Q&A With NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen

While I was at Netroots Nation last week, I had the privilege of meeting Lily Eskelsen, Vice President of the powerful National Education Association teachers union. Honestly, all I know of teachers unions, in general, is what I read in the press and it is not good. They are often locking horns with their non-union counterparts like Teach for America and D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee — all who I trust are in education to help children. (Michelle Rhee, by the way, made headlines last week for firing 241 teachers, or 6 percent of all D.C. teachers, according to the Wall Street Journal, which celebrated the move.)

At NN, I got to see a bigger picture, as Eskelsen is anything but incompetent. She is one of the highest-ranking labor leaders in the country and one of the most influential Hispanic educators with decades of classroom experience teaching our most vulnerable youth. At NN, she recalled a year, in which she taught 39 fifth-graders, and another year, in which she had 12 special education students in a class of 35. She has taught both gifted children and children who were homeless. In 1989, after only nine years in the classroom, she was named Teacher of the Year in Utah. Her accomplishments exceed beyond the classroom, as you can see in her online biography.

I got to ask her a few questions and was impressed by her breadth of knowledge. Check it out:

I want to ask you about the student achievement gap. Right now there is a disparity between minority and white students, and the high school dropout rates for African American and Latino men are abysmal. Is there anything that teachers and school staff can do to help narrow the achievement gap in public schools?

Eskelsen: And (the achievement gap is) growing. Absolutely. What Child Left Behind assumes is what you do is teach to the test. You cram for the test, and you practice for the test, and it is having a negative effect on every other aspect of student achievement. What has to happen you have to make learning relevant. You have to make it exciting. You have to make students want to learn. When you drill and drill for the test, you have the opposite effect.

Can you briefly summarzie a way to fairly evaluate teachers? Almost all schools have, usually, principal observations. They also keep track of whether there are parents who have complaints. That will affect your evaluation as well. In my district back in the ’80s, we experimented with something that was cool. The legislature gave (additional funding to) all the districts who came up with an evaluation system that looked at more than what (teachers) teach. It was voluntary…(Legislators) said, “Here is a menu of up to 10 different ways to demonstrate your effectiveness as a teacher.” One way was an anonymous survey of parents. You could have your peers evaluate you. You could use your students’ test scores, if you had chemistry AP students who passed the AP tests. They gave us a whole menu, including things like a principal evaluation. You could also pick an evaluation of peers where a team of teachers from another school came in and evaluated you.

Elisa’s note: Unfortunately, we ran out of time. But she encouraged everyone to contact their senator — NEA has a convenient link — to support a bill that promises to save more than 138,000 teaching jobs due to budget cuts.

Also, I did ask her about union antagonism towards charter schools at the education caucus. She said there were good public schools and bad public schools as there were good charter schools and “very bad” charter schools. Also, she said some charter schools were unionized, and in her opinion, the best ones were formed by educators and accounted for quality. Her two reservations about charter schools had to do with accountability, and also the “for-profit” motivation by landlords leasing buildings to charters.

Because our time was cut short — she had a jam-packed schedule at NN — she offered to answer any other questions we may have. Feel free to drop them here or in an e-mail at elisa at mothertalkers dot com.


76 thoughts on “Q&A With NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen

  1. I have had absolutely zero experience with

    public education. My impression is that the NEA is pretty much opposed to charter schools in principle and totally opposed to any kind of voucher system that allows lower-income families a choice. I have never really heard a union official give concrete reasons why those are bad other than the teachers in those settings are usually non-union.

    From the little reading I’ve done, it seems like the alternatives in DC were working fine but then abruptly defunded at the behest of the teacher unions.

    If it’s all about educating the children, then why not go with whatever is shown to work, even if it does not fit the established template?

    • Living in an urban district,

      I’ve really come to appreciate a lot.  Charter schools have been great for my kids as well as thousands of others.  One of my favorite points to make in their favor is that they seem to give lie to the point put out by many very pro-teacher union types that the reason inner city schools serving largely minority populations are failing is that parents just don’t care about education.  Well….my kids have attended various charters, a couple that were primarily geared to these children.  I’ve sat and watched as the most disadvantaged of families make the commitment to finding a better school, agreeing to meet whatever requirements are asked, and then taken it upon themselves to find their children transportation to and from these schools every day.  This doesn’t seem like parents who “just don’t care” to me.  

      Back in the 90’s, I worked as an activist with several groups promoting reform within our own district.  We were met every step of the way by resistance and utter disdain from the teachers union, the unions representing the administrators as well as the whole “old boys network” in the region.  Much of this even took on a very racist tone…can’t tell you how often I heard minority students referred to as “those students”, or school personnel making all kinds of blanket assumptions about who their students were, largely based on race and perceived notions about the people living in various areas of the city.  Then there were all the policies in place that almost assured that the district could not successfully recruit minority teachers…despite the fact that the district is becoming more and more populated with minority students while the minority teachers and faculty are amongst the oldest employees of the district and reaching retirement at a great pace.  

      • It’s really ashame, because given the

        opportunity, these minority students can really excel. They need to be motivated and have the opportunity.

        As I said, I have no personal experience with the public schools, other than what I hear from friends about their grandkids.

        My alma mater in Manhattan, Marymount, always had what were then called “disadvantaged” students on scholarship, from families who never in a million years could afford the tuition. Same when my DDs attended the same school.

        The so-called “disadvantaged” students were so motivated that they excelled tremendously and were always on the honour roll, some of the best students in the school.

    • couple of thoughts

      First, the term “charter schools” covers an absurdly wide range of ideas, from teacher-founded not-for-profit montessori and magnet academies, to all-online independent study arrangements, to chains like KIPP, to for-profit imitations of ordinary public schools with non-union, non-certificated staff.

      Second, “shown to work”. If you are measuring schools by test scores, and comparing them to similar cohorts, charter schools as a whole do no better than public schools as a whole. Some do better than the mean and some do much much worse.

      Now, if, as I do, you don’t think test scores are the whole story, there’s still more to look at. We have a local Waldorf charter school that scores 5 on a scale of 1-10 (10 best) across the whole state but 1 when compared to similar SES schools. Still, I know kids and parents that go there, and I hear the stories, and I would have no hesitation to recommend it as a wonderful little community with great educational stuff going on. All the kids learn to knit in the 3rd grade, for example, great for fine motor skills and actually very mathematical, because knitting is all about patterns. But knitting isn’t on the bubble tests. The Waldorf-trained kids seem to grow up to be good citizens and to do well in high school and beyond, regardless of what the STAR tests say. Maybe it’s because they have better than average parents, but I think the community and the different teaching style is valuable.

      But, I can tell you that kind of story about quite a few of the neighborhood public schools too, except maybe not the knitting. (Our 4th graders did embroidery, which I thought was terrific.) There is a neighborhood school getting terrible test scores that has a waiting list for their bilingual immersion program. It has a cadre of enthusiastic parents who love it, despite being on the official Bad Schools list. Are the parents wrong or is the State wrong?

      When Lily answered Elisa’s question, she expressed a lot of interest in pro-child charter schools, in experimenting with educational ideas, via charters. But, obviously they’re against charters that are established for the sole purpose of union-busting – and make no mistake, in some states, in some places, that is the goal of some charters. There are some devious strategies to use them for profit-taking too, like by having a supposedly not-for-profit school pay exorbitant rent to a landlord.

      I personally believe that every parent should have the option to choose any public school they can get their child to. I think it gives the parents a lot more breathing room in the case of a personal conflict with a teacher or another student, and I think it gives them much more breathing room/leverage/comfort in discussing issues with a principal, to know that they can, in the end, go somewhere else. And I like charters – good, not-for-profit, parent-teacher-child-centered charters – for that reason too, because I think it’s good to have schools with different curricula and different educational styles.

      • I hear you on this 100%.

        I personally believe that every parent should have the option to choose any public school they can get their child to. I think it gives the parents a lot more breathing room in the case of a personal conflict with a teacher or another student, and I think it gives them much more breathing room/leverage/comfort in discussing issues with a principal, to know that they can, in the end, go somewhere else. And I like charters – good, not-for-profit, parent-teacher-child-centered charters – for that reason too, because I think it’s good to have schools with different curricula and different educational styles.

        But I would expand that to private schools — not just public or charter schools —  by way, perhaps, of a voucher system.

        I lived in Europe for awhile and there is a tradition of private, confessional schools that are supported by tax dollars. These supplant the regular “public” schools. If you are RC, you can chose to send your children to a RC school. If you want a nonsectarian “public” school, fine. But it does not cost you a fortune to chose the private option.

        • Private schools have different rules

          Private schools don’t have to take all comers. Private schools, in particular, don’t have to take the special needs kids who are so very expensive to educate, and private schools aren’t subject to the same state tests and other issues. Private schools can eject any kids who don’t do the homework or whose parents don’t spend the requisite volunteer hours.

          Private schools, of course, can operate as non-profits, create endowments, offer scholarships, and all that, and are very able to take economically disadvantaged kids if they like. If they’d like to take public money, they can organize as charters and subject themselves to the rules that go with public money.

  2. PS

    I understand the disdain for teaching for the test. However, there were generations of students in parochial schools who drilled for that and did very well later on, being accepted into the best secondary schools and then colleges. No one likes rote memorisation, but there is something to say for it in that the student acquires knowledge she will likely never forget.

    The ancient Romans believed in repetitio, repetitio, repetitio. Then you build on the acquired knowledge base. Some subjects must be taught this way, such as mathematics, grammar, music, etc. And the only metric for determining success is a test.

    • I have no problem with some

      standardized testing.  In fact, I think it’s necessary.  Whether we like it or not, we were graduating students who didn’t know how to read past a 4th grade level.   My problem is that these standards seem to change each and every year and the main beneficiaries seem to be the text book and testing companies.  This also puts large urban districts at even further disadvantage as it’s very difficult to change a curriculum as well as provide proper in service for teachers whenever these changes take place.  On a basis of every year or two is next to impossible.

      I totally agree about repetition being necessary in some subjects.  For two decades, I’ve thought that this is where we are falling behind in mathematics.  I know that my own children were not given enough time to just memorize the facts.  Little or no emphasis was placed on this…rather, an inordinate amount of time was used to try to get second and third graders to understand all the concepts behind functions such as “borrowing” and “carrying”.  By fourth and fifth grade, a lot of time was used going over and over and over such vague topics as estimation and differing methods to solve basic problems.  I recall my daughter being so confused in fourth grade that she sat at the table and cried because in the past two weeks, she had been shown several different ways, with detailed explanations, in solving long division problems.  She cried that she just wanted to learn one way that would give her the answer.

      • standardized testing….

        i become nearly apoplectic with No Child Left Behind’s standardized testing push.  yes of course memorization is important. every child  needs to have their muliplication tables memorized as well as grammar rules.  however what NCLB has left in it’s wake is not about learning.  

        socratic method of teaching can live along side the memorization required for learning.  but when you teach to the test and that’s all schools are rewarding …it is a crime.

      • One of the reasons they want

        2nd and 3rd graders to understand the concept behind ideas like borrowing and carrying is that if you can understand those ideas, it’s a building block for algebra, which they are now expecting all kids to take in 8th grade (when I was a kid, only the most elite kids took algebra in the 8th grade).

        It’s also good for mental math. For example, 98 x 3 is hard but

        98 x 3 = (100-2) x 3
        = (100 x 3) – (2 x 3)
        = 300 – 6
        = 294

        which I can do in my head.

    • Did you see the story I linked to in Lily’s blog


      We don’t live in a multiple choice world

      For one coach who also teaches Math, he said it was like practicing drills – you hit; you throw; you run… but you never actually learn to play the game.

      Proper standards don’t stop at drills. Now, as we move forward with implementation, everything we teach will be in clear service to a clear standard. With this foundation, we can design teacher preparation, instruction and assessment around whether or not our kids know how to use the skills to actually play the game.

      And the game becomes, ‘Can You Think’? Can you evaluate and defend an opinion and organize and reason and create and form a question?

      With this foundation, we move towards a standards-based education and away from a testing-based education. There’s a difference.

      When I taught 6th grade in Utah, we gave a standardized test in the spring. One year, I was told that the Social Studies section would cover the Civil Rights Movement.

      This was good to know since our textbook had very little on the Civil Rights Movement. So, I developed a curriculum that covered segregation and Jim Crow and lunch counter sit-ins and voting rights. You should have heard these 12 year olds arguing about things they had never even thought of before – about civil disobedience and the ideals of America and our responsibility to those ideals.

      Then we got the test. There was one question on the Civil Rights Movement. This was it:

      Which of the following won the Nobel Peace Prize?
      A. Rosa Parks B. Martin Luther King, Jr. C. George Washington Carver D. Charles Drew

      In that entire week of study, I had never once mentioned that Martin Luther King, Jr. had won the Nobel Peace Prize.

      Almost all my kids missed that question, because after a week with me, they assumed they knew everything about Dr. King, so he was the first name they eliminated. After that, they just guessed.

      Knowing who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 is not as important as WHY he won the Peace Prize. We don’t live in a multiple choice world. We must teach complex, critical thinking skills that are relevant to students who might be reading a history book on the Civil Rights Movement or a website on the pros and cons of nuclear power or a newspaper on the Gulf Oil Spill.

      This is the kind of story that makes teachers hate the bubble tests.

    • But the question is:

      Did those kids do well because they were drilled, or because they had families who cared enough to make sure they did well (who made the effort to get them into a parochial school)?  If the test is stupid and trivial, then teaching to it does nothing but prepare kids for a game of trivial pursuit.  And when the test becomes the only thing that matters then it’s not good for kids.  

      I’m not sure I want my kids to do more than a minimal amount of rote memorization.  I want them to understand and problem solve and collaborate and do things.  My oldest isn’t ‘t memorizing multiplication tables, he understands that 3 x 4 is 3 sets of 4.  Same answer, same speed of access to the number 12, but more understanding.  

      • But what’s the harm in him memorising the

        multiplication table and at the same time understanding that 3 sets of 4 makes 12?

        When I mentioned that I didn’t think it was important to understand the “theory” behind the operation, I did not mean not to understand that if you have 3 sets of 4 items, you have 12. I was referring to the more esoteric things that got foisted on a whole generation of the “new math” in the guise of better preparing our youth to be scientists (to beat the Soviets to the moon — that was the political motivation, believe it or not).

        • Schools today do expect the kids to do both.

          That would be in the California standard, anyway, and it’s in the national standards that people are working on.

          Despite all you hear about schools dumbing things down, the reality is that schools expect a lot more of the kids than they did when I was a student in the 70’s and 80’s. The current California standards in general reflect the path I took as a gifted student taking the most accelerated classes, not the path of the typical kids of my generation.

          • AS my FIL likes to point out

            … calculus wasn’t even invented when he was in school! :)

            There’s just so much more kids are expected to know these days.

    • I went to a repetition-oriented Catholic school

      I wasn’t the kind of kid who needed to hear something twice to learn it.  I was bored to tears. Literally. School made me cry. My work also suffered because I’d get bored, tune out, and not complete assignments. In seventh grade I transferred to the public school, where they actually had advanced classes and specialists, and all of a sudden school was challenging and fun again (as fun as it can be for a seventh grader). The advanced classes at public school were far ahead of my class at Catholic school, so for the first couple weeks I had to catch up. (This is actually one of my favorite academic memories–I felt pressured and challenged and came out on top! Too bad more of school couldn’t be like that.)

      Drilling and repetition will only take you so far, and it’s not necessary for every student. A good school is set up to allow for several different learning styles and achievement levels.

      Speaking of standardized testing, my son has test anxiety already and he is starting the second grade. I’m never sure if we’re getting an accurate read on his abilities because he freaks out so much. Sure hope his teachers’ pay isn’t linked to his ability to control his seven-year-old emotions while being tested.

      What will he be like after several more years of this?

      • He’ll settle down, don’t worry.

        I was a terrible standarised test taker early on but got into the swing of things in a few years. Ditto for my DDs. I was also a terrible reader in the 1st and 2d grades, I hated it. I had 2 years of remedial reading and haven’t put a book down in 50+ years. It made me an ace reader.

  3. Remember when the “new math” came in in the

    mid-60s? Thank God I missed all that. I was taught the old-fashioned way of memorising multiplication tables, doing long division, working with fractions, being able to add columns up in your head without paper. It was tedious and boring as all hell but useful later on.

    There is no real need for grade schoolers to “understand” all the concepts behind what they are doing. That can come later. I think it’s more important to get the basic skills down pat. The “theory” behind them can be explored later on.

    I agree with you on the changing standards. That makes no sense and what a tremendous waste of scarce resources in an urban setting.

    In private school, we didn’t have to worry about that. It seemed like the curriculum didn’t change for decades. That’s the opposite end, which isn’t a good thing either.

  4. I want to talk about some of the positive

    things about a union that people really don’t expect or hear about.

    This year, the Governator allowed school districts to save money by dropping 5 school days from the calendar. This would allow schools to not pay their teachers for those days (though teachers are salaried, their pay is calculated based on official required hours worked) and save money without layoffs.

    We proposed that to our teachers. The union counterproposal was to work those days anyway and to instead take an effective pay cut (actually structured as an increase in the contribution to their health insurance cost). They believe, as we do, that this is a relatively temporary downturn, and that the ill effects of layoffs or fewer school days would affect our kids – and thus make their work harder – for the next decade.

    If the union had not gotten together and been able to agree upon this, it is not likely the district could have reached this result, and certainly not without pissing everyone off. This was the best possible long term result for the kids, the parents, and the teachers.

    The union also provides ways for little grievances to make their way out without being personal. For example, there was a change to the school calendar that made the teachers unhappy. None were so unhappy or so bold as to tell the superintendent, but there was commentary in the staff lounge, and the union rep was able to bring it up and get it changed. A small thing that would have caused unnecessary and unknown resentment all year.

    Perhaps in my district we are lucky to have an unusually good relationship with our union, our staff, our board, and our administration. But, it goes to show that when people believe they are all working together for the same cause, that there is no need for it to be an adversarial relationship.

    • I think the problem often arises,

      again, in large districts where the whole school system has become extremely politicized.  It’s not entirely the various unions, rather the system itself.  And like all power bases, they seek first and foremost to protect their own interest.  I can’t complain that teachers, like every one else, would seek to do so, but when combined with all the larger forces at play, it makes any innovation nearly impossible.

      • I don’t know if it’s the system

        or if it’s about individuals that don’t play well with others. A bad board or a bad principal or a bad superintendent, or even one that is just insensitive with poor people skills, can create a lot of poison and resentment. (Of course, a bad union leader can do the same, in which case shame on the teachers for electing that person.)

        When that happens, I’m not sure that it matters if there is a union or not. It would still create resentment and discord.

        • I think it’s the system as a whole…

          not just the school system.  For example, it’s very difficult to obtain a board position here.  Purely political.  The funds to run the very expensive campaign can only be obtained by playing city/county politics.  Often, candidates use a school board position as a spring board for further political office.  So, it’s just all part and parcel…

          I wish we could decouple it.  I’m not sure how we’d do it, but there’s just little incentive or will to do anything as is.

          • A large district like LAUSD

            can marshall a lot of resources and combine them in ways we cannot, like by providing better gifted opportunities and more special ed and ELL and more choices for languages and PE and science and the like, but the flip side is that the people making those decisions are far, both physically and mentally, from the people they impact.

            I’m liking the small school model myself, but there are consequences.

            IMHO, that can be an advantage for charter schools, being a self-contained decision-making unit

    • For some reason…

      I think urban education is much more polarizing. Perhaps it is because we have so many choices and everyone is trying to defend their choice. I’ve used it all — public, parochial and secular private — and for that reason, I am grateful to almost always have lived in a big urban school district.

      In defense of charters, I do think they are in an impossible position in terms of facilities. There are parents using the charters, which is what I was trying to tell Lily, and the charters are being presented to parents as a legitimate choice. Yet, no one wants to help secure facilities for charters, which makes me think they are being set up to fail. On the one hand, we expect charters to acquire facilities without tuition dollars or public funds. OTOH, we criticize charters for acquiring buildings with private funding, or we don’t like who is funding it, or we don’t deem the space appropriate for a school. Then what do we propose charters do to — exist?? Should they exist at all?

      • Rather than defend a “choice”…

        I am thinking the fighting has to do with money. All schools need money and they are all fighting over an ever shrinking pot of funds. If there were plenty of money to go around, I have a feeling there would be less contention between unions and charters, for example.

        • Yes, in the end it’s all about money

          People don’t mind sacrificing to do good work, but they don’t like feeling like chumps.

        • Money

          As near as I can tell, the NEA is opposed to “vouchers” and other “choice” options on the basis that we’d be privatizing education.  I’ve seen it happen in a variety of instances.  The movement to defund public schools is largely spearheaded by the same people who want to privatize them (along with our social security, wars, oil rigs, prisons…).

          For decades now, the movement has done it’s level best to prove that  public education doesn’t work (kinda like government) so they can loot the public funds for their private companies.  “Vouchers” and all the other systems are simply the stepping stone to the “market based education system” as far as I can tell.  

          • Regular public education

            is not working for many students.  I know the party line.  It was around back 20 years ago…”there’s nothing wrong with our schools”.    Let me say, I’m a huge public school advocate, but if we want to preserve some semblance of an education system in which every child is offered free and accessible education, we have to admit that there are certainly problems.  

            I don’t pretend to know all the answers.  I can’t offer a quick “fix it” solution….but ignoring the problem is not wise for those of us of the liberal persuasion.  

            Guess where I’ve found some of the widest support for vouchers?  In the minority community.  Yup…the black community.  One of the democratic party’s strongest  constituencies.  Guess who’s filling the charter schools and taking the vouchers?  Guess who would consider it condescending beyond belief to be told that they were just being “had” by believing that there’s anything wrong with the neighborhood pubic school?  Would you send your children to one of these schools?  What if you had to live there, and you had no money, no power, and a society who just believed that people like you couldn’t possibly raise children that could achieve in school?  That’s what it’s like for hundreds of thousands of parents across our country.  

            So, no…we’re not all dupes of some right wing effort to privatize education.    In fact, many of us might be considered among the most liberal.  However unwilling I am to cut off my nose to spite my face, the worst thing the democratic party can do is to ignore the trouble in many public school systems.   Yes, a large part of the problem is funding, but let’s be realistic….someone could drop a billion dollars down at the Board of Ed building in my city, and it’s unlikely that the status quo would agree to enact any changes that might make a difference to a large portion of it’s students.  

            • I don’t think anyone is being duped.

              But I also think that we have to figure out how to educate all students, not only the ones whose parents have the time or energy or education to understand how to navigate the system.  It’s not good enough to create different schools for the “good” kids, leaving everyone else to languish.  Those kids matter too. When start taking neighborhood schools apart by skimming kids off to different, specialized schools, you’d better have a different, specialized school ready for the ones that are left in the existing neighborhood school.  Unfortunately, the ones left are usually the most desperate, most disenfranchised and most needy and there’s no one but the teacher’s unions to advocate for a quality educational system for them.  Without someone saying “Wait a second, how is this good for all kids?” we end up with a Lord of the Flies educational model where only the fittest survive and the others get thrown away.

              • Forgot to add

                that I don’t think there are many folks who are totally in denial that our schools need help.  I think what many reject is the only measure of failure vs. success is a single data point or, if we’re lucky, two or three data points.

              • People should be able to choose the public school

                they like without it having to be a big deal. Maybe they prefer a different school because the kids can go to Grandma’s house after school while the parents work.

                Obviously when a school is oversubscribed it’s more challenging, but even a good school won’t suit every possible child.

                • Child care

                  In the last 3 places I’ve lived (MO, VA, GA) you can get waivers for child care issues including getting to a babysitter or an after school program.

                  Our current system, here in GA uses the “hardship” waiver.
                  It is very, very common for kids to go to a school outside of their geographical assignment for a variety of reasons.  You can use an “academic” waiver by asking to take a class that is only offered at a specific location (Chinese, for example) or a “medical” waiver which could be used to address everything from better access for a physical limitation to emotional issues related to friendships.

                  The system is abused by a few families who want their kids on winning sports teams:p  There are also families who utilize it for other, very appropriate, concerns.  As always, the kids who have an adult advocate for them are better placed according to their needs.  This has caused a huge mess where we live.  Essentially, anyone can chose to go anywhere which means the kids are always in some flux and are very upset.  Parents are always jockeying for position, and also very upset.  And, it reality, the kids who would most benefit from being in our (very good) local school don’t have access to an advocate, a ride, or academic support once they arrive (even if they could battle the 1.5 hour commute at 7am).  Really great in principal, painful in practice.  

                  Not to quibble, but being “oversubscribed” pisses people off when it forces them to find a new school and transportation on a near yearly basis.

                  • in our system

                    We have school choice within the district, but families get first priority for their neighborhood school.  If you want to go to a specialty school or a school in another neighborhood for some other reason, you are free to apply but the priority order is first locals and continuing students, then sibs; if no space is available for new applicants you go on a waitlist.  So I don’t think there’s much flux.  My older son was waitlisted for our spanish immersion school but got in during the summer; his brother was an automatic in.

            • Please don’t misunderstand

              Nobody denies there is a problem. Most of us (here at MT’s) agree that all kids deserve an appropriate education (dare I say FAPE?).  Not just the ones with parents who advocate.  I see these “options” as something to be added to a very strong public education system.  I don’t consider it an ‘either/or’ proposition.  In other words, I think we can add to the system rather than replace it. I’ll never be comfortable with the movement toward the “market based solution”. It should be like health care, where most developed nations have both choice and high quality.

              I should also add that I am very involved with a terribly challenged school serving children born of children in a cycle of poverty which is, at times, desperate.  The problem isn’t the school, though, and it’s not something the school will ever be able to fix.  As a matter of fact, it’s not something that any magnet or voucher can fix.  And that’s part of the problem for teachers and schools (in general). My dentist gets paid regardless of my oral hygiene, genetic predisposition, or lack of mouthguard during hockey games.  For some reason, teachers are supposed to mitigate the various economic and social disasters at home, or we declare public education a failure.

              While it’s true that minority communities are the most underserved by our imperfect system and the most often seeking solutions, a fair percentage of those same groups break with the “party line” on reproductive rights and gay rights.  I wouldn’t assume that any one group “should” embrace a progressive/democratic ideology or agenda for education.  That said, guess what happens when local, state or federal dollars are allocated for choice, vouchers, or magnets?  The “haves” suck up resources ($$)  and leave the “have nots” in the dust.  The voucher system (or magnet, or whatever) isn’t fair and doesn’t work unless everyone is served.  I’m thinking of the Milwaukee program.  If memory serves, it costs more/student in tax dollars (feeding money into their religious based private school system) than public and doesn’t serve everyone.  

              Sorry to be a bore/ramble…I spent an entire semester studying “A Nation at Risk” about 20-25 years ago.  There is a reason there is a strong partisan debate surrounding education dating back to the Reagan years.  From the wiki:

              When the systems scientists broke down the SAT test scores into subgroups they discovered contradictory data. While the overall average scores declined, the subgroups of students increased. In statistics this is known as the Simpson paradox. The 3 authors presented their report.[6] David Kearns, Deputy Secretary of Education allegedly told the authors of the report,”You bury this or I’ll bury you”[7],

              But, as with most complex issues, I’d guess the answer lies in more than one place.

              • I’m sorry that I was so strident, too…

                guess I was suffering a flashback of sorts….what we were told over and over again was just unbelievable, and while I certainly do not believe that some of the worst offenses I saw represents the mind set of the vast majority of educators, it’s still  not easy to hear that we just need to let the public school system solve it’s own problems.

                As I said somewhere else in this thread, I don’t pretend to have all the answers.  Truly repairing education in this country is a bit like peeling of layers of an onion…the more you peel, the more you need to peel.  It is a dauntless prospect and it takes better people than me and chews them up and spits them out again.  You’re right in that many of the problems we have are larger societal issues.  This fact, I think polarizes us even further.  

                I’m not a particular fan of vouchers.  However, if we can’t find ways to keep kids in a public school setting, we’re feeding right into the hands of the conservatives.  One way that we do this is by offering charters, magnets, etc.  

                • Not too strident, at all!

                  Although, I love strident and am reaaaallly super hard to offend:D Plus, we seem to agree.  Even better!

                  I actually wrote a different reply, hit the back button and lost it all…rats.
                  Gotta run–n/t!

              • FAPE for the well-positioned:

                I swear, yesterday I heard that The Boss had dismissed the (legitimate) concerns of a dying (!) parent because “she’s poor, she won’t sue.” Thanks for setting us back A THOUSAND YEARS! Sometimes I literally cannot believe what comes out of her mouth.

                • Holy crap!

                  That sounds pretty awful and, sadly, more common than anyone would imagine.  It’s seems pretty true that FAPE is most often utilized by those with the resources to know about FAPE in the first place.  

                  After we started this conversation, I found out a doctor that I admire and respect is planning to help advocate for children and families in the area of health care in the schools.  We need professionals like him to help those who cannot help themselves!

                  • I know

                    I really didn’t intend to become a whistleblower, especially with DH’s precarious employment situation, but I can’t just sit by with this carp occurring. I hope it doesn’t cost me my job.

                    • Fingers crossed

                      I hope it doesn’t cost your job, either.  
                      Your professionalism will not go unnoticed in the end.  Karma will get that administrator, though!

      • In Ohio,

        charters are given a certain amount in “start up” money.  Not enough to out right buy a building, of course, but enough to secure a lease, if possible.  What I’ve seen here in my city is an unwillingness to lease to them due to political pressure.  The school district will let buildings set mothballed and empty rather than lease them, and they’ve applied pressure to the city government to do the same with other publicly owned buildings.  Right now, a couple of schools are slated for demolition…not in areas where any other business is going to come in and buy or develop.  

        There have been many parochial schools that have closed or consolidated in the past 10 or 15 years, and the Catholic Church seems to have no problem with leasing to charters.

        While I would never want to see kids in an unsafe or totally inappropriate environment, I think maybe often we place far too much emphasis on how “new” or “modern” the building.  I don’t think anyone else has a real problem with this other than the political entities who are prepared to use often less than specific language in ordinances in order to make trouble.  

        I totally agree about the money issue…and sooner or later, we’re all going to have to accept a certain specified amount of Federal oversight in exchange for more federal dollars going to each and every school.  Communities have lost their ability to support their own schools as the trend with tax abating allows the full cost to fall on individual homeowners.  As  most districts are not comprised solely of high end residential real estate, it’s impossible to keep up.

        • Yup…

          closed Catholic schools here are all charters, except for ours which is private. And from what I understand, we got a GREAT deal on our lease, at least compared to building our own facility or leasing any other property. Plus, it is meant to be a school building, which is a big plus.

          But it is an old building, and I am shocked at how much it has cost to maintain, like, making sure it is earthquake proof and the sprinklers work. These were tough costs esp. for a start-up like ours.

          One thing I have learned to appreciate is how expensive it is to run a school. It’s not just teachers and staff, but facilities — basic maintenance, nothing modern — licensing fees, and other hidden fees. I agree with you that the money issue is only going to get worse with foreclosed properties (less funds) and the costs of running a school/multiple schools.

        • Schools take a lot of wear and tear

          and of course deferred maintenance is a problem too.

          Here are some of the issues with older buildings:

          – seismic safety. I’ll spare us all the link to the school in China that collapsed and killed virtually every child in that town.– electrical. If you’re going to have more than one computer in a room, you need outlets and you need a lot more amps and more circuits to support all the devices.– data. Can be wireless or wired, but even wireless can be a problem in buildings that contain a lot of metal, and thus at least one jack is needed in every room.– plumbing. Old enough and it needs to be gutted and redone.– air conditioning, or lack thereof. And not just the air handlers, but the vents and the electrical power necessary to install one.– ADA access– security concerns… the “best practices” have changed quite a lot over the years.

          I love a good old building and I’m of a mindset that they should last a hundred years or more, but the issues with older buildings can be substantial. It’s not just about a political wishlist.

          • Well…the politics is a reality, here.

            The district has not been shy in stating that they will not lease to their “competition”, as they see it.  Rather, they’ll bulldoze or mothball.

            About a decade ago, Ohio decided to use the money gotten from the tobacco lawsuits to fund the building of new school buildings.  This wasn’t a bad thing…across the state, many districts had very old buildings that were not worth the type of updating that schools today require.  Communities had to raise some of the money on their own, but unfortunately, it left large districts with the problem of how to do away with the truly decrepit buildings and save the more usable structures.  Now…here we go with the politics again.  The regulations for the receiving these moneys from the state meant that the state set all the rules and regulations.  I went over the “inspections” of buildings myself.  Pricing on repairs and updates were hugely inflated in order to declare some buildings not worth the money to save.  I can’t blame the districts for going along in order to get the money from the states….but everything is political.  I know…I was physically threatened by a group of local building contractors who are behind every building project receiving public dollars.  This was just in the lead up to the whole school rebuilding project.  When it actually started, I kept my mouth shut as I did not relish having Lake Erie as my final resting place.

          • And the biggest expense…

            Public schools have to educate all children.  They pay dearly for reading specialists, school nurses, and individual “para-pros”. Private schools can just say, “no, thanks” to children who cost more $$$ to educate.  
            My eyes were opened up when I started working in school clinics.  It is shocking how many kids need care.  Feeding tubes, oxygen, you name it.  These kids, thankfully, can go to school and blend as seamlessly as possible with their peers.  It’s not just a wheelchair ramp.  It’s someone to help a child who needs a cath change, someone to teach a child who recently arrived from an obscure place (with an equally obscure language), someone to help a dyslexic child. In the instance of my nephew, it was the school who (after 5 years) told SIL to get to a neurologist for her (highly impacted and obviously) autistic child.  

            • YES.

              People do not realize how much it costs districts to educate students with disabilities.  We had five students at our school last year who required a parapro for the entire day.  That’s a 1:1 teacher/student ratio.  That’s really expensive.  But the students required this assistance.

              Privates and charters can just say “no thanks” to educating those kids.  It’s a big reason why public schools cost so much to run, and I get so tired of the letters from older citizens in our paper who say “I had 40 kids in my class and I turned out just fine.”  Well, the highly disabled kids weren’t at your school–they were institutionalized or at home.  The number of autistic kids has increased.  Gifted kids and LD kids alike get extra assistance these days.  You can’t do that with 40 kids in your class.

              • Charters cannot.

                Not in Ohio, anyway.  They have to take kids with any and all disabilities.  Many, if not most, have as many students with learning disabilities as do the regular public schools.  

                • I believe that may be true

                  in CA as well.  I was offered a position as a part-time psych for a charter school that was serving its special ed population.  There did seem to be fewer special ed students there than the average for this area. However I know of many families whose kids have IEPs who have chosen a different charter, even though the students don’t receive the same services they would in a regular public school. These families seem to feel it’s a decent trade-off.

                  Of course, there are ways of subtly discouraging different kinds of families / learners. My sense with this particular charter was it was doing a good job of accepting / educating all comers, but I can imagine that some find ways to turn away students or families they would prefer not to serve.

                  • In fact, several charters in my area

                    are specifically designed to serve those with special needs.  A couple are devoted solely to autistic students.  

                    My son has an IEP.  Although I know his needs are considerably modest in comparison with many students, we have been well served by charters.  Perhaps we’ve even been served better as students, like my son, having moderate needs that are easily met receive more attention.

                    I am sure, however, that there are ways of turning away students.   This happens in the public school setting as well.  I know of many parents who have had to negotiate services.

                • Charters are public schools

                  that said, while they cannot turn you away, they don’t have the core requirement to provide, at their cost, the accommodations for those kids. They can say, “We can’t meet your needs here” and in addition, the financial responsibility for those accommodations remains with the neighborhood school. So, for example, if we have a child that lives in our district that requires a dedicated full time aide, we have to pay for it even if the child goes to school elsewhere, including, in some cases, to a private school. There’s some more nuance to exactly how it all comes together, but the essential gist of it is that the neighborhood school is on the hook financially.

                  • it depends where the

                    school is chartered. We have one in town that is chartered through the county, rather than the city’s school district. They are given a flat amount to do whatever needs doing, and they end up going through agencies for things like OT and speech. It’s pretty costly, especially since around here private agencies often recommend more service than is strictly necessary — they are businesses, after all.

          • “seismic safety”

            shenanigans, I understand your point about the building code, but that school in China, as many of the schools that collapsed in the Sichuan (and Yushu) earthquakes, was built without the use of mortar or any kind of reinforcement in the foundations.  That’s more than seismic safety, that’s rampant and disgusting corruption…

            • True

              but there are unreinforced masonry buildings within California that will fail just as spectacularly in a major earthquake, when it hits. Mortar has no shear resistance, so it hardly matters if it’s present or not.

        • Accessibility

          We have charters in former parochial school buildings around me but in many cases the former Catholic school buildings cannot be repurposed due to accessibility issues.  Maintaining current buildings within the city school district and the diocese and keeping them up to current codes both for safety and accessibility is a huge cost.

      • Urban combines a lot of people

        with a lot of different interests, and it is also a more migratory population.

        In our area, we have families where the parents graduated from our school, where families have lived on the same property for 150 years. That kind of community stability seems to generate less fear that some “other” people will have wrong ideas that will forever tarnish the children. It’s another advantage of a small school – when everyone knows each other, there’s less fear.

        The facility issue is a big one for charters and for regular schools. The code requirements for a normal public school in California are intense, there’s no doubt. But for anyone thinking about that being mere bureaucracy, they were reminded by the earthquake in China just how devastating a substandard school building could be to a community.

        There is a real concern with charters paying above-market rent for the specific purpose of enriching a particular landlord. On the other hand, a legitimate charter needs a place to be. Sadly, here, we have no shortage of lovely school facilities that have been closed due to declining enrollment and budgetary pressures. In general, I don’t mind the idea of the state owning school facilities and I didn’t completely understand the issue with respect to Texas, other than that it appears that perhaps the properties in question aren’t really all that good for schools and are not necessarily being purchased at a fair market value.

    • Another example

      My father’s district went on strike when I was a child because class size was going up to 40 kids/class.  Not for money, not to protect any political interest, but because 40 middle school kids in one class is not a good idea.

      The idea that administrators are part of a “teachers union” is not always accurate.  They have their own unions, some local and some exist on a federal level.  Like it or not, these unions protect workers by offering many of the same benefits we see in the private sector including everything from “accidental death” policies and professional liability insurances to travel and health benefits. As a general rule, administration is often viewed as “management” and teachers as “labor”  

  5. Former NEA member here.

    I was in the NEA for years.  I was never a hardliner, but I certainly saw their value.  First and foremost, though, they are about doing what’s best for kids.  The sticky wicket comes when we start trying to talk about what that is.  I’m certain that there are elements in the NEA who believe that anything non-union is a bad idea and part of me gets that in the same way that I think all workers are better protected when they’re unionized.  Break the union and suddenly you have people working 18 hour days for .25 an hour.  I’m big believer in protecting workers.  

    That being said, I also think that the NEA has played a really valuable role in helping teachers to mobilize when decisions are being made that will negatively impact kids.  Do they also fight hard to protect their members?  Damn straight.  It’s what they’re supposed to do.  Particularly when teachers are being scapegoated or unfairly penalized.  

    The whole thing is pretty complex.  It’s not a “unions are good/ unions are bad” situation.  The NEA is made of people and sometimes people are crazy.  Doesn’t mean the whole organization is crazy.

    • I agree.

      And of the two major teachers’ unions, NEA is definitely more progressive than is AFT.  And while I butted with teachers unions, on many occasions I also felt very strongly that if I had to work for the administrators I often came into contact with, I’d want the absolute best, and strongest, of union representation possible.  I think the problem arises when it seems as if every one’s interest is being represented besides the actual students.  

      • Oh yeah

        I was non-union at my Catholic school.  There was a lot of unpaid at the whim of the admin stuff involved.  Luckily we had a great administrator in my building but I felt for the teachers that were under little dictators in the diocese.  Even with my great admin, I still had a lot of unpaid duties.

        What gets me is that we always hear ab out the teacher’s unions and never the admin. unions.  In our city school both of the unions agreed to paycuts prior to negotiations about the budgets to avoid layoffs.  Then the admin union balked and ended up with raises, leaving the teacher’s unions dangling.  The teacher’s union didn’t go along with a paycut while the admin received raises and no threat of layoffs yet the teachers were somehow the “bad guys.” I can’t tell you how many morons around here did NOT understand that and how the story was all about those greedy teachers who never look out for the kids and get paid fulltime salaries for 9 months of work shooting themselves in the foot.  (They actually have less than 2 months off and there is a lot of development and preparing classrooms etc that goes on during that time anyway) The sad thing is that wasn’t what happened and it wasn’t even reported that way yet the anti-union politicians spun it that way.

        • Right, people are often willing to work stuff out

          but they don’t want to feel like chumps if they’re taking a cut and the classified or the administrators aren’t.

        • Oh yeah…

          most people don’t even believe those in administration are represented by unions.  And then, of course, there’s the unions representing all the other school employees outside of teachers and administrators.  Not that I begrudge anyone their right to unionize, but often, it’s just turf battles.  

          And while there’s plenty to gripe about with how teacher’s unions operate, I don’t know how anyone can believe the old “greedy” line….teachers are NOT overpaid…and like the rest of us, they struggle to keep roofs over their heads and provide for their own  children.  They deserve the right to collective bargaining as much as members of any other profession.

  6. UFT?

    What’s the relationship/difference between NEA and UFT?  In NY the union is the UFT, and Randy Weingarten (who moved from NYC to a national position) was very polarizing.  Then we got Mayor Bloomberg on “the other side” of the table who behaves as if you need to confront  unions on every front.  We’ve only had one teacher “strike” in 10 years – but the atmosphere can be very testy.

    And….the school calendar is crazy because it has to meet both the union and the mayor’s needs.

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