Union lawsuit: It’s about winning, not how the game is played

Give Joanne McCall credit for acknowledging that the Florida Education Association opposes private learning options for both low-income and special needs students, but let’s not pretend the union’s lawsuit against these scholarships is driven by its devotion to parliamentary procedure.

“We’re all taught to play by the rules,’’ wrote McCall, FEA vice president, in Tuesday’s Tampa Tribune. “In a civil society, we rely on rules and procedures and laws as we go about our daily routine. When people break the rules, they’re expected to be held accountable for their actions — whether it’s within your family, on the job or at school, or in our society as a whole.”

This is a bit much. The FEA is certainly entitled to ask the court to determine whether this new law violated the single-subject requirement in the state constitution, but that is also the only play it has left. Few organizations work the Legislature with more sophistication and heavier artillery than the FEA. It has spent more than $20 million in the state political arena in the past dozen years, and a House Democrat said FEA threatened her with a primary opponent if she voted for the scholarship bill this year. That House member, Daphne Campbell, representing a mostly Haitian-American district in North Miami, indeed voted for the scholarship. And she indeed has a primary opponent – funded by the union.

The FEA is hardly alone in this modus operandi, and big campaign money is certainly being spent by all sides in the education arena. The point is simply that the major protagonists play to win, and you don’t have to look back too far to see that FEA is not quite so devoted to “civil society” when it’s on the winning end.

Just last year, FEA was caught by surprise when the appropriations bill (Page 22) offered a $480 million pay raise for teachers that could not go into effect for a full year. With the Legislature in its final days, FEA launched into overdrive, working with the governor’s office to slip a provision into a 45-page conforming bill just 48 hours before the session ended. The provision undid language in the appropriations bill, allowing teachers to get their pay raises sooner.

It’s worth noting that the conforming bill, SB 1514, had so many different subjects that its title alone ran for four full pages and began with the phrase “An act relating to education.” If that sounds familiar, it is because the FEA is decrying precisely those same features in the bill, SB 850, it is asking a court to nullify this year.

It’s common for conforming bills to include a wide range of provisions related to the budget. And the FEA also cites procedural setbacks to argue the tax-credit and personal learning account provisions had “failed.” The point is that process leading to the passage of big-ticket legislation is almost always messy, but doesn’t always wind up in court.

FEA attorney Ron Meyer has tried to deflect questions about how the lawsuit might put the new special needs scholarship out of business by calling it “collateral casualty.” It is certainly true that FEA focused more of its attention to defeating the tax credit scholarship provisions, but McCall was more candid in her Tribune commentary, acknowledging “serious concerns” about the new Personal Learning Scholarship Account (PLSA).

During the session, the FEA was less measured about those concerns. It whipped up its members with legislative newsletters that tied the PLSA to ALEC, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, and used phrases like “another scheme to commercialize education” and “the camel’s nose under the tent” and “this program will blow the doors off public education.” In her own legislative testimony, McCall called the program “a giant step backward for all students” and, in her letter urging a veto, she dismissively labeled the PLSA as “an entitlement for students with disabilities.”

The FEA is well within its rights to challenge the manner by which SB 850 was adopted, but let’s not wax too poetic about its desire to clean up the legislative process. It threw all its considerable resources into stopping the tax credit scholarship and PLSA provisions, two of the highest profile education issues in the 2014 session, and it came up agonizingly short on the final day. So it is turning to the courts instead. That’s the way the system works, but don’t mistake it for civic duty.

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Rahm Emanuel offers lesson for Democrats on ed reform

Editor’s note: This is the third post in our series on the Democratic Party’s growing divide over ed reform and ed choice.

Myles Mendoza

Myles Mendoza

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is the in the political fight of his life. As a result of challenging the status quo by fighting for reform in Chicago Public Schools, Emanuel’s reign as mayor of one important cities in the United States is not guaranteed to continue.

Here’s one reason why: the mayor polls poorly among the city’s many African-Americans. In fact, only eight percent of them would support Emanuel if the election were held the today.DONKEY1a

That’s one of the reasons why Chicago Teacher’s Union President Karen Lewis is currently entertaining the idea of a possible mayoral run. According to a recent Chicago Sun Times poll, she was leading Emanuel 45 percent to 36 percent with 18 percent of the likely voters undecided.

Previously, the Mayor faced an even tougher fight against another potential candidate, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. Although she withdrew, a race against Preckwinkle showed Emanuel losing by 24 points.

While, recent Ed Choice Illinois polling shows the Mayor now ahead by 12 points generally and by 3 points in the African-American community, it is clear his greatest challenge is with African-Americans. How did the Mayor get into this situation?

When he first entered office, Emanuel rightly assessed that African-American neighborhoods were getting the short end of the stick when it came to the quality of the education they received.

Emanuel looked to the education reform community for solutions. Chief among them was the concept of making schools accountable by tying eligibility for public dollars to performance.

That’s why he expanded high-performing charters like Noble Street and Urban Prep and shut down the highest amount of low-performing schools in American history – the majority of which were located in African-American communities.

But, in doing so, he made a fatal flaw. Continue Reading →

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Florida roundup: Charter schools, lawsuits, retention, CAPE and more

Charter schools. The Miami-Herald writes about a push by parents to keep their F-rated charter school open. The Cape Coral charter system hires an interim superintendent. Fort Myers News-Press.

florida-roundup-logoSpecial needs. Duval parents win a court fight with the district over appropriate education for their daughter with autism. But what’s next? Florida Times-Union.

Lawsuits. Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall explains the union’s decision to sue the state over SB 850 in a Tampa Tribune column.

Teacher quality. The Duval school board signs off on a plan intended to draw highly rated teachers to schools where they are needed the most. Florida Times-Union.

Retention. A New York Times article on third-grade retention notes improved reading scores among Florida’s fourth graders.

Campaigns. The Sun-Sentinel sizes up the field running for Palm Beach County school board. Seminole County school district employees who campaigned for a sales-tax initiative could face disciplinary consequences. Orlando Sentinel.

Vals and sals. Pasco schools will keep their honorary titles for graduates, at least for the time being. Tampa Bay Times.

Continue Reading →

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Rep. Brandon: African-Americans must blaze own path on school choice, ed reform

Editor’s note: This is the second post in our series on the Democratic Party’s growing divide over ed reform and ed choice.

Rep. Brandon

Rep. Brandon

I consider myself a proud progressive Democrat. However, I find myself on the outside of my party while defending the most progressive stance I have ever taken.

Tackling the injustices of education, and the outcomes that such injustices present, has been at the forefront of my legislative career. So I was taken aback by the opposition I received from my Democratic colleagues. Though I expected some opposition from those who reflexively oppose any change, never did I imagine the level of pushback I actually received. After supporting lifting the cap on charter schools, and sponsoring opportunity scholarship legislation for children with special needs and low-income students, I was ostracized by my party and progressive institutions in North Carolina.DONKEY1a

This pushback has gone beyond policy disputes. Many times I have received personal slights. In an action reminiscent of high school days, the legislative black caucus has sought to exclude me from their traditional lunch table in the cafeteria. There have been senior legislators, from my own party, who came to my office and threatened me politically and personally. I had the teacher’s union, a group ostensibly devoted to harmony among members, call me and say things I thought only happened in the movies.

To say I was unprepared for such pushback is an understatement. It hurts me to be accused of being a false progressive. I once worked for Progressive Majority, and was a senior staffer for Congressman Dennis Kucinich, arguably the most progressive member of Congress, and certainly the most progressive presidential candidate we have had in over two decades. Despite my proven history, I was called a token, a sell-out, and naïve, among other names.

So why does my party take such a conservative stance on an issue with such big implications? Why does my party feel comfortable doing the same thing over and over again, when they know the outcomes? I think there is a historical reason for this opposition, on two fronts. Continue Reading →

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Florida roundup: Charter schools, lawsuits, migrant students and more

Charter schools. The Tampa Tribune writes about the Hillsborough school district’s threats to close three charter schools. More from WTSP. A MacDill commander writes about the benefits the school would bring, also in the Tribune. Four proposed charter schools apply in Sarasota County. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Lawsuits. Matthew Ladner takes on a reporter’s characterization of parents involved in a school choice lawsuit as “pawns.”

florida-roundup-logoMigrants. The Palm Beach County school district works to accommodate students from Central America. Palm Beach Post.

Campaigns. The Naples Daily News profiles a school board candidate who helped found a charter school. The Orange County teachers union endorsement process for candidates proves messy. Orlando Sentinel. The Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce endorses two candidates in Duval. Florida Times-Union.

Turnarounds. The Escambia school district hires an outside firm to help a school improve. Pensacola News-Journal.

Superintendents. Alachua’s new chief fields questions from an African-American community group. Gainesville Sun.

Common Core. Teachers get trained on the state’s new standards. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Continue Reading →

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New type of teacher union is key to relieving Democratic tensions

Editor’s note: This is the first post in our series on the Democratic Party’s growing divide over ed reform and ed choice.

Tuthill

Tuthill

Public education has always existed at the crowded intersection of race, class, money and power. While both political parties have had to navigate the confluence of these cross currents, over the last 50 years the Democratic Party has been the most impacted.DONKEY1a

The recent Vergara v. California decision suggested teacher unions, which primarily represent a white middle-class constituency, are an obstacle to providing low-income children of color with a quality education. I spent the first 16 years of my professional career as a teacher union leader, and I agree. The industrial unionism teachers have been using since the 1960s is a major impediment to equal opportunity for low-income children. But the problem isn’t bad people; it’s a bad system.

Over the years, I’ve worked with thousands of teacher union leaders from across the country. With very few exceptions, they are all wonderful people who care deeply about meeting the needs of low-income children. But they are tethered to an early 20th Century model of industrial unionism that is taking them down, and dragging public education, low-income children and the Democratic Party down with them.

Today’s relationship between teacher unions and low-income communities of color, and the influence teacher unions have over the Democratic Party and black elected officials, can be traced back to a contentious political struggle that occurred in 1968 in New York City.

Ocean Hill-Brownsville was a predominantly black and Hispanic low-income community in Brooklyn. Community members were unhappy with the education their children were receiving from the New York City school district, and they won the right to manage their community’s public schools.

Local control, though, conflicted with the NYC teachers union’s model of industrial unionism, which required a centralized, command-and-control management system. So the primarily white teachers union went on strike in May 1968 to force NYC to take back control of Ocean Hill-Brownsville public schools.  The strike continued until Nov. 1968, and the struggle was intense. But ultimately, the union prevailed.

During the strike, most black middle-class leaders sided with the union. This class-trumps-race dynamic is common in U.S. politics and education. A similar alliance famously arose in 1964, at the Democratic Party’s national convention in Atlantic City. That’s when legendary black Congressman Adam Clayton Powell joined white liberals such as Walter Mondale and Hubert Humphrey to oppose seating the majority black and working-class Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation.

The political alliances and organizational models that emerged from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville conflict are still prevalent today. Continue Reading →

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Florida roundup: Charter schools, virtual schools, sunshine and more

Charter schools. The Tampa Bay Times follows up on a simmering dispute between Charter Schools USA and the Hillsborough County school district. More from redefinED. The Palm Beach County School Board chairman comes out against a proposed municipal charter. Palm Beach Post.

Private schools. Title I services for Palm Beach County private schools hit a snag. Palm Beach Post.

florida-roundup-logoVirtual schools. Florida Virtual School’s new rule relaxing must-pass end-of-course exam requirements irks some school district officials in Pasco County, home to one of its largest district-run competitors. Tampa Bay Times.

Teacher quality. The Florida Times-Union takes a deep dive on Duval County’s efforts to lure top-rated teachers and administrators to schools where they are most needed. Perhaps the program will get more districts to take pay incentives seriously for teachers in sought-after math and science fields, Paul Cottle writes at Bridge to Tomorrow.

Tenure. The Panama City News Herald takes a critical look at Florida’s switch to annual contracts for teachers. More here.

Campaigns. A Pinellas school board candidate is behind on her property taxes. Tampa Bay Times. Eight candidates are running for three Orange County school board seats. Orlando Sentinel. The Palm Beach Post makes its school board endorsements. Collier candidates discuss concealed weapons in schools. Naples Daily News. Common Core is an issue in a Sarasota race. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. A teacher is challenging a longtime incumbent in Leon County. Tallahassee Democrat.

Continue Reading →

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Supporters try again for charter school for MacDill Air Force Base

A group that backed an earlier effort to open a charter school at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force Base is back – this time with a retooled application intended to address an issue at the heart of its rejection by the Hillsborough County School Board late last year.

The new application, submitted Thursday afternoon, calls for a school of up to 875 students in grades K-8. It would be aimed at the thousands of students whose parents work on the base but may live in school zones farther away. Its programs would be tailored to the needs of military families, who have to cope with combat deployments and frequent moves.

Under the revised plan, the proposed MacDill Charter Academy would be overseen by a local organization of the same name. The previous proposal, which the school board rejected, called for a local advisory board, but the school would have been governed by an organization based in Fort Lauderdale.

“Our local board was an advisory board and they had some concern about that, so we have corrected that,” said Stephen Mitchell, chairman of the MacDill Charter Academy. “Our local board is no longer the advisory board. It is the board.”

After supporters withdrew their initial application, the Hillsborough school district began raising questions about the governance of three other schools that, like the proposed MacDill charter, are run by Charter Schools USA.

This week, around the same time the new application was being submitted, the district again began raising questions about the schools’ governing boards in letters obtained by a local TV station and later the Tampa Bay Times.

Perhaps the timing is purely a coincidence. District officials have not responded to a request for comment. Continue Reading →

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