Union power on the ballot
By: Stephanie Simon, Politico | http://politi.co/1tjLnG4
October 29, 2014 05:08 AM EDT :: LOS ANGELES — It’s not often that interest groups pour millions into a nonpartisan race for a political office with little real power.
But the campaign for California superintendent of public instruction is on pace to be the most expensive contest in the state this cycle, with total spending likely to hit $25 million.
That’s because more than education policy is at stake: The race has become a highly symbolic fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party — and is shaping up to be major test of waning teachers union power.
Two Democrats are battling for the superintendent seat. The incumbent, Tom Torlakson, 65, is a former teacher and veteran legislator backed by all the traditional constituencies of a mainline Democratic campaign: Public sector unions, environmentalists, reproductive rights groups and even the party apparatus itself. The California Teachers Association alone has put more than $7 million behind Torlakson.
He faces a tough challenge from former charter school executive Marshall Tuck, 41, a Democrat who has been endorsed by every major newspaper in the state — and by a bipartisan array of wealthy donors.
Real estate magnate William Bloomfield Jr. has spent $3 million to boost Tuck’s candidacy. Former developer Eli Broad has kicked in $1.3 million. Alice Walton, an heir to the Wal-Mart fortune, has contributed at least $450,000 and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has donated $250,000. In one 12-day stretch in mid-October, Tuck’s supporters spent $5.9 million on TV ads.
The result has been a campaign that echoes the same “Main Street vs. Wall Street” divide that has roiled the Democratic Party in recent years.
California is one of a handful of states — New Jersey and New York are others — where teachers unions still have major clout in state legislatures. So analysts say they need to muscle their man into office or risk being seen as impotent in one of their few remaining strongholds.
“You have the last stand here, the inner keep — it’s like when the gates are breached and everyone has to retreat into the inner sanctum,” said David Latterman, a principal with the political consulting firm Fall Line Analytics of San Francisco.
Union leaders are acutely aware of the race’s significance.
“The stakes couldn’t be higher and the differences couldn’t be starker,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which helped pay for a biting online attack against Tuck. Weingarten sees the race in very personal terms: Tuck and “his Wall Street friends,” she said, are out to “silence teachers’ voices.”
The one poll conducted this fall found Tuck with a slight edge, but with 41 percent of voters undecided. It was taken before either side began advertising widely.
Taking on teacher tenure
Tuck takes pains to say he’s not anti-union; he fully supports collective bargaining rights. But he’s not shy about attacking the CTA for its tireless — and largely successful — efforts to enshrine teacher job protections into state law.
Tuck aims to abolish seniority-based layoffs, which can protect veteran teachers even if they have poor performance reviews. He would also like to double, triple or quadruple the number of years teachers must work before they can even think about earning tenure.
He also says flatly that the state Democratic Party is too beholden to the CTA, which has seven lobbyists in Sacramento and has spent about $170 million on political campaigns in California since 2000, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
“The status quo does need to fundamentally change,” Tuck said between bites of a turkey sandwich as his campaign van bounced through the rutted streets of Los Angeles.
Tuck’s election would force that shift, pundits said.
“If you’re a Democratic candidate in California, you don’t want to cross the teachers union,” said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a public policy professor at the University of Southern California. “The message of a loss by Torlakson would be: Well, maybe you can.”
The unions would still have allies, of course, as well as plenty of money and manpower. But they’d clearly be weakened, Jeffe said — and “in politics, perception is reality.” A loss in California “could very well translate into a decrease in the influence of teachers unions in Democratic politics” nationally, she said.
Ben Austin, a longtime Democratic operative who now runs an education reform group and backs Tuck, served up a more colorful metaphor. “A lot of thinking Democrats will wake up the morning after this election,” he said, “and recognize that the emperor has no clothes.”
Crossing the teachers unions
Across the country, many Democrats have already made a declaration of independence from teachers unions.
The list of powerful Democrats who have crossed the teachers unions is long and getting longer daily — and it starts at the top, with President Barack Obama; his secretary of education, Arne Duncan; and his former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago. All have promoted policies that infuriate the unions, such as expanding the private management of public schools and insisting that teachers be evaluated in part by their students’ test scores.
Those policies have now become so mainstream within the Democratic Party, especially within the younger generation of politicians, that teachers unions have found themselves with few options in many races. Union leaders can either sit on their hands — as they are largely doing in New York, unable to bring themselves to back Gov. Andrew Cuomo — or they can grit their teeth and work for Democratic candidates who espouse education policies they find profoundly wrongheaded.
In New Jersey, for instance, the big teachers union recently endorsed Sen. Cory Booker for reelection, though he is one of the most ardent education reformers in the Democratic Party. Unlike most of his fellow Democrats, Booker even backs vouchers — public subsidies to help parents pay tuition at private and religious schools.
Teachers unions have won a couple of big victories of late, most notably in New York City, where they helped boost old-style liberal Bill de Blasio to victory in a crowded Democratic mayoral primary. And national labor leaders such as Weingarten believe they’re steadily building public support for an agenda of more school funding, less standardized testing and more autonomy for teachers.
But unions are also contending with declining membership, falling revenue and internal divisions. “You’re seeing a gradual erosion of union power,” Latterman said.
Standoff with the feds
CTA President Dean Vogel has little patience for talk about the national significance of the superintendent’s race. A referendum on union power? He doesn’t buy it.
In his mind, the contest is about who has the best vision for California’s 6.2 million public school students, plain and simple.
On the one hand, there’s Tuck, whom Vogel describes as a “Wall Street financial guy” peddling a “crazy corporate agenda” for running schools like a business. (Tuck did work as an investment banker fresh out of college, but resents the union’s attempt to define him by that job. He left finance after just two years, spent a year traveling the globe, including a stint teaching in Zimbabwe, briefly worked for a Silicon Valley startup, then decided to devote his career to education.)
Torlakson has a more straightforward career path: He worked as a high school science teacher for seven years before turning to politics. “Working with him has been very powerful,” Vogel said, “because we speak the same language.”
Torlakson, with the CTA’s backing, has resisted the education reform policies coming out of Washington.
California is one of the few states that did not adopt policies favored by the Obama administration to get a federal waiver from the 2002 No Child Left Behind law. The waiver would have given the state more flexibility in spending federal dollars, but to get it, the state would have had to promise reforms such as tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.
Torlakson also provoked a tense standoff with Education Secretary Duncan when he refused to make California students take the old state standardized tests last spring, saying they would be meaningless since the state was shifting to the new Common Core academic standards. Duncan — a big advocate of test-based accountability — threatened to yank federal funding from the state.
Torlakson stood his ground, however, and eventually Duncan backed off. The upshot: Students across California got to take a pilot version of the new Common Core tests instead, to help them and their teachers prepare for next spring’s exams.
In his campaign, Torlakson has emphasized his independence from Washington and his efforts to push more decisions to local school districts, instead of dictating from Sacramento. He points to an increase in graduation rates under his tenure and notes with pride that California had the highest improvement rate in the country on eighth grade reading scores on the most recent national assessments.
There’s more to be done, he says, but he’s put the state on the right path. “People know me, trust me, trust my judgment,” he said.
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Sharp policy divide in schools chief race
By: Stephanie Simon - POLITICO.com http://politi.co/1FWHU77
October 29, 2014 12:20 AM EDT :: The candidates for California superintendent of public instruction are both Democrats. But they have plenty of substantive policy differences. Here’s a look at a few of the issues that divide incumbent Tom Torlakson and former charter school executive Marshall Tuck.
The Ed Code
Tuck was delighted to see a copy of the California Education Code waiting for him at a recent campaign stop. It’s one of his favorite props. He likes to hold up the heavy book — it’s easily six inches thick — and vow to winnow it way down to cut the bureaucracy and return power to local districts. Without all that paperwork, he says, principals will be free to do the work that really matters — mentoring teachers, communicating with parents and keeping students on track.
Such promises make Torlakson smile. He says he’s all for eliminating red tape: As a legislator and as superintendent, he backed bills that cut onerous rules in 37 programs outlined in the Ed Code, freeing up $13 billion for districts to use as they see fit.
But the code isn’t 2,000 pages of pointless bureaucracy, he says. It includes building safety requirements, anti-bullying policies and laws that give the superintendent the power to handle emergencies like an earthquake destroying a school. He’d like to see Tuck try to get rid of those.
The Vergara verdict
Tuck has fully embraced the landmark Vergara verdict, which struck down California’s teacher tenure and dismissal laws as unconstitutional. Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu said the laws doomed too many children to inferior educations by protecting incompetent teachers. “Indeed,” he wrote, “it shocks the conscience.” Tuck, who has been endorsed by several Vergara plaintiffs, has cited the ruling as a clarion call to reform. Teachers can now get tenure after less than two years in the classroom. Tuck would like to see it take four to eight years. He also wants to abolish seniority protections during layoffs.
Torlakson calls the Vergara verdict “flawed legally and flawed on facts” and he is appealing it. He hedges when asked if the tenure should be reformed. “My opponent puts an over-emphasis on hunting for bad teachers,” he says. “Blaming teachers is not the way to solve our education problems.” Pressed on the propriety of using seniority to guide layoff decisions, he says research has shown that experienced teachers tend to do better than rookies. And he says the best solution of all is to maintain school funding so layoffs are not necessary. “I’m against layoffs,” he says.
No Child Left Behind waivers
In Torlakson’s first term, California became one of the few states to refuse to tweak its education policy the way the Obama administration wanted in exchange for a waiver from No Child Left Behind. Torlakson said the reforms the federal government demanded were unacceptable. They would have cost the state $2 billion to carry out, he said. And they would have required him to impose policies that he believes are wrong for California, such as requiring teachers to be evaluated in part by their students’ test scores.
Torlakson did sign on when a handful of local districts asked for — and received — their own waiver; he said that fit with his support for local control. (The California Teachers Association was not happy that he backed the districts.) Overall, though, it’s a point of pride with Torlakson that California did not give into demands from D.C.
Tuck, by contrast, says he will apply for an NCLB waiver at once if he wins election. If he can’t get widespread support to enact the policies the Education Department requires, he says he’ll ask superintendents across the state to band together to seek local waivers. On the touchy issue of teacher evaluations, Tuck says his personal preference is that student achievement scores count for 25 percent to 33 percent, but he would prefer to set a broad framework and let local districts work out their own formulas.
Both candidates say they support an extension of the temporary taxes enacted in 2012 by Proposition 30. The measure, which Torlakson campaigned hard to pass, directed billions of funding to California schools. Torlakson considers his work on Proposition 30 a hallmark of his first term and accuses Tuck of being “missing in action” on that fight.
Tuck says he supported the tax hike and worked to spread the word among parents in Los Angeles. But while he wants an extension, he says he’s certain voters won’t approve it unless they see fundamental reforms to education policy. “We have to streamline the Ed Code and stop fighting Vergara” before going back to voters to ask for more money, he says.
Torlakson has pressed for more career training classes and internships to connect students to the work world. He has also supported expansions of after-school programs.
Tuck prides himself on a “Parent College” he developed in Los Angeles. It offered workshops on topics from early literacy to college applications. He’d like to step up parent engagement programs statewide.
Both candidates talk about their support for a robust curriculum. Torlakson focuses on restoring arts and music, while Tuck promises more civics and foreign language classes.
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A rock star to Big Labor
Union members clearly love Torlakson.
He was treated like a rock star on a recent trip to Carson High School in Los Angeles, where he had agreed to spend several hours doing clerical work so he could get a sense of the challenges school secretaries face.
Torlakson was there on official business, not as a candidate, but secretaries, custodians and clerks asked for his autograph, crowded next to him for pictures, reminded him that they had met at union conventions in years past. He even had to stop one union member from campaigning for him in the school, telling her she couldn’t do that on while on the clock at work.
“He’s a teacher. He’s not a businessman. He gets it. That’s huge,” said Kerry Woods, secretary of the California School Employees Association, which represents office clerks, food service workers and many other school employees.
Asked about the race, Linda Perez, the local CSEA president, could barely even bring herself to mention Tuck’s name. “He doesn’t know anything about anything. He’s a newbie in this business,” she said, disdain sharpening her voice. “How dare he compare himself with Mr. Torlakson?”
Tuck draws his support from a different crowd. He has circulated a campaign video featuring a number of Hollywood celebrities. And he has financial backing from icons of Silicon Valley, including former Facebook president Sean Parker and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs, who has given at least $500,000.
Tuck, who says a spiritual journey led him to work in education, also seems to have an easy rapport with many faith leaders.
On a recent campaign swing in the city of Inglewood, a community just south of Los Angeles, parents and pastors listened approvingly as Tuck reminded them of his experience as president of the Green Dot’s network of urban charter schools and then as CEO of a mayoral initiative to turn around struggling district schools in Los Angeles.
Joe Bowers, a local activist, said it didn’t bother him at all that Tuck had never been a classroom teacher. He liked Tuck’s passion, his business acumen and his plan to cut red tape in Sacramento.
“If you’re looking to hire a CEO, are you going to hire someone from the machine shop, or someone who’s an engineer and knows how to tell the guy in the machine shop what to do?” Bowers asked. “Being a teacher, that’s an admirable profession, but it doesn’t necessarily qualify you to run the state education system.”
Bloomfield, the real estate executive who has spent $3 million to back Tuck, said he was impressed by the candidate’s experience running networks of high poverty schools, many of which made strong gains in test scores and graduation rates.
“I’m not an educator. I don’t have the solutions,” said Bloomfield, a longtime Republican who became an independent a few years ago. “I just know that Marshall Tuck has had success in terms of turning schools around, and God knows we need help in the state of California.”
No ‘skin in the game’
The CTA has attacked Tuck’s wealthy donors as privateers seeking to make money on the backs of kids, but Bloomfield waved away that argument. “No one’s going to profit. No one has any skin in this game other than that we want kids to have the opportunities we had,” he said. “It’s an argument that’s absurd on its face.”
While Tuck is firmly in the education reform camp, he takes a moderate tone on many issues.
He embraces charter schools but does not support them being operated by for-profit management companies. (Green Dot is a nonprofit.) He wants to make tenure much harder to get, but doesn’t seek to abolish it. He believes teachers should be evaluated in part by student test scores, but wouldn’t set a statewide formula; he prefers to leave the details up to local communities. Unlike some of his donors, he does not support vouchers.
Analysts say it would take a political earthquake for Tuck to win, given the unions’ extensive get-out-the-vote effort and their hundreds of thousands of members statewide. But they believe he has a shot.
Even if Tuck loses, the CTA will likely face another major statewide challenge in four years — and not just for the superintendent’s seat.
Two of the names being bandied about as strong Democratic candidates for governor in 2018 — former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson — are both staunch education reformers. Tuck’s race could become a template for them to take on the teachers’ unions.
“We’re out to recalibrate the Democratic Party,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform [See Box at Left], which backs Tuck. Teachers unions, he said, should continue to play a significant role in the party. “We just don’t think they should have a monopoly,” he said.