The way Gov. Jerry Brown sees it, California has upended the nation's practice of shortchanging the schools of poor and minority students.
"Those who have the biggest challenge, they need the most money," Brown told an American Federation of Teachers convention Friday in downtown Los Angeles.
But Neel Kashkari, the governor's Republican challenger in November, told reporters outside that Brown had insulted the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by staying silent on a recent court finding that teacher job protections violate the equal education rights of the state's poor and minority children.
"He has a choice between fighting for poor and minority kids or fighting on behalf of the fat union bosses who fund his campaigns," said Kashkari, who urged Brown not to appeal the ruling.
The clashing portrayals of Brown's record highlight one of the sharpest contrasts between the three-term Democratic incumbent and the former investment banker who's trying to oust him. While Brown takes credit for steering huge sums of money to California students who he says need it the most, Kashkari says scaling back teacher job protections is more important than new spending.
The conflict illustrates how last month's landmark ruling in Vergara vs. California — a major setback for teachers unions — has offered Kashkari a few sorely needed openings.
It gives him a chance to challenge Brown's credibility on public education among Latinos and African Americans — key Democratic constituencies in California. It lets Kashkari call attention to Brown's heavy reliance on campaign money from public employee unions. And it helps Kashkari's effort to rebrand a state Republican Party struggling to remake its image as a shrinking bastion of older white conservatives.
"The Vergara case is very personal for me because I was a brown kid, a minority kid and from an immigrant family," said Kashkari, whose parents migrated from India.
In his June 10 ruling, L.A. County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu found that teacher job security laws kept thousands of grossly ineffective instructors in the classrooms of mainly poor and minority children. "The evidence is compelling," he wrote in a passage quoted by Kashkari on Friday. "Indeed, it shocks the conscience."
Brown has said nothing publicly about the ruling.
"His silence is offensive, and it betrays the legacy of Dr. King," Kashkari said.
Urging Brown and state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris to let the Vergara ruling stand, Kashkari recalled that they declined to defend Proposition 8, the ballot measure outlawing same-sex marriage, which was ultimately struck down.
Laws nullified by the Vergara decision granted strong tenure protections to teachers after about 18 months on the job. Kashkari sidestepped whether teachers should get tenure at all, but hinted that perhaps they should not.
"A lot of professions are at-will," he said. "I think there's a lot of merit in at-will."
Backers of the Vergara litigation have not echoed Kashkari's criticism.
"We believe the governor's absence of comment is significant in that it reflects how seriously the state is reviewing the ruling," said Manny Rivera, a spokesman for the Vergara plaintiffs.
Teachers unions spent $2.4 million on Brown's 2010 run for governor and have donated $114,000 to his reelection campaign. They also spent $3.6 million on the 2012 campaign he led for Proposition 30, which imposed temporary tax hikes to generate billions of dollars to close state budget shortfalls. Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said the money had no influence on Brown's public silence on the ruling.
In his remarks to the 3,500 convention delegates, Brown said the teachers federation had "made a big, big difference" in passing Proposition 30, thus avoiding major cuts to public schools.
"I want to thank you for that," he said, adding: "If we can't pay for the classroom and the teacher and the materials, then we're not going to accomplish very much."
Had voters rejected Proposition 30, the state budget would have imposed $5.9 billion in immediate cuts to public schools, colleges and universities.
Kashkari, who opposed the measure, suggested the reductions would not have harmed schools.
"Just pouring more money into the same old education system does not yield better results," he said.
Brown argues that he is not focused solely on giving schools more money. He notes that he pushed the Legislature to alter the way the state distributes and spends the new funding.
The revised formula provides extra money for students from low-income families, those learning to speak English and those in foster care. Also, school districts are required to show that spending is having a positive effect.
Brown has tried to ignore Kashkari since the former assistant U.S. Treasury secretary emerged from the June 3 primary as his opponent in the general election. In his remarks to the teachers, Brown avoided even a rhetorical nod to his rival, but acknowledged broader conflicts over school policy.
"Education has been controversial for thousands of years," he said. "So the disputes aren't going to end."