SD29: Josh Newman Interview – Charter Schools, Vergara and Teacher Tenure

Editor’s Note: in Part Three of OC Daily’s interview with Josh Newman, the dark horse Democratic candidate in Senate District 29, we talk about education reform: charter schools, the Vergara case and teacher tenure.

Matthew Cunningham: You mentioned there wouldn’t be a split role, that wouldn’t be my first piece of legislation. What would be your first piece of legislation, or see if you can give any thought to that.

Josh Newman: Does it have to be on a particular issues, or-

MC: It is. You said that, and it just made me think, what would your first bill be?

JN: It’s pretty obvious, right? I’ve been working on veterans stuff for a bunch of years. Ever community college in California has a veteran resource center. There is no standard for delivery of services or minimum level threshold of attention to vets at the community college system in California. What that means is, I’m a vet. I get a GI bill loan, it can get me up to $50,000 a year, and it’s totally randomized. If I go to [inaudible 00:40:16] College that has a terrific veteran’s program, I’m liable to have a very good experience, and I’m going to have a good outcome, and the taxpayers will pay for my education. I can reasonably save, and it’s a good investment. If I go to some other school where there’s not a similar level of care, it’s not unlikely that I’m going to have a bad experience, that I’m not going to achieve my educational goals. First piece of legislation is to standardize, to have some minimum threshold for veteran resource centers on California campuses, both community colleges all the way up through the university system.

Does that make sense?

To me, that’s just kind of common sense. Not only does it.. I don’t think any vet coming home should be subject to the randomness of if you’re from Modesto versus somewhere else, you should get the same quality of education. I think the taxpayer is also well served in this. There is a problem with vets not finishing their educations, and that ends up being a waste of all our resources.

MC: That is a … you know a big reason so much campaign resources are focused on swing seats in the senate and the legislatures is because of the 2/3 tax threshold. If there’s a couple years when the Democrats have a 2/3 majority. Now it’s like about 1 or 2 votes shy in each house. That kind of leads to the question, do you think… a few years ago, they lowered the threshold for approving a budget from 2/3 to simple majority. Do you think we should keep the threshold for raising taxes at 2/3 of the legislature, or should that also be lowered to a majority?

JN: I think it makes sense to keep it 2/3. It presents a higher standard and if the problem is friction and partisan politics, hopefully that works itself out over time. I actually think there is a significant value to having a strong Republican counterpart to the Democratic majority.

That leads to a smarter conversation.

MC: I want to talk about charter schools. First, what’s your general opinion of charter schools?

JN: Charter schools are interesting and very valuable as laboratories for innovation in education. I believe that, but deliberately as a laboratory, to create new approaches, new best practices, that you can then apply to the larger system. They shouldn’t be a replacement for the public education system.

MC: How would they.. what do you mean by that?

JN: There’s some number of charter schools that.. I’ll go at it a different way. I believe very strongly in the value of public education. Public education only really works well at economies of scale. There’s always the issues that sort of manifest themselves there, because big systems are hard to manage, but where public systems get too small, they’re hard to support. There are any number of activities within a school system that command a decent amount of overhead, and if you can’t support that overhead, you wind up making hard choices on other things. There’s one view of charter schools, which is that they’re a great sort of leading element to figure out better ways to teach throughout the whole system. There’s another point of view, which is it’s another way to reinvent the system, to sort of swap it out. My take is that charter schools are good, but only within the original intent. If they become too large a part of the system, there is some issues that-

MC: What do you think the original intent is?

JN: Exactly that, which is to give, through local control, through lower levels of oversight or regulation, to allow new approaches to bloom.

MC: What if a school district… when you say it shouldn’t be replaced, if over time, if parents are either for the traditional process of forming a charter school or for a particular law.. we want our school to be a charter school, where the… it could at some point reach a tipping point where most public schools are charter schools, not traditional schools.

JN: At that point, most public schools just simply incorporate the innovations that charter schools have developed and apply them throughout the system and have a better public school system. That’s the theory.

MC: Interesting point you raise, because you’re starting to see that here, like in Anaheim schools, for example. There’s only 1 public charter school in all of Anaheim in the various districts there. Parents at Palm Lane public school have been pushing to convert their school into a charter school in the past. The district is fighting it tooth and nail, still is fighting them. There’s actually the high school district is conducting a fairly vigorous public relations campaign against charter schools, even the notion of them. Why is there that fear? I went to some of those board meeting where the Palm Lane teachers.. it was just.. they were at members of teacher’s unions. Not just in that school, but in other districts there. Why are they so threatened?

JN: The fear, Matt, is obviously that charter schools become something of a Trojan horse, or deunionizing the school system. That’s why. It doesn’t have to be that way, but that’s where it becomes so adversarial. Those battle lines get drawn.

MC: Should that be the primary consideration for a… when it comes to a public school providing a quality education, should whether or not the staff are unionized be the primary consideration?

JN: No. With respect to the quality of education, I hope not, to the extent that education is a big system. Even if the Anaheim Unified.. there is that question, you’re going to mention the Vergara decision, obviously. There is the question-it would come up anyway, which is, if our larger obligation is to educate kids, how best to get at that. Clearly there’s a bunch of constituencies to get involved there, and they sort of assess their own role in that system and whether or not their role is solid, or protected, or jeopardized. There’s that question, to what degree is your focus on your particular role complementary to or at the expense of the quality of education for the students? I think that’s a good question. The thing about a charter school, there’s a parent trigger, and I understand why it happens. The question is, what will happen in a short enough duration that you can objectively improve the quality of your kid’s education? It’s hard. Education is seemingly very simple, but obviously super complicated.

MC: If parents have that right, which they do under the law, is there any reason…it’s their children that are ultimately going to… it’s their decision to make whether they think their children would benefit from a charter school versus traditional public school. I guess the larger point is that in the Democratic party and in the state legislature, the teacher union is incredibly powerful. Arguably the single most powerful special interests in the state of California when it comes to influencing the state legislature and what happens there in terms of bills affecting public education, and CTA does not like charter schools at all. They don’t like teacher retainer reform, so as a Democrat running for the state senate, I guess that’s a legit question. Are you going to… if the CTA rep comes to you and says, Senator Newman, don’t you dare vote for this tenure reform bill, we want to impose more regulations and requirements on charter schools, what would your response be?

JN: That’s kind of a loaded question. You want to come at these things with some level of principle, but also objectivity on a case-by-case basis. Getting back to charter schools, part of the mechanics, like the design of that process, including parent trigger, was that it would add a level of accountability and responsiveness that apparently was not present. It’s not about the ability to change the system, per se. That’s a possibility. It’s about ensuring that parents would be listened to all the way up to and through that point. That needs to happen. Parents and other members of the community need to be involved in the education process, and administrators need to be receptive to that input. It’s not a bad thing to have a scenario like parent trigger, but it shouldn’t be the goal in and of itself, to change all schools to charter schools.

To that question about education generally, we need, as a state, to think seriously about how do build resource for education, but deliver a quality education to every California kid up through post secondary school that is competitive to today’s economy, today’s changing world. California typically ranked between 46, 48, and that’s not acceptable. You have to, as a legislator, figure out, how do we get to some much more appropriate, better situation on that.

MC: Do you think, then, when it comes to the CTA, they usually reduce improving the public education system to “We need more money.” They always press for more money. There are those, including myself, who believe that funding is not the be all… inputs do not equal outputs; it’s not a matter of writing a big enough check and test scores will go up. It seems to me that-

JN: That point of view is.. most voters share that point of view, that it’s not about input. Simply allocating more money doesn’t get you a better outcome. I think everybody knows that with some level of certainty.

MC: That seems to be the course public policy seems to take, is by the interest groups who are based in public education, that’s the constant refrain. We need more money for the kids. Always we need more money for the kids, and I think most people ha e intuitively gotten to the point where we’ve been hearing that for 30 years and things aren’t getting any better. They’re probably getting worse in a lot of ways, and in a world and an economy where solutions are getting more and more customized to what you need, that doesn’t seem to… The public education system, outside of charter schools, is very resistant to that. The traditional approach is very same rules for everybody, you can’t.. I mean, if you had to run your companies the way that public schools run their employee practices, you would never be able to succeed because you can’t hire somebody whose not performing. I wanted to get that regardless of the decision.

I think that’s a key issue. I can’t think of really.., there’s probably few other work places in the country where you can be on the job for 2 years and then be unfireable for almost any reason, no matter how badly you perform. I know-

JN: They’re not unfireable.

MC: Well, it’s very difficult to get rid of-

JN: It’s a matter of collectively bargain down the due process.

MC: Hold on a minute.

JN: You have to apply that concept, right? If the question is, how come it’s not properly applied, that’s sort of irrespective of the rules.

MC: In any of the companies you’ve worked at, would you have wanted to have that level of protection for employees? Would you have wanted to go one and say, “Hey, you know, you’re not actually doing your job. You’re not doing your reports, you’re not completing this. Your evaluations are terrible. You’ve got to go. We need somebody who can perform, because we have responsibilities to earn revenue.”

In the government sector, it’s more like, “Sorry. You can’t fire me.” You have to go through… you have to document this, document that. It takes forever.

JN: I’ve worked for a bunch of different companies where that is, in fact, exactly the way it is. Right now, it’s not so codified in a lot of cases, but even in companies where nobody gets fired because it has to be documented.

MC: They’re afraid of the lawsuit.

JN: Managers don’t do it properly. I’ve worked for companies where it seems like all the bad apples get rewarded on the way out the door because they sue.

MC: Is that a beneficial thing, because in this case.. in a company, at least you can.. at the end of the day, the consumer can go somewhere else. You can’t freeze a child in time until the school gets better. They just get older and move through the system, and there’s a limited window in which to provide them with a quality education.

JN: I think that’s the operative issue. We have to figure out a better way to engage administrators, with an eye on the quality of education, that even takes into account current procedures or collective bargain rules that gets you to that outcome. I think the point, regardless of the decision, is even if it were allowed to stand, that wouldn’t necessarily solve all the problems. It would simply make it easier to fire teachers. It wouldn’t necessarily get you better teachers. It would get you higher turnover, but it wouldn’t necessarily change the curriculum in a-

MC: But it would give you the ability to get rid of bad teachers. Would you agree or disagree that it’s very difficult to fire a bad teacher in our public school system?

JN: Yes, I would. LA Unified being an example. It’s not hard to transfer a teacher out. I think what drives people crazy is that teacher wants to get paid for awhile-

MC: They do the dance. They keep transferring them around, and somebody has to.. either somebody ends up with a bad teacher or you have a place where the bad teachers go-

JN: LA Unified seems like.. I’m not an expert there, but it seems like there is a place-

MC: That’s true for a lot of districts all over the country.

JN: You can address the process, make the process more rigorous a bunch of ways without exploding the whole process. You also have to shift the conversation more deliberately to a more rigorous discussion about, what do we mean by quality education, and what is a standard for every student, every teacher, and we’re not really doing that. LA Unified is such a giant system that you can see where it’s really challenging. The teachers unions are a counter party to public oversight in a lot of cases. I think if you ask a question like, can they be engaged in a way that gets us to a better place, I think the answer is yes. It’s not necessarily so minor, which is we either need the ability to fire a teacher or we suffer because you can’t fire a teacher. It’s the same as collectively bargained pensions. It’s not simply that the unions bargain well, it’s that the counter part of the elected official has to play a role in that and has to be more rigorous and more involved. Does that make sense to you?

MC: I think it makes sense in theory. I guess the reality I’ve seen – and I’ve read minutes of local teacher association meetings. They’ll have their reports and when it comes to Vergara or teacher tenure, it’s black-and-white to them. Do not mess around with tenure! They oppose any move to reform tenure, even to extend the time-line from 2 to say, 5 years.

JN: That’s because it’s part of like a judicial proceeding. It feels so adversarial to –

MC: But then they’re-

JN: You could argue they deserve it.

MC: That’s the only avenue left to effectively extend this.

JN: I don’t effectively agree with that.

MC: There’s no way to.. there must be a way in the legislature, but nobody has the money to qualify for a ballot partition themselves.

JN: If your goal is to get to something like Vergara, but if your goal is something different, which is to have a greater degree of oversight, better outcomes, higher standards for-

MC: Everybody wants that, but I guess in the…one of my daughters went to public school for awhile, and she had some good teachers and she had some teachers who just phoned it in. There was nothing to be done about it. I think a lot of people’s view is most of us live in a world where if I work hard, I can get promoted because I’m a good worker, then I can make more money by working hard and being good, and if I’m a slacker, you’re probably not going to go anywhere and maybe even get fired.

In teaching, why shouldn’t you be rewarded financially according to your teaching talent and ability, rather than how long you’ve been on the job and the time you’ve put in? When we’re talking about it, if our children are the future, shouldn’t the people who are having a huge impact on that future…shouldn’t we have a more rigorous system for rewarding the good ones and getting rid of the bad ones? Everyone seems to be afraid of getting rid of bad teachers, but-

JN: I don’t think professional educators really worry about the really bad ones. They worry about the imposition of a huge regime that doesn’t give them the tools that they collectively bargained for. That’s their-

MC: I think a good teacher is not really afraid of being fired, but is it fair that a young teacher who’s energetic and good at what he or she does is let go before a more senior time server whose not very good at teaching? Should we end that way of doing things or not? There has to be a yes-or-no to some of this questions.

JN: What’s the objective basis for the standard? Listen, that’s kind of a straw man. We assume that the 23-year-old teacher is the awesome teacher who just got there and that the tenure teacher, that’s the slacker. That tenured bad one started out as a one-year bad one.

MC: Or it might have been a teacher who was good in the beginning but got burned out.

JN: One of the problems honestly is that teachers don’t get paid enough. That’s a hard problem to solve. If it’s… a lot of the benefits that accrue to teachers, take into account that it’s a low-paying profession, so we have to-

MC: It’s not-

JN: It’s not the worst-paying profession-

MC: When you’re there long enough, you can make some pretty good money.

JN: No, I get it. You are not competing with Google, as a rule, for salary.

MC: No, but teaching is a vocation. People do it because they’re really.. they go into it because they’re committed to children.

JN: Or maybe it seems like it’s a good job that they might be good at, and they get. I went to public schools and I went to private schools. I had probably about the same mix of bad teachers and good ones in both systems. I did not see… I went to a reasonably expensive boarding school. We had bad teachers, too, that wound up there. I don’t know how easy it was to fire them, but some of them are still there.

MC: It’s a lot easier to get rid of… our daughters go to private school, and in those schools, bad teachers don’t last.Whereas if it was a public school, they would have started the termination process and then maybe 2 years later it would happen. It’s just-

JN: My sister’s a public school teacher in Illinois, so it’s not California, but her stance is that there it’s reasonable meritocratic and that excellence is rewarded.

MC: It may be more different there. I’m sure various-

JN: Illinois is too different from California. I think the Vergara approach is such a diversion from the status quo that it only makes sense that the union leadership would perceive that as threat. It only makes sense,. To the extent that it was not upheld in court, that it’s a bitch to get it on the ballot, if you could get it on the ballot, how would you frame the ballot language to get some outcome which is effectively better is a good question. In the absence of those possibilities, we should make a better effort to work more closely, develop better relationships and partnerships with educators at every level. We’re not likely going to have it on the ballot.

MC: I doubt it because well, it’s expensive to get it on the ballot. I mean, you have to contend with $30 million in CTA money against you, so the reality is… it’s bad. The teachers union has a bottomless pit of campaign money.



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