California Teacher Union Attacks Citizen Control of Schools

Published June 1, 2002

The California Teachers Association (CTA) was sitting pretty just a few months ago.

  • Last year, it achieved a statewide double-digit pay raise.
  • This year, it achieved a cost-of-living increase despite a major budget deficit and cuts in other state services.
  • It engineered a mandatory agency fee law.
  • Its endorsed candidates hold the office of governor and state superintendent of public instruction.
  • It has an overwhelming majority in both houses of the legislature and a disjointed, demoralized, and ineffective opposition party.
  • And it has left-of-center slants in the editorial offices of all of the state’s major daily newspapers.

Nevertheless, CTA officials managed to accomplish something few observers believed could be done: They united school administrators, school boards, newspapers, Republicans, and more than a few Democrats—including Governor Gray Davis and the Democratic Leadership Council—in denouncing AB 2160, a CTA-sponsored bill that would expand the scope of collective bargaining in the state to include every decision made at the district level.

The bill is being carried by new Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson, along with former teacher union activists Jackie Goldberg and Virginia Strom-Martin.

“Greatest Gift to Ignorance”

The Education Intelligence Agency first warned of CTA’s plans in July 2001, and spelled them out in detail in November. But only now, after the bill has been published and introduced in the legislature, are Californians realizing what Frankenstein’s monster has in mind.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra J. Saunders called the bill “the greatest gift to ignorance the too-generous state of California has ever given.” The San Diego Union-Tribune editorialized the bill was “a turbocharged monstrosity” and “one of the most pernicious education proposals ever concocted by the California Teachers Association.” The Los Angeles Times called it a “power grab” and even called the worthiness of traditional bargaining of salaries and benefits “debatable.”

But the state capital’s newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, has led the way. One columnist, Daniel Weintraub, called the bill “outrageous” and said it reflected “the arrogance of a union that believes experts know all and that parents and the community are best seen and not heard.”

Another Bee columnist, Peter Schrag, called this “most dangerous” bill a “putsch” by CTA President Wayne Johnson. And the newspaper’s editors wrote the bill “would wreck public education in California,” calling it “an all-out frontal attack on citizen control of the public schools.” Deeming the battle over AB 2160 “the defining education issue of the year,” the Bee labeled those who support it “enemies of public education.”

The Long Beach Press Telegram and the Stockton Record joined the long parade of newspapers opposed to the bill. Such unanimity is rare enough in California … but absolutely unique is the number of newspapers running second and third editorials in opposition to the bill, which has attracted national attention. The Wall Street Journal called it “a grubby union power play masquerading as concern for academics.”

“A Genuinely Bad Idea”

But perhaps the biggest blow came from the Democratic Leadership Council. In an article published in the March 25 New Dem Daily, the DLC called AB 2160 “a genuinely bad idea that could lead to the disenfranchisement of elected officials, parents, and taxpayers in key decisions on public education policy.” This “subordination of the public interest to the interests of union negotiators” is something, the article says, that “is also certain to reflect poorly upon teachers’ unions generally.”

School administrators were no less vehement. “I can’t imagine a more disastrous step for California to take than to pass this bill,” Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Roy Romer told the Los Angeles Times.

“I’ve been in this business for 36 years and it’s the most dangerous piece of legislation I’ve ever seen,” said Sacramento Unified School District Superintendent Jim Sweeney.

The Bee‘s Schrag reported the governor’s office as “frothing,” and Bee editors wrote that Davis’s education advisors initially were “quietly soliciting opposition to the bill.” But on April 10, the Democratic governor—who won election in 1998 with the help of the union—announced his opposition to the bill, saying he didn’t want “textbooks to be held hostage to issues involving wages.”

Devil’s in the Details

So what’s in AB 2160? The state’s newspapers have hit upon the key issue: Everything that takes place in a school and school district would be subject to agreement by the union in contract negotiations.

But even the newspapers have failed to spell out what it would mean. Here are just a few of the explicit areas that would be bargained:

  • the utilization and assignment of mentors;
  • the selection of school assistance and intervention teams;
  • the development and implementation of any program designed to enhance pupil academic performance;
  • the development and implementation of the content and delivery of professional training and development;
  • the selection of textbooks and instructional materials;
  • the development and implementation of local educational standards;
  • the development and implementation of the definition of educational objectives, content of courses, and curriculum;
  • the participation of employees on school site councils or any other advisory or representative body;
  • the development and implementation of any program to encourage parental involvement in student education;
  • the maintenance of school facilities; and
  • other professional issues.

Even conservative interest groups have been slow to realize the implications of the bill. The widened scope of bargaining would also apply to charter schools with union representation. Getting rid of whole language or fuzzy math programs would require bargaining with the union. Instituting a new parental involvement program would require bargaining with the union. Even installing new lighting on campus would require bargaining with the union.

While religious conservatives are up in arms about the NEA Task Force on Sexual Orientation and resolutions that have little practical impact, the California Teachers Association is pushing for a system that would allow any local teacher union affiliate in the state to bargain, develop, and implement gay/lesbian curricula … or labor history … or Mumia Abu Jamal Day … or MathLand … or any other misguided nonsense, and do it all behind closed doors.

In April, a coalition of taxpayer, business, school administration, and school superintendent groups, called Californians for Public School Accountability, established a Web site ( to battle the CTA legislation. There have been ad hoc coalitions formed in the past to fight legislation—to unionize charter schools, for example—but this is the first time a formal organization has been built in California to defeat a single bill.

Mike Antonucci is director of the Education Intelligence Agency, an organization that conducts public education research, analysis, and investigations. His weekly Communiqué is available at or from [email protected].