Teachers Unions’ Election Day Thumping

“Teachers Unions Take a Beating in Midterm Races”

“Teachers Unions Take a Shellacking”

“Teachers Unions Get Schooled in 2014 Election”

The above is just a small sampling of post-election headlines which flooded the media after last Tuesday’s historic election, which generated a major political shakeup in the nation’s capital as well as state houses from coast to coast. While it was a bad day for Democrats in general, perhaps the biggest losers were the nation’s teachers unions.

Unions, especially the teacher’s variety, had a lot on the line, and except for two wins, the rest of the key contests were nothing short of disastrous. Perhaps their number one target was Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who had minimized teachers’ collective bargaining “rights.” Michigan governor Rick Snyder wasn’t far behind Walker on the union hit list for the same reasons, but both incumbents won handily. The unions went after Florida governor Rick Scott for expanding school choice in the Sunshine State, but he prevailed over challenger Charlie Crist. Especially galling for organized labor was the victory in Illinois (Illinois!) where Republican pro-voucher businessman Bruce Rauner ran against incumbent governor Pat Quinn. Rauner clearly expressed disdain for union bosses on several occasions, accusing them of “bribing politicians to give them unaffordable pensions, free healthcare, outrageous pay and benefits and they’re bankrupting our state government, they’re raising our taxes and they’re forcing businesses out of the state, and as a result we’ve got brutally high unemployment.” Apparently, Rauner’s blunt message resonated with voters; he won by five points.

Many other Republicans were victorious in gubernatorial races in traditional blue states, including Maryland, Massachusetts and Maine. It got so bad for the unions that the one Republican they backed – Allen Fung for governor of Rhode Island – lost to Democrat Gina Raimondo who, as treasurer, worked to rein in out-of-control public employee pension spending. That, of course, incurred the wrath of Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Education reformers were thrilled with the results. “I’d call it a mandate for change sent boldly from voters,” Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform, said in a statement. “Governors-elect in these states have proven themselves to be champions of reforms during their tenure as incumbent state executives, or have run on platforms that don’t shy away from being really vocal, putting students and parents first.”

“A bunch of these guys did stuff you’re not supposed to be able to do. They tackled pensions in purple states. They modified collective bargaining. They fought expansively for school choice,” said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “What that says to me is the unions need to rethink some of their assumptions about what the world’s going to look like going forward.”

The union response to the thumping was varied. Randi Weingarten essentially blamed it on President Obama in a press release. “It’s clear that many believe this country is on the wrong track and voted for change. Republicans successfully made this a referendum on President Obama’s record and won resoundingly, but where the election was about everyday concerns—education, minimum wage, paid sick leave—working families prevailed.” She then pointed to the two needle-in-a-haystack union victories to crow about – the ouster of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and Tom Torlakson’s narrow victory over challenger Marshall Tuck in the race for California Superintendent of Public Instruction.

National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García, whose “heart was heavy” was a bit more realistic. “We knew this was going to be an uphill battle. But I don’t think anybody on our side, and we’ve got some very savvy people, anticipated going over the falls like this. Tectonic plates have shifted. And we’re going to have to come back with a new way of organizing for these kinds of races.”

Eskelsen Garcia’s heart may have been heavy, but the teachers unions’ political coffers are a whole lot lighter. The final tallies won’t be known for a while, but it is estimated that the two unions spent at least $70 million in this election cycle – more than in any other year ever.

The Washington Free Beacon’s Bill McMorris writes,

The NEA was the second-largest Super PAC donor of the 2014 cycle, spending more than $22 million to aid Democratic candidates for federal office. The federal spending was on top of an estimated $28 million push at the state and local level….

The AFT had said it planned on spending $20 million during the 2014 cycle, a ten-fold increase from the $2 million it spent on 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

It’s worth noting these lofty numbers don’t include any money that was spent by the unions’ state and local affiliates. The California Teachers Association spent $11 million alone to fend off Tuck’s challenge to Torlakson for the Superintendent of Public Instruction position. Speaking of which….

Usually this scenario – union-backed-incumbent vs. guy-no-one-has-heard-of is a real snooze-fest and the former wins easily. But not this time. Tuck matched his rival Democrat in spending and did well in many parts of the state, winning the more conservative counties of Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange, and Kern. He got clobbered, however, in the gentrified areas – Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Mendocino and Marin – where many parents opt to avoid the public schools.

Low voter turnout also played a role. EdSource’s John Fensterwald reports,

Torlakson beat Tuck with 2,266,000 to 2,085,000 votes – a difference of 181,000 votes – with thousands of absentee ballots still to be counted. The total vote of 4.35 million was 900,000 fewer than the 5.2 million votes cast for governor and about 700,000 fewer – 14 percent – than for secretary of state, the only other closely contested statewide contest on the ballot, despite the tens of millions of dollars spend on ads and mailers by both sides in the superintendent race.  

One important thing Torlakson had working for him was that Tuck was an unknown. As John Fensterwald explains, “For most voters, he was a blank canvas that Torlakson and his allies painted darkly. In ads, they attacked him as a Wall Street banker – a reference to a banking job he had right out of college – working with billionaires to privatize and dismantle public schools.”

But the biggest factor in Torlakson’s reelection – in addition to the $11 million gift from CTA – was the fabled teacher union ground game. The low voting numbers gave the unions and their get-out-the-vote messaging a huge advantage that is very difficult to overcome. In fact, U-T San Diego’s Steve Greenhut quotes founder of the California Center for Parent Empowerment and former CA State Senate majority leader Gloria Romero “… You can’t buy this seat and that was Tuck’s and his donors’ mistake. There is a political machine that CTA controls, which would never show up in those stupid polls …. It’s money after money. Below that great green wall is an army.”

Then there was also the voter ignorance factor. Tuck, unlike Torlakson, strongly favored the Vergara decision – where a judge ruled the tenure, seniority and dismissal statutes needed to be eliminated from the state education code – and made it an important part of his campaign. But as City Journal’s Ben Boychuk points out “… polls showed that Vergara resonated weakly with voters. Though 42 percent of likely California voters ranked education as their top priority this year, and the vast majority of voters surveyed after Treu’s ruling agreed that the state should do away with “last hired, first fired” seniority protections, nearly 60 percent said they didn’t know what the lawsuit was about.

So we had Tuck, a no-name candidate, without a ground game, whose messaging failed to reach a low-information populace and who suffered a poor voter turnout, fighting against a man backed by the most powerful state teachers union in the country – and Tuck still lost by only four percentage points. I would call this something of a moral victory, and reformers should not despair; they are a few tweaks away from winning. But they must develop more of a grassroots approach to campaigning – as victorious Republicans did in other states – if the unacceptable educational status quo is to be upended. Tuck acknowledged the sad reality in his concession speech,

Today, one day after this election, there are still 2.5 million children in California public schools who can’t read and write at grade level.  Those children are counting on all of us to take every action necessary to give them a better education and a chance at a better future.

I look forward to continuing to do my part in the collective effort to ensure that each child gets the education they need to achieve their dreams.

So while the rest of the country took a bold step and almost universally denied teachers union candidates, we in California still have work to do.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.