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Column: The New Pinkertons

CEA Advisor April 2011CEA Executive Director John Yrchik has a great column in the April CEA Advisor. You should be receiving your Advisor in the mail any day now if you haven’t already. You can also always read the CEA Advisor online.  John’s column is reprinted below.

The New Pinkertons

Clashes between striking workers and Pinkerton guards in the 19th century formed a sad and bloody chapter in American history. Hired by some of the country’s wealthiest citizens in America’s Gilded Age, members of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency infiltrated unions, protected strikebreakers, and worked to keep union supporters out of plants and mines.

The new Pinkertons don’t use clubs. They use legislation. Their objective is the same, however—to destroy or to otherwise cripple unions. Unless you’ve been living in a desert hut, you know that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and a Republican-dominated legislature took away bargaining rights that public employees have had for more than 50 years.

In neighboring Ohio, Governor John Kasich signed into law a bill that dealt a mortal blow to public employee collective bargaining rights. While teachers and others will still be able to negotiate wages and certain working conditions, they will not be able to negotiate health benefits or sick time. Future wage increases will not be based on seniority, but merit. The bill also bans automatic payroll deduction for political expenditures and eliminates agency fee collections.

Butch Otter, Governor of Idaho, signed into law two bills that would restrict collective bargaining rights for teachers, eliminate continuing contracts for new teachers, and implement a pay-for-performance plan. The new laws are part of what State Schools Superintendent Tom Luna calls his “Students Come First” agenda. Not to be cheeky, but students didn’t ask to restrict teachers’ collective bargaining rights or get rid of tenure. Let’s be clear about what this really is—some adults beating the hell out of other adults in the name of students.

A bill in Tennessee would ban collective bargaining altogether. It was introduced less than a year after the Tennessee Education Association collaborated with the state and other education stakeholders to secure Race to the Top funding.

The national picture is truly bleak. NEA affiliates in Maine, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Indiana, Florida, and Alabama are facing serious threats in the areas of professional rights, employee rights, and union rights. Conservative politicians are seeking to drain union coffers even as they make frontal assaults on the institution of public employee unionism and seek the diminution of the stature of teachers.

It’s helpful to remember that the climate in Connecticut would be very different today if the 2010 election had gone 5,000 votes the other way. And, although we’ve been somewhat insulated to date, we have not been altogether immune from the wave of national hostility toward teachers and other public employees. A barrage of negative advertising about Connecticut schools and a private think tank’s calls for an end to seniority as a factor in layoffs possess an eerie resonance with events in the rest of the country.

More than ever before, the eddies of events in Wisconsin, Idaho, and other states are finding their way to our state. These forces embolden those hostile to the things for which we stand. The environment will continue to grow more challenging for us. The future will require more active intervention in the challenges of public education, discernment about what constitutes good policy, grassroots involvement in the political process, and, above all, unity. In the last several years, we have begun to respond to these external threats. Much work remains to be done.

Reaction to Merit Pay Study

The new Vanderbilt University study that’s critical of merit pay is shaking up the education world.  Did it leave you speechless?  Surprised?  Left with a sense of satisfaction that you knew it was coming?  It’s a groundbreaking study, so we’d like you to weigh in with a comment.

Here at CEA, we’ve long maintained that merit pay simply doesn’t work.  Good teachers are good every day, not just on pay day.

The National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development released the study.  It’s  the first scientific study of performance pay conducted in the United States.

During the three-year experiment, educators were rewarded with $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000 bonuses based on whether their students’ achievement rose by a specific amount over a certain period of time. Researchers found that bonuses based on student achievement do not improve student outcomes.

CEA Executive Director John Yrchik shares his reactions to the study.  We’re looking forward to hearing from you.

Yrchik explains why this study is so significant.

President Obama has been pushing nationally for merit pay, Yrchik reacts.

Yrchik offers an example of a program that works.

Governor Rell Signs Sweeping Education Reform Legislation

Governor M. Jodi Rell poses with education leaders following a signing ceremony May 26 at Hockanum School in East Hartford where she signed into law a new comprehensive education reform policy bill. With the governor are (l. to r.) Connecticut Federation of School Administrators President Roch Girard, CEA President Phil Apruzzese, CEA Executive Director John Yrchik, State Commissioner of Education Mark McQuillan, Education Committee Co-Chairs Senator Thomas Gaffey and State Representative Andrew Fleischmann.

CEA leaders were among invited officials at a signing ceremony today at Hockanum School in East Hartford.  Governor M. Jodi Rell signed into law a comprehensive education reform policy bill passed in the final days of the 2010 legislative session.

The legislation, Senate Bill 438, An Act Concerning Education Reform in Connecticut, covers an array of issues designed to provide new chances to boost student achievement. The new law increases the minimum credits required for high school graduation from 20 to 25 and gives greater emphasis to math, science, and world languages, beginning with the Class of 2018. It also requires every student to complete a “capstone project” – an independent demonstration project.

The legislation was crafted by a working group that included CEA representatives and other stakeholders in the education community, including the co-chairs of the General Assembly’s Education Committee and the state commissioner of education.

“As a genuine partner, CEA tapped the knowledge and experience of teachers during this legislative process,” said CEA President Phil Apruzzese, who attended the signing ceremony. “We are pleased that teachers had a voice at the table and that CEA could make a difference in shaping the final omnibus school reform package.”

The governor called the legislation a product of “bipartisan” effort. “By having all of the interested parties – educators, teachers unions, parents, students, legislators, and others – together at the table, we ended up with a far stronger result than any individual effort could produce. This is bold, visionary reform – and we are making it happen together,” Governor Rell said.

The new law also enhances Connecticut’s chances to secure up to $175 million in federal Race to the Top (RTTT) grant funding that rewards states for taking bold steps in education reform. Connecticut will file its application for the next round of RTTT grants on June 1.

School Finance in the Obama Era

Having spent four decades in education, there is a tendency to feel like I’ve seen it all – and trust me, I have seen a lot.  In spite of that, I agree with John Yrchik, who was recently quoted in the Hartford Courant as saying he has never seen it this bad. We have a tendency to be apocalyptic in times of crisis – particularly when it comes to school funding – and the public frequently accuses us of crying wolf, but the current crisis that local districts in Connecticut are trying to deal with is very real.

The way we fund public education in the United States remains deeply flawed, even as we inch our way toward a more federalized and centralized system. We were reminded of the structural problem when Connecticut’s highest court resuscitated the most recent school finance lawsuit launched by CCJEF (the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding).  When the case finally does get to trial the fiscal situation that the Superior Court looks at will have considerably worsened since the adequacy study was completed and the case was filed. The impending layoffs and flood of pink slips not only tragically disrupt the lives of teachers, but dampen the ecology of the school and the system that surrounds it well into the future.

On April 14  Secretary Duncan pleaded for more money to avoid layoffs in an appearance before  the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee:

And so today, on behalf of governors, mayors, educators and students, parents, business leaders, community leaders and everyone who shares the view that education is the key to our economic strength and civic vitality, I urge Congress to consider another round of emergency support for America’s schools.

If we do not help avert this state and local budget crisis, we could impede reform and fail another generation of children. The fact is that gaps for special education, low-income, and minority students remain stubbornly wide.

One in four high school students fails to graduate. Forty percent of students who go to college need remedial education. And huge numbers of young people determined to go to college and pursue a career drop out because of financial or academic challenges.

If we want reform to move forward, we need an education jobs program. Jobs and reform go hand-in-hand.

The so-called "funding cliff"...

Duncan indicated to the committee that “between 100,000 and 300,000 teachers face layoffs”, but fell short of specifically endorsing a solution. Later that week, on April 19, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities released a paper, “Premature End of Federal Assistance to States Threatens Education Reforms and Jobs”.  It indicates that the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund has saved 284,000 jobs, but school districts and other local education employers have nevertheless cut 104,500 jobs. It further indicates that “Without additional federal aid, state budget cuts will cost the economy 900,000 public- and private-sector jobs.”

The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) had also just released the results of a national survey of its members, “Cliff Hanger: How America’s Public Schools Continue to Feel the Impact of the Economic Downturn.” The results report that two-thirds of members surveyed cut positions for this school year and 90 percent expect to do so for the coming year. The survey of 453 administrators also found that 62 percent anticipated raising the average class size, 34 percent were considering the elimination of summer school, and 13 percent were weighing the possibility of a four-day school week.

You may recall that back in December the House passed a jobs bill – Jobs for Main Street Act of 2010 – which contained a second stimulus directed at avoiding layoffs of teachers and other public employees. The Senate version of the jobs bill did not contain these provisions, so Senator Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and of the Senate Appropriations panel, filed a bill recently called, “The Keep Our Educators Working Act”. The bill mirrors the House passed bill and provides $23 billion for the following:

•    Compensation and benefits and other expenses necessary to retain existing employees, and for the hiring of new employees, in order to provide early childhood, elementary, secondary, or postsecondary educational and related services; or

•    On-the-job training activities for education-related careers.

Every educator should contact their Senator to urge swift passage of Senator Harkin’s bill. You can do this easily by clicking here.

The Obama education budget proposal, if implemented as recommended, would only further exacerbate the unmitigated disaster that lies ahead when the stimulus money dries up. I am referring to the proposed radical shift away from formula driven grants – the traditional mechanism for distributing federal education funds – to competitive funding. More on this later.

Key Reform Efforts Critical to State’s Revised RTTT Application

Connecticut’s twice-delayed in-school suspension law and the State Department of Education’s (SDE) proposed secondary school reform plan are both important links to the state’s success in its second Race to the Top (RTTT) federal grant application due June 1.

Addressing members of  the General Assembly’s Education Committee during an information forum on the state’s RTTT grant application process held April 16, State Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan said Connecticut needs RTTT funds to help build “a bold support system of emotional and academic support” for students.

“Secondary reform plan is an essential building block to the state’s reform strategy and the in-school suspension law is key to keeping kids in school so they can continue to learn and graduate,” said McQuillan.

With the regular legislative session scheduled to adjourn on May 5, lawmakers have about two weeks left to cobble together and pass an omnibus bill that would address issues for Connecticut’s revised RTTT application.  “RTTT is a one-time opportunity – the legislature must act now,” said the commissioner.

McQuillan and representatives from several education stakeholder groups – including CEA Executive Director John Yrchik – have met regularly with State Senator Thomas Gaffey and State Representative Andrew Fleishmann, co-chairs of the Education Committee, in a series of RTTT “education summits.”

The summits began shortly after Connecticut learned in March that it was not a finalist in the first RTTT application round. Discussions have focused on what stakeholders think is best for the state to incorporate into the revised application. The informational forum was an opportunity to update the Education Committee and help bolster legislative support for issues related to the RTTT application.

Stakeholder buy-in essential

CEA Executive Director John Yrchik told the committee that having all stakeholders sitting at the table to discuss education issues is not only important to the future of children and public education, but it is also “a fundamental factor” in the success of Connecticut’s second RTTT application. He said collaboration on the RTTT application is given more importance than any other section.

“There are lots of reform issues being discussed for Connecticut, and even if they are all passed by the General Assembly, we could still lose points without stakeholder buy-in,” Yrchik said. He added that Connecticut lost 150 points on the first application because it didn’t have sufficient stakeholder buy-in.

“Without everyone in agreement on this application, success is fairly minimal. It takes everyone working together to bring about reform,” he said.

Yrchik also cautioned legislators to be careful in approving any statute changes for the competitive RTTT application. “The federal government did not set forth criteria for states to aspire to with this application process. Instead they set up a competition – and unfortunately this means many states with good and credible plans will not get their applications funded. Whether or not our application is accepted, we will have to live with any changes that are made, it’s important any changes represent good policy.”

High school reform plan ‘vital’ to RTTT grant

MQuillan said the state’s comprehensive high school reform plan – launched two and a half years ago – is “vital” to the RTTT application. The plan – which has been approved by both the Education and Appropriations committees – would establish more rigorous high school graduation requirements. Among other goals, it would increase high school course and credit requirements, raise student accountability and assessment standards, and include a model curricula for districts.

The commissioner said the plan dovetails with the state’s need to more closely link K-12 and higher education requirements because of the proposed national common core of standards for college and career readiness that the State Board of Education is expected to adopt.

He told the committee the reform plan builds on a long-range vision for Connecticut’s education future. “If the state doesn’t move forward with secondary school reform funding and tries to fund it only with RTTT money, it would put the state at a disadvantage with our revised application. The federal government would see that as not having a strong commitment to education reform,” he said.

He added that the “frightening reality” is that without state funds, the plan would “stop dead in its tracks” and the state would lose ground. “The plan is not a cost-free program for the state. RTTT funding would only get the plan started and under way, not sustain it.”

In-school suspension law critical to reform goals

McQuillan – along with several superintendents and principals from around the state – said the state’s new in-school suspension law – scheduled to go into effect July 1 – is also critical to the state’s education reform goals and the RTTT application.

The commissioner said students who are frequently suspended from high school “are prime candidates” to drop out of school and enter the workforce without the skills they need to succeed. He said strong in-school suspension programs can provide students and their families with the academic and emotional help they need to successfully move through middle and high school.

The law has been delayed twice since it was passed in 2007, but the Education Committee recently voted not to support a third postponement. A number of districts have not waited for the law to become effective, implementing in-school suspension policies as part of efforts to reduce overall student suspensions.

“When someone knows a teacher cares, there will be fewer discipline problems,” Stafford Springs Superintendent Therese Fishman told the committee. She said the district’s high school in-school suspension program includes a Saturday session and assigns paraprofessionals and substitute teachers to work with suspended students. “It should be a learning experience. We want to make sure students keep learning.”

Fishman added that she wants to hire a full-time teacher for the in-school suspension room and use the teacher as a long-term substitute when there are no student suspensions. “In-school suspensions for low-risk students cost more money, but our goal is to keep kids in school.”

East Hartford High School Assistant Principal Michelle Marion said the school has a designated in-school suspension program where students are assigned to a room and are expected to focus on academic assignments provided by their teachers.

The program is partly funded by a grant, but she said staff dealing with student behavioral programs need more professional development training programs. However, she said her district can’t afford the $60,000 cost.

While the committee voted against postponing the in-school suspension law, a number of legislators on the committee said the reality is that not all districts can develop in-school suspension programs in difficult economic times because of budget cuts.

However, Joseph Cirasulo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, told the committee that superintendents don’t want another delay for the law. “Let’s put it into the mix and get it done,” he said, adding that in-school suspension programs should have a higher funding priority than some other programs.

State Leaders Sign On to Guiding Principles for Education

At today’s meeting of Connecticut’s P-20 Council forty state and congressional leaders gathered to sign on to a set of guiding principles, known as a Declaration of Cooperation.   The principles will guide Connecticut and its educational systems. Read them here.

CEA is a member of the P-20 Council that was created last year to build collaboration across early childhood, K-12, higher education and workforce training. The goal is to increase the number of Connecticut residents who hold a postsecondary degree or other credential.

Watch video excerpts below (3 minutes total) from the meeting.

Cecilia Rouse, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, was the keynote speaker at today’s meeting.   She spoke to the education and business leaders about the economic importance of providing a high quality education from pre-kindergarten through higher education.

Citing several studies that tracked children who attended high-quality preschool programs into their adult lives, Rouse said research indicates a positive result from such programs. “High-quality preschool puts kids on the right track. There is a lifetime benefit that shows that preschool not only pays off for children, but it also changes their lives,” she said

Additionally, there are benefits to society as well, including fewer individuals collecting unemployment, better health, more health insurance coverage, and fewer individuals likely to be involved in violent crimes.

Rouse said the studies showed that a high-quality preschool is a good return on investment for children, with an average earned annual income of $42,000 by the time children were in their 40s as compared to the $17,000 the program cost.

There is also a strong economic boost for those who graduate from college when compared to high school dropouts, said Rouse. “Those who have more schooling are less likely to be unemployed during a recession.”

She added that projecting employment about 10 years out also shows the importance of obtaining a quality education. Rouse said jobs that require routine, repetitive skills will likely be replaced with careers that require interactive and critical thinking skills.

“Routine jobs can be replaced by automation,” she said. “Careers of the future will require a high intensity of nonroutine skills.  Our economy is headed toward careers that require more analytical skills. These skills will be developed in high-quality preschool programs and carried on through higher education.”

Click here for more information on the P20-Council.

Underfunding Public Schools Undermines Excellence Says State Supreme Court

The Connecticut Supreme Court has breathed new life into one of the most important school finance cases in the history of our state.

The case, CCJEF v. Rell, asserts that the state should provide funding to ensure each and every child can meet specific standards and function as productive citizens.   This assertion is in contrast to traditional school finance fights that have been premised on the notion that the right to an education meant only that schools need to be equal to one another.

With today’s ruling, Supreme Court justices have sent the case back to Superior Court where it likely will be tried.  CEA is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

CEA Executive Director John Yrchik says, “We are pleased that we and other members of our coalition (the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding or CCJEF) can proceed.  This is a very good decision for those of us who have long claimed that state educational funding laws have deprived students of an equal educational opportunity.”

This afternoon CCJEF held a news conference to mark the court decision – a  step forward – in the legal battle.   Speaker after speaker decried the current system of education funding as unfair to children and teachers alike.

Bristol Superintendent of Schools Philip Streifer told reporters it’s the school finance system – not the public education system – that’s shortchanging children.

Merrill Gay, a New Britain parent, says that children need resources.  They shouldn’t have to fight in court as plaintiffs in lawsuits, and their parents shouldn’t have to fight with school boards each year to keep critical programs and dedicated teachers.

It’s expected to take years for the case to be litigated.  Key Democratic state legislators who spoke at the news conference didn’t indicate that more money from the state legislature would be forthcoming.  They said only a strong governor can deliver the bold plan that’s needed to avoid a protracted trial.

Read the decision

Visit the CCJEF website

CEA is studying the decision and consulting with Association attorneys about all available options.

Economists Discuss State Recession, Federal Stimulus at CEA

The Connecticut Economy, Spring 2010 Quarterly ReviewKey state economists gathered at CEA today – along with reporters – to discuss a variety of topics from the depth of the state recession to the wisdom of how federal stimulus funds were applied by state policymakers.   The reason for their meeting was the release of the Spring 2010 issue of The Connecticut Economy: A University of Connecticut Quarterly Review.

In an overview of the latest issue of the review, Steven Lanza, the review’s executive editor, compared the severity of Connecticut’s recession to that of other states.  In a relative sense, it was not as deep in Connecticut for complex reasons from homebuilding to the finance industry.

As for the future, particularly the looming state budget deficit, Lanza warned that education is vulnerable .  Lanza detailed the areas of the state budget that will have to do some “heavy lifting” unless revenues rise or changes are made in the tax structure.

John Yrchik, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, has a guest column in the new issue of the review.  He argued that Governor M. Jodi Rell’s use of federal stimulus money will put K-12 education at a disadvantage when the extra funding runs out.

Yrchik wrote, “By supplanting state education aid with federal dollars, Connecticut reduced its own contribution to public education by $269.5 million per year— a 14% reduction in state education aid to municipalities.”  Connecticut created a funding cliff that other states did not.

Economist Arthur Wright summed up the situation telling reporters that Connecticut essentially squandered the stimulus.    “We had a great opportunity to use the stimulus to create jobs, but we didn’t. We squandered the stimulus.”

Stakeholders Come Together to Discuss Next Steps for RTTT

It’s expected to be over a month before Connecticut policymakers can separate fact from fiction regarding why the state was not named a finalist in the Race to the Top (RTTT) competition for large sums of federal funds.

“There’s much speculation, but we really won’t know precisely why Connecticut was not chosen in this first round of funding until the U.S. Department of Education sends written feedback to the state education commissioner in mid-April.  For now, I want to commend everyone involved in the application procedure, especially our many local associations who signed on to the application,” says CEA President Phil Apruzzese.

Shortly after the announcement came from Washington today that Connecticut was not a finalist, the co-chairs of the legislature’s education committee called stakeholders together at a news conference to announce that “education summits” would commence to ensure that Connecticut’s spring application for the second round of RTTT funding would be even better than the first.

State Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan said, “We will win the next round.  We have to go even farther.”

CEA Executive Director John Yrchik participated in the March 4 news conference, saying the round one application was “very comprehensive.”  Only 15 out of 40 states were declared finalists for the first round of funding.

Yrchik explains, “The RTTT application gave guidelines, but there was tremendous uncertainty about exactly what would drive federal decision making.  As Connecticut prepares its second application, there is much to talk about because we must use the best research-based strategies.  The beauty of the process is that in the weeks ahead, all the stakeholders can come together to develop what is best for our state.”

At the news conference, McQuillan responded to allegations that there were 120 questions left blank on Connecticut’s RTTT application.  “This is inaccurate.  It’s a misperception about our application given the directions we were given from the U.S. Department of Education,” said McQuillan.

Senator Thomas Gaffey and Representative Andrew Fleishmann, co-chairs of the Education Committee, say the following are just some of the areas that they expect stakeholders to focus on during the education summits and other meetings in the weeks and months ahead: comprehensive high school reform; the TEAM (Teacher Education and Mentoring) program; data systems linking teachers and student achievement; and alternative routes to certification for teacher leaders.

Watch the complete news conference, divided into two parts, below.

Thousands of CEA Members Sign Petitions Opposing Health Care Excise Tax

These petitions are among the hundreds delivered to members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation – signed by more than 10,000 teachers – on December 22 that urge lawmakers to oppose a proposed excise tax on health care benefits.

CEA delivered hundreds of petitions signed by more than 10,000 teachers to members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation today.  The petitions urge lawmakers to oppose a proposed excise tax on health care benefits.

The U.S. Senate’s version of proposed health care reform legislation includes an excise tax on so-called “Cadillac” health care plans, such as the plans that cover  teachers and their family members.

The petition drive involved local Association presidents, building representatives, local political coordinators, and CEA UniServ staff throughout the state. The drive — which collected the signatures in just three days — was organized to inform Connecticut’s representatives in Washington that while CEA and its members strongly support health care reform, they adamantly oppose the excise tax on health care benefits.

CEA President Phil Apruzzese says CEA and its local Associations could have collected even more signatures if there had been a longer time period to circulate the petitions.

“Given the short time frame and the large number of teachers who signed these petitions, this sends a strong message to our representatives about why we object to the excise tax and the serious impact it will have on teachers,” says Apruzzese.

“If the excise tax remains in the final bill that is approved and signed into law, it will place an unacceptable burden on our members – with approximately 40 percent being affected in the very first year.”

The petition called taxing health care benefits  “bad public policy” that would force employers to cut back health care benefits to avoid the tax or pass the new tax onto employees.

The petition noted that there are other options to pay for health care reform. For example, the proposed health care reform bill passed by the U.S. House funds health care reform by making large employers pay toward their workers’ coverage and adds a modest surtax on the wealthiest Americans.

“We are urging our representatives to ensure that the funding mechanism for this much needed health care reform is not in the form of an excise tax,” says CEA Executive Director John Yrchik.

For more information on the consequences of an excise tax on health care benefits, read the column by John Yrchik and Phil Apruzzese on page two of the December/January CEA Advisor.