California's New, Big, Nonpartisan Political Tent

“In politics, a big tent or catch-all party is a political party seeking to attract people with diverse viewpoints and thus appeal to more of the electorate. The big tent approach is opposed to single-issue litmus tests and ideological rigidity, conversely advocating multiple ideologies and views within a party.”
–  Wikipedia, “Big Tent

Something is happening in California. An unstoppable movement for reform is building, attracting support from conscientious Californians regardless of their age, income, race, gender or political ideology. The metaphor of a “big tent” aptly describes the approach that reform leaders are finally embracing.

The fabric of this big tent is supported by two poles, one representing restoring quality education, the other representing restoring financial health to California’s public institutions. But the big tent metaphor breaks down somewhat if it describes a political party. Because most of California’s reform leaders no longer care who gets it done, or what political party takes credit. They just want to Californian children to get quality educations, and they just want to restore economic opportunity to ordinary citizens.

For years, the powers that oppose education reform and fiscal reform have painted reformers as either Republican fanatics, bent on dismantling government, or Democratic traitors, beholden to “Wall Street Hedge Funds.” But this argument is wearing thin. On the topic of education reform, here are three reasons why Californians, all of them, are waking up:

(1) The Vergara Decision:  This case pits nine Oakland public school students against the State of California, arguing that (a) granting tenure after less than two years, (b) retaining teachers during layoffs based on seniority instead of merit, and (c) the near impossibility of dismissing incompetent teachers, is harming California’s overall system of public education, and is disproportionately harming public education in low income communities. Earlier this year, in a Los Angeles Superior court decision, the judge wrote: “The evidence of the effect of grossly ineffective teachers on students is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” In return, the California Teacher’s association had this to say in an official press release:

“All along it’s been clear to us that this lawsuit is baseless, meritless, and masterminded by self-interested individuals with corporate education reform agendas that are veiled by a proclamation of student interest” (ref. CTA press release).

Watch the plaintiff’s closing arguments in the Vergara case. Note how the plaintiff’s legal team was actually able to use the testimony of the defendant’s expert witnesses to support their own case.

(2) Parent Trigger Laws:  In 2010, the California State Legislature signed into law the “Parent Empowerment Act.” This law enables parents in failing schools to (a) transfer their child to a higher performing school, (b) permits parents to change policies at an underperforming school if 50% of parents sign a petition, and (c) requires the California Dept. of Education to regularly publish a list of the 1,000 worst performing schools in the state. Former State Senator Gloria Romero, the liberal Democrat who is largely responsible for getting passage of the Parent Empowerment Act, writes this week in UnionWatch about how the Los Angeles Unified School District tried and failed to exempt themselves from the law. But government employee unions in California are incredibly powerful, collecting and spending over two billion dollars in taxpayer funded dues per two-year election cycle. They literally can be in all places at all times. Read the slime job someone sympathetic to the union machine entered on Romero’s Wikipedia profile:

“Romero leads the California chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, an interest group funded by Wall Street hedge fund managers who support charter schools.”

(3) Charter Schools:  Here is an example of why claims that “Wall Street hedge fund managers” are somehow hoping to profit from private schools or charter schools (which are not private) are absurdly unfounded. The Alliance College-Ready Public Schools in Los Angeles is a network of 26 high schools, located throughout Los Angeles, which, like nearly all charter schools, consistently delivers superior educational outcomes at a fraction of the cost of union controlled public schools. But the Alliance network is a nonprofit. The capital investments necessary to launch these schools are funded by donations. There is no return on investment. And the benefactors of these schools have no political agenda – they are Democrats, Republicans, and independents. They are a perfect example of California’s new, powerful, big tent.

Financial reform issues are the other pole that supports the big tent. Despite accusations of “hedge fund managers” and “Wall Street” getting behind allegedly phony reform proposals for public education along with fiscal issues such as runaway pension costs, it is actually corrupt financial interests that join with government bureaucrats to perpetuate the abuse and prevent reform. The reason government services are being cut and infrastructure spending is neglected is because unionized government workers receive excessive pay and benefits, crowding out funding for everything else. Wall Street firms underwrite the bonds to cover the deficits and finance deferred maintenance. Wall Street firms (including hedge funds) invest the pension fund assets. People are connecting the dots.

The behavior of powerful government unions, opposing education and fiscal reforms that virtually everyone else supports, is finally exposing them – along with their partners, corrupt financial interests and crony corporations – as the root cause of the most severe challenges facing Californians. This issue is nonpartisan and transcends ideology. The big tent is filling up.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

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