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California's New, Big, Nonpartisan Political Tent

“In politics, a big tent or catch-all party is a political party seeking to attract people with diverse viewpoints and thus appeal to more of the electorate. The big tent approach is opposed to single-issue litmus tests and ideological rigidity, conversely advocating multiple ideologies and views within a party.”
–  Wikipedia, “Big Tent

Something is happening in California. An unstoppable movement for reform is building, attracting support from conscientious Californians regardless of their age, income, race, gender or political ideology. The metaphor of a “big tent” aptly describes the approach that reform leaders are finally embracing.

The fabric of this big tent is supported by two poles, one representing restoring quality education, the other representing restoring financial health to California’s public institutions. But the big tent metaphor breaks down somewhat if it describes a political party. Because most of California’s reform leaders no longer care who gets it done, or what political party takes credit. They just want to Californian children to get quality educations, and they just want to restore economic opportunity to ordinary citizens.

For years, the powers that oppose education reform and fiscal reform have painted reformers as either Republican fanatics, bent on dismantling government, or Democratic traitors, beholden to “Wall Street Hedge Funds.” But this argument is wearing thin. On the topic of education reform, here are three reasons why Californians, all of them, are waking up:

(1) The Vergara Decision:  This case pits nine Oakland public school students against the State of California, arguing that (a) granting tenure after less than two years, (b) retaining teachers during layoffs based on seniority instead of merit, and (c) the near impossibility of dismissing incompetent teachers, is harming California’s overall system of public education, and is disproportionately harming public education in low income communities. Earlier this year, in a Los Angeles Superior court decision, the judge wrote: “The evidence of the effect of grossly ineffective teachers on students is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.” In return, the California Teacher’s association had this to say in an official press release:

“All along it’s been clear to us that this lawsuit is baseless, meritless, and masterminded by self-interested individuals with corporate education reform agendas that are veiled by a proclamation of student interest” (ref. CTA press release).

Watch the plaintiff’s closing arguments in the Vergara case. Note how the plaintiff’s legal team was actually able to use the testimony of the defendant’s expert witnesses to support their own case.

(2) Parent Trigger Laws:  In 2010, the California State Legislature signed into law the “Parent Empowerment Act.” This law enables parents in failing schools to (a) transfer their child to a higher performing school, (b) permits parents to change policies at an underperforming school if 50% of parents sign a petition, and (c) requires the California Dept. of Education to regularly publish a list of the 1,000 worst performing schools in the state. Former State Senator Gloria Romero, the liberal Democrat who is largely responsible for getting passage of the Parent Empowerment Act, writes this week in UnionWatch about how the Los Angeles Unified School District tried and failed to exempt themselves from the law. But government employee unions in California are incredibly powerful, collecting and spending over two billion dollars in taxpayer funded dues per two-year election cycle. They literally can be in all places at all times. Read the slime job someone sympathetic to the union machine entered on Romero’s Wikipedia profile:

“Romero leads the California chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, an interest group funded by Wall Street hedge fund managers who support charter schools.”

(3) Charter Schools:  Here is an example of why claims that “Wall Street hedge fund managers” are somehow hoping to profit from private schools or charter schools (which are not private) are absurdly unfounded. The Alliance College-Ready Public Schools in Los Angeles is a network of 26 high schools, located throughout Los Angeles, which, like nearly all charter schools, consistently delivers superior educational outcomes at a fraction of the cost of union controlled public schools. But the Alliance network is a nonprofit. The capital investments necessary to launch these schools are funded by donations. There is no return on investment. And the benefactors of these schools have no political agenda – they are Democrats, Republicans, and independents. They are a perfect example of California’s new, powerful, big tent.

Financial reform issues are the other pole that supports the big tent. Despite accusations of “hedge fund managers” and “Wall Street” getting behind allegedly phony reform proposals for public education along with fiscal issues such as runaway pension costs, it is actually corrupt financial interests that join with government bureaucrats to perpetuate the abuse and prevent reform. The reason government services are being cut and infrastructure spending is neglected is because unionized government workers receive excessive pay and benefits, crowding out funding for everything else. Wall Street firms underwrite the bonds to cover the deficits and finance deferred maintenance. Wall Street firms (including hedge funds) invest the pension fund assets. People are connecting the dots.

The behavior of powerful government unions, opposing education and fiscal reforms that virtually everyone else supports, is finally exposing them – along with their partners, corrupt financial interests and crony corporations – as the root cause of the most severe challenges facing Californians. This issue is nonpartisan and transcends ideology. The big tent is filling up.

*   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

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Race for California Governor Should Emphasize Education Reform

On Thursday, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown will face off against Republican challenger Neel Kashkari in their only scheduled debate. Although Kashkari asked for 10 debates, Brown chose to do just one.

Undoubtedly, a slew of issues will be discussed, from economic policy, including taxation and tax credits, to border security and immigration, earthquake preparedness, California’s death penalty and even the ethical lapses of legislators.

Somewhere in that one-hour debate the candidates also will be asked about their views on education policies and practices in the Golden State. After all, education consumes almost half the state budget, and a new funding formula has recently been enacted. The Legislature has also suspended its testing of students as California prepares to adopt the Common Core curriculum, amid some public souring on its implementation.

The perennial debate over the quality and expansion of independent public charter schools continues to dominate discussion. An increasing number of local education agencies are tying to curtail their availability, even though at least 50,000 children remain on waiting lists to get into a quality charter school.

Like many other Californians, I will, most likely, watch the debate on television. Not all questions can be asked – much less thoughtfully discussed – in the scant allocated time of 60 minutes. Nonetheless, let me suggest a few questions:

(1) Nationally, we’ve seen a parent empowerment movement demanding greater parental rights in school choice options. Do you support ending school assignment by ZIP code, enabling parents to bypass their “local” school, particularly if it is chronically underperforming?

(2) In 2010 the Legislature enacted the Parent Empowerment Act, which allows parents to turn around chronically underperforming schools if 50 percent of the parents sign a petition choosing a transformation option, such as converting to a charter school. Recently, the Los Angeles Unified School District shocked many when it claimed “exemption” from the law due to a federal Department of Education waiver combined with suspension of state testing. Do you concur that these “reform” districts are exempt from the law, and can any district self-proclaim exemption from state laws?

(3) In a school near Disneyland, a group of mostly Latino mothers are using the Parent Trigger law to transform their school, which has chronically underperformed for 10 years. They are being met with resistance from the teachers union and some elected officials. If you could meet with them, what would you say you could do to help realize their educational dreams for their children?

(4) Nine students sued the state of California, claiming that teacher employment and dismissal laws, including tenure and seniority, deprive students of equality of educational opportunities. L.A. Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu sided with the kids, ruling the statues unconstitutional, and the decision is being hailed nationally as a significant education and civil rights victory. What is your position on the Vergara ruling, and do you support an appeal of the decision or settling it and calling the Legislature into special session to rewrite these laws?

Many more questions could be asked of the candidates. But these are worth posing to Brown and Kashkari, for one of them will govern California’s 6 million public school kids, impacting their parents and utilizing half the state budget for the next four years.

Of course, one hour to debate all the issues is not enough time. Another debate is needed. Democracy thrives when the citizenry is educated. Californians deserve to know.

About the Author:  Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles resident, served in the California Legislature from 1998 to 2008, the last seven years as Senate majority leader. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission from the author.