National News
January 11, 2010

California Teachers Union in rare legislative loss

The California Teachers Association is used to getting its way. The union that represents 340,000 public school teachers has traditionally been one of the most powerful forces in the Capitol. In the past decade, it spent $38 million on lobbying – more than anyone else in the state.

So it was an unusual loss for the CTA when the Legislature last week approved the Race to the Top education bills that the union and its allies opposed. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made a veiled reference to the union's influence when he signed the bills Thursday at a Los Angeles middle school.

"I know it was very tough for the Legislature, because you can imagine all those special interest groups up there pulling and pushing and … more interested in what's good for the grownups rather than what's good for the children," he said. "But they focused and they stayed focused and they made the right decision, so here we are today."

Among the crowd by Schwarzenegger's side during the signing ceremony were two teachers union enemies: Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and education adviser Margaret Fortune. Both were instrumental in turning Sacramento High into a charter school in 2003, getting rid of the teachers and replacing them with a nonunion staff.

Teachers unions fear that kind of change could spread across California under the Race to the Top laws, which give parents and school administrators new clout to make major changes in the lowest-performing schools – including converting them to charters and canning teachers.

The new laws also say teachers' pay should be linked to their students' test scores, a concept unions have fought, saying teachers would be punished for working with students who have learning disabilities or speak little English.

But the laws don't require linking teacher pay and student performance – which is one reason the bill package may be a smaller loss for the teachers union than it appears at first glance.

"What districts and the state education agencies ultimately do on teacher pay and teacher evaluation is going to be affected by local bargaining agreements," said Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

"The reality is the union will be in a very strong position."

The CTA is using its strong position to urge local chapters not to sign on in support of California's application to the federal government for Race to the Top funds.

States are competing for $4.35 billion in Race to the Top money from the Obama administration. California's share could be up to $700 million – a small fraction of what the state spends annually on public schools, but a noteworthy sum in a tough budget year.

To get the money, states must demonstrate a plan for making certain changes in their education systems. The bills California approved last week were a big step toward applying for the money. But the application asks states to show how many local teachers unions support the changes.

"It's not going to be helpful if we have minimal union support, and we could end up losing Race to the Top because of that issue," Rick Miller, the state's deputy superintendent, said in a phone call last week with school district administrators.

CTA President David Sanchez said he's urging local union chapters not to sign memorandums of understanding on Race to the Top because the state hasn't provided enough detail on what its application will say.

"It's crazy for them to think that we were going to go out on a limb and sign something off without knowing what the final product is going to look like," Sanchez said.

Miller disagrees. He said the state has made public all the information teachers should need to sign on.

Even if the unions stop California from getting the federal funds, the state's new laws on overhauling low-performing schools remain in effect.

The CTA's fight over Race to the Top brings out traditional political tensions between unions and charter schools – but also introduces philanthropists as a new force of power in the politics of education, said University of California, Berkeley, education professor Bruce Fuller.

The bills were backed by philanthropy-funded organizations that support charter schools, which generally do not employ union teachers. A major supporter was EdVoice, an advocacy group founded by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. Housing developer Eli Broad and Gap founder Donald Fisher have played big roles in EdVoice and other groups that promote educational reform.

"Once you've got wealthy donors who are willing to replace teacher donations, then politics do start to shift," Fuller said.

"A lot of this is not so much a shift in ideas but a shift in raw politics. The Democrats no longer just complain about the sluggishness of the unions, they have a benefactor who supports these reforms that for a long time CTA would have been able to kill."

The Race to the Top fights foreshadow the next political battlefront in California education: the June election for state superintendent. EdVoice and philanthropists, including Hastings, Broad and the Fisher family, are supporting Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, author of one of the Race to the Top bills.

Her main opponent is Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, who voted against them. The state's second-largest teachers union, the California Federation of Teachers, has endorsed him.

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