The state’s largest public-sector union, the California Teachers’ Association, hands out annual journalism awards, which are named after John Swett. He is known as the father of California public school system and as CTA’s founder. Swett was the state’s fourth superintendent of public instruction, from 1863 to 1867, and his vision clearly embodies the views of the state’s school system and the teachers’ union to this day: parents should have few rights and choices with regard to their children’s education.
“The vulgar impression that parents have a legal right to dictate to teachers is entirely erroneous,” Swett argued. He also noted in his 1864 “Biennial Report” that, “As a general thing the only persons who have a legal right to give orders to the teacher are his employers, namely, the committee in some states, and in others the directors or trustees. If his conduct is approved by his employers the parents have no remedy as against him or them.” As the CTA blandly puts it, “Swett was developing a belief that teachers should be the responsible agents in all things having to do with education.”
So it’s no surprise that last year’s CTA awards, selected by “an independent panel of working journalists,” chose 18 winners that, among other things, showcase problems with charter schools and highlight the need for additional public-school funding. Others celebrate the hard work of public-school teachers and the dangers of budget cuts. For instance, one award winner reported on “the hardball organizing tactics of the Innovate Public Schools pro-charter advocacy operation based in San Jose at meetings for parents held at local sites in San Francisco, including a public middle school.”
Another winning report concerned a “school board’s approval of a new policy requiring teachers to alert parents before students are assigned to read well-known books such as ‘Catcher in the Rye’ that are deemed by the California Department of Education as having mature content.” An award-winning radio report spotlighted “the impacts of the teacher shortage in San Diego County school districts, and a look at possible solutions, such as paying educators more, increasing education funding, and providing more professional development.”
In preparation for this year, I’ve come up with a series of news stories and commentary that probably won’t get the Swett Award panel’s recognition, but could be worthy of a California Policy Center award, if in fact we had one. Instead of celebrating reports that call for the union’s usual solutions (more funding, higher taxes, less parental control and choice), I’d like to direct attention to investigative reporting about what the state’s union-controlled public schools are really like and why the movement for school choice continues to thrive. Because this is a new award, so to speak, we cull some noteworthy stories from the past several years.
First, what would this year’s awards be without compelling reporting about the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)? In that landmark case, the high court ruled that public employees, including teachers, are no longer required to pay dues to public-sector unions even for collective-bargaining purposes. Before Janus, employees were free to opt out of dues-paying for the union’s direct political involvement, but not for matters related to contract negotiations.
But an article by Brian Miller in Forbes captured the significance of the decision. Despite the arguments from unions, “the decision does not spell the end of public employee unions and is not an attack on worker’s right to organize. Unions will still be free to organize and able to represent their members. They just won’t be able to compel non-members to support their endeavors. Public employees will now enjoy the same First Amendment right as everyone else – the right to decide for themselves which causes and organizations they want to support.”
Going back to 2012, we found another clear winner. Writing in City Journal, Troy Senik documented the way the CTA has helped erode public education in the nation’s most-populous state: “With the cost of the (firing) proceedings regularly running near half a million dollars, many districts choose to shuffle problem employees around rather than try to fire them. Even outright offenses are no guarantee of removal, thanks to CTA influence. When a fired teacher appeals his case beyond the school board, it goes to the Commission on Professional Competence – two of whose three members are also teachers, one of them chosen by the educator whose case is being heard. The CTA has stacked this process as well by bargaining to require evidentiary standards equal to those used in civil-court procedures and coaching the teachers on the panels.”
A June article in EdSource by John Fensterwald and David Washburn artfully detailed the way that CTA and other public-sector unions “have successfully used the state budget process to insert language that will help them recruit and hold on to their members. In 2017, the CTA and other unions persuaded Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders to include in the ‘budget trailer bill’ the requirement that public employers, like school districts, provide unions with contact information for all employees at least every 120 days and to give their employee unions regular opportunities to meet and sign up new workers, with at least 10 days’ notice.”
And what educational reporting award presentation would be complete without honoring a 2009 Los Angeles Times series by Jason Song about Los Angeles Unified School District’s “rubber rooms,” where teachers deemed unfit for the classroom whittle their thumbs and collect their paychecks as the arduous, union-controlled disciplinary process winds its way through the system. Song found that, “About 160 instructors and others get salaries for doing nothing while their job fitness is reviewed. They collect roughly $10 million a year, even as layoffs are considered because of a budget gap.” The system has not been significantly reformed since that damning report was published.
Finally, an honorable mention might go to CALmatters’ July 2018 report by Jessica Calefati explaining that “California’s public schools have enjoyed a remarkable restoration of funding since the bone-deep cuts they endured during the recession, but many are now facing a grave financial threat as they struggle to protect pensions crucial for teachers’ retirement.” Even though the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) has beaten its investment targets, the pension fund has deep unfunded liabilities and “may need to use well over half of all the new money they’re projected to receive to cover their growing pension obligations.”
If we do make these journalism awards official, we certainly won’t name them after John Swett. We’re certain there’s some worthy Californian who understands that parents can and should be trusted with choosing the best education for their children and that the union-dominated monopoly schools lead to nothing but mediocrity and public debt.
Steven Greenhut is contributing editor for the California Policy Center. He is Western region director for the R Street Institute.