Stern attitude or not, his record of improvement in the district speaks volumes
Arizona Republic, The (Phoenix, AZ)
January 13, 2007

Brutal and brawling as they sometimes are, school-district politics usually don't spill out into public view. The business of the Phoenix Union High School District Board, then, is something of a rarity.

The new board, which meets for the first time on Thursday, is operating in a fishbowl. We will see whether this board values educational excellence. Or does it value the power of a union that helped place a majority of the board's members in their seats.

The 1,200-member Phoenix Union High School District Classroom Teachers Association dislikes the policies of the district's superintendent, Raj Chopra.

Indeed, the union's antipathy toward the practices of Chopra is so extreme, it dramatically inserted itself into last fall's elections. The union challenged the validity of signatures on the nominating petitions of all four pro-Chopra candidates, knocking two off the ballot. Ultimately, the union backed three of the four winning candidates. The three made no secret of their desire to either fire Chopra or, at the least, severely rein in his authority.

The union and its supporters on the seven-member board have a list of grievances. But mostly, they boil down to the fact that since arriving in Phoenix in 2001, Chopra has systematically cut the union's decision-making authority.

Chopra has centralized -- into his own hands -- the power to hire the district's new teachers and where to place them once hired. He has demanded teachers provide detailed lesson plans, thus transgressing their classroom authority. He has forced the union's president back into the classroom by pulling funding that allowed the president to oversee union activities full-time.

In the process, the superintendent threw out entire sections of a 37-year-old, 137-page agreement between the union and the district. The much-streamlined agreement now amounts to just 60 pages and, to make a long story short, the union wants its 77 pages worth of power back.

What places the union's power-grab into a fishbowl is the remarkable change that has occurred in the Phoenix Union High School District since Chopra's arrival. In less than five years, Chopra has wrought some astonishing improvements in student performance.

Under Chopra's guidance, the graduation rate of the 25,000-student district has improved to 72 percent today, from a wretched 55 percent in 2001. The dropout rate among Hispanic males -- the most desperately threatened minority group in the district -- now is at a quarter of where it stood in 1994.

Most impressive, though, is the profound overall change in academic achievement in the district's 11 high schools.

According to state Department of Education records, all 11 high school now are considered "performing plus" -- a stunning turnaround for a district that, in 2002, languished in academic mediocrity. All but two of the district's schools then were rated as "underperforming."

As The Arizona Republic's Karina Bland reported on Monday, dramatic improvement in student achievement is nothing new for Chopra, who has made a career of turning around poor-performing schools. But neither is Chopra a stranger to conflict with status-quo school boards or power-craving teacher unions.

That's unfortunate. We wish he were more kindly disposed toward others.
Since he's not, we can only look to the sensational results Chopra has posted in his tenure. And, sorry, it's really not a contest: We'll take a stern attitude any day if it improves the lot of students as much as Chopra has.

The teachers union now enjoys a majority of supporters on the Phoenix Union board. So if it is change they seek, then the choice is theirs.

But if the board majority chooses to jeopardize the impressive improvement of its students in order to do the bidding of its union backers, then it should know that the outside world is watching what they do.

Editorials represent the opinion of the newspaper, whose Editorial Board consists of: Robert J. Dickey, John Zidich, Joanna Allhands, Steve Benson, Patricia Biggs, Phil Boas, Ward Bushee, Richard de Uriarte, Jennifer Dokes, Jeremy Dowell, Cindy Hernandez, Kathleen Ingley, Robert Leger, Doug MacEachern, Gary Nelson, Joel Nilsson, Dan Nowicki, Robert Robb, Bob Schuster, Linda Valdez and Ken Western.

CAPTION: Raj Chopra, superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School
District: Stern attitude or not, his record of improvement in the district speaks volumes.
Edition: Final Chaser
Section: Opinions
Page: B8