California’s education tailspin has been blamed on class sizes, on the property tax restrictions enforced by Proposition 13, on an influx of Spanish-speaking students. But no portrait of the schools’ downfall would be complete without mention of the California Teachers Assn., or CTA, arguably the state’s most powerful union and a political behemoth that has blocked meaningful education reform, protected failing and even criminal educators, and pushed for pay raises and benefits that have reached unsustainable levels.
The CTA’s power dates back to September 1975, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Rodda Act, which allowed teachers to bargain collectively. Within 18 months, 600 of the 1,000 local CTA chapters — up to then a professional organization — had moved to collective bargaining. As the union’s power grew, its ranks nearly doubled, from 170,000 in the late 1970s to about 325,000 today. By following the union’s directions and voting in blocs in low-turnout school board elections, teachers were often able to handpick their own supervisors. Further, the organization that had once forsworn the strike began taking to the picket lines. In the years since Rodda’s passage, the CTA has launched more than 170 strikes.
The CTA’s most important resource, however, isn’t a pool of workers ready to strike; it’s a fat bank account fed by mandatory dues that can run to more than $1,000 per member. In 2009, the union’s income was more than $186 million, all of it tax exempt. The CTA doesn’t need its members’ consent to spend this money on politicking. According to figures from the California Fair Political Practices Commission (a public institution) in 2010, the CTA had spent more than $210 million over the previous decade on political campaigning — more than any other donor in the state.
All this money has helped the union rack up an imposing number of victories. The first major win came in 1988, with the passage of Proposition 98. That initiative required California to spend more than 40% of its annual budget on education in grades K-12 and community college. The spending quota eliminated schools’ incentive to get value out of every dollar: Because funding was locked in — unless state revenues dipped — there was no need to make things run cost-effectively. Thanks to union influence on local school boards, much of the extra money — about $450 million a year — went straight into teachers’ salaries.
In the early 1990s, the CTA took to the ramparts again to combat Proposition 174, a ballot initiative that would have made California a national leader in school choice by giving families universal access to school vouchers. First it worked to keep the measure off the ballot: “There are some proposals that are so evil that they should never go before the voters,” explained D.A. Weber, the CTA’s president. When it finally qualified for the ballot despite the CTA’s efforts, the union spent more than $6 million to ensure its defeat.
The union’s steady supply of cash allowed it to continue its quest for political dominance unabated. In 1998, it spent nearly $7 million to defeat Proposition 8 — which would have used student performance as a criterion for teacher reviews and would have required educators to pass credentialing examinations in their disciplines — and more than
$2 million in a failed attempt to block Proposition 227, which eliminated bilingual education in public schools. In 2002, the union spent $26 million to defeat Proposition 38, another school voucher proposal. And in 2005, with a special election called by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger looming, the CTA came up with $58 million — even going so far as to mortgage its Sacramento headquarters — to defeat initiatives that would have capped the growth of state spending, made it easier to fire underperforming teachers and required unions to get their members’ consent before using dues for political purposes.
One outcome of the CTA’s generosity to the Democrats who control California’s Legislature, combined with its hard-ball negotiating style, is that teachers in California — even terrible ones — are virtually never fired. A tiny 0.03% of California teachers are dismissed after three or more years on the job. In the last decade, the L.A. Unified School District, home to 33,000 teachers, has fired only four. Even when teachers are fired, it’s seldom because of their classroom performance: A 2009 expose by this newspaper found that only 20% of successful dismissals in the state had anything to do with teaching ability. Most involved teachers behaving either obscenely or criminally.
Meanwhile, California’s teachers are the most highly paid in the nation, with an average annual salary of $68,000. That’s for an average annual workload of 180 days, only two-thirds the average total of days worked in the private sector. And don’t forget retirement benefits: After 30 years, a California teacher may retire with a pension equal to about 75% of his working salary. California teacher pensions average more than $51,000 a year — more than working teachers earn in more than half the states in the nation.
Meaningful change probably won’t come from elected officials, at least for now. The CTA’s size, financial resources and influence with the state’s Democratic Party are enough to kill most pieces of hostile legislation. Nevertheless, there are some encouraging stirrings. Parents in groups such as Parent Revolution are starting to revolt against CTA orthodoxy, and unlike elected officials, parents are hard for the union to demonize. The state’s many excellent charter schools have demonstrated that another way is possible, and they are growing in strength by the day.
These efforts have reframed the education question in starkly humanitarian terms: In the California public school system, are anyone’s interests more important than the students’? It was a question that the CTA itself might have asked back when teachers entered the classroom to “teach good citizenship.”
Troy Senik is a senior fellow at the Center for Individual Freedom and an editor at Ricochet.com. This piece was adapted from the spring issue of City Journal.