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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.

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.

Opportunity Re-Knox

A recently filed lawsuit in California picks up where Knox v. SEIU left off.

In a case brought to the Supreme Court by the National Right to Work Foundation last June, the justices ruled 7-2 that the Service Employees International Union could not force its members to pay the part of union dues that goes for political activities, even if the union felt it was for the workers’ own good. As I wrote at the time,

Actually this decision didn’t break any new ground. Unions haven’t been allowed to force workers to pay for their political agenda since the 1970s and 1980s when several landmark decisions were handed down by the court. But SEIU Local 1,000 in California tried to hoodwink the rank and file. The case probably never should have reached the high court, but their involvement became necessary in order to overturn a decision from the far left Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (or as it’s affectionately known to us left coasters – the Ninth Circus), which has become a regular occurrence these days.

The Wall Street Journal explained the specifics of SEIU’s chicanery,

The California SEIU local attempted to end run these protections in a special 2005 election and the midterms in 2006, amid a furious debate about union government perks. The SEIU joined a “Political Fight-Back Fund” to defeat two propositions that would have given then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger the ability in some cases to modify salaries, benefits and pensions. To fund this advocacy, the SEIU imposed a temporary 25% hike in union dues, never providing its 28,000 non-union members the Hudson notice that would have let them opt out.

The SEIU argued that lobbying against the ballot initiatives was really work on behalf of all workers. Yet that would erase the legal distinction between politics and collective bargaining. These activities may be especially fungible in public employee practice already, but this was too much even for liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who concurred with the majority on the narrow if obvious grounds of technical precedent.

The chutzpah here is dazzling. As Steve Greenhut noted,

It’s ironic that SEIU took money from nonmembers to specifically battle a statewide proposition that would have stopped them from being able to take such money in the future. There’s something disturbingly totalitarian about that – making me give you money that you can use to stop me from exerting my rights.

In a lesser-known but very important ruling, the court went beyond Knox and addressed two larger issues:

1. Should union members have to opt out of paying the political part of union dues? (The way things stand, the default position is “in” and a worker must take action to opt out.) With Justice Samuel Alito writing the opinion,

… the court concluded that a longstanding precedent — that the First Amendment demands that non-union members covered by union contracts be given the chance to “opt out” of such special fees — was insufficient. Instead, the majority said, non-members should be sent a notice giving them the chance to “opt in” to the special fees. (Emphasis added)

2. Should public employees be forced to pay any union dues at all? (At this time, workers in 26 states and Washington, D.C. must pay union dues as a condition of employment. The other 24 states are “right-to-work” states where workers can choose whether or not to join.) Alito again,

Because a public-sector union takes many positions during collective bargaining that have powerful political and civic consequences, the compulsory fees constitute a form of compelled speech and association that imposes a significant impingement on First Amendment rights. (Emphasis added.)

As Huffington Post blogger Cole Stangler wrote at the time,

Knox v. SEIU could lay the foundation for future legal challenges over unions’ political spending and the dues collection process in general.

And lay the foundation it did on both counts.

Last week, the Center for Individual Rights, in conjunction with international law firm Jones Day, filed a suit in California. CIR’s press release explains that the litigation was initiated

… on behalf of 10 California teachers and the Christian Educators Association International, challenging the constitutionality of California’s “agency shop” law, which violates the First Amendment by forcing public school teachers to pay annual fees to support powerful teachers’ unions extensively involved in political activity. The suit was filed against the lead defendants, the California Teachers Association (CTA) and the National Education Association (NEA), as well as ten affiliated local teachers’ unions, and local school officials.

The lawyers in this case claim that the lines between “chargeable” or “agency fee” and “political” are very blurry and that the unions use their power

… to extract compulsory fees as a convenient method of forcing teachers to pay for activities that have little to do with collective bargaining. For example, the CTA considers the publication and dissemination of The California Educator, its internal and highly political magazine, to be a mostly “chargeable” collective bargaining expense. The CTA likewise deems programs dealing with gays and lesbians, including a “GLBT Conference,” to be predominantly “chargeable.” Also, the CTA spends millions of dollars every year on political contributions, mostly to support Democratic Party causes. The NEA, which receives a portion of the fees paid by every California public school teacher, likewise classifies expenditures as chargeable even though they appear to have little to do with collective bargaining, such as programs advancing various education policies or expensive conferences for NEA staff.

The litigation also addresses right-to-work issues,

Given the severe and ongoing infringement of Plaintiffs’ rights to free speech and free association, Plaintiffs respectfully request that this Court declare that California’s practice of forcing non-union members to contribute funds to unions, including funds to support their collective-bargaining activities, violates the First Amendment, and enjoin Defendants from enforcing this unconstitutional arrangement.

Needless to say, the unions are not happy about the lawsuit. CTA spokesman Frank Wells, speaking in boilerplate language, said that it is a “baseless challenge intended to dilute worker rights.” He went on to say that the claims are “another baseless attack on the concept of agency fees” and that “the concept of agency fees is sound.”

If the suit isn’t settled at the local level, it could wind up in the Supreme Court. Should that happen, the justices could take their opinion in Knox one step further and make joining a union voluntary. What a victory for liberty that would be! Greenhut is right – there is something indeed “disturbingly totalitarian” about forced union dues. It’s time to take Knox to its logical conclusion and give all workers the freedom to choose.

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.