When we think of the big special-interest groups that wield undue influence in Sacramento, we think of huge corporations — oil, gas, tobacco and pharmaceutical companies. We think of corporate lawyers lobbying for tax breaks and loopholes; we think of fat cats calling legislators they have under their thumbs.
But the biggest special-interest group isn’t an oil company. It’s not a pharmaceutical giant. It’s not even a combination of all of the above.
The biggest special-interest group, by far, is the one that represents the teachers of California. Over the past 13 years, the California Teachers Association has spent $290 million on influencing state politics. In context, it spent enough money on politics in the past few years to pay the annual salaries of 7,200 new high school teachers.
In the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only 13 percent of fourth-graders and 16 percent of eighth-graders scored “Proficient” or above. Our average scaled score on those tests, 213, was below the averages of renowned educational powerhouses such as Arkansas, Alabama and Louisiana. In 2005, Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed a number of initiatives aimed at addressing California’s education woes. These proposals would have reformed the public education system in California. Instead of working with Schwarzenegger on them, however, the CTA blatantly opposed any idea of reform.
One such reform was Proposition 74, which the CTA spent $8 million to defeat. This measure would have extended the probationary period for teachers from two to five years before they could receive tenure, giving school districts more time to consider whether a teacher deserves the special protection tenure affords. In San Bernardino County, one principal found it was almost impossible to let go of unfit teachers who were tenured. One 20-year veteran was quoted as a “textbook case of a lousy teacher” who answered questions incorrectly, told her students to “sit (their) asses down” and called two of her students “gay.” Even after the principal found out, he had to spend $100,000 on legal fees and pay her another $25,000 to resign.
Proposition 75, another Schwarzenegger-backed initiative, sought to prevent unions from using mandatory dues to fund a union’s political activities. The CTA spent $12 million to defeat it. Prop. 75 was designed to protect the minority of teachers with differing political beliefs. In 2005, the CTA assessed an annual surcharge of $60 per teacher over the course of three years in order to raise $50 million to defeat Schwarzenegger’s reforms. Some teachers didn’t support the same agenda their union leadership did. Amber Calabrese, a teacher in the Chino Valley School District, said she supported Prop. 74. She appreciated her probationary period because it allowed administrators to regularly observe her teaching and give her tips that would improve it. Her opinion didn’t matter.
A large percentage of the hundreds of dollars in dues she paid that year, along with the $60 surcharge, would have been used to oppose the very initiative Calabrese supported.
Because California locks away the majority of its budget in fixed “mandatory spending” requirements, there have been long-standing concerns about the state’s flexibility when facing a budget crisis. Schwarzenegger recognized this problem in 2005, and he proposed Proposition 76, which would have tied education funding more to the annual decisions of legislators and less to a constitutional guarantee. It would also have created a more stringent spending cap based on the previous year’s spending, and the Legislative Analyst’s office wrote in its Fiscal Impact Statement that Prop. 76 would likely “reduce expenditures relative to current law.” The CTA spent $14 million to quash Prop. 76.
The problems of education in California are more fundamental than teacher tenure or mandatory union dues. They are rooted in widespread poverty, dysfunctional family dynamics and the prevalence of violence in American society. And on that deeper level, it’s impossible to place the blame on teachers for the lack of educational success in California. They cannot control what goes on at home or feed the students who come to class hungry.
But the CTA has to recognize that reform and compromise are necessary steps to a better education system. And regardless of everything that teachers cannot control, we have to provide them with the best tools possible in order to ensure the best education possible. And that will require the CTA to own up to the responsibilities that come with the significant influence it wields and embrace necessary reforms.