In a California special election on November 8, a slate of four education reform initiatives–all of which would have affected the future of the state’s beleaguered K-12 schools–were rejected by voters.
Three of the initiatives had been qualified by allies of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R). A fourth–a paycheck protection initiative that would have required public employee labor unions to get their members’ permission before using their money for political purposes–had been qualified independently, but Schwarzenegger embraced it as well in October.
The four initiatives were Prop. 74, a modest reform of teacher tenure; Prop. 75, paycheck protection; Prop. 76, a budget reform initiative to fix California’s chronic deficits; and Prop. 77, which would have reformed California’s gerrymandered legislative districts.
Though there was much debate over whether making California legislative districts more competitive would have helped or hurt the influence of teacher unions, the California Teachers Association (CTA) saw the measure as a threat and worked hard to preserve the gerrymandered districts.
In addition to the governor’s slate of four initiatives, four unrelated measures that qualified for the same ballot were also rejected.
Opponents of the governor’s slate of measures characterized the special election as an unnecessary one, with issues that could have waited for the next scheduled election in June 2006. The voters seemed to agree, appearing to be in a “Vote No on Everything” mood.
Prop. 76, the budget reform initiative, was especially vulnerable to being characterized as “anti-public school,” because it could have resulted in lower public school spending. However, the labor unions successfully characterized the whole slate of initiatives as undermining public schools.
With almost all public employee unions aggrieved by the budget cutbacks made in an only partly successful attempt to balance the latest budget, the unions banded together to discredit Schwarzenegger. Teachers, nurses, firefighters, and policemen dogged him at every public appearance and dominated television news coverage of his speeches. By election day, Schwarzenegger’s popularity had plummeted to the 30 percent range.
Part of the logic behind qualifying a slate of initiatives for the ballot was to force the public employee unions to fight on multiple fronts, said Carl Brodt, treasurer of California Parents for Educational Choice (CPEC), a school choice advocacy group based in the San Francisco Bay area.
“What is critical is that the fight be waged in such a way that the union cannot unify its campaigns,” Brodt said. “In that, Schwarzenegger was unsuccessful.”
The slate angered virtually all of California’s public employee unions, including the new and powerful prison guards union, and they united as they never had before in opposing the slate, outspending the reformers by about 3 to 1 and mustering more grassroots workers to knock on doors and staff phone banks.
End of Days
Especially frustrating to school reformers was the loss of Prop. 75, the paycheck protection measure. In the early stage of the campaign, it led strongly in every opinion poll and was supported even by union households. However, union-sponsored television advertising against the measure took its toll. On election night, with absentee ballots counted first, the measure started out with a 57-43 lead in the vote count, only to fade to a 46.5-53.5 loss when the final vote was tallied.
According to an October 2005 pamphlet published by the CPEC, “How California Teachers Association Policies Hurt Children and Good Teachers,” the Golden State is dominated like no other state by its public school labor unions: the CTA, California Federation of Teachers, and California School Employees Association. A win on Prop. 75 would have opened many doors to advancing school reform in California, but it was not to be.
“The biggest problem was that the governor, who obviously was very identified with the propositions, took a pummeling from the Democrats all summer and remained silent,” said Larry Sand, a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher and education reform activist. “The other side gained a lot of ground during that time, and the last-minute flurry to overcome it was too little, too late.”
Peter Hanley, a longtime school choice activist and executive director of CPEC, agreed.
“The chances of passing Prop. 75 were weakened by including every labor union that had even one public employee,” Hanley explained. “That brought in essentially every labor union in California because even building trades unions have small percentages that work somewhere in state, county, or local government. These allied themselves with the powerful nurses, prison guards, and teachers unions.”
Two days after the defeat, Schwarzenegger said in a televised speech his error was in moving too quickly.
“These kinds of reforms we’re talking about–maybe it takes a year, two years, three years,” Schwarzenegger said. “And it takes more collaboration and more working together. So I got that message.
“If I were able to do another Terminator movie,” Schwarzenegger added, “I would have the Terminator travel back in time to tell Arnold not to have a special election.”
Alan Bonsteel ([email protected]) is president of California Parents for Educational Choice.