New AP Poll Shows Why Education Policy Is Confused

What does the public think about public education? Not much at all, according to a survey conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

The headline coming out of it is: “Fewer than half of all Americans want to increase the number of charter schools or school voucher programs that provide government funding for students to attend private or religious schools instead of their public school.”

No doubt the Internet will light up over that finding, but little attention will be paid to how the composition of the survey’s respondents illustrates why it’s so hard to find common ground on education policy.

They were asked, “Are you the parent or guardian of a child under 18 years of age, or not?” Only 34 percent responded “yes.” Of those that answered “yes,” 19 percent had no children currently in grades K-12.

That means about three-quarters of the total number of respondents have no kids in K-12 schools.

They don’t have first-hand knowledge. How is their second-hand knowledge?

Fifty-eight percent admitted they knew “only a little” or “nothing at all” about charter schools, and 66 percent said the same about school voucher programs. Nonetheless, two-thirds of them were able to offer an opinion about the quality of charter and private schools.

The political leanings of the respondents were 47% Democrat, 35% Republican. That seems to be a significant difference, though not as noteworthy as the fact that 48% of those surveyed were not employed.

Education policy is subject to the usual partisan differences, but is additionally complicated because schools are run for the students who attend them, their parents, and the people who work there – the so-called stakeholders.

The electorate, however, is overwhelmingly made up of non-stakeholders. These are people who have no children in school and – the evidence clearly suggests – no real interest or solid knowledge about what goes on there.

The key to getting your preferred education policy enacted is to persuade this vast group to vote your way, which is why we get campaigns and legislative battles that are short on empirical evidence and long on selective factoids.

There is no easy solution to this problem. Both sides of the school reform debate have spent 25 years trying to educate the electorate about charter schools, but 28 percent say they know nothing at all about them. Yet they still have opinions and vote based on them.

They are uninterested, but we can’t say they are disinterested. They provide the bulk of the roughly $630 billion we spend on public education each year. That guarantees them a desk, even if they haven’t done their homework.

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Bits & Pieces

  • The Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association decided not to approve a recount in its recent presidential election, paving the way for 33-year-old Justin Katz to head the Florida union local. It could be the union’s first orderly transition of power in a long time.
  • I don’t know if anyone keeps track of the number of union trusteeships over a given period of time, but they do seem to be increasing lately. The national AFL-CIO just took over the San Diego Imperial-Counties Labor Council in California and removed its leaders, prompting them to form a competing labor group, the San Diego Working Families Council.
  • Teachers in the Carmel Clay school district in Indiana began voting this week on whether they want to continue to be represented by the NEA-affiliated Carmel Clay Education Association or by the independent Carmel Teachers Association. The battle for the 900-member bargaining unit has been going on for months, but the votes will be counted on May 26.
  • A teacher in Anne Arundel County petitioned the Maryland Public School Labor Relations Board to allow a second collective bargaining unit to be established in the district. The dispute largely concerns the union bargaining away bonuses that had been given to teachers working at hard-to-staff and underperforming Annapolis High School. A second union for the same job title would be unprecedented, but would be a fascinating experiment.
  • Delegates to the Michigan Education Association’s representative assembly passed a measure requiring MEA to issue a written report at each RA detailing the status of merger discussions between MEA and AFT Michigan. I suspect there are going to be a lot of written reports before any real progress is made.
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Exclusive Advance Look at NEA’s 2017 Rankings and Estimates

Each year the National Education Association releases Rankings & Estimates, a report containing dozens of tables with statistics on school enrollment, finance and staffing.

This year’s edition isn’t quite ready for publication yet, but I have a copy of a draft that hasn’t been completely assembled and copy-edited. The data are all in place, however, so I post some numbers here before NEA determines how it wants to spin them.

These figures are for the 2015-16 school year. NEA includes an entire section with estimates for the current year, but who wants to return a year from now and check them for accuracy?

Nationwide K-12 enrollment increased 0.3% but 20 states saw declining numbers. Of those, seven had more teachers than in 2014-15 (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin).

The enrollment figures are interesting because they point to something that has not been adequately addressed when discussing teacher hiring: the two different situations in primary and secondary schools.

Over the last 10 years, NEA reports, there has been a 2.2% increase in enrollment, but there are 0.6% fewer teachers. Those numbers make it look like a general staffing shortage, but when we divide them up it turns into a specific staffing shortage.

Since 2006, we have added 5.3% more elementary teachers, and lost 8.2% of our secondary teachers. Elementary school teachers make up 61% of the total teacher force, and it seems we have done a more than adequate job of filling those slots and augmenting their numbers.

If the teacher shortage alarmists would acknowledge this, perhaps we could concentrate on the common ground of finding ways to fill those subject-area teacher slots in secondary schools (science, math, foreign languages, etc.).

NEA reports the average teacher salary rose 1.3% to $58,353. California had the biggest increase – 4.2% to $77,179. Per-pupil spending nationwide averaged $11,787.

The union notes that per-pupil spending is up 3.6% in inflation-adjusted dollars over the last 10 years, but teacher salaries are down 3%.

I would only add that the experience level of the cohort you examine affects the average salary. If a teacher making $80,000 retires and is replaced by a new teacher making $40,000, you have a reduction in average salary, though no one saw a cut in pay.

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Union Election Dispute in Palm Beach County; What Else Is New?

Dateline – Palm Beach County, Florida:

Palm Beach County’s teachers union declined Monday to certify the results of its presidential election after the losing candidate called for a recount.

Results tallied Saturday showed that Park Vista High teacher Justin Katz narrowly edged out Pahokee Jr./Sr. High teacher Gordan Longhofer by 28 votes out of 1,356 cast, a 2 percent margin of victory.

…But Katz, 33, said that the company that oversaw the voting process has already handed over the ballots to union leaders, many of whom opposed Katz’s outsider campaign.

“The ballots have been in the possession of the current CTA executive director (a supporter of my opponent) since the initial, objective third-party counting this past Saturday,” Katz wrote. “The lack of security and integrity surrounding any recount, given that fact, is of great concern to me.”

…Union leaders had tried to block Katz from running, removing him from the race in January after ruling that he was ineligible because his dues lapsed in 2015 when he took family leave to care for his dying grandmother.

He was reinstated later after the state teachers union called for him to be permitted to run and said that the county union’s leaders lacked “sufficient evidence to support their position.”

If this all sounds familiar, it’s because the last election led to a takeover of the local by the Florida Education Association.

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Resignation

In a unanimous decision, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that Michigan Education Association members can resign from the union whenever they like, not just during the one month per year MEA designates.

MEA had challenged in court a ruling against the resignation window by the Michigan Employment Relations Commission (MERC).

MEA’s court argument was an exercise in irony. The union stated the MERC ruling constituted “interference in our business practices.”

By this measure, all government regulation could be struck down. One might even say that the primary purpose of most government agencies is “interference in our business practices.”

MEA has not yet decided whether it will appeal.

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Secede or Fail?

U.S. News & World Report has a good piece on a topic I haven’t seen addressed before: the effect of school district secessions.

Lauren Camera’s piece is a preview of an upcoming report by EdBuild that examines the impacts on districts’ finances and racial composition. It’s especially relevant these days as people are paying more attention to the politics of school district border drawing.

“The parents with the most economic means have become very active in how those lines are drawn. Most of the time it’s a political and economic question, not an education question,” said Mark Elgart, president and CEO of AdvancEd, a nonprofit that works with more than 32,000 schools.

The article comes down clearly on one side of the issue: secession is generally a bad thing because it is detrimental to racial and ethnic groups left behind. The argument is persuasive. It does lack some context, however.

The story notes that since 1986, 47 school districts were carved out of a larger district. That amounts to 0.3 percent of all school districts over a period of 30 years, so at least we don’t have to worry about a tidal wave of secessions.

In fact, the trend is overwhelmingly in the opposite direction, and has been since World War II. But let’s only go back as far as 1986, as the article does.

There were 15,713 school districts that year. By 2013-14, there were only 13,491 – a reduction of 14 percent.

So while 47 districts were splintered, more than 2,200 were consolidated. No study of secessions can be complete without examining the effect of merging many small districts into a few large ones.

Seceding in order to segregate is wrong, but the arguments for consolidating are invariably to cut costs, not to integrate. We could really use a wider study of school district size and boundaries to determine their effects on finances, achievement and integration.

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