Montgomery County (Md) Politics

A commenter asks,

You’ve mentioned many times that Montgomery is owned part and parcel by the teacher’s unions. . .what aspects of county government do they control, and how?

Don’t take my word for it. Take theirs.

“It was the Unions that put Duchy in office n it was the Unions that took her out. Justice served!” read a text message forwarded at 1:24 a.m. Wednesday by John Sparks, head of Montgomery’s firefighters union.

Trachtenberg netted support from public employee unions four years ago but later challenged what she considers unsustainable compensation packages. The cost of government salaries and benefits have soared over the past decade in Montgomery and are a key driver of ongoing budget problems in the wealthy county.

That was 2010 and it was the firefighters’ union that threw her out. But four years earlier, it was the teachers’ union that put her in.

Political observers say the incumbents could be facing tough reelection battles. Four — Floreen, Subin, Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) and Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County) — failed to capture endorsement from the county’s influential teachers union.

The candidates backed by the teachers’ union won, leading someone an observer to comment.

MCEA was upset that Floreen and Subin had supported delaying a 2003 cost-of-living increase that was due to teachers under their contract because of budget problems. As a result, Leventhal and challengers Elrich and Trachtenberg made the Apple Ballot, while incumbents Floreen and Subin were excluded. The Apple candidates won the top three slots, while Floreen earned the fourth seat and Subin lost. Subin’s loss was particularly notable because he was a 20-year council veteran and the long-time head of the council’s education committee.

The author concludes,

So what does the Teachers’ emergence as Montgomery County’s dominant political force mean for the future? With property tax growth slowing down, the next county council will face tough budgetary decisions. Public schools account for half of the county’s budget and would be an obvious location for cuts. But don’t expect any action there: the county’s politicians have learned that those who cross the Teachers Union once are unlikely to be given a second opportunity.

An increasing share of that budget is going to pensions and non-teaching staff who are union members. Actual classroom teachers are badly over-worked.

Because spending per student is by far the highest in the state, the WaPo constantly refers to Montgomery County as a high quality school system. However, the average outcomes in the County schools are mediocre. Students from the wealthiest parts of the County (three high schools in particular) produce good test scores, and the rest do not. Other school districts in Maryland get similar outcomes with students of similar backgrounds while spending much less money per student.

I know relatively little about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. But I see the teachers’ union as an enemy, and they see her as an enemy. Ergo, I am inclined to view her in friendly terms.

This entry was posted in Economics of Education, public choice. Bookmark the permalink.

49 Responses to Montgomery County (Md) Politics

  1. asdf says:

    EduRealist goes into more depth, but charter school support is complicated.

    • asdf says:

      Basically, if you live in a middle class suburb, even if the teachers pension scheme is suspect, you more or less like your school and more or less want to keep it. The idea of school choice sounds a lot like either:

      1) Send all that money I’m paying in property taxes somewhere else
      2) I paid through the noes to get my kid a certain peer group and now your going to bus delinquents in

      Those scenarios may not always sound true, but they are risks over a policy people don’t feel like they have control over.

      Charter school support really only comes from minority families that want to rise above the muck, and urban professionals that couldn’t buy into the right district zoning. It doesn’t really appeal to Montgomery County.

      We aren’t going to solve education in this country until we talk about it realistically (i.e. your basically born as smart or dumb as your going to get). We can never talk about it realistically without a sea change in culture that isn’t going to happen. Until then most people in a good enough situation will just pay a little more for mediocrity each year rather then risk disaster.

      • Andrew' says:

        To me it just sounds like government wastes money because they can take it rather than earning it and there is no market mechanism to gravitate towards good value for the dollar.

        • Andrew' says:

          Other people liking the school I’m forced to attend and support is not a persuasive argument to me.

        • asdf says:

          Yes, the government wastes money because it can.

          Why can it?

          Why do people put up with it?

          Certainly, people care A LOT about their children education. Yet they put up with it.

          We live in a democracy. I don’t think it would be that hard to put together a political coalition based on education reform if the public felt strongly about a particular change. We managed to pass prohibition in 3/4 of the states. If enough people want vouchers, we would have vouchers.

          Yet people don’t want vouchers. Not enough people and not strongly enough. Certainly, people have economic incentives behind their views.

          Economists talk about market mechanisms. They never examine the market mechanisms behind voting. Take peoples political incentives seriously. It’s called political-economy for a reason. Deal with the world as it is, not some model.

          • Andrew' says:

            I suspect the equilibrium is that things like endowment effect result in us wasting money on things like our kid’s education and under-investing in the things that don’t have the cognitive biases working in their favor.

            That’s EXACTLY why I should be allowed to exit.

          • asdf says:

            “Allowed to exit?”

            By whom? The people in this blog comments section?

            Who specifically is denying you exit? Why? What means are they using to do so? What are some likely effective ways of stoping them? Do you have evidence to show they will be effective?

            The answers to those questions ought to dictate your actions.

        • Tom DeMeo says:

          There is clearly a market mechanism. Towns that can pull off excellent schools attract homebuyers that want better services and that is reflected in high property values. Towns that cannot have low property values, and people without the means settle there and live with the results.

          The problem is that there IS a market mechanism. And like in all markets, there are winners and losers.

          Montgomery County is an outlier because it is next to Washington DC. The property values are high because of an accident of geography, not because they run good schools. Normally, towns feel pressure to produce good schools because they attract high margin homeowners. Montgomery County gets the high margins despite their performance.

          Stop saying markets will fix this. They won’t. Everyone can’t be above average. We have lots of great schools. The problem is we also have lots of crappy ones. That’s the way markets work.

          • Andrew' says:

            I’m simply pointing out that people liking their school is not an argument against choice.

            It may be a political argument, but I don’t care much about those.

          • Andrew' says:

            Markets are non-markets. I get it.

            I have exactly 2 schools I can choose from. Thus is 100% more than before they allowed us a choice.

            There in fact could be even more choice than the doubling over what existed just a few years ago.

          • Andrew' says:

            What makes schools singularly unique among millions of products and services?

          • asdf says:

            “What makes schools singularly unique among millions of products and services?”

            1) Education is hard to evaluate and highly emotional.

            2) Education plays a religious role in our society and you can’t say certain things about it.

            3) When you’ve already plopped down 30 years of earnings on a house primarily because of the school district, you don’t want to fuck with the school district. There exists no such sunk costs when your shopping for groceries.

            Think of it this way, UBER was able to take on Taxi medallion holders because people who need rides vastly outnumber Taxi Medallion holders. What if 70% of the American population had spent its life savings on a Taxi Medallion. Would UBER have been as popular?

          • Andrew' says:

            I agree education is in fact unique, because, different things are all unique because they are different things.

            Those reasons definitely make it harder or more complex, but not necessarily unamenable to competition, and maybe even more critically important to work towards it.

  2. collin says:

    One of the oddest realities in California most of new teachers are coming from out of state and our districts are looking for new teachers.

    My biggest problem of DeVos is her experience is limited to some middling results. It seems like School Voucher supporters would want somebody with HUGE success in private schools not a rich donor that has limited experience.

    • asdf says:

      Charters will never change test results. Nothing will. They’re mainly about building a functional environment and getting kids to behave.

      A very small number of charters, sometimes called magnet schools, like the one I went to can help students at the very high end do better, but this is of limited appeal.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      There are no huge successes–and never will be.

      Schools like KIPP have moderate success by taking a Bill Belichick approach. You must work extra hard and “get with the program.” If you can’t, or won’t, produce, you are cut–cleanly in Belichick’s case, through counseling in the case of KIPP.

      But this will never scale. In schools, as opposed to the NFL, not only does everyone get to play, everyone has to play. Anyone cut by one school has to be taken by another.

      • Andrew' says:

        But if you take the pure signaling theory for granted them what follows is not what we have.

        I’m of the opinion that if more people understood the signaling theory we could actually reduce its prevalence I’m the current system.

  3. Andrew' says:

    I know people understand that you can overpay for stuff and thus waste resources. It’s weird that they act like they don’t understand it.

  4. Handle says:

    I have a relative who works admissions for a private k-12 school, who was somewhat apoplectic and genuinely mystified how someone ‘so unqualified in education’ could be nominated to be Secretary.

    I said she wasn’t there to be some expert technocrat manager who knows the ins and outs of the latest pedagogical theories or fashions, she was there to preside over the process of blowing up DoED and the current sclerotic and stultified system, as much as it can be blown up, on behalf of people who think it is downright illegitimate, wasteful, harmful, ideologically biased, and politically obnoxious, and who thus really want it blown up. For that, you don’t want or need a mechanic or craftsman, you want a pyromaniac you can point in the direction of a pile of dynamite.

    • Andrew' says:

      Did that make them feel better?

      • Handle says:

        It was a wash. On the one hand, there was the relief of having a mystery solved and acquiring a better, more enlightened understanding of reality. On the other hand, the discovery that large numbers of intelligent, reasonable people support something that one thought yesterday to be the position of only a negligible extremist fringe was not a happy realization.

        • Andrew' says:

          This is the Lovecraftian Horror that I think is coming to a lot of people.

          Even Morning Joe is decrying Trump complaining about the judiciary. It hasn’t occurred to them yet that he is complaining about an already politicized judiciary. Lots of applecarts are getting upset.

  5. Lord says:

    The null hypothesis presumably being, none of this will make any difference. Enemies lists are always counterproductive. Finding common ground is always more useful. I am sure unions want secure, sustainable institutions as much as anyone, the point is to illuminate costs in context and place opposing positions before the public, such as making a raise contingent on revenue increases and see how much power they have to persuade a tax increase. My guess is, not much.

  6. Yeah, it’s extremely goofy to think of teachers unions as the enemy, particularly when you coined the term Null Hypothesis. I’m not saying they’re angels of light and goodness. But they’re completely irrelevant to the reason that you can’t get the school system you want. Your school system is unpopular with, you know, actual people. Reform is unpopular. It’s just you bubble elites that think otherwise.

    And when choice happens, it’s never.ever. going to benefit people like you. Choice exists for three reasons: 1) give higher performing urban kids an escape from schools made unattractive by unmotivated low skill kids that they (the schools aren’t allowed to throw out. b) Give wealthy suburbans in unattractively diverse districts a cheaper out than a private school to create a whiter school with fewer kids of color, motivated enough to perform or be kicked out. c) In southern states, provide vouchers as a form of tax credit for private schools they’d be going to already.

    The first has some small bit of sympathy, but only because no one will make the obvious case: it’s much cheaper to create small schools for the unengaged poor kids and keep big public schools for thee motivated ones. Scores won’t be higher, of course. The second is extremely *unpopular* with the suburban parents happy with their schools, diversity and all, because it takes away money from their schools. These charters are usually voted down locally and forced on the populace by the state.

    The third will just never be done with tax dollars. And there aren’t enough private schools to take all the black kids with vouchers, so the only thing that will happen is really crappy mills created purely to collect money. Anyone who thinks that’s preferable to the schools we have is, purely, ignorant of the relatively high levels of education that go on even in the most chaotic schools.

    Notice the utter lack of unions in the above description?

    Where choice will *never* happen: Trump country (West Virginia doesn’t even have a charter law), rich all white suburbs, or poor black rural areas.

    Your desired school system isn’t popular. And remember: teachers are waaaaaay more popular than politicians, lobbyists, or even college professors.

    • Handle says:

      That all sounds right. Still, it’d be nice if politically strong teachers’ unions didn’t also nudge counties like MCMD closer to bankruptcy.

    • Jeff R. says:

      And there aren’t enough private schools to take all the black kids with vouchers, so the only thing that will happen is really crappy mills created purely to collect money.

      That seems a little shaky. Charter schools in the cities that have them are pretty variable; some good, some not so good. How do we know that further expansions of school choice will only lead to a proliferation of the lousy ones?

      But even granting your premise, if the crappy mills collect less money than our current crappy mills, we could still come out ahead in the long run.

    • Charles W. Abbott says:

      I am a great fan of education realist. His post above is provocative and I learned something from it. But his post doesn’t entirely convince me.

      Myron Lieberman wrote a book called _Public education: An autopsy_. It was sober in tone, tending toward pessimism, with good arguments.

      The unions are the tip of the iceberg, he would say. The lack of free entry and exit, the subsidized physical plant grandfathered in from the status quo as it has developed since the early 1900s, the licensing more generally and the barriers to entry for people who lack certification–these are all factors that favor public schools as they are now.

      At one point Lieberman argued that the public school is like the “socialist bank” in the old communist countries. Even communist countries had banks–what they didn’t have were things like (1) a normal commercial code, (2) free entry and exit, (3) privately owned factors of production, (4) the profit motive, (5) marketable stock, (6) death of loss-making firms by bankruptcy, etc.

      Because these other things were missing, the “lame” nature and poor return on capital in the “socialist bank” was not too vexatious because the other opportunities had all been truncated.

      What are the implications? I’m not entirely sure. But the general metaphor is provocative: public schools are like the old “socialist bank.”

      Sometime in the last year I was driving down a busy commercial suburban road (Jefferson Road, Henrietta NY) with big box stores, fast food outlets, steak houses, etc. I marveled at how easy it was to start something like a fast food restaurant–how close to “perfect competition” it seems to be. In contrast, think about how much harder it is to start a school serving the public.

      It gets more freely competitive suddenly at the college level, so it seems.

      The book might be fully available here:

  7. Tom G says:

    @Tom D: “The problem is we also have lots of crappy ones. That’s the way markets work.”
    No. Markets, like the new car market or the new house market or new computer market gives a fine consumable for the average price. It’s possible to get lower cost stuff “just as good”, but generally lower than average price is lower than average quality.

    The non-market schools include lots of average cost (per student) schools with below, often way below, quality.

    Vouchers allowing parents to choose any schooling option and get the same cash, will result in those who are in bad schools moving their kids to other schools — hoping that they’re better.

    One way of getting a better school is to kick out the troublesome / dumb kids, but they have to go somewhere. More small “special schools” for the problematic kids is likely to be one way of reducing that problem.

    Another important way to get a better school is to kick out the worst teachers. But Teacher’s Unions all are strongly opposed to kicking out the bad teachers, or even measuring teaching outcomes so as to know which ones really are good or bad.

    In this obstruction of improving schools, Teacher unions ARE the enemy. But most teachers genuinely DO want to teach students and be good teachers; they are almost all “good people”. It’s the (Teacher union dominated) System that is the enemy.

  8. “But Teacher’s Unions all are strongly opposed to kicking out the bad teachers, or even measuring teaching outcomes so as to know which ones really are good or bad.”

    No one is opposed to kicking out bad teachers. Teachers are opposed to principals kicking out the teachers they want to. It’s a feature of the job. And admin behavior documents pretty clearly that keeping teachers, not firing them, is their big pain point.

    And “measuring teacher outcomes” = “trying to figure out what percentage of teacher quality is actually contributing to test scores” which is about 14%. Thus far, efforts to create VAM programs have had no impact on firing teachers or evals, in part because the people designing them didn’t realize there aren’t that many bad teachers, in part because principals game the scores in order to be sure they don’t have to fire teachers when they disagree with the VAM.

    • A leap at the wheel says:

      >No one is opposed to kicking out bad teachers. Teachers are opposed to principals kicking out the teachers they want to. It’s a feature of the job. And admin behavior documents pretty clearly that keeping teachers, not firing them, is their big pain point.

      If this was all true, then we would see teachers wanting to trade tenure for higher pay, and administrators more than happy to oblige. Why, if this is true, do we not see that? Or do we and I just don’t see it (which is entirely possible).

      • “If this was all true, then we would see teachers wanting to trade tenure for higher pay, and administrators more than happy to oblige.”

        Wrong. Teachers value tenure tremendously. Lots of research showing this. They are perfectly happy to trade higher pay for job security.

        • asdf says:

          Also, how much money would there be in an incentive system. Not much, and I don’t think we’d want to pay people six figures to teach average kids Algebra.

          Beyond making the kind of middle class salary people with degrees in education expect, they mostly want better working conditions. Teachers often take less money to work in private school just for the joy of being able to teach a better class of children.

          My magnet school did pay its math and science teachers a whopping $60k a year starting in the 90s. That was better then average, but less then any of them could make in the private sector (they had PhDs). They mostly did it because they got to teach kids in the top 1% of IQ that were all going on the college. That’s exciting work to train the next generation of leaders. Exciting work is often more important then doubling of salary.

        • A leap at the wheel says:

          Of course teachers value job security. But you said “admin behavior documents pretty clearly that keeping teachers, not firing them, is their big pain point.”

          So clearly good teachers are being protected by their value to admin. There’s two ways to take what you said – firings aren’t a pain point because its not actually hard to fire arbitrarily; or firing isn’t a pain point because admins don’t fire arbitrarily. Which ever way its true, tenure isn’t protecting good teachers.

          And if tenure isn’t protecting good teachers, its not part of their job security. And if its not part of their job security, we’d see a bunch of teachers prefer to trade in tenure for higher pay.

  9. asdf says:

    I had some pretty mediocre teachers, but then again the student body was pretty mediocre. Who wants to teach 100 IQ kids algebra. The bottom of your start schools graduating class seems to be the answer. Lord knows who wants to teach the truly bad schools.

    When I went to a magnet school I got mostly good teachers, but they were teaching mostly good students. It’s easier to be motivated when you know the people you are teaching are actually going to be something when they grow up and you’ll have played a part in it.

    While I met many teachers that deserved to be fired, my guess is that average teachers are worried about being fired even if they aren’t bad teachers. Based on workplace politics and our absurd expectations of what education can do that seems reasonably likely of a risk.

  10. Ciro says:

    Asdf, realist, and tom d – your arguments for average outcomes not getting better under choice overlooks the impact that comes from better fit. Smart kids (and those with high agreeableness and impulse control) that are being served by crappy teachers in crappy schools will bet better outcomes it they are able to gain access to better schools. Dumb kids will continue to be mediocre in academics no matter where they go. So the overall average increases simplify through better matchmaking.

    • Smart kids aren’t being served by crappy teachers. All data shows that smart kids are being educated, and that being born poor and smart has better outcomes than being born rich and unintelligent. And while I do think it’s important that schools be allowed to remove disruptive kids, the hard truth is that scores don’t leap up when this happens. They might improve slightly. But the school’s a nicer place to be.

    • asdf says:

      I fully support magnet schools and was the lucky attendee of one. Magnet schools are a really small subset of the charter school debate though. I’m not sure they have much appeal outside circumstances where you have a large smart but not well off population (in my case my school was 50% fresh off the boat Korean, so they were smart but the parents hadn’t been here long enough to get rich and afford private school).

      As edurealist points out, its not about changing test scores or socioeconomic ranking, which nobody can really do. It’s about improving lives and human beings given the existing raw material. A person that enjoys going to school is better off then someone that dreads it. A person who is told to take joy in their work growing up is going to have a more satisfying life then someone told to be resentful about their work, even if they end up doing much of the same work. A person who has a stable family is going to be happier then a person with an unstable one, even if they have the same socioeconomic status.

      There is a limit to what we can change, but we ought to try to change that which we can change, at least around the margin. It’s my belief that giving up on changing what we can’t is an integral part of being able to change what we can. On this issue and practically every single big issue in our society. Your attacking a lot of sacred cows though.

      Call me a pessimistic optimist. I think we need rational pessimism in order to achieve optimistic realities.

      • Charles W. Abbott says:

        I would like to see you expand the pessimistic optimist / optimistic pessimist distiction, perhaps with a 2×2 matrix and a brief description of what each cell represents.

        if you like, persuse C. Wright Mills _The sociological imagination_, the appendix, where he praises the merits of the 2×2 matrix.

  11. Charles W. Abbott says:

    Has anyone looked at Jason Riley’s _Please stop helping us_?

    Toward the beginning of his chapter on education is the chilling line:

    “WIth apologies to Baudelaire, the greatest trick the teacher’s unions ever played was convincing enough people that their interests are perfectly aligned with those of schoolchildren.”

    = – = – =

    I browsed through that book very hurriedly and need to get back to it.

    Education realist, it’s not clear to me that your arguments hold water. Have you drunk the Koolaid ™ ? The teacher’s unions don’t cause all the problems. That doesn’t mean that eliminating them wouldn’t help, or that eliminating them isn’t a necessary step It’s not one single thing they do, but a variety of things combined, all of which they push for. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    The ossification of public schooling is just one part of the larger problems we face. These were analyzed and predicted by Mancur Olson in _The rise and decline of nations_ (1982),

    “Narrowly focused producer interests” might be the short description.

    Yuval Levin has brought us up to date on some of the issues, but Mancur Olson sketched out the problem.

  12. Charles W. Abbott says:

    In the end it’s an empirical question, and I agree that the empirical evidence is ambiguous and mixed.

    But here’s my point:

    1. Teachers unions
    2. Colleges of Education
    3. State licensing boards
    4. State educational bureaucracies generally
    5. hourly and salaried workers already in the system tunneling toward a defined benefit pension

    All of these groups prop up the current system and make experimentation harder. I would argue we can hardly conduct enough experimentation because too many livelihoods would be disrupted from greater flexibility.

    Teachers Unions are the tip of the iceberg. Let’s not forget (1) the parents who need schools for a “custodial function” so they can work, and (2) labor interests that sure as well don’t want kids in the labor market if they can be kept out.

    A last point for education realist: children were socialized before the large comprehensive high school came along. It used to be that they frequently worked at tasks requiring responsibility and diligence, and were in an envionment with authority figures (bosses,supervisors) who were not public school teachers. So I’m not really too persuaded by the socialization argument. Mark Bauerlein, among others, has argue that the effects of the youth culture age cohort are negative. It’s debatable.

    Walter Williams in _Up from the projects_ said that most of the kids he knew growing up seemed to learn a lot more from their jobs than they did from school.

    The evidence is mixed, as I know thougtful and successful adults who say that team sports was the best thing they got from school.

  13. I’m pretty sure I haven’t mentioned socialization, have I? I was merely pointing out that unions are largely irrelevant to school quality.

    In other venues, I have pointed out that letting kids quit when they want to would almost certainly increase crime, but not because schools socialize.

    “WIth apologies to Baudelaire, the greatest trick the teacher’s unions ever played was convincing enough people that their interests are perfectly aligned with those of schoolchildren.”

    Yes, because calling people on the other side fools has always been a great strategy. I’m sure that unions make all sorts of bleating claims. Your mistake lies in thinking that unions have anything to do with public support.

    • charles w abbott says:

      Ok, I will read your essays more and ponder. Thanks for the exchange of views.

    • charles w abbott says:

      perhaps you were not the one who mentioned the function of socializing children. It’s hard for me to keep track of who said what here. If I attributed someone else’s statements to you, please accept my apologies.

      This was a good topic.

      Thanks for letting us play here, Arnold!

      • I rarely make claims about schools and socialization. And my sarcasm wasn’t aimed at you. I have been really annoyed at the mainstream media–that is, not ed reporters (and not Arnold)–attributing this near-defeat to unions. Persistent failure by media to realize that public education is, shockingly, popular.

Comments are closed.