Powerful Teachers Union Is in the Thick of Ballot Battles
Employing a political war chest on a par with those of major parties, the California Teachers Assn. is used to being in the thick of campaigns. But on a muggy Monday morning at the end of July, when most of their peers were on vacation, hundreds of teachers gathered at UCLA were reminded that they were now targets as much as participants.
“There are people in this state who are trying to portray us as something that has nothing to do with children, nothing to do with students and everything to do with greed,” the union’s president, Barbara Kerr, told organizers and negotiators attending an annual summer training institute. “And they are wrong.”
California’s largest teachers union is, depending on where one stands, either the epitome of labor’s stranglehold on the state Capitol or one of the few lobbies strong enough to champion education against Sacramento’s more moneyed interests.
In the Nov. 8 election, the 335,000-member union has more at stake than perhaps any other group. Initiatives that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has endorsed would delay teacher tenure and could curb spending on schools. He is also taking on labor by backing Proposition 75, which could restrict public employee unions’ participation in political campaigns.
Characteristically, the teachers union has gone on the offensive. It is the biggest underwriter of this year’s opposition to Schwarzenegger and the ballot measures he favors, directing $45 million to the fight so far.
Spending vast sums is nothing new for the union, which says the state’s immense power in dictating how schools are run and funded makes a strong presence in Sacramento essential. From 2000 to 2004, the association laid out more than $70 million for politics and lobbying, campaign finance records show -- an average of $42 a year for most union members.
In the Legislature and at the polls, the union has pressed for more education spending and smaller classes, and kept private-school vouchers at bay. It has fought to limit the spread of charter schools and restrict testing requirements for teachers and students. It has also advocated an agenda that goes far beyond school halls to encompass California’s healthcare system and taxes.
“I can’t think of an education-related or a budget-related initiative over the last 15 years where CTA hasn’t been one of the major players,” said Dan Schnur, a Republican political strategist. “People like teachers, and voters listen to what they think teachers are telling them. Add that overall positive reputation to a huge pile of money, and you’ve got a pretty formidable political force.”
The union’s muscle has inspired resentment and criticism, not just from Republicans but also from some of the group’s traditional allies. Though Democrats are the recipients of almost all the union’s candidate donations, some of them describe the association’s style as antagonistic and its demands as absolutist. They say both have hindered efforts to rethink how California schools work and are financed.
“There’s a certain bureaucratic rigidity in [the union’s leadership] that I don’t think is constructive,” said Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland).
Earlier this year the union erected a billboard in Perata’s district reading, “Shame on you,” and deluged his constituents with critical mail, after he suggested that lawmakers consider tinkering with Proposition 98. That union-sponsored 1988 law guarantees a significant share of state revenue for education.
“They’re the ones that conceived of it, and they protect it like a lion protects its cubs,” said Perata, a former teacher and union shop steward. “If you even broach the issue, they attack you.”
The union’s self-confidence is bolstered by its campaign kitty, which finances a political apparatus like that of a political party. The association conducts polls, runs its own phone banks, gathers petitions for initiatives and registers voters.
The group retains a top Sacramento consultant, Gale Kaufman, whose client list includes the Democratic leadership of the Assembly. That body is widely considered to be the most sympathetic forum for the union.
“They’ve been a very reliable entity that focuses on making sure we get good teachers in the schools,” said Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles). “They have always moved the ball forward, but always knowing they have to be agents of change, not those who promote and perpetuate the status quo.”
Years before Schwarzenegger called this election, the union had aimed most of its money at ballot initiatives. It expended $21 million to defeat a 2000 school voucher initiative, the most it has spent on any campaign in this decade.
The union also dedicated more than $9 million to successfully persuading voters to approve two statewide school construction bonds worth a combined $25 billion. In an alliance that now has more than a little irony, the association gave $500,000 to Schwarzenegger’s 2002 initiative to fund after-school programs. It also financed a successful ballot measure that made it easier for local school bond issues to gain approval.
Although recent campaign finance restrictions have reduced the amounts that can be given to candidates, the teachers association has devoted at least $640,000 to a multi-union effort to independently boost a few candidates each year in competitive races. Every candidate whom the teachers endorsed last November was a Democrat.
Since 2000, the union has spent $10 million to support local bond issues, school board candidates and contenders for the state Legislature, where, records show, proposals that the association dislikes rarely become law.
This year, none of the 14 bills that the union opposed made it out of the Legislature, except with changes that placated the group and its allies.
“Most of the Senate and Assembly education committees are wholly owned subsidiaries of the California teachers union,” said Assemblyman Ray Haynes, a veteran Republican from Murrieta. “Any bill they oppose dies.”
The union’s sway is not absolute, particularly when it is trying to create new laws rather than simply protecting existing ones. In 2002, it tried to push through a bill that would have included curriculum decisions in collective bargaining -- a move that could have greatly extended the union’s influence. Denounced by editorial boards and others, the effort ultimately died.
“What we were trying to do was put decision-making back between local teachers and local school boards, and we freaked out the world,” Kerr said.
Also that year, the Legislature suspended a teacher tax credit worth up to $1,500 annually. Despite union pleadings, lawmakers have not restored it.
In the 2003-04 legislative session, three of nine bills that the union asked for were enacted; all concerned teacher pay and benefits.
This year, the Legislature approved the one bill that the union sponsored, requiring the state to repay $500 million that lawmakers cut from the state teachers’ retirement fund in 2003.
“They’re a labor union, and they have priorities,” said Jim Aschwanden, a former union member who spent 12 years heading a group that promotes the teaching of agriculture. “CTA is never going to fall off the fence on the side of kids if they see any potential for the almighty dollar to go to teachers’ salaries and benefits.”
Kerr disputed that the union’s political contributions accounted for its political successes.
“The money for individual legislators is not as important as the teacher support, the teacher name and the fact that we are good voting constituents in their areas,” she said in an interview. “If there are people [in the Legislature] who are not happy with us, I guess it just sort of goes to show we’re not in each others’ pockets.”
Schwarzenegger spokesman Rob Stutzman said the governor’s call for a special election was motivated in part by the union’s “undue influence” over lawmakers.
“The governor’s experience was he could not successfully negotiate bipartisan reform -- budget reform in particular -- because the CTA did not allow legislative leaders to come to an agreement,” Stutzman said.
The union also had a tempestuous relationship with former Gov. Gray Davis, whom it did not endorse when he ran in the 1998 Democratic primary, although it became his largest single donor in the general election, giving nearly $1 million.
Garry South, who was Davis’ chief strategist, said Schwarzenegger made a serious error in taking on the union. In January, the governor called his efforts to change teacher hiring and pay rules “a battle of the special interests versus the children’s interests.”
“They’ll turn it around and make it look like you’re attacking the 60-year-old teacher who buys her own erasers,” South said.
Former legislator Dede Alpert of San Diego, the longtime Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said that in 1993 the union tried to block a proposal of hers to allow students to choose which public school to attend, until a voucher initiative qualified for the ballot.
“School choice was a legitimate issue, but they stymied it for years until they saw something worse out there,” said Alpert, who, despite her differences with the union, received donations from it.
“I think, on balance, they’re a positive influence and have a positive role to play,” she said, “as long as not only legislators but school systems remember that the primary function of a group like CTA is to protect the workplace for teachers. And that’s not the same as improving education for children. Sometimes they dovetail and sometimes they don’t.”
To some, the union’s aggressiveness is refreshing.
“They seem to call it as they see it, and aren’t afraid to take on whomever is in charge,” said Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a Santa Monica advocacy group.
For all the efforts of the union and its smaller rival, the California Federation of Teachers, the state’s schools still lag behind the national average in per-pupil spending, and classes are larger than most in other states.
The average teacher earned $56,444 in the last school year. Although that was more than their peers made in most other states, a recent Rand Corp. study concluded that it ranked below the national average when adjusted for California’s high cost of living.
When Schwarzenegger was new in office, the union initially was conciliatory. The teachers association infuriated Democratic legislators last year by agreeing to accept less money than schools would receive under the Proposition 98 funding formula in exchange for the governor’s commitment to make it up in subsequent years.
This year, he left the school cuts in place, prompting the union to attack him and say he broke his word. He further enraged the association by proposing a state spending cap -- Proposition 76 on the Nov. 8 ballot -- that could cost schools billions of dollars in coming years.
“By making the deals and getting to the point where he had to keep his promise and he broke it, frankly he showed his hand earlier than he planned to,” Kerr said. “We will get that money back.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
From 2000 to 2004, the California Teachers Assn. spent more than $70 million on politics and lobbying, including $46.9 million on initiative campaigns. Here are the initiatives on which the union spent the most money:
Initiative: Allow private school vouchers
CTA spending: $21.2 million
CTA position: No
Result: Proposition 38 failed
Initiative: $12.3-billion school bond
CTA spending: $4.7 million
CTA position: Yes
Result: Proposition 55 passed
Initiative: $13-billion school bond
CTA spending: $4.4 million
CTA position: Yes
Result: Proposition 47 passed
Initiative: Raise taxes on commercial property for education
CTA spending: $2.4 million
CTA position: Yes
Result: Initiative not submitted
Initiative: Allow Legislature to raise taxes with 55% vote instead of two-thirds
CTA spending: $2.4 million
CTA position: Yes
Result: Proposition 56 failed
Initiative: Prohibit the use of race or ethnicity in classifying students or employees
CTA spending: $1.7 million
CTA position: No
Result: Proposition 54 failed
Here’s how the California Teachers Assn. has divvied up its political spending:
CTA spending by subject, 2000-04
Ballot initiatives: $46.9 million
Lobbying: $13.6 million
Local and state candidates: $10 million
Source: California secretary of state
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