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The CTA Empire Strikes Back

Emperor Palpatine: There is a great disturbance in the Force.
Darth Vader: I have felt it.
Emperor Palpatine: We have a new enemy, the young Rebel…
Darth Vader: How is that possible?
Emperor Palpatine: Search your feelings, Lord Vader. You know it to be true. He could destroy us. The Force is strong with him.
– Quote (edited for brevity) from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, 1980

There are indeed great disturbances in the force. There are indeed challenges to the imperial monopoly that, for nearly 40 years, has eroded the quality and escalated the costs for California’s system of public K-12 education. And the imperial stormtroopers who enforce their educational edicts on California’s state legislature, its thousands of public school boards, and by extension, millions of parents and children, are all part of an evil empire called the California Teachers Association, or CTA. In plain English, the teachers union.

A comprehensive summary of just how harmful the CTA has been to California’s young students can be found in a 2012 report “The Worst Union in America,” by Troy Senik, published in City Journal. Senik explains how it all began:

“The CTA began its transformation in September 1975, when Governor Jerry Brown signed the Rodda Act, which allowed California teachers to bargain collectively. Within 18 months, 600 of the 1,000 local CTA chapters moved to collective bargaining. As the union’s power grew, its ranks nearly doubled, from 170,000 in the late 1970s to approximately 325,000 today. By following the union’s directions and voting in blocs in low-turnout school-board elections, teachers were able to handpick their own supervisors—a system that private-sector unionized workers would envy. Further, the organization that had once forsworn the strike began taking to the picket lines. Today, the CTA boasts that it has launched more than 170 strikes in the years since Rodda’s passage.”

With 325,000 members paying, on average about $1,000 per year, the CTA runs an empire sustained on dues revenue of over $25 million per month. This permits them to fund political campaigns, educational campaigns, and legal battles, with almost no constraints based on cost. They have enough money to fight on all fronts, everywhere, all the time. And they do.

Back to Troy Senik, on how back in 2010 the CTA squelched a parent trigger campaign by activist parents in Compton.

“In 2010, when 61 percent of parents at McKinley Elementary School in the blighted L.A. neighborhood of Compton opted to pull the trigger, the CTA claimed that ‘parents were never given the full picture . . . [or] informed of the great progress already being made’—despite the fact that McKinley’s performance was ranked beneath nearly all other inner-city schools in the state. Several Hispanic parents in the district also said that members of the union had threatened to report them to immigration authorities if they signed the petition. Eventually, the Compton Unified school board—heavily lobbied by the CTA—dismissed the petition signatures, with no discussion, as ‘insufficient’ on a handful of technicalities, such as missing dates and typos.”

Pretty nasty stuff, from a union whose rhetoric emphasizes their concern “for the children” and the “working families.”

REBEL CAMPAIGN #1  –  PARENT TRIGGER LAWS

Which brings us to the latest disturbance in the force, this time in Anaheim, where Palm Lane Elementary School, failing academically, qualified as a parent trigger eligible school. But this time, despite being subjected to many of the same dirty tricks experienced by Compton’s activists, the Palm Lane activists managed to take the district to court, where, last week, they won. But, of course, the CTA Empire struck back. Take a look at this announcement on the CTA’s Facebook page (July 24, 7:59 p.m.):

“The Anaheim School District is appealing a judge’s flawed ruling in favor of a parent trigger effort based on outdated data and controversy over an administrative reassignment. The effort was organized in part by the law’s authors and has drawn support from political outsiders and extreme national figures including Newt Gringrich. Kudos to the strong members of the Anaheim Elementary Education Association who have worked fairly and openly to ensure that the local community has the facts regarding this flawed law and that parents who’ve been excluded from the process have a voice.”

Will the band of rebels in Anaheim have the resources to fight the union’s appeal? The union knows they can wear them down. Twenty five million dollars a month buys a lot of attorneys, along with state and local politicians.

But unlike in episode five of the famous Star Wars saga, the rebels aren’t just fighting on one planet. There’s trouble all over the galaxy.

REBEL CAMPAIGN #2  –  FRIEDRICHS VS. THE CTA

For example, later this year, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case “Friedrichs vs. the CTA,” which challenges the right of government unions to charge mandatory “agency fees.” As it is, teachers can endure a laborious “opt-out” procedure to avoid paying the “political” portion of their dues, which is about one-third of the total dues. But they still have to pay the agency fees which pay for allegedly non-political activities such as educational programs. litigation, and collective bargaining. The Friedrichs case, and it’s a strong one, argues that collective bargaining with local governments is inherently political. To give you a taste of what sort of attitudes are spawned by the CTA Empire’s monstrous deluge of misleading us-vs-them rhetoric, here’s a comment posted on a UnionWatch article authored by Friedrichs, “Teachers Stand Against Union Tyranny“:

“…she is a plant who is voicing the concerns of the extremists in America who want to do away with the middle class and working poor. She is nothing more than a bought and paid for goon of the Koch brothers and groups like theirs. If I worked with this rat I would make her so unwelcome in so many ways that she would seek out the right wingers she has sold her soul too and leave teaching. She is a gutless, repugnant, two faced, scumbag. She needs a punch in her ugly lying face. What a skank.”

Wow. Funny how the reformers are so often tainted as “haters.” But apparently this is not the hate the stormtroopers are looking for, so they’ll move along now.

REBEL CAMPAIGN #3  –  VERGARA VS. CALIFORNIA

The galaxy is a big place. Rebellious planets abound. Along with Palm Lane and the Friedrichs case, working its way up the California appellate system is Vergara vs. California. The plaintiffs prevailed in this case in Los Angeles superior court last year, but a final decision may not come until 2016. Vergara argues that lifetime tenure – awarded after less than two years in the classroom, dismissal procedures that make it nearly impossible to fire incompetent teachers, and “last in first out” layoff policies that reward seniority over merit, have harmed California’s children. They further argue that these policies have a disproportionate negative impact on students from disadvantaged communities. Watch these closing arguments by the brilliant Marcus McRae, for everything you need to know about this important case.

Now take a look at how the CTA Empire struck back, in this excerpt from their press release announcing their plans to participate in an appeal to the Vergara ruling.

“From the beginning, this lawsuit has highlighted the wrong problems, proposed the wrong solutions, and followed the wrong process. This lawsuit was not about helping students, but yet another attempt by millionaires and corporate special interests to undermine the teaching profession and push their agenda on California public schools and students.”

California’s state legislature is filled with politicians who are, with rare exceptions, either wholly owned by the CTA, or tepidly support reform but stop short when it counts so they can avoid being individually targeted by one of the CTA’s imperial cruisers. As a result, the courts are one of the only places reform can begin. But court battles can cost even more than political campaigns.

REBEL CAMPAIGN #4  –  BAIN VS. THE CTA

Nonetheless, here’s yet another rebellious planet in the CTA’s galaxy, lead by tireless reformer Michelle Rhee, in the form of “Bain vs. the CTA,” a case that argues the union cannot strip members of voting rights and discounted insurance benefits simply because they have opted out of paying the political portion of their dues. As education reformer Larry Sand writes for UnionWatch in his recent post “Bain Explained“:

“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.”

The legendary Star Wars movie saga has been producing installments longer than most Americans have been alive. In the moral debate over how to manage California’s schools, the only difference between the CTA and Palpatine’s empire is that complementing the overwhelming raw power wielded by the CTA, there is a propaganda machine of unmatched potency. Along with equipping rebel armies with attorneys, reformers will have to tap the force of truth and pay the freight to spread their message across the galaxy, telling it in terms that win the hearts of parents everywhere.

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

Union Controlled Legislature Continues Assault on Charter Schools

When it comes to dealing with California’s successful, independent charter schools, powerful, monied special interests – and the lawmakers they fund – prefer a twist on the adage “If you can’t beat them, join them.” Their version: If you can’t beat them, destroy them. This was manifested last month when four Democratic lawmakers trumpeted their introduction of a packet of new bills increasing state regulations over charters, including heightened public reporting requirements, restricting for-profit operations, greater transparency and promotion of employee rights.

On paper, while the “reforms” use language of responsible government oversight, they represent yet another effort to erase what has made charter schools succeed: Independence from the labyrinth of education codes and laws strangling districts and negatively impacting student achievement.

Since enactment two decades ago, charter schools have faced hostility from teacher unions because most are not unionized, thereby reducing their income stream due to an inability to collect compulsory member dues. Yet charters have been extremely successful in producing academic outcomes for students, largely due to their freedom from the mandates and requirements constraining traditional schools.

Ironically, the bills were introduced within days of the Stanford University Center for Research on Education Outcomes release of a study showing that charter schools outperform traditional schools, particularly in urban areas, reinforcing the understanding that charter schools boost academic outcomes for minority and poor students.

Approximately 550,000 K-12 students are enrolled in California charter schools; an additional 91,000 linger on waiting lists. Parental demand for charter schools has soared, particularly from Latino and African American parents who are more likely to be trapped in chronically underperforming schools. Increasingly, parents are “voting with their feet,” seeking enrollment in charter schools or supporting conversion of “neighborhood” schools into charters.

Independent charter schools provide a striking contrast to traditional public schools through their prioritization of students. California’s education system is plagued with laws protecting the pay, perks and rights of unionized employees and ignoring needs of students. Last year, nine students successfully sued California seeking to overturn several union-backed statutes which combined to deny students a quality education. Hailed as the most significant education civil rights suit in decades, the case, Vergara v. California, is being appealed by teachers unions.

Undoubtedly, there is room for charter school reform. But that is not the intent: These bills are intended to squelch their growth by slashing their independence. They are sponsored by the California Teachers Association, California Federation of Teachers and California Labor Federation, which have been overtly hostile to charter schools.

One bill introduced at last week’s Sacramento press conference would establish charter schools as governmental entities and their employees as public employees, thereby giving them an increased ability to unionize. Not surprisingly, the lawmakers were joined by the CTA, CFT and the California Labor Federation – reinforcing the perception that the bills are more about jobs and dues rather than students and learning.

At the press conference, Assemblyman Roger Hernandez, D-West Covina, stated, “The ability to unionize is a civil right.” What he failed to say is that existing law permits unionization at charter schools, though most employees – about 85 percent – have chosen not to do so. Sadly, Hernandez has yet to speak on the students’ Vergara civil rights lawsuit – presumably because students don’t fund his campaign coffers.

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. Romero is the director of education reform for the California Policy Center. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission from the author.

Vergara Education Reform Lawsuit Emulated in Other States

The Vergara lawsuit – in which nine children successfully challenged the constitutionality of key California teacher employment and dismissal provisions – has gone national. Amid much pomp, Students Matter, the nonprofit fundingVergara, announced support for a similar challenge, Davids v. New York.

Since then, peculiar things have occurred: Both Students Matter and the high-profile law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher representing the Davids plaintiffs pro bono have withdrawn; even the judge has recused himself. What happened? Welcome to the politicized world of education reform and the power brokers leading it, observers say.

According to lead plaintiff Mona Davids, a public-school parent leading New York City’s Parent Union, Students Matter and the Gibson firm were “bullied” by wealthy interests intent on backing a different lawsuit filed weeks after Davids. Since the filing, the New York attorney general has ruled to consolidate the cases, leaving only Davids. The other case, Wright v. New York, was filed by the recently established Partnership for Education Justice, headed by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, who continues to face criticism for declining to identify funding sources.

Davids has long battled to obtain better educational outcomes for children. She’s savvy and won’t back down – the type of fighter parents want when seeking empowerment. She has sided with teachers unions against perceived inequitable charter school co-locations; she’s also sided with reformers to make it easier to fire bad teachers but not totally dismiss tenure rights.

The media flocked to cover Brown’s lawsuit, drawn by her ability to raise money and promote her cause. But the decision to consolidate the lawsuits under Davids was a major blow to Brown’s team. That’s when the strong-arming began, I’m told. Davids and Sam Pirozzolo, another plaintiff, allege that Brown’s team began efforts to drain their support in order to reinstate her organization’s lawsuit.

Davids and Pirozzolo say their Gibson attorney told them of pressure he received from Brown’s team to withdraw – a move the plaintiffs resisted. Additionally, they say a member of Students Matter’s communications team informed them that they, too, were withdrawing after similar pressures.

While writing this column, I received an email from Brown, denying there was any pressuring others to drop support of the Davids suit. She told me that Gibson’s communications director, Pearl Piatt, would contact me. Within minutes, Piatt did, and reiterated the denial and informed me of Gibson’s withdrawal.

I found this odd. Why would Brown be communicating with the Davids attorney and the firm’s communications director? I discovered that I actually received Piatt’s email hours before the plaintiffs were notified by their attorney of his “official” withdrawal. Why would I learn of an action involving a client before the client? Does that violate attorney-client privilege?

I asked Students Matter founder Dave Welch about the allegations. He said he “didn’t want to come between friends.” But how can you fight for kids’ rights if you don’t fight bullying of their parents? Has the moral authority Students Matter earned with their historic Vergara lawsuit been tarnished?

The new court date is Sept. 11 – a day of national significance. On that day, an army of parents, now devoid of resources, will go to court in the next chapter of Vergara. They will be represented by an attorney who will argue for “support” of consolidation, even as resources are withheld from the Davids children and parents.

These Davids – in a modern-day Goliath battle – deserve our support.

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.

Being Open About Financial Support is the Smartest Policy

I recently admonished former U.S. Department of Education undersecretary Diane Ravitch for making what I considered sexist remarks seeking to discredit former CNN journalist Campbell Brown’s credibility on education issues. Brown founded New York’s Parent Transparency Project and is championing the newly formed Partnership for Educational Justice, dedicated to supporting the latest challenge to overturn teacher employment and dismissal laws, including tenure.

Following the successful outcome of the Vergara v. California lawsuit, in which nine California students – backed by Silicon Valley tech millionaire Dave Welch – challenged five teacher employment and dismissal laws as unconstitutional, the Partnership quickly filed a copycat lawsuit, Wright v. New York.

But something rather awkward happened in Brown’s first media appearance, on Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report.” When questioned by host Stephen Colbert, she refused to identify who was funding the effort. There is no law mandating disclosure. But in politics, perception becomes reality, and the electorate sides with sunshine in understanding money trails. “What’s to hide?” they wonder.

It’s not easy, or cheap, to challenge the education status quo. It takes money to challenge the most powerful special interest blocking education reform – teachers unions – who command auspicious war chests. In California, this amounts to some $300 million annually, a good portion of which is spent to prevent erosion of teacher employment protections.

It’s estimated that Vergara cost the plaintiffs’ side upward of $3 million – underwritten by wealthy individuals – referred to as “limousine liberals” by critics. While politically connected donors may be motivated by varying interests, the end result is the same: Kids (who don’t pay union dues) succeed when laws are changed that put their interests first.

So why not just acknowledge that it takes money to fight money? Yet, Brown – married to a conservative GOP donor – blundered when Colbert pressed her to identify her money train. During the taping, several moms peacefully protested outside, waving handmade placards decrying Brown’s efforts. These moms were likely aligned with teachers unions, but they had every right to challenge her.

Brown declined to identify her donors, saying, “I’m not gonna reveal who the donors are because the [protesters are] trying to silence our parents who want to have a voice in this debate.” It didn’t take long for her opponents to emphasize she was the one speaking on national television. Brown elaborated, “[Opponents are] going to go after people who are funding this, and I think this is a good cause … and if someone wants to contribute to this cause without having to put their name on it so they can become a target of the … [protesters] then I respect that.”

Be honest and transparent with the public, Campbell. Those big donors aren’t exactly helpless, and protecting the injection of “secret, dark money” in any campaign only backfires. We just saw a court challenge in California over big money from unidentified sources influencing a 2012 ballot initiative I actually supported on its merits. Sadly, the “dark” money hurt the cause because the opposition successfully maneuvered public opinion to focus on the money trail, not the issue. Silence won’t help the cause. Open up the books.

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.

Union opt-out campaigns log incremental gains, but two court cases could change the rules

Whenever anyone suggests that public sector unions are forcing their members to make political contributions, the unions retort that the contributions are strictly voluntary. Technically speaking, this is true, but the tedious process of opting out of making political contributions is a powerful deterrent.

The California Teachers Association, for example, allow their members to become “agency fee payers,” which means they no longer belong to the CTA, do not have to make political contributions, and merely need to pay their “fair share” of the collecting bargaining expenses from which they still presumably benefit. But even if a CTA member has served written notice and been given agency fee payer status, they still will have 100% of the regular union dues withheld from their paycheck as full members; about $1,200 per year. They then have to request, in writing, between Sept. 1st and Nov. 15th every year, that the CTA issue them a check for the portion of their dues that was used for political spending.

This amounts to a rigged system that ensures that very few CTA members bother to opt-out, and even fewer manage to consistently recover their political contributions. Once a CTA member achieves agency fee payer status, they have to actively request a refund of their political contributions every year. But they are permanently excluded from the ability to participate in CTA leadership elections, and they are permanently excluded from being able to have the liability insurance coverage provided to full CTA members. While good alternative coverage can be found from reputable providers at a competitive price, this is yet another deterrent to choosing to become an agency fee payer. And, not insignificantly, those teachers who opt to become agency fee payers face harassment by those among their colleagues who enthusiastically support the CTA’s politics.

A few months ago the California Public Policy Center, in partnership with the California Teachers Empowerment Network, launched the California Teacher Freedom project. If you are a member of the California Teachers Association, the California Federation of Teachers, or the United Teachers of Los Angeles, and you want to opt-out of paying political dues, go to www.CaliforniaTeacherFreedom.com and you will get very specific instructions.

But why should the process be this difficult in the first place? How many people are going to go to this much trouble?

This is a rigged system. Even if an “opt-out” information campaign were spectacularly successful, the CTA’s political machine would still be intact. And those who opted out would not be participating, collectively, in some equally potent, countervailing political machine that might oppose CTA politics. The vast majority of CTA members would still be feeding the machine, year after year, a machine that fights virtually all significant bipartisan education reforms. And even those who had opted-out would still be paying a net dues equal to about 70% of full dues, money that is deployed in soft political spending and “educational” campaigns. The CTA collects and spends well over $300 million per year.

Because the process is tedious and invites retaliation, while leaving the CTA’s nearly omnipotent political machine completely intact, helping individual teachers opt-out of paying their political dues is about as “incremental” as incremental can get. But while incremental reformers search for ideas that may attract a viable political coalition, there are cases unfolding in the courts that merit close attention. Two of the most promising are in California.

In Friedrichs vs the CTA, as reported earlier this year in an excellent analysis by Peter Scheer entitled “New 1st amendment case poses existential threat to public employee unions,” a favorable ruling could not only convert all political dues from “opt-out” to “opt-in” (i.e., the union would have to annually elicit voluntary contributions from members), but it may also call into question whether or not any dues could be forcibly withheld. Sheer writes:

“The theory of the lawsuit filed, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, is that an opt out procedure is constitutionally defective because it compels employees to make a loan to the union for its political activities, and because even the unions’ supposedly nonpolitical activities–such as opposition to charter schools or support for higher taxes to pay for pension benefits–are fraught with political and ideological choices that are objectionable to some employees.”

The other case, Vergara vs. California, could fundamentally change public education in California. According to the fact sheet posted on the website of an organization supporting the lawsuit, Students Matter, a favorable ruling would fundamentally change policies with respect to teacher tenure, dismissals, seniority, and evaluations, all areas where union work-rules have prevented effective management of public schools.

There are a lot of fine teachers in California’s public schools who are disillusioned with the unions they are forced to financially support. They should review the information and instructions compiled by the California Teacher Freedom project and consider becoming agency fee payers (political objectors) or even religious objectors. But they should also take heart from these court cases. Fundamental changes could be coming.

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Ed Ring is the Executive Director of the California Public Policy Center.

Momentum Shifts in Fight to Fire Bad Teachers

Thank you, Gov. Jerry Brown.

The governor on Thursday sided with California parents seeking to protect their children from sexual predators in the classroom, over the interests of the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers seeking to protect their members by circumventing and defeating the most significant lawsuit – Vergara vs. California – challenging California statutes – including teacher dismissal laws – impeding educational opportunities for children but arduously protected by CTA and CFT.

The governor vetoed Assembly Bill 375.

AB375, by Democratic Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Joan Buchanan, intended, ostensibly, to streamline the process by which bad teachers can be dismissed. It was hastily introduced this session after a stronger bill had been killed last year at the behest of the CTA. Following a public outcry over that bill’s demise, even CTA understood the need for damage control, given sex abuse scandals involving teachers in the state’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified. Faced with a practical inability to fire bad teachers, LAUSD officials resorted to paying them to go away – including paying millions to settle misconduct lawsuits.

From the start, AB375 was a “Rosemary’s Baby” bill: ghostwritten by the CTA, replete with protections for its members at the expense of children. It contained a “get out of jail free” card that limited the timeframe for adjudicating misconduct cases. It created new layers of protections for teachers in a process already stacked in their favor. It even limited the number of witnesses who could be deposed.

In sum, it was a phony “reform” bill. But, given the intervention of Democratic legislative leaders, it was fast-tracked to the governor’s desk with the expectation that he would simply sign it.

Then, while the bill was still pending with the governor, proponents committed a major miscalculation in assuming the governor was in their pocket. The teachers unions – supported by California Attorney General Kamala Harris and other state officials – filed motions in Los Angeles Superior Court to immediately dismiss the Vergara lawsuit. Trial is scheduled for 2014.

Shame on them, for nothing less than political malfeasance.

But this time, their chutzpah backfired, thanks to the rag tag army of parents, education reformers, administrators and school board members who called upon the governor to veto the bill. The governor – who had already signed AB484 – another flawed bill favored by the unions – refused to sign AB375.

Now what? Existing law on teacher dismissals must still be changed, but power has shifted to reformers seeking protections for children. When the Legislature reconvenes in January, it will mark a rare opportunity to see an emboldened alignment of reform forces willing to take on the fight in virtually every branch of government: a legislative strategy will be launched anew – but one that cannot be beholden to merely protecting bad teachers, as was AB375.

This legislative battle will unfold during an election cycle, when the public can clearly see the flow of money and whether legislators are looking out for kids rather than their campaign coffers.

Judicially, the Vergara case will proceed, signaling that parents are increasingly turning to this key branch of government to remedy the persistent failures of the Legislature to write bills that benefit families – rather than lawmakers’ financial benefactors.

And, finally, 2014 affords the people a chance to launch our own ballot initiative to write protections for our children, who are – as stated in our state Constitution – guaranteed safety. The simultaneous launching of an initiative can be a powerful political tool to hold legislators accountable to do the right thing.

Rarely, is there such an alignment of “the stars” in the political process.

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.