Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Letter From the Inside: "Will You Join Me?"

Letters From the Inside: Thank you, Mr. Ratto.

In the last few months, I have had the opportunity and pleasure to have some time to converse with active teachers who remain in the classroom trying to construct great lessons for children while being subjected to an often threatening and reductionist matrix by forces cascading down from well outside the school or even the district in which they teach.  I provide here an echo of the voices and feelings I have perceived in our casual meetings.

What follows is an interesting blog piece from R.L. Ratto, an elementary teacher in New York who blogs on personal reactions to his active and daily  work as a teacher.  The Washington Post, Diane Ravitch, and others carry his blog from time to time.  I highly recommend your looking at his insights and staying in touch with what our actives are enduring.

H/T: K. Hester

“Time to reflect..but not for long

“As I sit in my backyard, contemplating another end to another school year, I am drawn to the thoughts of why does this year seem so different than others. In the past, I would often look at summer break as an opportunity to unwind, reflect, recharge, and prepare for the following year’s challenges. But, this year is different, much different. The distractions caused by education reformers, political agendas, corporate raiders, and social upheaval have taken a toll. It has taken a toll on me, on how I teach, and on my students.
“Education reformers have been successful in turning my classroom into some grand social experiment. We now march through a curriculum that is geared towards a Common Core test that is meant to evaluate teachers and administrators. Our vocabulary lists now include words most likely to be found on these tests and we are now told to assess our students against these one-size fits all standards. I have to test my students several times a year on an internet based program to determine their growth against students of their own ability. This is the true Race to The Top, as students are placed in categories and their growth scores are calculated to determine my effectiveness. They have turned our classrooms into assembly lines.
“My administrators visit my classroom almost daily with a clipboard and a  rubric used to again measure me. They look at my room and judge me on everything from what is on my walls to whether or not a kid may be daydreaming. I guess in today’s world, kids are not allowed to daydream, especially when an administrator happens by.
“Political agendas have also been successful in upending my teaching apple cart. Here in New York, we have Governor Cuomo, who proclaims himself to be the state’s only student advocate. He proudly proclaims his tax cap policy is good for the state while he funds his schools below 2009 levels. He seeks out tax breaks for millionaires while those of us in the classroom scramble to secure needed resources wherever we can. I have watched teachers lose their jobs all across the state as the concept of one person one vote has been thrown under the wheels of  his bus. This year we have seen the same Regents, that have approved the mess we are in, reappointed by our legislature. I have also personally felt the rage of my NYS Assemblywomen when I dared questioned her on vote.
“On a national level, I supported President Obama’s re-election and heard his State of the Union as he praised teachers and asked for less high stakes tests. Yet, his Secretary of Education has failed or refused to do anything about it. Now we have to defend against an attack on  a teacher’s right to due process, and  justify our earned pensions. I have watched schools closed in places like Chicago and teachers’ unions vilified for standing up for the students their members teach.
“Corporate raiders have begun the takeover of public education. They have discovered billions of dollars meant for educating the children of our nation can now be theirs. They have driven the Common Core, which in turn requires new resources, which they then sell. They have opened their own schools, often turning those with special needs away, as they rob the budgets of local districts. They have even taken over public facilities, driving public schools into corners of their own buildings.
“Social upheaval often is by design. We now have lock down and lock out drills in our schools. We often have to use valuable resources on security plans as we must now fortify our schools. All the while the gun lobbyists point at others every time another school shooting occurs. When a nation averages 1 school shooting a week and does not mobilize resources to change our mindset, one has to conclude this is by design. When a nation refuses to address poverty as the real reason some children do not succeed, it is by design. When one segment of our population fills our prisons and as a nation we do not direct our resources into those communities, it is by design. There is no other answer.
“So this year, I am ending my year by reflecting. There is no time to unwind. I need to recharge because our nation is at war. We are at war to protect our nation’s future, our children. Our public schools are needed, and I am not ready to be defeated by those who want to destroy and then steal our nation’s most important asset. Will you join me?”

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Illinois Policy Institute By Any Other Name...

Illinois Policy Institute By Any Other Name Would Smell the Same

A writer for the Illinois Policy Institute tried her hand at analogies the other day.  Diana Sroka Rickert, whose article was directed at “solving the pension mess,” had some suggestions.  Of course as an IPI spokesperson, those recommendations involved privatization, 401K programs, and a scrapping of the firefighters Illinois pension code.

In 1979, the original Sony Walkman was the newest way to listen to music. Switchboard operators still connected telephone calls.
That's also when the Illinois village of North Riverside signed its first contract with the firefighters' union.”  

I think you can see where this is headed, but if you’d like to see some over-stretched resemblances, here’s where to go:

The Tribune enjoys the Illinois Policy Institute and most of the “think tank’s” conservative and oft tea-party proposals.  And, to be honest, there are many similarities in the Tribune’s conscious efforts to blame the pension shortfalls on the concept of a defined benefit to start with – that’s the basic credo for the IPI.  If you watch or read the two, you’ll often note the harmony in their themes.

John Tillman - Illinois Policy Institute
You may have seen Ms. Rickert on WTTW Chicago Tonight arguing against all things pensions when Ted Dabrowski or the John Tillman aren’t available.  She usually plays opposite Ralph Martire of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability.  He provides numbers and information; like most IPI spokespeople, her mantra is “all pensions are wrong.” 

Now, she likens pensions to Sony Discmans.  This goes beyond simply saying pensions are bad.

Indeed, Rickert’s handling of the facts facing the good firemen and first responders in North Riverside is nearly as inventive as her creative comparisons in the opinion piece.   And, if she were to have her way (the IPI way), the citizens of North Riverside should consider another activity by night, rather than sleeping soundly.

Diana Sroka Rickert
Rickert claims “The union's most recent contract expired April 30.  The village of 6,700 faces a $1.9 million budget shortfall. Officials say $1.8 million is due to rising police and fire pension costs…It's a common scenario in Illinois.”
In actuality, the town’s politicians, including the Mayor, have put themselves in the cross hairs of the Illinois Department of Insurance, which oversees the required funding for village and Illinois pensions systems.  The real reason for the $1.8 million shortfall is due to their refusal to pay anything at all into the funds in the last six of twelve years. 

In Article 4 of the Illinois Pension Code (Firefighters’ Pension Fund  - Municipalities 500,000 and under), the city council of North Riverside is obliged to pay the 17.5% matched contribution to the downstate fund, “equal a sum sufficient to meet the annual actuarial requirements of the pension fund, as determined by an enrolled actuary employed by the Illinois Department of Insurance or by an enrolled actuary retained by the pension fund or municipality.” [(40)  ILCS 5/4-118 Financing]
The city council of North Riverside chose not to contribute.
Understandably, the Illinois Department of Insurance wants to know WHY?
And, although Rickert takes aim at the Firefighters of North Riverside, it’s actually the shortfall in the police pensions of $1.1 million that greatly surpasses their $.7 million deficit in the payments that should have been made by the town to the downstate pension funds. 
If this is beginning to sound familiar, you’re not wrong.  The firefighters contribute 9.45% of each paycheck to the fund, the local politicians decide to take a holiday or refuse to pay their required share every other year, and the Illinois Policy Institute finds the pensions are the problem. 
Rickert’s solution: Privatize the fire department. 
“Beyond preserving all the firefighters' jobs and keeping intact the level of fire protection, the move also would save the village more than $3.5 million over the next five years. Most savings would come from firefighters banking what they've put into their pensions and earning new retirement benefits through a 401(k).”
That sounds simple.
On the other hand, Pat Devaney, president of the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois was not impressed with Rickert’s or Mayor Hermanek’s suggestion, not to mention the Trib editorial board for putting such misinformation out there.  The Tribune’s defense of suburban North Riverside’s bid to abolish its fire department in favor of a private, profit-incentive service steps way beyond the boundary of sensibility. Worse, your (editorial) advocates government malfeasance that borders on lawlessness.”(,0,4036921,print.story)
And, really it does endorse an avoidance of responsibility toward the towns people's welfare..  
Let’s not forget that the lion’s share of the debt also originates in non-payment to the police downstate fund; therefore, would the IPI and Rickert suggest privatizing that as well?  Probably. 
And North Riverside already moved its ambulance service to a private company rather than the firefighters.  By the way, being a union member firefighter Emergency Medical Technician requires several certifications to provide safe, adequate service; the private company requires only one basic certification.
Sleepless in North Riverside, yet? 
Rickert laments, “It’s hard to put a price tag on the bravery and service provided by any fire department.”  But of course, she just did.  And even though this IPI writer would suggest that a 401K is a more up-to-date and streamlined version of the Sony Discman, a veritable IPod if you will – its what we call in the writing world a disconnected or noisy analogy/metaphor. 
Pensions were retirement savings program, an agreement to provide some comfort and safety for efforts and greater mastery of the job over the years.  It was a contractual exchange.   Conversely, the 401K was introduced as a supplementary savings program, one which could be controlled by the employee and managed for a cost by pricey fund managers.   According to Forbes, pension plans often beat 401(k) plans. "Since 1995, Towers Watson found, defined benefit plans outperformed by 76 basis points annually (0.76%). They(sic) did so in nearly all of those years except years in which stocks boomed, such as 2009…Part of the reason is mutual fund fees.  Mutual funds in the plans studied had weighted average expenses of 65 basis points in 2011, a drag which reduced overall returns by 31 basis points. Nearly half of the 401(k)-type plans were composed of mutual funds, compared to just 14% in the pension-style plans” ( ).
Some companies match employee 401K contributions to some levels, but not in the public arena.  In addition, the firefighters in North Riverside, like other public employees, are not entitled to Social Security; one more fly in the ointment for Rickert in her suggestion to simply jump to a 401K.  In addition, 14 of the 15 firefighters in North Riverside are vested; that is, they have spent more than a decade in service. 
In her conclusion, Rickert wags a warning, pedantic finger at the reader:  But because new ideas and competition constantly are introduced, society changes. At some point, we upgrade the Walkman for the Discman for the iPod. We learn to be flexible and embrace innovation, because the way things were done 30 and 40 years ago might not be the best way to do them today.”

It’s only an upgrade?  Not if you're a responsible firefighter or police officer.  I'd have trouble sleeping in North Riverside if I lived there.   It would appear there's already a crime prevention problem.   

Friday, July 11, 2014

Inspiring Letter from the Inside: Teacher Peter Greene

Inspiration & Honesty from the Inside: Peter Greene to Teachers in the Classroom

Originally posted at Curmudgucation in December 2013, a worthwhile and often brilliant blog site from teacher Peter Greene.  Also re-published by Huffington in July of 2014.  (h/t Kris Heiting)

The Hard Part

They never tell you in teacher school, and it's rarely discussed elsewhere. It is never, ever portrayed in movies and tv shows about teaching. Teachers rarely bring it up around non-teachers for fear it will make us look weak or inadequate.

Valerie Strauss in yesterday's Washington Post put together a series of quotes to answer the question "How hard is teaching?" and asked for more in the comments section. My rant didn't entirely fit there, so I'm putting it here, because it is on the list of Top Ten Things They Never Tell You in Teacher School.

The hard part of teaching is coming to grips with this:

There is never enough.

There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you.

As a teacher, you can see what a perfect job in your classroom would look like. You know all the assignments you should be giving. You know all the feedback you should be providing your students. You know all the individual crafting that should provide for each individual's instruction. You know all the material you should be covering. You know all the ways in which, when the teachable moment emerges (unannounced as always), you can greet it with a smile and drop everything to make it grow and blossom.

You know all this, but you can also do the math. 110 papers about the view of death in American Romantic writing times 15 minutes to respond with thoughtful written comments equals-- wait! what?! That CAN'T be right! Plus quizzes to assess where we are in the grammar unit in order to design a new remedial unit before we craft the final test on that unit (five minutes each to grade). And that was before Ethel made that comment about Poe that offered us a perfect chance to talk about the gothic influences. And I know that if my students are really going to get good at writing, they should be composing something at least once a week. And if I am going to prepare my students for life in the real world, I need to have one of my own to be credible.

If you are going to take any control of your professional life, you have to make some hard, conscious decisions. What is it that I know I should be doing that I am not going to do?

Every year you get better. You get faster, you learn tricks, you learn which corners can more safely be cut, you get better at predicting where the student-based bumps in the road will appear. A good administrative team can provide a great deal of help.

But every day is still educational triage. You will pick and choose your battles, and you will always be at best bothers, at worst haunted, by the things you know you should have done but didn't. Show me a teacher who thinks she's got everything all under control and doesn't need to fix a thing for next year, and I will show you a lousy teacher. The best teachers I've ever known can give you a list of exactly what they don't do well enough yet.

Not everybody can deal with this. I had a colleague (high school English) years ago who was a great classroom teacher. But she gave every assignment that she knew she should, and so once a grading period, she took a personal day to sit at home and grade papers for 18 hours straight. She was awesome, but she left teaching, because doing triage broke her heart.

So if you show up at my door saying, "Here's a box from Pearson. Open it up, hand out the materials, read the script, and stick to the daily schedule. Do that, and your classroom will work perfectly," I will look you in your beady eyes and ask, "Are you high? Are you stupid?" Because you have to be one of those. Maybe both.

Here's your metaphor for the day.

Teaching is like painting a huge Victorian mansion. And you don't actually have enough paint. And when you get to some section of the house it turns out the wood is a little rotten or not ready for the paint. And about every hour some supervisor comes around and asks you get down off the ladder and explain why you aren't making faster progress. And some days the weather is terrible. So it takes all your art and skill and experience to do a job where the house still ends up looking good.

Where are school reformy folks in this metaphor? They're the ones who show up and tell you that having a ladder is making you lazy, and you should work without. They're the ones who take a cup of your paint every day to paint test strips on scrap wood, just to make sure the paint is okay (but now you have less of it). They're the ones who show up after the work is done and tell passerbys, "See that one good-looking part? That turned out good because the painters followed my instructions." And they're most especially the ones who turn up after the job is complete to say, "Hey, you missed a spot right there on that one board under the eaves."

There isn't much discussion of the not-enough problem. Movie and tv teachers never have it (high school teachers on television only ever teach one class a day!). And teachers hate to bring it up because we know it just sounds like whiny complaining.

But all the other hard part of teaching-- the technical issues of instruction and planning and individualization and being our own "administrative assistants" and acquiring materials and designing unit plans and assessment-- all of those issues rest solidly on the foundation of Not Enough.

Trust us. We will suck it up. We will make do. We will Find A Way. We will even do that when the people tasked with helping us do all that on the state and federal level instead try to make it harder. Even though we can't get to perfect, we can steer toward it. But if you ask me what the hard part of teaching is, hands down, this wins.

There's not enough.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Considering Justice Burke's Dissent in Kanerva v. Weems

Justice Burke swears in Gov. Quinn
Justice Burke: An Argument To Consider Carefully

In the recent Kanerva v. Weems decision, at issue was the appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court by members of three State Employees Retirement Systems that health benefits were protected by the Contracts Clause of the Illinois Constitution as well as safeguarded by the Pension Protection Clause.  Other arguments by the Retirement Systems included Separation of Powers arguments as well as issues of consideration (promissory estopple). 

Interestingly, in the 6-1 majority position written by Justice Freeman, the Pension Protection Clause became the noteworthy fulcrum upon which the decision in favor of the Retirement Systems balanced.  Justice Burke, Chicago alderman Ed Burke’s spouse, drafted the dissent.

Freeman and the other Justices overturned the earlier action by the Illinois Circuit Court, arguing the lower court’s finding that allowed increased costs of state subsidized health care benefits to be passed along to retirees unconstitutional; moreover, the Pension Protection Clause indeed fortified the retirees legal claims to health care benefits. 

Alderman Burke
The majority of the Court “have concluded that the provision was aimed at protecting the right to receive the promised retirement benefits, not the adequacy of funding them. (Freeman)”  In sum, the Protection Clause, article XIII, section 5, of the Illinois Constitution protects all manner of benefits during the scope of one’s employment in a public workers union in Illinois.

In a follow-up opinion of July 4, 2014, the Editorial Board of the Chicago Tribune railed, “The Supreme Court has come close to declaring that whatever retirement benefits were in place on the first day of a worker’s public job can’t be reduced for however many decades he or she is alive.” 

In fact, the Tribune Board is incorrect.  According to Freeman’s opinion, “Illinois law affords most state employees a package of benefits in addition to the wages they are paid.  These include subsidized health care, disability and life insurance coverage, eligibility to receive a retirement annuity and survivor benefits.  These benefits were provided when article XIII, section 5, was proposed to Illinois voters for approval, as they are now.”  These benefits are in place and fluctuating during the employment of the worker – not just on the first day.  The Tribune’s concern is actually the position of the dissenting opinion. 

Justice Freeman
Justice Freeman went on to illuminate in the majority opinion; precedents indicate there is nothing within the text of the Constitution or the Pension Protection Clause “to restrict or limit any of the benefits that accrue during the lifetime of the public worker.”  The original drafters would have identified a protection of only “core pension benefits” if they had intended such, but they did not.  Of course, in her dissent, Justice Burke argues that the omission of such language indicates a narrowing, not expansion, of rights and benefits. 

Indeed, the majority of Justices reviewing the transcripts and records of the debates during the 1970 Constitutional Convention submit, “we have concluded that the provision was aimed at protecting the right to receive the promised retirement benefits, not the adequacy of the funding to pay them.” 

Furthermore, “eligibility for all of the benefits is limited to, conditioned upon, and flows directly from membership in one of the State’s various public pension systems.  Giving the language of article XIII, section 5, its plain and ordinary meaning, all of these benefits, including subsidized health care must be considered to be benefits of membership in a pension or retirement system of the State and, therefore, within that provision’s protections.”

As for the near future of SB1, the Madigan Pension Reform Bill now survives as PA 98-599 and is currently under review by Judge Belz in Sangamon County.  The Supreme Court’s finding in Kanerva vs. Weems sends a sharp message that article XIII, section 5 is and will be dominant in more than a few Justices’ thinking while considering the next case questioning pension benefits. 

Nevertheless, it may be prudent to remember that the current case against SB1 (also PA98-599) will be argued under police or sovereign powers, not the acquisition or entitlement to an earned benefit.  We should be encouraged by the Court’s restatement of the power of article XIII, section 5; but it will need be a shield against a distinctive attack soon.   

Keep in mind also that while a 6-1 majority feels promising in this moment, Burke’s arguments are designed and delivered to make impact on her fellow Justices, in which case she need convince only three more, before the imminent confrontation when the State will attempt to trump contracts by arguing financial crisis.  In short, what may come before the Supreme Court in the case of SB1 could be very dissimilar from the recent settlement we applaud?  In addition, Belz has indicated that each element of the law will be addressed, not its entirety. 

And this brings us to Justice Burke’s dissent, in which she identifies the concept or term “pension” as signifying (as supported by the U.S. Supremem Court and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary) “a fixed sum…paid under given conditions to a person following his retirement from service…or to surviving dependents…” (   ) 

And, Justice Burke may agree that Illinois precedent has determined the Pension Clause to provide an “enforceable contractual relationship” as well as one that “shall not be diminished or impaired.”  However, she also adds that the contractual relationship (Sklodowski v. State of Illinois) “is governed by the actual terms of the Pension Code at the time the employee becomes a member of the pension system.”   (My emphasis)

Justice Burke - far left.
Consequently, according to Justice Burke, the only contractual promises which must be enforced are fiscal and those that are in place (fiscally) at the onset of employment.  Nothing else can be allowed, for anything else falls outside of the definition Legal and lexicon) of pension.

For example, my first position in public service paid me a wage of $8500 per year, and afforded me a 1.5% simple annual COLA at retirement.  My health insurance was paid for in negotiated settlement between the faculty association and the district school board where I taught. Examining and then applying Justice Burke’s layer of arguments, that initial number and my original promise of a simple 1.5% per year would remain intact upon my retirement in 2005.  Indeed, even were the final schedule of salaried earnings considered my starting point for an annuity of 75% for full service, in her argument Justice Burke would posit that anything that is variable, mutable and actuarially unpredictable would fall outside of a legal definition of a fixed income (pension). 

Health benefits, because of their mutability over time are not acceptable as benefits for the “costs are not within the control of the legislature and are subject to change based upon advancements in medical technology, increases in the costs of treatments, and the availability of insurance plans offered by insurance providers.”

This reason echoes the often repeated slogans of those who hammered together the pension reform bill under Speaker Madigan’s sponsorship( Nekritz, Biss, Senger, et. al.) : “Actuarial changes are costing the state more and more in health insurance and longer lives mean greater pressures for COLA costs…”  Even a linkage of the COLA to the CPI could be considered in this scenario as too variable to represent a “fixed” income benefit. 

Furthermore, citing the New York case (the Lippman Court decision -1985), Justice Burke concurs with their finding that health care benefits are incidental to employment in the public system, not a benefit that “flows from” or derives from employment at the onset or any time in public sector employment.  As Justice Burke points out, “unstable variables prevent accurate prediction of future needs and costs,” and in this phrase she provides backdrop for dispute in a police powers requests to remove the costs they cannot contain as the State founders in its fiscal debt. 

In short, Burke argues it is only and should only be about what was earned, never about what was promised.  Any benefits that reside outside of the actuarially determined fixed income are changeable and therefore incidental to membership in the public sector workforce.  Burke also provides an argument that an imaginary State’s promise to make a plaque for each and every public retiree is not the same as a fixed financial commitment.  In my mind, however, healthcare and the unfortunate consequences of its absence certainly could be argued on a family’s financial basis.
Beyond the New York case, Justice Burke also turns to Illinois precedent to bolster her argument: Sklowdowski v. State (1998).  It therefore will likely be the Sklodkowski case that we will see put into play during the final battle over SB1, and the case will be the precedent Justice Burke will discuss with her fellow Justices in the coming months.

Findings of the Sklodowski Case (my emphasis):
 The Pension Clause “creates an enforceable contractual relationship that protects only the right to receive benefits.  A cause of action would exist if legislation diminished a person’s right to receive benefits or place the pension system on the verge of default or imminent bankruptcy”; and People ex. Rel. Sklodowski v. State in 1998: the third vested case issue affirms that an employee acquires a “vested” right when he or she enters the pension system. The court, however, “reaffirmed the holdings of both cases [Lindberg and McNamee] that the Clause does not create a contractual basis for participants to expect a particular level of funding, but only a contractual right that they would receive the money due them at the time of their retirement”

What Justice Burke argues is what Attorney General Madigan will argue:  The sovereignty argument must be made as long as the there are variables coming at the state it cannot anticipate in the shortfall of monies, even if the State is responsible for the debt by decades of not funding the pensions to begin with.  The variables will be COLA’s, health care costs, etc.  By the way, the very items our unions were willing to deal away in SB2404.

And Justice Burke will be trying to convince three others that this is a whole new way to look at pensions in the State’s crisis, and if she wins we will all of us suffer.