RENE AND AMY GO TO SACRAMENTO
On Wednesday, April 24, Amy and I made the trip to Sacramento to show support for Senate Bill 441. This bill would amend the California Education Code to require local public school districts to create teacher evaluation systems that are ever-so-slightly more comprehensive and informative. It was a fascinating and frustrating day. Let me explain…
The Senate Education Committee meets weekly. Any bill related to education put forth by a State Senator must first clear this committee before going to the Senate Appropriations Committee and then to the full Senate (and then through the same process in the Assembly and to the Governor for final approval). SB 441 was sponsored by Senator Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) and would make modest moves towards a more comprehensive and informative teacher evaluation system in California public schools. It would:
In other words, the bill was a teeny, tiny baby step towards the accountability that parents and taxpayers so desperately want to see in our public schools. In fact, a much stronger Republican-backed bill was considered earlier in the meeting. SB 453 (Huff) would have authorized school districts to assess teacher performance using a multi-measure system, to make decisions based on the evaluation, and most importantly, to deviate from the practice of LIFO, which dictates that when there are layoffs, the least senior teachers must be let go first, regardless of their performance. Not surprisingly, SB 453 did not survive the Senate Education Committee vote.
My personal hope was that with the dismissal of SB 453, the Committee would throw the 60 or so parents and teachers in the room from around the state a bone by voting “yes” on SB 441 and sending it along to the Senate Appropriations Committee. Not quite so simple – again, let me explain.
The California Teachers Association (CTA) is perhaps the strongest lobbying entity in the State and California’s single biggest funder of political campaigns (to the tune of $35 million in 2012). To be fair, special interests abound in Sacramento (and Washington for that matter) but among special interests, CTA is a behemoth. Of the nine members on the Senate Education Committee, six received CTA contributions ranging from $11,000 to $15,000 each during their last campaigns.
Let me stop for a moment and say that I totally understand the realities of running a political campaign today and that candidates are not viable without lots of cash, much of it from one special interest group or another (whether in the form of direct contributions or independent expenditures). So if lawmakers want to keep their jobs, dealing with and catering to special interests is part of the deal. It all just means that if the public (and in particular, parents) want to be heard in the discussion and debate, we’re going to have to be very active, very persistent, and very loud. Large, organized groups of individual voters count when you are looking at re-election and this is where grassroots efforts can force all the parties to come together to work for the common good – and in this case, the best interests of students, the identification and support of good, hard-working teachers, and the future of our State.
So, back to our story. SB 441 and the efforts behind it were organized by StudentsFirst, the nationwide public education reform group founded by the controversial former Washington D.C. Public Schools Chancellor, Michelle Rhee. Still, many of the parents brought together by StudentsFirst have been working for education reform in their own corners of California for some time now. Shelli is a co-founder of Up for Ed and gave heartfelt testimony about her concerns not just for her own child, but for all of California’s children. Lesli is a mom and president of Californians United to Reform Education (CURE). She talked about her experiences as a business owner and the importance of employee evaluation, training and development.
One of our newest friends and kindred spirits is Jon, a Teach for America (TFA) teacher. Jon testified to the Committee that before graduating college and joining TFA, he worked in a Blockbuster Video store. There he was evaluated under a more comprehensive system than he has been as a Los Angeles public school teacher (under the leadership of Superintendent John Deasy, the Los Angeles Unified School District is moving forward on its own comprehensive teacher evaluation system).
So will SB 441 be moving on to the Senate Appropriations Committee? Maybe. Despite the testimony of all those parents and teachers who traveled far and wide (as well as over 2,000 emails and phone calls to the Senators’ offices in support of SB 441) the Committee voted as follows:
4 Yes, 4 No, 1 Abstention. Senator Calderon has asked to bring the bill back to the Committee for reconsideration on Wednesday, May 1 where it will get a second and final hearing.
How many people did CTA need at the meeting to make its 350,000+ members’ voices heard and to block the bill from moving forward? Just one professional lobbyist. (I should note that there were a few other education employee unions that also sent their lobbyists to oppose the legislation along with CTA).
Here again, I have another important note. I support teachers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain. Further, I have met countless amazing teachers throughout my life who perform tremendous feats for their students under difficult circumstances day after day, year after year. This is not about blaming teachers for the many problems of our system. Instead, as a parent and citizen who lives and works in a world where performance counts and great organizations are built with the best employees, I cannot understand how the idea of having a system that gives meaningful information about teacher performance (and the performance of everyone working in our schools for that matter) is so incredibly controversial. I and other parents know that teachers are the cornerstone of a great educational system and if I had one wish, it would be that teachers unions would come to the table with a robust, informative, fair evaluation system that we could implement today, rather than trying to distort and delay the process. They argue that one already exists and it is not being fully utilized, but I counter that if an evaluation system is too arduous, expensive, or simplistic in its reporting, it is not a reasonable system. My grade school children are evaluated every day by individual teachers who have full grading authority and use a multi-level system of multiple measures. If it is okay for a 7-year-old, why is it too politically charged to work for an adult?
In an attempt at ongoing self-motivation over the setback, I am trying to embrace the small victories of this experience. First, there was a whole lot of discussion on the Committee about the bill and the state of our public education system – which signifies that at a minimum, our efforts are forcing legislators to pay attention. Second, all but one Senator was there to vote. This was not the case for every bill heard on Wednesday, so I have to believe that having that many supporters on hand at least ensured that the Committee members were visible. Finally, we (and particularly Amy) had the opportunity to network with our State Legislators and others throughout California who are highly concerned about our public education system and are working to improve it.
If I suspected it before, I know it for certain now - democracy is very laborious, time consuming, inefficient work often directed by lobbyists. What gave me optimism? Even at its most unpleasant, democracy offers something rare and precious – the opportunity for individuals to come together for change. This country has seen plenty of movements that at the time seemed highly improbable – the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and most recently, the gay rights movement. I have no doubt that future generations will study the deep significance of the education movement. Despite all the messiness of our political system, I was awed by the process of democracy at work and the individuals who are standing up for student-centered improvements to our public education system. I was inspired by the teachers who demonstrated that they could simultaneously embrace the primary importance of their students and the ideals of their unions. I was inspired by the parents who have been fighting and continue to fight for the rights of all children to a great education. And most importantly, I was inspired by a system that allows us to all participate and has shown historically that change is not only possible, it is inevitable when the cause is a just one.
Co-Founder, Parent Partnership for Public Education