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Union schemes, scams and some pushback

Teacher Shortage Claim Is Still Short on Data

No matter how many times it’s repeated, the national teacher shortage story is a canard.

In the months since I last wrote about the alleged teacher shortage crisis, I had hoped the hysteria would abate. But alas, it hasn’t; if anything, it has increased, with the teachers unions at the forefront of the bogus story.

Champion alarm bell-ringer Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, was in fine form when she penned “How the Teacher Shortage Could Turn Into a Crisis” for the Huffington Post last month. Her claims are all ridiculous, of course, but she states them with such certitude that they sound quite believable if one doesn’t know better. “…we lose an alarming number of teachers once they enter the profession— between 40 and 50 percent of new teachers leave within five years. Add to that the loss of mid- and late-career teachers, who have honed their skills but can’t see staying until retirement, and you’ve got a teacher brain-drain unseen in any other profession.” The National Education Association advises, “Want to reduce the teacher shortage? Treat teachers like professionals.” The California Teachers Association informs us that we are on the verge of “The Perfect Storm: California Impending Teacher Shortage Crisis.

And it’s not only the unions that have been infected with the “sky is falling” mentality. In February, Education Week reported “Teacher Shortages Put Pressure on Governors, Legislators.” And a Hechinger Report piece recently warned that “California faces a dire teacher shortage. Should other states worry, too?” Surprisingly, however, the gloom actually lifts near the end of the Hechinger article and clarity ultimately prevails. Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research puts things into perspective by introducing data which show that between 1984 and 2013 teacher production has increased overall, with a few dips here and there. He calmly states, “This does not look to me like the production of teachers in this country is falling off a cliff.”

Another Hechinger piece posted last month continued the Goldhaber line. “Cries about national teacher shortages might be overblown” takes a look at various state reports. In 2013-2014 in California, 2.5 to 2.7 percent of the teachers hired had emergency certification, a sign of shortage, because schools hire applicants with full certifications first. But fifteen years ago, 14.5 percent of the teachers hired in California were not fully credentialed.

Then, just last week, the National Center for Teacher Quality claimed flatly in its newsletter that we are in the midst of a drummed up teacher shortage crisis. Acknowledging that the number of new teachers produced since 2008 has declined, NCTQ president Kate Walsh points out that “the drop was preceded by a three-decade period of enrollment growth, far outpacing the demand year-in and year-out. America’s 1,450+ institutions which train teachers have been OVER-enrolling for years.” She adds that, “The current decline is what we normally see when unemployment dips and the pool of folks looking for work isn’t as large as in other years.”

Taking an even longer look, the late Cato Institute senior fellow of education policy Andrew Coulson wrote in 2015 that there is an “Evidence Shortage for Teacher Shortage.” He notes that since 1970, “…the number of teachers has grown six times faster than the number of students. Enrollment grew about 8 percent from 1970 to 2010, but the teaching workforce grew 50 percent. There are a LOT more public school teachers per child today, so how can districts and states still claim to be facing teacher shortages?” (Emphasis added.)

Coulson finishes his piece, “So does America have a ‘teacher shortage’ writ large? No. We had 22.3 pupils/teacher in 1970 and 16 p/t in 2012. Compared to the past, we are rolling in teachers. If we have too few in some fields and too many in others, it is (because of) mistakes in policy and/or execution.”

Also, Weingarten’s assertion that “between 40 and 50 percent of new teachers leave within five years” has always been, and still is, a crock. She and other union leaders have been telling that lie since the last millennium. Fortunately the debunking has been picking up. Just a year ago, EdSource’s John Fensterwald reported, “Half of new teachers quit profession in 5 years? Not true, new study says.” He writes that a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics found that “10 percent of new teachers in 2007-08 didn’t return the following year, increasing cumulatively to 12 percent in year three, 15 percent in year four and 17 percent in the fifth year. The totals include teachers who were let go and subsequently didn’t find a job teaching in another district.” Just last week, Bellwether Education Partners policy expert Chad Aldeman reported in Education Next, “Turnover rates for inexperienced teachers have been falling, not rising, while turnover has risen among more experienced teachers.”

So after five years one-in-six teachers are gone. Hardly a cause for smelling salts. In fact, other fields have a much higher turnover rate. In banking and finance, for example, the departure rate in 2013 was 17.2 percent and in healthcare it was 16.8 percent. The average for all industries in 2013 was 15.1 percent. So basically, in five years, the teaching profession loses roughly the same percentage of employees that other fields lose every year. So, comparatively speaking, we are hardly “bleeding teachers.”

While I have been looking at the big picture here, to be sure there are some school districts that are short on teachers and other districts may lack teachers in certain subject areas. But rather than promulgating doomsday prophecies, how about simply addressing those specific shortages – like paying science teachers a bit more money to lure them to districts where they are needed.

There is one area in decline that is worth noting, however: unionized teachers. Taking a look at the latest numbers available, courtesy of Mike Antonucci, we see that the National Education Association lost 42,000 active members in 2013, “bringing the union’s total losses among working public school employees to more than 310,000 (10.7%) over the past five years.” That’s certainly bad news for the union’s bottom line, but the rest of us aren’t going to be shedding any tears over that.

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.

Let’s Deep-six Prop. 30

The signatures for an initiative that would extend 2012’s “temporary” tax increase in California are due today.

Four years ago Californians voted in Prop. 30, a “temporary” tax, to pay back schools “from the years of devastating cuts.” But as I show here, there was hardly any devastation; in fact, our spending had continued to be quite robust. The measure jacked up income tax on people with incomes exceeding $250,000 through 2018 and increased sales tax on all of us through the end of this year. But, the Beholden State teachers unions are trying to get an initiative on the 2016 ballot that would continue the higher income tax through 2030. (The sales tax increase would expire as scheduled.) Earlier this month, California Teachers Association president Eric Heins told the union’s State Council that “…we need to gather 900,000 signatures to get our measure on the ballot. We are about 60 percent there, and we only have about three more weeks.”

Today, in fact, is the deadline. If enough signatures are gathered, the extension has a good chance of success. As reported by EdSource’s John Fensterwald, a Public Policy Institute of California poll found, “…among all Californians, 64 percent support the extension, 32 percent oppose it and 4 percent are undecided. Among likely voters, 62 percent back it, 35 percent oppose it and 2 percent haven’t decided. By party affiliation, 82 percent of Democrats support it while only 32 percent of Republicans do.”

When I read poll numbers like this, I always wonder if the people questioned know what we actually spend on education. My guess is that many don’t. A recent Education Next poll, which included a question about that issue, is instructive. The school districts in which their survey respondents resided spent an average of $12,440 per pupil in 2012 (the most recent data available). But when asked, the respondents estimated per-pupil expenditures in their local school district, they guessed, on average, just $6,307 – about half of what was actually spent. (By the way, these dollar amounts would be considerably higher if expenditures for transportation, capital expenses, and debt service were included.)

Should Prop. 30 (or any future such tax increases) make it on to the ballot, I would ask voters to consider the following:

  • The unions will tell you that the tax is only on the wealthy, whom they claim don’t pay their fair share. But a look at the actual numbers tells a different story. A report issued by the Congressional Budget Office in 2012 shows that the top one percent of income earners across the nation paid 39 percent of federal individual income taxes in 2009, while earning 13 percent of the income. Hence, it’s clear that the rich are already paying considerably more than their “fair share.”
  • Courtesy of Cato Institute’s late, great Andrew Coulson, we see that between 1972 and 2012 California’s education spending (adjusted for inflation) has doubled, while our students’ SAT scores have actually declined.
  • The latest study on the relationship between spending and achievement, recently conducted in Michigan, found no statistically significant correlation between how much money the state’s public schools spend and how well students perform academically. Mackinac Center Education Policy Director Ben DeGrow, who coauthored the study said, “Of the 28 measurements of academic achievement studied, we find only one category showed a statistically significant correlation between spending and achievement, and the gains were nominal at best.” He added, “Spending may matter in some cases, but given the way public schools currently spend their resources, it is highly unlikely that merely increasing funding will generate any meaningful boost to student achievement.”
  • Unconditional money poured into public education from the private sector doesn’t help either. In 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to the Newark public schools, which was matched by another $100 million from unnamed donors. As documented in The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools, a book about the gift, the money went up in smoke, with the teachers union playing a big role in vaporizing it. As reported by the New York Times, Newark Teachers Union leader Joe Del Grosso “demanded a ransom of $31 million to compensate for what he felt members should have received in previous years — before agreeing to discuss any labor reforms.” The new labor contract accounted for almost half the $200 million. In a review of the book, Cato Institute’s Jason Bedrick wrote, “The union boss… made the back pay a condition for even holding the negotiations. ‘We had an opportunity to get Zuckerberg’s money,’ Del Grosso later explained, ‘Otherwise, it would go to the charter schools. I decided I shouldn’t feed and clothe the enemy.’” But it wasn’t only the unions that abused the gift. As Bedrick says, “The Prize demonstrates in depressing detail just how difficult it is to reform public schooling in the United States. Laws, regulations, and labor contracts favored adult jobs over kids’ education and this entrenched bureaucracy was difficult to change—especially because reforms met opposition from special interests and their political allies.”

With a debt of over $1 trillion and counting, California clearly has a spending problem, not a too-little-tax problem. The taxpayers must take action. First, we all need to know specifically where our edu-bucks are being spent. You can start at the Ed-Data website for general expenditures. Do some digging to find out how teacher union (and all public employee union) pensions are bankrupting cities across the state. For that kind of information, Pension Tsunami is an invaluable resource. Perhaps most importantly, communicate with legislators and demand school choice. Among other things – just as in business – competition lowers prices while increasing product quality. And God knows we would benefit from both.

Randi Weingarten and other union leaders have a prized talking point: “You can’t fire your way to a teaching force.” It’s a ridiculous claim, which I debunked last week. And at the same time, they erroneously believe we can spend our way to success. But they make no real case for this, because there isn’t one. It’s time for all of us to stop falling for the feel-good fairy tales. Just saying “No!” to the Prop. 30 extension – should it get to the ballot – would be a great place to start.

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.

Bain Explained

Bain v. CTA is the latest lawsuit to challenge teacher union hegemony.

For the third time in three years, a lawsuit has been filed in California that challenges the way the teachers unions do business. In May 2012, eight California public school children filed Vergara et al v. the State of California et al in an attempt to “strike down outdated state laws that prevent the recruitment, support and retention of effective teachers.” Realizing that some of their most cherished work rules were in jeopardy, the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) chose to join the case as defendants in May 2013.

But three days before they signed on to Vergara, the unions were targeted again. On April 29, 2013, the Center for Individual Rights filed suit on behalf of ten California teachers against CTA and the National Education Association (NEA). The Friedrichs case challenges the constitutionality of California’s agency shop law, which forces public school educators to pay dues to a teachers union whether they want to or not.

Now in April 2015, the teachers unions are facing yet another rebellion by some of its members. Bain et al v. CTA et al, a lawsuit brought by StudentsFirst, a Sacramento-based activist outfit founded by Michelle Rhee, was filed on behalf of four public school teachers in federal court in California. It challenges a union rule concerning members who refuse to pay the political portion of their dues. Contrary to what many believe, teachers are not forced to join a union as a condition of employment in California, but they are forced to pay dues. Most pay the full share, typically over $1,000 a year, but some opt out of paying the political or “non-chargeable” part, which brings their yearly outlay down to about $600. However, to become “agency fee payers,” those teachers must resign from the union and relinquish most perks they had by being full dues-paying members. And this is at the heart of Bain. As EdSource’s John Fensterwald writes,

Although paying this portion is optional, the teachers charge that the unions punish those who choose not to pay it by kicking them out of the union and denying them additional economic benefits, such as better disability and life insurance policies. The unions provide those benefits only to members. This coercion, the teachers argue, violates their constitutional right to free speech. About one in 10 teachers in California have opted out of paying the portion of dues supporting politicking and lobbying.

In addition to losing various types of insurance, the affected teachers also give up the right to vote for their union rep or their contract, the chance to sit on certain school committees, legal representation in cases of employment disputes, death and dismemberment compensation, disaster relief, representation at dismissal hearings and many other benefits.

The question becomes, “Why should a teacher lose a whole array of perks just because they refuse to pay the third or so (it varies by district) of their union dues that go to political causes?”

That very sensible question summons up a great number of erroneous statements, hysteria, lies and general panic among the mainstream media and unionistas alike. Let’s examine a few of them starting with a partial-truth from the estimable John Fensterwald. He wrote, “Both the CTA and CFT are obligated to negotiate contracts dealing with pay, benefits and working conditions on behalf of union and non-union teachers.” That’s true; all teachers do indeed become “bargaining unit members.” However, that is only because the unions insist on exclusive representation. The unions would have a case here if teachers were free to negotiate their own contracts, but they aren’t allowed to. (For more on this issue, see my back-and-forth with CFT VP Gary Ravani in the comments section of Fensterwald’s piece.)

A Los Angeles Times editorial claims that the case at its core is “an attack on the power of any public employee union to engage in politics.” How they came up with that assessment defies logic. If Bain is successful, unions will still be free to “engage in politics.” It is true that more teachers may opt out of the political part, thus leaving the union with fewer coerced dollars to spend. But to say it is an “attack” is a great exaggeration.

Alice O’Brien, general counsel for NEA, said in a statement, “The Bain lawsuit attacks (there’s that word again) the right of a membership organization to restrict the benefits of membership to those who actually pay dues.” What?! The teachers in question are all dues payers and will still be dues payers if their case is successful.

Never one to be subtle, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten claims that the lawsuit is “part of a siege against unions by StudentsFirst.” (Before starting StudentsFirst, Rhee – now departed – was Washington, D.C. school chancellor, where she and Weingarten tangled constantly.) In a statement Weingarten said, “This is the same group that has worked for five years to stifle the voices of teachers, and strip them of collective bargaining and other rights and tools to do their jobs.” Then as if to clarify this baseless statement, she added, “The suit cites political activity on issues it considers unrelated to education – like gun control, for example.”

The Friedrichs case, with a possible Supreme Court decision next year, is much further along than Bain. If the former case is successful, it will be interesting to see what becomes of the latter. Friedrichs claims that all union spending is political and therefore joining should be voluntary. If it flies, teachers will have an option to join the union or refrain from doing so. That could take the wind out of Bain’s sails as there will probably not be the two tiers or classes of membership that there are now. If all dues are political and you join the union, then all fees will be chargeable and teachers couldn’t then opt out of the political portion because all of it would be political. However, should Friedrichs fail, Bain will be all the more important.

Other scenarios are possible, with the courts, of course, having the final say on how it all gets sorted out.

In any event, the teachers unions’ heavy-handed political arm-twisting would seem to be in jeopardy and their days of unbridled power numbered. And that can only be good news for teachers, students, parents and taxpayers.

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.

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.

Education Reform: #1 Issue on the Ballot in California

Reformer battles with teachers union darling for top education position in Sacramento.

“Teachers Unions Are Putting Themselves On November’s Ballot” was the headline in a recent article by Haley Edwards in Time Magazine. Okay, this is hardly news, but the extent of the largess is eye-opening. Considering that this is not a presidential election year, the political spending is noteworthy.

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, is on track to spend between $40 million and $60 million this election cycle, while its smaller sibling, the American Federation of Teachers, plans to throw in an additional $20 million – more than the organization has spent in any other year.

The reason for the spending orgy is easy to understand: education reform – at long last – has become an important issue with voters across the country. As Edwards writes,

While the issues at stake vary by state, a number of elections this cycle will hinge on a variety of education-related questions, including recent cuts to public schools, growing class sizes, Common Core State Standards, access to pre-K education and the availability of state-funded student loans for college. A June Rasmussen report found that 58% of total expected voters ranked education as “very important,” while local polls indicate that voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Kansas and Illinois rank education as among the top three most important issues this cycle.

In California, perhaps the most ballyhooed contest is not for a legislative position, but rather the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction.  As Fox & Hounds Joel Fox points out, the election is a referendum on teachers unions, pitting reformer Marshall Tuck against incumbent Tom Torlakson, the bought-and-paid-for choice of the California Teachers Association. The SPI’s various responsibilities include acting as chief spokesperson for public schools, providing education policy and direction to local school districts, and working with the education community to improve students’ academic performance.

Typically, in a race that pits union guy vs. reformer, organized labor gets its way. But maybe not this time.

First off, Tuck is passionate, articulate and a pit-bull on the issues. He worked on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley before serving as president of Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school management organization. He then became CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s collaboration with the Los Angeles Unified School District to operate 17 struggling public elementary, middle, and high schools.

Torlakson was a teacher before entering politics as a city councilman in 1978. He served as a California State Assemblyman and Senator before becoming SPI in 2010.

Perhaps the difference between the two is best exemplified by their responses to the Vergara ruling, which saw a judge throw out the state’s teacher tenure, dismissal and seniority laws. Tuck saw the decision as a victory for kids, while Torlakson claimed it was unfair to teachers. Moreover, the incumbent asked the California attorney general to appeal, which she did.

As writer Steve Greenhut points out, the challenger has direct experience dealing with issues raised by the Vergara case. After Tuck took over some of LA’s most troubled schools as CEO of the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, “about half of his teachers received layoff notices because of the system’s seniority based layoff system, which protects older teachers regardless of job performance.” Tuck explains,

The CTA should always be part of the equation because teachers are so important but their influence is too large right now. … The state superintendent is a nonpartisan position, right? Not Republican, not Democrat … and it’s supposed to just be focused on advocating for kids, yet the state superintendent has never disagreed with the CTA. It’s insane.

As a result of this ‘undue influence,’ the state ends up with ‘laws like two-year tenure and seniority based layoffs, laws that we know are not good for kids; they stay on the books for year after year. … Our kids are harmed dramatically by them to the point where the judge said the evidence shocks the conscience.’

Additionally, he refers to California’s behemoth educational code as

… the ‘visual definition of bureaucracy’ and wants to help public schools — traditional ones and charters — receive waivers from the red tape and allow more local control and flexibility. He wants to give parents a seat at the table in determining school policy.

Torlakson and his CTA friends are losing the battle of ideas, basically because they don’t have any. Instead, they disparage Tuck’s previous work as a “Wall Street investment banker.” They also idiotically claim that the challenger wants to turn schools over to “for-profit corporations” and “sell off our schools and sell out our kids.” The October issue of CTA’s magazine, California Educator, is full of anti-Tuck blather, including an editorial by union president Dean Vogel in which he solemnly proclaims that the challenger is a “well-funded corporate education reformer who supports the privatization of public schools and efforts to obliterate due process for teachers.” Also, in a talk a few months ago, Vogel asserted that, “We know who Tom is. He is one of us….”

He sure is.

Invariably in races like this, CTA manages to outspend the reformers. This one, however, may be an exception, as Tuck’s donations have been keeping up with Torlakson’s. The challenger has found some deep-pocketed backers whose donations have matched the free-spending CTA. As reported by EdSource,

Nine wealthy backers of Marshall Tuck – led by $1 million donations each from William Bloomfield of Manhattan Beach and Eli Broad, a longtime funder of reform efforts in Los Angeles – seeded a new independent expenditure committee with $4 million. That brought outside fundraising for Tuck nearly even with outside fundraising by the California Teachers Association, the biggest financial backer of Supt. Tom Torlakson. The CTA contributed an additional $1.4 million this week to the $5.7 million it has already contributed to Torlakson. The new donations, as of Oct. 10, will push expected spending by groups not affiliated with the candidates to about $14 million, split about 40 percent for Tuck and 60 percent for Torlakson.

The two candidates themselves have raised about $4.4 million in direct contributions as of Oct. 10 … That combined total is already more than twice the total raised by the candidates in the 2010 election, in which Torlakson defeated a retired school district superintendent, Larry Aceves. As of the latest campaign finance disclosure period, which ended Sept. 30, Torlakson had about $608,000 left in the bank, while Tuck had close to $700,000.

Money, however, isn’t the only important factor in elections. Teachers unions have a great advantage in races like this. In California, they have easy access to 300,000 teachers who are being told, in no uncertain terms, that Torlakson “is one of them” and that Tuck is the corporate reformer from Hell.

But interestingly, Tuck is getting a major boost from the mainstream media. Just about every major daily in the state, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times has come out – forcefully – in favor of Tuck. The Sac Bee editorial board endorsed the challenger because it believes that “teachers unions have a chokehold on the state’s public education system and that’s been detrimental for everyone, including teachers.”

With two weeks to go, polls show an even race with many still undecided; it’s anybody’s guess as to who will ultimately prevail. I suspect that the teachers unions will ramp up their spending down the home stretch because they know that if Torlakson loses, the status quo is history. And for a reactionary bunch like CTA, that is a fate worse than death.

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.