About a union

Why the California Teachers Association may be in for its worst defeat yet

The education wars are raging as the California Teachers Association (CTA) pours tens of millions of dollars into defeating Propositions 74 and 75 and other reforms backed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger while the governor pours in big bucks of his own.

The real story, however, is that for the first time since the last big war over bilingual education in the 1990s, teachers are sticking their necks out to challenge the CTA.

I still expect a majority of California’s 325,000 teachers to back CTA in the November special election. Many are in political lockstep with CTA, but others are too afraid to risk the cold shoulder in the teachers lounge.

Yet, recently, a group of California teachers joined a lawsuit against the CTA after it charged teachers $180 in extra dues—without a vote by teachers themselves—to fight Arnold. There’s nothing like taxation without representation to awaken a sleeping giant. Recently, two teachers prominently signed their names to an e-mail hitting CTA for spending $50 million in dues on pure politics.

Proposition 74 would require a teacher to have five years of classroom experience instead of just two before earning career tenure. Proposition 75 would require all government unions, like CTA, to get written permission to use a member’s dues on political campaigns.

Voters appear to like both measures, and CTA is floundering in response.

The other day, CTA campaigners accused a printer for the governor’s campaign of being a non-union shop fraudulently displaying a union insignia. The accusers were wrong; the print-shop owner is threatening to sue. The CTA also slyly suggested that Arnold’s side might be illegally using state resources (like e-mail) to communicate with teachers or voters. This, too, turned out to be bunk.

I find it fascinating that when two teachers recently signed an e-mail to 95,000 teachers criticizing CTA for spending $50 million on politics, only 50 teachers demanded to be taken off the Yes on 75 e-mail list.

Eric Beach, of Yes on 75, told me he normally would expect a few thousand to ask that their names be removed.

“The fact that we heard from only 50 tells me teachers are hungry for information,” Beach said. “Teachers have started asking a very reasonable question: Can’t teachers choose what they support and don’t support?”

Right now, teachers can “opt out’ of the political dues system—but they generally lose their right to vote on union matters, and they still must pay their full dues and then later seek a refund. Even the refund process is a sham, designed to make it hard to get the dough back.

Kirk McMorris, a math teacher at Sheldon High School in Elk Grove who backs Proposition 74’s requirement of five years to earn tenure, said, “I believe 90 percent of teachers give 100 percent to their jobs. The real job of the CTA is to protect the jobs of bad teachers.”

And of Proposition 75, which he also supports, he said, “My dues are $74.30 a month. It’s listed as a ‘voluntary deduction.’ [He chuckles.] That is how it is actually listed on my paycheck! If it’s voluntary, then let me stop.”

Where does all that money go? CTA spends it on ludicrous political campaigns that are not aimed, in the least, at fixing California’s schools. As Beach noted, “The CTA used union dues to back the [failed] measure to roll back ‘three strikes and you’re out.’ How does this help children in the classroom?”

It doesn’t.

CTA poured big money into a $14 million campaign in 2004 for Proposition 56, a nutty plan to make it easier for our beloved Sacramento Legislature to raise taxes on us all. And CTA even poured millions into fighting the recall of Gray Davis. None of this helped children one whit.

No wonder polls since August by Survey USA, the Field Poll and others show both Propositions 74 and 75 ahead. Chalk it up to the CTA’s delusions of grandeur. This huge union’s complete disinterest, for years, in fixing California’s schools may finally be hitting the organization where it hurts.

Jeralee Smith, a special-education teacher in Riverside Unified School District who will appear in a TV commercial supporting Schwarzenegger, told me, “The years needed to produce a good teacher vary, but five years in the classroom is the minimum.”

Patty Armanini, a teacher in Ross Valley School District in Marin County, who called the governor’s team to volunteer, said, “The CTA has wasted $100 million in the last two or three big elections. I totally love my profession and love going to work, but my union dues are definitely not working for me.”

If voters agree, CTA, which has suffered many costly defeats using other people’s money, may be in for its costliest defeat ever.