Editor’s note: This is the last post in our series on the Democratic Party’s growing divide over ed reform and ed choice.
by Gloria Romero
While in the belly of the beast of government, I had a front row seat on how the wheels of government are greased to function for politically connected interests. Over time, I chose not to just be a cog in the ever-churning wheel of special interests and status quo, from both the left and the right. I saw a political system, led by Democrats, that was all too willing to ignore the needs of ordinary citizens, particularly the poor and minority kids I represented in East Los Angeles.
There is no aspect of state government operations or public policy in California, particularly education policy and budgeting, that is untouched by the power of the California Teachers Association (CTA) and its affiliates in Sacramento. With approximately 300,000 members, each paying some $1,000 a year in dues, it commands the most powerful war chest in California, raising over $300 million annually to finance its operations. From 2000-2010, CTA spent over $210 million on political campaigning — more than any other donor in the state, even outspending the pharmaceutical, oil, and tobacco industries combined.
Its political war chest is legendary. It dominates elections, including school board races in which voter turnout is anemic, often less than 10 percent. Political consultants fear crossing them because of the potential to be “blacklisted.” Almost half the entire California budget funds education thanks to Proposition 98, a 1988 initiative crafted by CTA. Democratic legislators fear interfering with it even though few understand how the formula functions.
Former Democratic Senate President Don Perata was one of the few to challenge it, comparing it to a “runaway escalator.” In retribution, CTA ran ads against him. It was not interested in “taking him out”; rather, the message was akin to sending dead fish to fellow caucus members so they would have to choose loyalty: their own president or CTA.
Former CTA staffers are ensconced in legislative leadership offices. Legislation benefiting their membership flies through the Capitol. Indeed, class size reduction was sold to voters as “benefiting kids.” In fact, it has more so grown the numbers of dues-paying members rather than improved the academic skills of, particularly, poor and minority children.
California teachers are amongst the highest-paid in the nation; yet, there is little accountability for student achievement or teacher performance. Laws make it almost impossible to fire teachers for incompetence or misconduct. Charter schools, mostly non-union, are attacked by the teachers unions. Any hint of privatization, including opportunity scholarships for kids in failing schools, are “off the table.” The 2010 Parent Empowerment Act I wrote, giving parents unprecedented tools to fight for their kid, like parent trigger and open enrollment, continues to be vilified.
Money flows to those who control the levers of power, and in California that means Democrats.
In this election cycle, minority Democratic candidates seeking CTA’s blessing decline to support the Vergara v. California children; after all, there’s not a money pipeline from kids. California’s Democratic African-American attorney general is filing briefs defending CTA against the Vergara children. One does not make the decision to “cross” powerful interests lightly for recrimination is swift.
Ironically, Latinos and African-Americans, the very base of the Democratic Party, are the ones trapped in chronically underperforming schools. Frustrated with the Democratic-controlled Legislature’s inaction, parents increasingly are turning to the courts for relief in a new era of an education civil rights movement.
Changing the Democratic Party platform, and cutting umbilical cords to the special interests that control the educational outcomes of poor and minority children, is critical. More and more Democrats are willing to step up to the plate. We’ve seen the rise of education reform organizations, and they’ve had some good success. But while many efforts are to be lauded, all too often they amount to tinkering. Complicating their efforts is the fact that their organizational staff and structure remain disturbingly non-diverse and not reflective of the rich ethnic and racial demographic base of the Democratic Party.
Not standing still are parents. Mostly black and brown parents, largely Democratic-leaning, are uniting to demand change. They are banding together to file historic litigation demanding changes to zip code laws restricting kids to inferior schools, or demanding changes to teacher employment and dismissal laws which all too easily render the most ineffective teachers in the classrooms of poor and minority kids. As parents first, they are stepping forward to assert their profound understanding that education is the path to the American Dream, and that they want to secure this for their children.
Can the Democratic Party ever change? I think so, or I wouldn’t be in this fight.
But in addition to taking our fight out of the legislative arena (where we will never easily win) and into the judicial arena (where money from CTA becomes impotent), we also need to fundamentally alter the flow of money and complete domination of CTA in the electoral arena. That’s why I took the bold step up supporting California’s Proposition 32 on the 2012 ballot, which would have given union members themselves the right to direct where and to whom they wish to direct the political portion of their dues. That’s why I support the Friedrichs v. California lawsuit slowing winding its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Restoration of democratic unionism is needed to reshape our party. Only when the mother’s milk of politics, money, funneled from powerful teachers unions, is fundamentally altered will we see the Democratic Party, finally, beginning to advocate for the base of its own party on education equality and access.
Gloria Romero is founder of the California Center for Parent Empowerment. Portions of this post were first published in a column by Romero in the San Diego Union Register.
Read the rest of the Dem Divide series below
Ben Austin: Democratic leaders will follow parents on ed reform, eventually
Richard Whitmire: Houston & D.C. offer paths for ed reform Democrats
Joe Williams: Suburbs hold key to resolving Dem tensions over school choice
Myles Mendoza: Rahm Emanuel offers lesson for Democrats on ed reform
Rep. Marcus Brandon: African-Americans must blaze own path on school choice, ed reform
Doug Tuthill: New type of teacher union is key to relieving Democratic tensions