Teacher pensions reaffirmed in California

Teachers in California breathed a sigh of relief when the California Supreme Court ruled that vested retirements benefits cannot be abridged (“ ‘California Rule’ Upheld Without Modification,” Contact, April 2019).  But there are still three upcoming cases that address the issue of public employees.  As a result, it’s premature to break out the champagne.

Whether other state high courts will take the same position as California’s is unclear.  So much depends on whether they hold that promises made are sacrosanct. The California Rule treats a public employee’s pension as a form of deferred compensation, with the value set the day the employee is hired. Although terms can be altered over time, the overall value cannot be reduced.

I’ve never understood why the issue has arisen in the first place.  Teachers have kept their end of the bargain by paying into the system. I’m not talking now about what is known as “air time,” whereby employees pad their pensions by buying additional retirement service credit even though they haven’t done the actual additional work.  The California Supreme Court correctly rejected that ploy.

Truth to tell, very few teachers receive the benefits of the present pension system because it is heavily back-end loaded.  As a result, the system is essentially a Ponzi scheme, whereby new teachers pay for the benefits of their older colleagues.  With the economy improving, it’s a propitious time to allow teachers to decide if they would rather accept higher pay at the start of their career in exchange for a lower pension.  That route would likely appeal to teachers who intend to spend only a few years in the classroom before moving on to a different career.

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College admissions hypocrisy

A front-page story in the Los Angeles Times cites a denial from UCLA that it takes into account financial benefits to the university when determining who is admitted (“Admissions issues at UCLA noted in 2014,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 14).  Coming on the heels of the scandal involving crosstown rival USC and other elite universities across the country, the claim is risible.

I say that because colleges and universities today more than ever are businesses.  Like all businesses, they are not going to bite the hand that feeds them.  What school is going to refuse admission to a parent who gives them a multi-million dollar gift?  There are always strings attached to such matters.  Anyone who denies that has never been privy to what takes place behind closed doors in admissions offices.

In “The Price of Admissions,” Daniel Golden explained in detail how money talks.  It should be required reading for reformers who say they are aghast at the scandals reported by the media. Of course, lawmakers are the biggest hypocrites of all because they’re in office largely as a result of the money that made their election possible in the first place.

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Religious students not exempt from vaccination

It’s taken an outbreak of measles in New York City to ask why parents are legally able to keep their children from being vaccinated (“Why Are There Religious Exemptions for Vaccines?” The New York Times, Apr. 12).  Yet 47 states also allow them to oppose vaccination on religious grounds. California is one of the few states that correctly eliminated the religious-belief exemption.

Few politicians are willing to challenge parents, since they tend to form a powerful voting bloc.  It’s to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s credit that he has done so.  But most parents don’t seem to care that by defying the law they are exposing not only their own children to the disease but also others who for legitimate medical reasons cannot be vaccinated.

If religious parents historically had their way, smallpox, polio and other diseases would never have been eliminated.  Although the anti-vaccination movement is depicted as new, it had its beginnings in 1855 when Massachusetts became the first state to make smallpox vaccinations mandatory for public-school children. A few decades later, a pamphlet titled “Vaccination Is the Curse of Childhood” was circulated in Boston.

The courts have repeatedly held that religious beliefs cannot be used as a shield in denying children the right to medical care.  I’m thinking now of parents who have cited Christian Science as the reason they refused treatment for their children, and the children subsequently died.

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‘Disparate impact’ will destroy standards

In attempting to diversify schools, reformers claim discrimination when a test does not produce the desired racial composition of students (“Richard Carranza’s black and white approach is ruining city schools,” New York Post, Apr. 10).  But different outcomes among different groups are not by itself proof of discrimination, which is known as “disparate impact.”

I’ve never understood why the issue ever arose.  Disparities will always exist in outcomes that have nothing whatsoever to do with discrimination.  They occur because people are different, regardless of race.  Some students work harder than others.  Some are simply smarter than others.  Yet reformers refuse to accept this reality.  They persist in seeing discrimination unless results conform to a predetermined pattern.

No race is a monolith.  Just because blacks and Hispanics do not constitute the same percentage of students from other races does not mean prejudice is the reason.  If anything, there is reverse prejudice at work.  I’m thinking now of the suit against Harvard University filed by Asian students claiming that they are the victims of discrimination since they must score much higher on the SAT to be admitted than blacks and Hispanics.

Rather than blaming the messenger, reformers need to ask why blacks and Hispanics do not perform as well on tests.  It’s likely that the test is not to blame.

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Bringing education to the streets

For young people who never received their high school diploma and have given up on ever getting it, the Five Keys Charter School in the poorest neighborhood of San Francisco offers hope (“You Got Your High School Diploma?” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 7).  While nothing can ever replace a traditional curriculum on a campus where students interact, Five Keys is doing a commendable job.

Using a dilapidated bus, Five Keys administers a placement test and then through one-on-one instruction its teachers helps students qualify for a high school diploma. The school first opened in a San Francisco jail and now has about 2,000 active students.  Students come from chaotic backgrounds that have been made worse by the choices they’ve made since dropping out of high school.  Nevertheless, most persevere, realizing that Five Keys is their last chance to improve their lives.

The emotional support provided by teachers there often is the difference between success and failure.  I hope the model provided by Five Keys can be replicated in other cities across the nation.  The need is acute and the benefits are incalculable.

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Racial quotas for admissions are still outlawed

It’s easy to forget amid the controversy that efforts to diversify student admissions must be subject to the strict scrutiny standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court (“A Timeline of Key Supreme Court Cases on Affirmative Action,” The New York Times, Mar. 30).

The first time the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on affirmative action was in Marco DeFunis Jr. v. Odegaard.  But since the plaintiff was already in his third year of law school, the suit was moot.  It was not until 1978 in the landmark Regents of the University of California v. Bakke that the high court established the strict scrutiny standard.  It meant that race could be a factor in determining admissions, but racial quotas went too far.  Since then it has consistently upheld that position.

The implications are felt more than ever today, with New York City being the latest venue.  Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza are determined to diversity student enrollment at the city’s eight elite high schools.  They insist that the percentage of those admitted reflect the percentage of students in the city racially.  I fail to see why what they want is not a quota, no matter how justified in their minds their goal is.

Even if the mayor and the chancellor can somehow convince the state Legislature to repeal the Hecht-Calandra Act that requires the schools in question to rely strictly on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test in determining admissions, I believe the decision will eventually wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.  When it does, I hope that the high court will not reverse itself on the issue.

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The class-size debate

When Education Secretary Betsy DeVos claimed that students learn better in larger classes and President Trump seconded her words, their remarks renewed the debate about the issue (“Class Sizes Will Be the Biggest Ever’ Boasts President Trump,” National Education Policy Center, Apr. 1).

The irony, of course, is that DeVos sent her two sons to Grand Rapids Christian High School, which has an average class size of 24, and Trump’s son is enrolled in St. Andrews, which has a median class size of 15.  Moreover, most politicians’ children have attended schools with equally small class sizes.

I don’t doubt that it’s possible to get a solid education in large classes.  For example, Catholic schools are known for that.  But they are outliers.  Most young people learn more effectively when they are more than just a number to their teachers.  That’s particularly the case with students from chaotic backgrounds who have never experienced a close relationship with an adult before.

During the 28 years that I taught English in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I rarely had a class with fewer than 33 students.  Not only was it impossible to spend more than a minute or two grading their essays, but it was hard to get to know them individually.  That’s why I question the assertion that larger classes mean better learning.

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Topless teacher scandal is absurd

When a middle-school math teacher’s old topless selfie fell into the hands of a student, she was summarily fired (“That teacher’s topless selfie,” Los Angeles Times, Apr. 7).  At first, I thought the news was an April Fool’s Day joke. But it isn’t.

Her lawyer intends to sue the Long Island, N.Y. school district for $3 million, arguing that the photo was intended solely for viewing by her boyfriend and was not inherently prurient.  He is absolutely right. I hope that she gets her job back and that the district issues a formal apology.  Apparently, female teachers are still subjected to a different standard than are male teachers.

I wonder how many teachers, both female and male, don’t have something in their personal lives that could prove embarrassing?  I’m not talking now about criminal behavior.  I’m referring to an indiscretion.  You can be sure if it involves sex in any way, it will be an issue for teachers wishing to retain their jobs. Teachers have lives outside of school.  Unless their behavior can be shown to be directly inimical to their ability to teach, it’s none of a district’s business.

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Caution on diversity as the No. 1 educational goal

The obsession with engineering diversity in education in this country will weaken whatever standards still remain.  The best example is the controversy over who is admitted to New York City’s eight elite high schools (“New York’s Best Schools Need to Do Better,” The New York Times, Mar. 31).

A state law, the Hecht-Calandra Act, requires that New York City’s three largest schools use a single exam, the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test, to determine who is admitted.  But because 51.1 percent of offers went to Asian students and 28.5 percent went to white students, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Richard Carranza want to eliminate the test and instead grant admission to the top 7 percent of students at each middle school.

De Blasio and Carranza maintain that the test is unfair.  But it has worked for Asian students from impoverished families.  Why can’t it also work for black and Hispanic students?  Critics of the test say that these students need greater test preparation.  But the city has already spent $6 million this year doing precisely that.  What more can it do?

Admitting students of any race who lack the wherewithal to handle rigorous work will only set them up for failure.  When they find they are over their head, they will drop out.  Elite high schools were never intended to be for all students.  Those who can’t pass the test would be far better served at other high schools.  There’s no shame in that.

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Higher pay alone won’t solve teacher shortage

In the largest federal investment in teacher salaries, Sen. Kamala Harris believes she has the solution to the teacher shortage (“Kamala Harris Wants to Boost Average Teacher’s Pay by $13,500,” Time, Mar. 26).  The estimated $315 billion over ten years would mean the average teacher salary would jump by $13,500.

 Teachers deserve higher salaries in light of the increasing demands placed on them.  But surveys of teachers who leave the classroom for other careers have shown time and again that money was not the deciding factor by a long shot.  In fact, many take jobs paying less than they were making before.

What Harris and others do not understand is that the unrelenting criticism teachers receive has undermined their morale.  When coupled with concerns about their physical safety, it has led them to question their decision to make teaching a career.  For example, combat pay for teachers willing to teach in the inner cities has been a failure.  A handful of teachers may volunteer, but they rarely last more than a year or two.

Until teachers are accorded the respect they deserve and given the proper conditions to teach, there will continue to be an outflow of teachers and the reluctance of the best and the brightest college graduates to make teaching a lifetime career.

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