In 1962, as tensions ran high between school districts and unions across the country, members of the National Education Association gathered in Denver for the organization’s 100th annual convention. Among the speakers was Arthur F. Corey, executive director of the California Teachers Association (CTA). “The strike as a weapon for teachers is inappropriate, unprofessional, illegal, outmoded, and ineffective,” Corey told the crowd. “You can’t go out on an illegal strike one day and expect to go back to your classroom and teach good citizenship the next.”
Fast-forward nearly 50 years to May 2011, when the CTA—now the single most powerful special interest in California—organized a “State of Emergency” week to agitate for higher taxes in one of the most overtaxed states in the nation. A CTA document suggested dozens of ways for teachers to protest, including following state legislators incessantly, attempting to close major transportation arteries, and boycotting companies, such as Microsoft, that backed education reform. The week’s centerpiece was an occupation of the state capitol by hundreds of teachers and student sympathizers from the Cal State University system, who clogged the building’s hallways and refused to leave. Police arrested nearly 100 demonstrators for trespassing, including then–CTA president David Sanchez. The protesting teachers had left their jobs behind, even though their students were undergoing important statewide tests that week. With the passage of 50 years, the CTA’s notions of “good citizenship” had vanished.
So had high-quality public education in California. Seen as a national leader in the classroom during the 1950s and 1960s, the country’s largest state is today a laggard, competing with the likes of Mississippi and Washington, D.C., at the bottom of national rankings. The Golden State’s education tailspin has been blamed on everything from class sizes to the property-tax restrictions enforced by Proposition 13 to an influx of Spanish-speaking students. But no portrait of the system’s downfall would be complete without a depiction of the CTA, a political behemoth that blocks meaningful education reform, protects failing and even criminal educators, and inflates teacher pay and benefits to unsustainable levels.
The CTA began its transformation in September 1975, when Governor Jerry Brown signed the Rodda Act, which allowed California teachers to bargain collectively. Within 18 months, 600 of the 1,000 local CTA chapters moved to collective bargaining. As the union’s power grew, its ranks nearly doubled, from 170,000 in the late 1970s to approximately 325,000 today. By following the union’s directions and voting in blocs in low-turnout school-board elections, teachers were able to handpick their own supervisors—a system that private-sector unionized workers would envy. Further, the organization that had once forsworn the strike began taking to the picket lines. Today, the CTA boasts that it has launched more than 170 strikes in the years since Rodda’s passage.
The CTA’s most important resource, however, isn’t a pool of workers ready to strike; it’s a fat bank account fed by mandatory dues that can run more than $1,000 per member. In 2009, the union’s income was more than $186 million, all of it tax-exempt. The CTA doesn’t need its members’ consent to spend this money on politicking, whether that’s making campaign contributions or running advocacy campaigns to obstruct reform. According to figures from the California Fair Political Practices Commission (a public institution) in 2010, the CTA had spent more than $210 million over the previous decade on political campaigning—more than any other donor in the state. In fact, the CTA outspent the pharmaceutical industry, the oil industry, and the tobacco industry combine.
All this money has helped the union rack up an imposing number of victories. The first major win came in 1988, with the passage of Proposition 98. That initiative compelled California to spend more than 40 percent of its annual budget on education in grades K–12 and community college. The spending quota eliminated schools’ incentive to get value out of every dollar: since funding was locked in, there was no need to make things run cost-effectively. Thanks to union influence on local school boards, much of the extra money—about $450 million a year—went straight into teachers’ salaries. Prop. 98’s malign effects weren’t limited to education, however: by essentially making public school funding an entitlement rather than a matter of discretionary spending, it hastened California’s erosion of fiscal discipline. In recent years, estimates of mandatory spending’s share of the state’s budget have run as high as 85 percent, making it highly difficult for the legislature to confront the severe budget crises of the past decade.
… The union’s steady supply of cash allowed it to continue its quest for political dominance unabated. In 1998, it spent nearly $7 million to defeat Proposition 8—which would have used student performance as a criterion for teacher reviews and would have required educators to pass credentialing examinations in their disciplines—and more than $2 million in a failed attempt to block Proposition 227, which eliminated bilingual education in public schools. In 2002, the union spent $26 million to defeat Proposition 38, another school voucher proposal. And in 2005, with a special election called by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger looming, the CTA came up with a colossal $58 million—even going so far as to mortgage its Sacramento headquarters—to defeat initiatives that would have capped the growth of state spending, made it easier to fire underperforming teachers, and ensured “paycheck protection,” which compels unions to get their members’ consent before using dues for political purposes. (A new paycheck-protection measure will appear on the November 2012 ballot.)
At the same time that the union was becoming the largest financial force in California politics, it was developing an equally powerful ground game, stifling reform efforts at the local level. Consider the case of Locke High School in the poverty-stricken Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. Founded in response to the area’s 1967 riots, Locke was intended to provide a quality education to the neighborhood’s almost universally minority students. For years, it failed: in 2006, with a student body that was 65 percent Hispanic and 35 percent African-American, the school sent just 5 percent of its graduates to four-year colleges, and the dropout rate was nearly 51 percent.
Shortly before Locke reached this nadir, the school hired a reform-minded principal, Frank Wells, who was determined to revive the school’s fortunes. Just a few days after he arrived, a group of rival gangs got into a dust-up; Wells expelled 80 of the students involved. In the new atmosphere of discipline, Locke dropped “from first in the number of campus crime reports in LAUSD [Los Angeles Unified School District] to thirteenth,” writes Donna Foote in Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America. Test scores and college acceptance also began to rise, Foote reports.
But trouble arose with the union when Wells began requiring Locke teachers to present weekly lesson plans. The local CTA affiliate—United Teachers Los Angeles—filed a grievance against him and was soon urging his removal. The last straw was Wells’s effort to convert Locke into an independent charter school, where teachers would operate under severely restricted union contracts. In May 2007, the district removed Wells from his job. He was escorted from his office by three police officers and an associate superintendent of schools, all on the basis of union allegations that he had let teachers use classroom time to sign a petition to turn Locke into a charter. Wells called the allegations “a total fabrication,” and the signature gatherers backed him up. The LAUSD reassigned him to a district office, where he was paid $600 a day to sit in a cubicle and do nothing.
Luckily for Locke students, the union’s rearguard action came too late. In 2007, the Los Angeles Board of Education voted 5–2 to hand Locke High School to Green Dot, a charter school operator. Four years later, as the final class of Locke students who had attended the school prior to its transformation received their diplomas, the school’s graduation rate was 68 percent, and over 56 percent of Locke graduates were headed for higher education.
One of the most noticeable changes at Locke has ramifications statewide: when Green Dot took over, it required all teachers to reapply for their jobs. It hired back only about one-third of them. That approach is unimaginable in the rest of the state’s public schools, where a teaching job is essentially a lifetime sinecure. A tiny 0.03 percent of California teachers are dismissed after three or more years on the job. In the past decade, the LAUSD—home to 33,000 teachers—has dismissed only four. Even when teachers are fired, it’s seldom because of their classroom performance: a 2009 exposé by the Los Angeles Times found that only 20 percent of successful dismissals in the state had anything to do with teaching ability. Most terminations involved teachers behaving either obscenely or criminally. The National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington-based education-reform organization, gave California a D-minus on its teacher-firing policies in its 2010 national report card.
Responsibility for this sorry situation goes largely to the CTA, which has won concessions that make firing a teacher so difficult that educators can usually keep their jobs for any offense that doesn’t cross into outright criminality. With the cost of the proceedings regularly running near half a million dollars, many districts choose to shuffle problem employees around rather than try to fire them.
… Another regulatory body dominated by CTA influence is the state’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC), the institution responsible for removing the credentials of misbehaving teachers. A report released in 2011 by California state auditor Elaine Howle found that the commission had a backlog of approximately 12,600 cases, with responses sometimes taking as long as three years. Because the CTC—which was created by an act sponsored by the CTA—is made up of members appointed by the governor, the CTA is able to bring its political pressure to bear on determining the commission’s makeup. In September 2011, for instance, one of Governor Jerry Brown’s appointments to the CTC was Kathy Harris, who had previously been a CTA lobbyist to the body.
The CTA’s most recent crusade for job security made clear that the union was prepared to jeopardize the financial future of California’s schools. Last June, it vigorously pushed (and Governor Brown hastily signed) Assembly Bill 114, which prevented any teacher layoffs or program cuts in the coming fiscal year and removed the requirement that school districts present balanced budget plans. The bill also forced public schools to prepare budget estimates that didn’t take into account the state’s downturn in revenues—meaning that schools could budget for activities even though there wasn’t money to pay for them. Since then, state officials have forecast that revenues for the 2012 fiscal year will be $3.2 billion lower than they were when the schools were making their budgets. Eventually, accommodations to reality will have to be made—at which time the CTA will, of course, use them to plead hardship.
Such pleas seem impudent coming from the highest-paid teachers in the nation, with an average annual salary of $68,000. For a bit of perspective, if two California teachers get married (not an unusual occurrence) and each makes the average salary, their combined annual income would be $136,000, nearly $80,000 more than what the state’s median household pulls down. That’s for an average annual workload of 180 days, only two-thirds of the average total in the private sector. Don’t forget retirement benefits: after 30 years, a California teacher may retire with a pension equal to about 75 percent of his working salary. That pension averages more than $51,000 a year—more than working teachers earn in more than half the states in the nation. And that’s just an average; from 2005 to 2011, the number of education employees pulling down more than $100,000 a year in pensions skyrocketed from 700 to 5,400.
With the state’s economy in tumult, however, prospects for the teachers’ retirement fund look grim. CalSTRS is now officially estimated to have about $56 billion in liabilities and about 30 years left before it runs dry, though many outside analysts think that those numbers are too optimistic. A report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office in November 2011 estimated that restoring full funding to CalSTRS would require finding an extra $3.9 billion a year for at least 30 years.Parents, however, are starting to revolt against CTA orthodoxy. Unlike elected officials, parents—who want nothing more than a good education for their kids—are hard for the union to demonize. In early 2010, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit called Parent Revolution shocked California’s pundit class by getting the state legislature to pass the nation’s first “parent trigger” law, which lets parents at failing schools force districts to undertake certain reforms, including converting schools into independent charters. The law caps the number of schools eligible for reform at 75, but if early results are successful, it will become hard for Californians to avoid comparing thriving charter schools with failing traditional ones.
The CTA is fighting back, of course. In 2010, when 61 percent of parents at McKinley Elementary School in the blighted L.A. neighborhood of Compton opted to pull the trigger, the CTA claimed that “parents were never given the full picture . . . [or] informed of the great progress already being made”—despite the fact that McKinley’s performance was ranked beneath nearly all other inner-city schools in the state. Several Hispanic parents in the district also said that members of the union had threatened to report them to immigration authorities if they signed the petition. Eventually, the Compton Unified school board—heavily lobbied by the CTA—dismissed the petition signatures, with no discussion, as “insufficient” on a handful of technicalities, such as missing dates and typos. Though the union’s power had proved too much for the McKinley parents, an enterprising charter school operator opened two new campuses in the neighborhood anyway.
Institutions like Locke High School, Green Dot, Parent Revolution, and the Compton charters are glimmers of hope for California’s public school system. Despite their inferior resources, they have fought the CTA not by participating in direct political conflict but by undermining the union’s moral standing. These organizations reframe the education question in starkly humanitarian terms: In the California public school system, are anyone’s interests more important than the students’? It was a question that the CTA itself might have asked back when teachers entered the classroom to “teach good citizenship.”