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Sunday, April 6, 2014

Former Emery School Superintendant Tony Smith: Teachers Unions Must Be Destroyed

The Long Shadow Cast By Tony Smith
"We're Doing What's Best for the Children"

Remember, I only want what's
best for the children.

(Repeat often)
Recently there's been a national debate begun about public education and while charter schools, most operating at the expense of public schools have proliferated and teachers unions have come under attack on many fronts, public education supporters have begun to push back against this concerted push to privatize the nation's public schools.  At Emery Unified School District however, the course was set years ago and Emery has played its own small role in this conservative attempt to cripple public education, especially where that attempt seeks to destroy teachers unions.  To see this one only needs to look to the legacies of former superintendents of its schools Tony Smith and the recently deposed Debbra Lindo.

Even though they had the same goals in mind, of the two former superintendents, the great mentor and architect-in-chief of Emery's slide into it's current anti-teacher state of affairs is inarguably Tony Smith.  His shadow is long and even though he left Emery years ago to command Oakland Unified and has since left there amid a witness tampering scandal, Tony Smith and his school privatization philosophy continues unabashedly to serve as guiding principles for Emery.  The School Board here is quite clear about their tutelage by Tony Smith, proud even.

While at Oakland, Tony's divisive anti-democratic program of cutting, shutting and chartering schools while taking on the teachers caused a massive grassroots citizen's push back.  He is revered nonetheless by the Emery School Board and they have even picked up some of his affectations: think the oft publicly repeated and ever popular "we're doing what's best for the children" as a way of shutting down those who would disagree, as in; what YOU'RE advocating then must therefore be by definition NOT what's best for the children.

After Tony left Emery, the School Board looked to find a permanent replacement and they ultimately found a near carbon copy in Debbra Lindo (except she lacks Tony's easy going and chipper personality).  Tony's influence was evident as Debbra Lindo and her Board surrogates began their siege against Emery teachers following the release of the Teachers Resolution in 2012.

Mega ditttos.
The Emeryville duo Tony 'n Debbra have now very publicly entered the national debate with their support in the Los Angeles Superior Court's infamous Vergara case.  They tell us that everything will be great if we just tie teacher's pay to high stakes 'bubble' test outcomes, kill due process for teacher's employment and make their jobs teeter on the whims of unelected superintendents.  We'll get the best and the brightest apparently if we de-professionalize teaching: sever their job security, cut pay and make their fates dependent on things beyond their control.

Below is a recent letter to the Oakland Tribune from Tony Smith (filled with right wing memes and dog whistles) that might seem sincere to the uninitiated. To those following the Emery School Board (Tony's begats)  however, it's just part of the continuing attack on and privatize of public education.  Here is Tony Smith, the Great Man to Emery Unified continuing to release his toxic brand of divisive politics even as he has decamped to Chicago, some 2000 miles distant:
Guest commentary:  
Let's start protecting all of our students
By Tony Smith, guest commentary © 2014 Bay Area News Group
POSTED:   03/30/2014 04:00:00 PM
California's education laws are currently designed to almost unconditionally protect a group of adults -- teachers -- at the expense of our children.
And students living in poverty -- those most in need of every opportunity our public schools can offer -- are being disproportionately punished by these laws. The system tells them: sorry, teachers' jobs are more important than your education and your future.
Is that right?
No, it isn't, say the nine students who brought the Vergara v. California case, currently awaiting a ruling in Los Angeles Superior Court. The students are suing the state because five state laws are denying them -- and the other 6.2 million California public school students like them -- their constitutional right to a quality education.
If the court agrees, then the dysfunctional statutes controlling teacher tenure, dismissal and layoffs will be struck down, creating a transformational opportunity to design a new system that puts students' needs first, ensures a high-quality teacher in every classroom and helps all Californians see a better future.
Supporting our teachers really matters. Effective teachers are essential for a well-educated California. Under current laws, though, the system fails to make effective teaching a priority, creating an environment that's bad for both hardworking teachers and students.
The tenure law forces administrators to grant lifetime employment to new teachers after less than 16 months in the classroom. I am aware of no other profession where someone is granted protected status in such a short time and without any real evidentiary basis for the decision.
Once permanent employment is granted, it is nearly impossible to dismiss ineffective teachers for any reason other than criminal activity. The dismissal process is so cumbersome and costly that in the past 10 years, only 19 teachers out of California's 1,052 school districts have been successfully terminated through the dismissal process for reasons including unsatisfactory performance.
When funding reductions instigate layoffs, administrators are not allowed to base staffing decisions on the quality of a teacher's service to children. The primary factor that may be considered is how long he or she has been employed by the district, so every year a district has layoffs, children lose passionate, hardworking, effective teachers -- just because they lack seniority.
As superintendent of Oakland Unified School District, I had to explain why excellent teachers were being let go, while parents pleaded and begged, saying, "Please, please keep this teacher. You don't understand what this year has been like for my child. This is one of the most extraordinary educators I've ever seen in my life."
But under the law, there is nothing we can do to keep that extraordinary educator.
Is the system I just described a system focused on what's best for children?
Not to me.
A system that prioritizes meeting the needs of California's students -- as the state constitution demands -- would focus on enhancing educational quality before protecting seniority.
A system that truly puts students' learning first would evaluate how well our students are doing and how much growth they are making.
We would discuss how to help teachers develop their practice, using growth in student learning as the primary data guiding our efforts.
When teachers demonstrate effective work in service of students, we would do everything in our power to enhance that work and reward those teachers. And when a few adults are consistently failing our children in the classroom, we would hold them accountable.
In a district like the Oakland Unified School District, where I served as superintendent for four years, 70 percent of students come from low-income households. Our students face serious challenges outside of school. For many students, the road leads either to graduation or incarceration. Having caring, attentive, effective teachers along the road makes all the difference.
Let's not lose sight of the goal of our public schools: to ensure that every child in the state has access to a good education, so every child can participate and thrive in our society.
I hope the Vergara student-plaintiffs are victorious in court. I hope the Vergara case marks a turning point in the trajectory of public education in California. Let's make a true commitment to current and future students: educational excellence, starting with an effective teacher in every classroom.

Tony Smith is a former superintendent of Oakland Unified School District.


  1. if you print tony smith's guest commentary from the bay area news group, then you must also print a letter to the editor published in today's paper written by betty olson jones, a 5th grade teacher and former president of the oakland education association, written in response to smith's commentary.

    1. Here it is (in two parts):
      Guest commentary: Teachers' working conditions are students' learning conditions
      By Betty Olson-Jones © 2014 Bay Area News Group
      POSTED: 04/04/2014 10:00:00 AM

      It's interesting how so many people with limited or no classroom teaching are quick to weigh in on educational issues. From Bill Gates and Eli Broad to Michelle Rhee and now Tony Smith, these self-proclaimed education "reformers" are short on education experience and long on placing the blame for educational failures where it doesn't belong.

      The recent opinion piece by Tony Smith, former superintendent of Oakland Unified School District is full of misleading and false statements that only serve to distract us from the real problems facing our schools.

      Contrary to what Tony Smith and the plaintiffs in the Vergara v. California case contend, laws protecting teachers' rights don't punish children. When students in our poorest neighborhoods receive a substandard education, it's not because hordes of "bad teachers" are being protected at their expense.

      Our students are punished by the chronic underfunding of schools, which denies them access to smaller class sizes, a balance of new and veteran teachers, a curriculum that includes both the arts and career training, and sufficient support services.

      In my role as president of the Oakland Education Association, I worked closely with Smith for three years. During that time we talked often about the importance of having excellent teachers in every classroom and about how the conditions of work affect every teacher's ability to be effective.

      Despite Smith's claim, no teacher has lifetime tenure. After two years on probation, a teacher may be granted "permanent status," which means they have the right to due process in the event of discipline or dismissal proceedings and cannot be dismissed for arbitrary or unfair reasons.

      However, during the probationary period districts have the right under state law to dismiss teachers without cause. Smith is well aware that each year he was superintendent, the district routinely dismissed 50-70 new teachers before they could be granted permanent status.


    2. Smith also claims that "once permanent employment is granted, it is nearly impossible to dismiss ineffective teachers for any reason other than criminal activity." This is untrue, and he knows full well that under his watch administrators were often negligent in doing their job of completing timely evaluations and documenting evidence of poor performance. Smith conveniently neglects to mention that the vast majority of teachers facing dismissal resign, retire, or reach settlement agreements with the district instead of going through a lengthy and costly process.

      The laws he rails against provide all the tools needed to dismiss the few ineffective teachers in any district.

      By blaming seniority for losing "passionate, hardworking, effective teachers" to budget-based layoffs, he pits new teachers against veteran teachers instead of focusing on the huge numbers of excellent teachers who regularly leave urban districts like Oakland.

      By providing no criteria for determining whether a teacher is "effective," he leaves this decision to the whims of site administrators.

      Instead of distorting facts to blame laws protecting teachers for inequitable education, why aren't Smith and other "reformers" more concerned that districts like Oakland lose so many good teachers each year because of difficult working conditions, large class sizes, lack of support services, low salaries, and poor administration?

      Why don't they mention that of 300 new teachers who started working in Oakland in 2003, more than 76 percent had left by 2008?

      If Smith was so concerned with excellent education in Oakland, why did he close five elementary schools in primarily minority neighborhoods and shut down adult education services to 25,000 parents and community members? Why didn't he focus on trying to get more funding for public education? Why is he trying to separate teachers' working conditions from our students' learning conditions?

      Smith was just the latest in a string of carpetbaggers to descend on Oakland with big, empty promises. Let's hope he is the last.

      Betty Olson-Jones is a fifth-grade teacher and former president of the Oakland Education Association.

  2. another important article to read from the s.f. chronicle april 5. sausalito marin city school district has one school, k-8, with a total of 121 students. this school receives $4 million in annual funding but spends $4.5 million on expenses such as payroll, human resources, purchasing, special education services and maintenance. there is something definitely wrong with this picture. it also gives a good comparative study of public versus charter schools.