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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.

gRANDIosity

Ms. Weingarten gives her enemies a breather as she jets off to Kiev to “promote democratic values.”

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten has been on a tear lately, working diligently to build up her long and growing enemies list. As reported by The Wall Street Journal’s Allysia Finley,

The American Federation of Teachers issued a report last year blacklisting money managers who support nonprofits that advocate for school and pension reform. This month the union published a second edition with some notable additions and deletions.

The report’s goal is to muzzle hedge fund and private-equity managers who sit on the boards of and contribute hefty sums to union betes noire like the Manhattan Institute, StudentsFirst and Missouri’s Show-Me Institute. The union singled out these three because their donors also manage billions in public pension investments.

Of the referenced money managers, the most prominent is Dan Loeb who runs the very successful Third Point hedge fund. Loeb is not only on the boards of the conservative Manhattan Institute and StudentsFirstNY (the New York State wing of the organization founded by another Weingarten foe, Michelle Rhee), he is the chairman of the board of Success Charter Schools, which are run by yet another Weingarten nemesis, Eva Moskowitz. Randi has had it in for Eva ever since 2003 when the former was president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers. Moskowitz, then a New York City councilperson, held hearings to examine the negative impact of union contracts on school operations and infuriated Weingarten by reading part of the union contract at a city council meeting. She accused Moskowitz of “demonizing teachers.” Moskowitz, of course, was doing no such thing.

Ms. Finley continues with the latest entry to Weingarten’s enemy list:

This year, the union has added “Illinois Is Broke” to its blacklist because the group helped spread public awareness about the state’s pension debt. This is notable because the union’s stated goal last year was to target groups and money managers who supported “privatizing” pensions (i.e. 401(k)s). The union claimed that endorsing defined-contribution plans while managing public pension assets represented a conflict of interest. Never mind that money managers are actually performing a fiduciary duty by promoting reforms that make teacher pensions more secure.

Not mentioned in Finley’s piece was Weingarten’s recent attack on Gina Raimondo who, as Rhode Island treasurer, has done an admirable job reforming the state’s broken pension system. But from Weingarten’s standpoint, Raimondo needs to be taken to the woodshed for being a bad girl.

Her misdeed? She had the temerity to contract with Loeb’s Third Point, which happens to be the state’s top-performing hedge fund, as a way to bring cash into the pension fund’s sagging coffers. Two years ago, the Rhode Island State Investment Commission “shuttled $50 million to Third Point in a broader push to meet the commission’s target of a 7.5% return on investment.”

… Third Point yielded 24.7% over the last year while the retirement system returned 14%. Hedge funds as a class averaged 17.1%. If anything, the commission ought to be sending more money Mr. Loeb’s way, and retired state workers ought to send him champagne. (Emphasis added.)

Sad to say, Raimondo – who is running for governor – buckled, and said good-by to Loeb and his money-making hedge fund.

Then last Thursday, Weingarten popped up in Kiev, telling FoxNews that she went to Ukraine as part of a delegation of teacher union leaders from five nations (including the United Kingdom, Poland, Denmark and Bulgaria) as an act of solidarity and to “promote democratic values.” The cost of the trip was shared by AFT’s 1.5 million members and the Trade Union of Education and Science Workers of Ukraine. (I wonder how many teachers, most of whom are forced to pay union dues, are happy to see a part of their paychecks used to subsidize Weingarten’s European grandstanding.)

… “It’s always been a part of who we are,” said Weingarten. “I decided it was important enough to go, and the most important thing I’ve learned during this trip is that the Russian propaganda about how the Ukrainian government is fragile and destabilizing is totally and completely wrong.

Maybe instead of planning her ego-trip to Kiev, Weingarten should have been at a rally in Albany the week before, which was organized in response to New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s assault on charter schools. In actuality, she wouldn’t be caught dead there.  Weingarten is hardly a fan of charters and worse, the rally was organized by the dreaded Eva Moskowitz.

Ironically, Weingarten’s version of “democratic values” is really nothing more than collectivism which would eventually undermine the very government she claims to be supporting. For example, if she sincerely believed in “democratic values,” she would back a move to stop requiring teachers in most states to pay union dues for the right to teach in a public school, and at the same time stop forcing them to collectively bargain. And she would fight to get rid of the ridiculous industrial-style “step and column” method of paying teachers which treats them as interchangeable widgets and she would acknowledge that great teachers are worth more and should be paid more than their less talented brethren. And she would take a stand that seniority and tenure are arbitrary, unfair and even cruel methods (for both teachers and kids) to make staffing decisions. And she would ….

But no, making sure kids receive a good education and acknowledging teachers as true professionals are not priorities for Weingarten. She is much more interested in promoting her brand of collectivism and punishing political enemies. So although Ted O’Neil, spokesman for the Michigan-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy, suggested that instead of globetrotting, she would be better off trekking to Detroit and getting involved with the school district there, I’m thinking that a long stint in Kiev might be a better idea.

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 with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.