August 4, 2015

Studies in Contast

It’s hard not to contrast two new studies out today:

In “The Mirage,” TNTP estimates that districts spend 6-9 percent of their budgets on professional development for teachers, which produces approximately 0.0 effects on student learning.

In “Good News for New Orleans,” Douglas Harris estimates that the suite of school choice reforms adopted in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina produced student learning gains of .2 to .4 standard deviations, at the cost of approximately 9 percent* of spending. For context on those effect sizes, Harris and his co-authors concluded they were, “not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time.”

*That’s a VERY rough estimate. The report cites a cost figure of $1,000 per pupil. For comparison’s sake, I converted it to a percentage of expenditures using Louisiana’s per pupil spending figures here.

–Chad Aldeman

“Best Practices” Can Be the Worst Practices?

Don’t miss the new TNTP report on costly, mostly ineffective professional development for teachers. The “best practices” that districts use to help their teachers improve may be a mirage that’s stopping them from pursuing new strategies.

–Chad Aldeman

August 3, 2015

Christie’s Politics Get in the Way of Pension Reform

*Cross posted from’s blog.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie certainly doesn’t beat around the bush. In an interview with Jake Tapper, New Jersey Governor said he prefers to deal with bullies with a “punch in the face.” Who deserves this? The teachers’ unions, according to Christie.

While this sort of brash talk may attract attention, it isn’t good for negotiating reform. Ironically, Christie actually has a good reform proposal. Christie’s pension committee calls for a cash balance plan, a type of defined benefit plan that accrues benefits evenly rather than the bumpy accrual of the current backloaded plan. The cash balance plan would provide better benefits for early and mid-career teachers who get shortchanged by the current plan and better fiscal housekeeping for the system.

But Christie’s politics are preventing this reform from moving forward. The teachers’ unions are still fuming over the Governor’s decision to go back on his promise and shortchange the pension fund.

As Christie continues to play with fire, however, he may stymie the state’s chance for genuine reform of its pension systems.

July 31, 2015

California’s Pension Sink Hole Just Got Deeper

*Cross posted from’s blog.

California’s pension debt is dizzying. The state’s collective unpaid pension debt is now $198 billion, up from $6.3 billion in 2003.  The California Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) makes up over a third of this debt, $74 billion unfunded. (These numbers look even bigger depending on what discount or interest rates are used.)

Complicating matters, the state can’t reduce any future benefits under an obscure, rigid legal doctrine known as the California Rule. Under the rule, workers are basically promised the same or better benefits as laid out on their first day of work; workers get what they’ve earned so far as well as future earnings. (A new ballot initiative may allow for structural reform and better public accountability, but is still up in the air.)

Put this together and it means that a younger generation of workers are stuck with the state’s massive bill. As we write in our new report, pension reform cuts typically fall on new workers, and now is the worst time in the past three decades to be a new teacher.

See for more info on California and other states, including interviews with former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and current Executive Director of the California School Employees Association, Dave Low.

Friday Fish Porn – A Cod Piece!

IMG_1448Tim Lee works on development at the EAO 50Can. Here he is with a cod he caught off the coast of Iceland. Weighed in at 35lbs. Hard to tell who looks more surprised at the situation, Tim or the fish?

This image is just one of hundreds of education types with fish they have caught carefully curated here. You can find them all via this link and a few recent ones by just scrolling down this page.

July 30, 2015

Are Pension Refunds the Same as a 401k?

*Cross posted from’s blog.

Over half of new teachers won’t meet the minimum vesting or service requirements to receive a pension. One common response is that these teachers are allowed to receive a refund on their contributions plus interest, and that the refund is comparable to private sector workers who receive a 401k. It’s a good point, but it’s not exactly the case for all teachers.

While it’s true a teacher can get a refund on her pension contributions plus interest in some states, like California, in other states, like Illinois, teachers do not receive interest. In fact, in Illinois, teachers receive less than their original employee contributions. An Illinois teacher is required to contribute 9.4 percent of her paycheck to the state teachers’ retirement system. Upon leaving the classroom, however, she is only entitled to a refund equal to 8.4 percent of her earnings. And, in the majority of states, teachers do not receive any portion of their employer’s contributions.

Overall, state public retirement systems face significantly less scrutiny from the federal government than the private sector. Unlike the private sector, states are not required to provide their public workers with Social Security, can set their minimum vesting requirements upwards of 10 years, and aren’t held to the same funding standards. So California teachers may be able to get a full refund with 4.5 percent interest, but they also won’t get Social Security. For teachers in Illinois, they receive neither a full refund on their pension contributions nor Social Security for their time in the classroom.

Participating in the state systems may be good for a select few, but for the majority of teachers, it comes with too many trade-offs.

July 29, 2015

Ending California’s Teacher Drought?

California’s water drought has been in the news lately, but the state is also facing a growing shortage of teachers. A new Bellwether report looks at how to strengthen California’s teacher supply–and improve the quality of teacher preparation at the same time.

July 28, 2015

Chicago Running Out of Options after Pension Reform Law Overturned

*Cross posted from’s blog.

It’s back to square one for Chicago pensions: last Friday a city judge ruled unconstitutional a pension law that would have reduced benefits for city workers. The ruling is a tough blow for the city’s finances and could worsen the situation for new and future workers, including teachers.

For Illinois taxpayers, it feels a lot like Groundhog Day. Chicago’s pension reform law, albeit a slightly different spin, like the state’s 2013 pension reform law, attempted to reduce cost-of-living adjustments for current workers. And like the state law, the city court says the cuts violate the state’s constitution. Even if the case goes to appeal, it’s highly likely that the city’s attempt to cut benefits will again be deemed illegal just like the state’s attempt, which was finally upheld as unconstitutional last spring.

Paying the price for massive debt are the city’s workers. On the books, the city judge’s ruling is a win for the Chicago Teachers’ Union and other unions who filed the suit. But it’s a significant loss overall for the city’s new and future workers and teachers who now need to eat the costs of growing debt. Chicago, like the state, already instituted drastic cuts for its new teachers through a previous plan in 2011. New teachers hired after 2011 face negative net benefits for the first two decades of work because the value of their contributions exceed their future pension benefits. And they don’t qualify for Social Security. For the city’s schools, last year’s pension contributions ate up 11 percent of the Chicago Public Schools’ operating budget, or nearly $1,600 per student.

Chicago is running out of options. Without the pension law, which would have allowed the court to enforce full funding to the laborer’s and municipal employees funds, the city lacks any checks to ensure adequate funding. Moody’s recently downgraded the Chicago Public Schools’ debt ratings to junk status, now matching the city’s rating, because of poorly funded pensions; the S&P cut the city’s rating again because of chronic structural debt. Governor Bruce Rauner’s recent pension bill would allow Chicago and other municipalities to file for bankruptcy, a mechanism which would allow the city to start over,restructure its past debt, and reform its pensions plans (but even in this case, there would be obstaclesaround when Chicago could actually file because of the way the city reports its debt).

The city desperately needs structural reform to clean up its financial mess and to ensure adequate benefits for its teachers and municipal workers. Until then, Chicago’s public workers, teachers, and taxpayers will be expected to foot the bill.

Edujob: National Mobilization Manager @ Hope Street Group

Hope Street Group is seeking a National Mobilization Manager. Big opportunity at an innovative non-profit. This role oversees the National Teacher Fellows program and leads other external work. You can learn more and learn how to apply here (pdf). Note that the deadline is 8/19.

July 27, 2015

New Jersey Pension Battle Continues

*Cross posted from’s blog.

New Jersey teachers are still angry with Governor Chris Christie for shorting the pension fund and are now suing for $4 billion total in damages. While teachers have absolutely every right to be mad with the Governor—who after all, broke his own promise and law—teachers are also severely shortchanged by the pension system itself. Over half (55 percent) of the state’s new teachers won’t meet the minimum 10-year service requirements to qualify for a minimum pension benefit. Even for teachers who do qualify for benefits, these teachers will most likely end up paying more towards the system in contributions plus interest than what they will get back in return, losing money overall.

Christie’s pension commission proposed a fiscally responsible plan that would overhaul the current system and provide better benefits for new early and mid-career teachers. Unfortunately, however, it looks like Christie’s politics may jeopardize the chance for true reform.

Edujob: Founding ED, New Mexico Center For Charter School Excellence

Charter school support organizations are proving to be an important part of charter school quality efforts. New Mexico is launching one and seeking a founding executive director. Great state and a great opportunity for impact. You can learn more about the role and learn how to apply or nominate someone here.

July 24, 2015

Speaking Of Pensions And Politics

While we’re getting ready to head into summer Pensionpalooza here at Eduwonk, this from Matt Levine’s morning finance newsletter about some of the politics:


 Here’s a story about how teachers unions that don’t like Dan Loeb’s charter school advocacy are criticizing him for avoiding taxes using hedge fund reinsurance. The taxes he avoids could be used to pay for public schools, “this unconscionable tax avoidance scheme must end,” etc. One nice (?) thing about the U.S. tax code is that it provides limitless ammunition for personal attacks: If you have a rich (or corporate) enemy, you can pretty much always criticize him, her or it for avoiding taxes. Because everyone is always doing something that reduces his taxes, relative to some other universe where he did different things to increase his taxes. This is sometimes described as a product of tax complexity but it isn’t really; people criticize Warren Buffett because most of his economic earnings come in the form of unrealized capital gains, which is a pretty simple way to avoid taxes. You can pick any arbitrarily simple tax code, and pick any arbitrary rich person, and you will find him doing something to reduce his taxes under that code. And then you can get mad, if you want.

Coming Attractions – Pensions!

I’m going to take a summer break from blogging for a couple of weeks.  Up to a few things including the Pan Mass Challenge, baseball, and fishing!

While I’m gone Leslie Kan and Chad Aldeman of will be posting blog posts here about the teacher pension issue. Although the issue of teacher pensions is frequently presented as some battle between greedy teachers and stingy reformers this political framing misses the real issues and why genuine pension reform is so complicated. In fact, the current approaches work for very few teachers. Only about one in five teachers even earns a full pension. So not exactly “gold-plated” for most. Meanwhile the cost issues are adversely affecting school districts and municipalities. But neither the status quo nor a straight 401(k) style system is an adequate answer. It’s a lot more complicated than that. And that complexity leads to political dodges and means that right now it’s new teachers who are bearing the brunt of the cost of reform in some ways that are not only lousy education policy but lousy retirement policy as well. 40 percent of teachers, yes forty, also don’t participate in Social Security because of state and local policies – that further hampers secure retirement for educators. You can learn more about all of that by following along the next couple of weeks here.

New Education Insider Survey Data

New survey data from the Whiteboard Education Insiders survey – Common Core tests, ESEA prospects, and college ratings and college information. You can get it all here.

Friday Fish Porn AK And CO

It’s hard to beat summer in Alaska. Here’s Bellwether Associate Partner Ali Fuller in Alaska with a fat salmon headed for the plate.  Does this look familiar to you? It’s not Ali’s first time in Friday Fish Porn, here she is last year with another salmon, different trip.


And here’s Tim Taylor of America Succeeds on the mighty Colorado.


Kevin Kosar made a strong bid for mayor of Fish Porn but Tim has a good claim, too.

What’s this about? Isn’t this supposed to be an education blog? Here’s the world’s only nine-year compilation of education types with fish they’ve caught.  And you can see some good ones just scrolling down this page.

July 23, 2015


Idaho is a gem. The fishing is off the wall. It’s a hunter’s paradise. It has some of the most remote wilderness in the lower 48. Lots of wolves! Good skiing. And some fun towns and cities. Boise is a funky place with great food, drink, and quick access to the outdoors. Eastern Idaho is lovely. The state also has a quirky, fluid, and energized education culture with a wide variety of schools around the state from hyper-rural to small cities. And, yes, potatoes.

Why am I telling you all this? Because there is a new fellowship aimed at attracting proven educators the state to open and operate new schools there. If you find a mountain view more refreshing than, say, a gastro pub menu in Brooklyn then Idaho might be for you. Check it out and learn more here.

July 22, 2015

Common Core Heat!

The RealClearEducation heat map of Common Core pushback is updated.

July 21, 2015

Lamar Alexander Loves It When A Plan Comes Together?

Whiteboard Education Insiders now a lot more bullish on ESEA happening this Congress. Is Alexander’s momentum play working?

Bud Spillane

Bud Spillane has passed. The legendary superintendent ran school districts large and small – and really big including Northern Virginia’s behemoth and sprawling Fairfax County. His career arced along with some of the most contentious issues to face public schools, for instance desegregation in Boston when he led there and then later merit pay in Fairfax County. In other words, the nation’s educational walk from access to excellence paralleled his own.

He was no-nonsense about things. Once faced with a Fairfax County teacher sexually abusing students and an almost hopelessly dysfunctional process for addressing it Spillane went to work saying, “at the end of the day one of us won’t have a job.” He kept his. Boston was no picnic, he ended the practice of selling principalships via local Democratic committees. This line from The Times’ obit says it all:

As a reformer he displayed a brash zeal that energized supporters and alienated critics, and he earned nicknames like “the Velvet Hammer” and “Six-Gun Spillane” for his willingness to take on entrenched interests.

That’s about right. He loved public schools, so much that he expected much more from them and had little patience for those who didn’t. But I’m biased, he signed my high school diploma and shook my hand when I received it. Getting to work with him later on a few projects was a career treat.

More from The Washington Post on his time in Fairfax County.

July 16, 2015

ESEA Is Our Sector’s Iran Deal, Charters And Pre-K, Teachers And Social Security, Which Candidate Has The Worst Charter Sector? In-N-Out And Teaching, Space Nerds Unite!

It’s ESEApalooza in the Senate. You can look at the various votes here. Final vote coming. [Update: It's in the books now]. They’re already sick of education (Breaking – it’s not the top priority despite all the rhetoric). When Senator McConnell, the majority leader, decided to push for cloture earlier this week that was basically, “OK, enough of this, let’s get on to some real work,” hence the amendment deal and strong vote to move forward.

More interesting was how the accountability vote went down. The Democratic caucus was with just two exceptions unified around an amendment by Chris Murphy of Connecticut to put some minimal accountability back into the law. This is symbolically noteworthy because Connecticut was a serial offender on No Child Left Behind including an unsuccessful lawsuit against the law by then AG now United States Senator Richard Blumenthal (who supported the Murphy amendment) that included NAACP intervention – against the state! Takeaways:

- There is real fatigue around accountability. This amendment was as good as it was going to get and although it was strongly supported by key civil rights groups it was far from their ideal. They’re going to continue the fight they say.

- The NEA – they opposed the amendment  - said they were going to score the vote to hold lawmakers accountable. But that’s hard to do when the Dem caucus stays mostly unified like that. May help explain the outcome. Key civil rights groups were scoring it, too. And a lot of grumbling behind the scenes about the NEA on this one. In other words it may be more illustrative of the politics than where people actually are on the issue.

- But just like Iran this unsatisfying status quo may be the only alternative to a war that no one wants?

More here.


I’m a space nerd (and space flight doesn’t hurt our science education). I keep a signed picture of Scott Crossfield and the X-15 that he gave me in my home office, it’s that bad.

Pre-k and charter policy need to align better to serve more kids.  Be sure to check out The 74.  A lot of good stuff there.  With Friedrichs pending before the SCOTUS some survey data about what teachers think about various dues schemes ($).  Whiteboard Advisors is growing! Check out the new additions. The states the presidential candidates come from or have led have some real variance in terms of how good their charter school sector is. Enrolling all teachers in Social Security is good policy for them and good retirement policy more generally. But it costs money and the teachers unions are little help. So states come up with reasons not to do it for the 40 percent of teachers who are not in the system now.

Chad Aldeman, who kind of has that Brad Hamilton thing going on, is heavy on the high school policy beat here and here.

I recently took John Bailey and Mieka Wick to their first In-N-Out Burger. Interesting company in addition to being delicious. They take burger making more seriously than this sector takes teaching quality. Seriously, they do. At Bellwether we fantasize about opening a Tim Horton’s franchise.

July 14, 2015

Pluto! Why Investing In NASA Should Be A Key Part Of Our STEM Strategy

In a new U.S. News & World Report column I take a look at STEM through the lens of today’s big Pluto news.

An American spacecraft flew by Pluto on Tuesday morning to have a look around. That sentence was the stuff of science fiction when most of us were born. And that’s not all. Last November, a European spacecraft landed on a comet. On a comet speeding through space! We’ve also been poking around Mars, and at the end of April a pathbreaking NASA mission to Mercury ended after four years of orbiting that planet.

Meanwhile, here on Earth, there is a lot of head scratching about how to get more American kids interested in science, technology, math and engineering – the vaunted STEM subjects…

Want more than a flyby? Read the entire column here @ U.S. News. It features a cameo by astronaut Ken Mattingly. He flew Apollo and Space Shuttle missions – the latter as a Commander. Gary Sinise played him in the film Apollo 13. Who is your favorite astronaut? Mine might be Pinky Nelson because he was really into education but Alan Shepard was a riot. Hard to choose! In any event, tell me on Twitter or just send funny Pluto jokes @arotherham.

Mind The Gap! New Approaches On HS Accountability

Bellwether’s Chad Aldeman has a new paper looking at new ways to think about and implement high school accountability (pdf). Important resource for state policymakers.

July 10, 2015

What Accountability? Education As A Palliative Treatment. Check Out These Guns! And Is The NEA Out Of Step With The Public, Or Just With Charlie Barone? Sara Mead’s Office Smells Like Rich Mahogany!

It’s been busy the past few weeks, more fish pics than content. But a lot happening!

In D.C.’s elite education community there is this idea that there is a firewall between guns and schools. In practice there is all kinds of overlap. Students bring firearms in cars to school parking lots during hunting season, schools offer shooting or firearm safety, and as Bloomberg reports trap is a popular sport in some parts of the country.

I don’t agree with everything in this column but this is an astute observation – what she’s getting at is the capacity problem that was minimized at the time:

This was the original sin of ed reform: Ordering all of those tests without anticipating that some schools — due to a lack of creativity or a surplus of fear — would take test prep to extremes.

During the Senate debate on the ESEA – NCLB overhaul bill this week Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) said this:

“I run into people periodically who say to me that you can’t fix it unless you fix poverty. You can’t fix the education system unless you fix poverty. Don’t tell kids in my city who are living in poverty that that is true. Outside of every one of our schools it says “school.” It doesn’t say “orphanage.” It says “school.” We need to make sure every one of those schools is delivering for every kid in our community, no matter where they come from. Otherwise, what is left of us? What is left of this land of opportunity?”

“Before No Child Left Behind existed, we had an impression, a vague sense of the inequities in our educational system. Now we understand how deep they are, how rooted they are, and we have to continue to build on the successes we have seen in high-quality schools working in poor neighborhoods that have actually delivered for kids all over the country.”

More please. Among the other unspoken divides in our debate about school is the one between those who see education as a powerful lever for social mobility and those who frankly see it as a palliative experience for kids.

Charlie Barone says the NEA is out of step with the public. I’m not so sure, they may just be out of step with Charlie and his ilk (I’m one of that ilk). The politics of education are fluid right now and the teachers unions are better at politics than the reformers – at least in the short run. Longer term they’re probably check mated. Great tactics, lousy strategy and all that.

But, something I am more sure of is that two big fallacies around the NCLB /ESEA bill are the idea that NCLB still exists and the idea that we’ve had too much accountability. On the former, NCLB was done the moment Secretary Duncan started issuing waivers. Reasonable people can disagree about whether that’s good or bad but it means Congress is reauthorizing a law that is really no longer operational in practice.

And while there was a lot of talk about accountability in practice NCLB ending up being a compliance law. So I get the compliance fatigue, it’s been messy. But the idea that there has been a lot of “accountability” in the common usage of that term isn’t borne out by the facts of how the law was both written and implemented. Start with the dreaded school turnarounds – most places took the easy non-consequential way out. Senator Bennet is right that NCLB has shined a harsh light. But it’s entirely possible what that light showed scared people as much as spurred them to action…hence the retreat that is on now. The people who really bear the accountability are the kids – there are real stakes for them.

A lot of great NCLB/ESEA content on Ahead of the Heard about the substance and the politics of all this.  And writing in USN Sara Mead says the new Head Start regulations are like this.

Productivity in the D.C. office of Bellwether is about to tank.

Friday Fish Porn – In The Salt

Here’s Chad Ratliff – Assistant Superintendent in Virginia’s Albemarle County* Public Schools for instruction and innovation – with a shark he and his son pulled in a few weeks ago (presumably before it could bite anyone).** They let it go.


And former CRS analyst and current R Street Institute wonk (and actual whiskey expert) Kevin Kosar caught this thing in the Chesapeake Bay over the 4th of July Weekend. It got released, too, although the French cook these and they’re not bad.


Kosar is basically  becoming the mayor of Fish Porn. For almost a decade’s worth(!) of education people and fish click here.

*Second only to Madison County for pure natural beauty.

**An Albemarle High graduate working as a surf lifeguard saved a shark bite victim last week in North Carolina. She swam to, and pulled him in, after the attack.

July 7, 2015

Teacher Pensions: Eating Their Young

New analysis from Chad Aldeman and Leslie Kan on how changes to teacher pensions are making them increasingly unattractive for newer/younger teachers (pdf). Later this year look for a second analysis on the adverse effect on veteran teachers. You can learn more about the teacher pension issue here.

July 3, 2015

Friday Fish Porn – Freedom Edition

11659509_10206988300808649_5003652713842168198_n (1)Here’s Hailly Korman in the Pacific of the San Diego coast. The Hawaiian born education policy maven is an alum of the schools project at PPI, a former kindergarten teacher in LAUSD, and now an attorney working on behalf of incarcerated youth to improve education options for youth offenders. And she can fish!

Friday fish whaaaat…you say? Here is a one-of-a kind bespoke collection of hundreds of education types with fish.

Happy Independence Day.


July 2, 2015

SCOTUS To Hear Friedrichs, Doomsday For Teachers Unions Or A Mixed Bag For Schools? Or Both?

In its next term the Supreme Court will hear Friedrichs v. California Teachers association a cleverly constructed case that threatens to undo today’s agency fee structure and dramatically weaken teachers unions. Simplistic takes of how good or bad this will be – and the unions seem likely to lose – miss how complicated it will be for the operation of schools and education more generally. I look at all that today in a column in U.S. News & World Report:

By this time next year, everyone in the education world cheering the Supreme Court’s progressivism on health care and gay marriage may be singing a different – and sadder – tune. In its next term, the court will hear cases that could end affirmative action in higher education and curtail the power of teachers unions and other public employee unions. This latter case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, could dramatically weaken teachers unions and scramble the education landscape. The prospect of a defanging of the unions has many in education hopeful after the court agreed to take the case earlier this week. In practice, though, the ramifications of Friedrichs are not so straightforward.

You can read the entire piece here – no agency fee required just click here for USN’s Report. Tell me why you think a post-Friedrichs world will be all Eden-like or horrible on Twittter @arotherham.

Also, check out Bellwether’s Kaitlin Pennington with more on why this case matters at Ahead of the Heard.

July 1, 2015

New Pahara-Aspen Class

New class of Pahara-Aspen Fellows announced today, learn more about them here.

June 30, 2015

Pacts Americana

Bellwether’s Chad Aldeman, Kelly Robson, and Andy Smarick propose a way through the federal accountability/flexibility thicket in a new paper.

Three Points On Dems And Education

Earlier this month Third Way hosted an event to discuss education politics and Democrats. Great event and it was good of them to host the discussion. The theme was what’s next but it turned into a more general discussion of education policy and politics. Discussants were former House education committee chair George Miller, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, pollster Jefrey Pollock (who had an unfair advantage because he has his SAG card and the event was held at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theater), and me.

A wide-ranging discussion on a range of issues. It used to be that education politics seemed like a race to the center. It’s easy to forget, now, the way George Bush used it in 2000 and the gains (short lived) he made with minority voters in states like Ohio with the issue. These days with only a few Republican leaders (including the president’s brother Jeb Bush) standing in the way of a full-on bums rush to the hard right on education policy the dynamics have changed. Today education politics are less about centrist consensus building and more about resisting reactionary pressure from the right and the left to try to ensure that a focus on under-served students isn’t lost. Three points I made were:

It’s exasperating that Democrats can’t embrace a comprehensive and reformist politics around education. Nine percent of low-income students get a bachelor’s degree by the time they are 24, compared to about four in five more affluent students. It seems more than a little crazy that the party that purports to speak for the little guy isn’t all over that and doesn’t have an aggressive plan to take it on. Solving that problem includes tackling education and non-education issues but it unavoidably demands hard look at our educational system. How we finance, staff, organize, and hold schools accountable has to be part of any serious improvement agenda. Part of the problem with a robust and comprehensive agenda is special interest politics, of course, that’s an old story. But it doesn’t explain all of it and people who only focus on the unions are missing an important part of the story.

We need a middle class politics of education, too. What’s been interesting the past few years is the extent to which people who should be allies on reform have become adversaries. Traditionally a middle class politics of education means leaving suburban schools alone to rise or fall as they might. This has led to widespread mediocrity and pockets of excellence. It also creates an enormous problem for underserved students in those schools. Today, these politics increasingly mean neutering accountability systems to mask uncomfortable bad news about school performance – the Common Core debate is in many ways the latest manifestation of this – and take the pressure for improved performance off. In practice that means that the constituencies Democrats claim to speak for the most – minorities, and working class whites, disconnected, at-risk, or special need students are most likely to be overlooked. Democrats need a much more sophisticated middle class politics that is about supports for better schools, more options and customization for parents, sweeteners for middle income and affluent parents and also about the kind of accountability that doesn’t leave traditionally underserved populations out in the cold. It’s increasingly clear, though, that protecting the most underserved students demands more attention to the politics of the middle class to sustain these efforts.

Watch the courts. There is a lot of attention on the Vergara-case (the California court case about personnel policies in schools) and similar cases in other states. I expect to see more of that because traditionally when people cannot get issues addressed in the political arena they turn to the courts (in this case to force legislators to do something). But the case I’m really watching more immediately is another California case: Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. (Just today the Supreme Court agreed to hear this case in its next term). Friedrichs could completely scramble education politics and also the operation of school districts. On the politics, while a lot of people, and a lot of Democrats (George Miller made the point that when he’s considered “anti-union” the term has ceased to mean anything), are exasperated with the teachers unions on education – I think they’re more part of the problem than the solution these days in terms of making schools work better for more kids – they also do a lot of helpful things on various social issues. And if you worry about education funding and other social supports a weakening of the unions is a macro-problem there (impact on a broader array of social issues and causes is another, and significant, issue). Democrats should look at Wisconsin to start to get  a sense of what a post-Friedrich world might look like for good and ill in terms of substantive and political effects. (My bet is that if this comes to pass the NEA will fare better than the AFT because it has much more experience operating successfully in right-to-work environments).

In addition, while the union’s positions on some key educations are hard to defend (read the transcript or watch the video of Vergara for a taste of that) on a day -to-day basis they also do a lot of things that are useful to the operation of schools. Politics aside, if the unions decline there will need to be some smart and innovative ideas about how to pick up that slack through policy and practice. You don’t have to be a fan of today’s teacher work rules, for instance, to also realize that educational administration is a slow-motion disaster and many teachers are treated unfairly and in counterproductive ways. Discrimination remains a live issue and some kinds of discrimination are still unprotected in many states. And given the churn of superintendents in larger districts some mid-level union officials end up being the only people in management/leadership with any institutional memory. In other words, while a lot of people are cheering quietly or not-so-quietly for the Supreme Court to move on Freidrichs it’s naive for reformers, union critics, or others to think it’s all cut and dry if the case is decided against the unions.