring, if not the accuracy, of the single most favorite speaker on American campuses claiming the mantle of persecution for himself. My research finds no instances of Chomsky's campus talks having been the subject of demonstrations and heckling, of his having personal bodyguards the entire time he visits a campus, of his needing a hundred police to control potential protests, of his having to speak in a lock-downed gymnasium, of his speech being preceded by deans warning the audience against disruption, or his having suffered the indignity of having pies thrown at him. All but the last of these, by the way, have happened to me." – Middle East scholar Dr. Daniel Pipes, discussing an interview with Noam Chomsky in the Fall 2005 issue of Thought & Action, a publication of the National Education Association. EIA previewed this issue twice (see "Call for Lefty Papers" and "Not Enough Thought Amid the Action").


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