Education Matters: Democrats and the teachers union

The strong ties that have historically bound members of the Democratic Party to teachers unions appear to be loosening.

When steadfast Democrats in Sacramento resist the unions and sponsor bills like Anthony Portantino’s (later school start times) and Shirley Weber’s (teacher tenure), it indicates that even traditional liberals are beginning to push back against unions that claim “students first.”

A May 28 San Francisco Chronicle story titled “Democrats clash over California Schools” highlights the split in the Democratic Party over how best to address the deficiencies in California’s public schools.

From the story: “The future of public education in California has become a tug-of-war between camps within the Democratic Party. Democrats aligned with organized labor – who dominated local and legislative races for many years – are now facing formidable challenges from Democrats who see overhauling some union rules as a key to improving education.”

Despite years of hand-wringing over how best to accelerate learning and close that stubborn achievement gap, little has changed.

“Slightly more than half of the state’s students cannot read and write at their grade level, results from last year’s testing show, and 63 percent aren’t meeting standards in math,” the article states.

Former charter school administrator and Democrat Marshall Tuck, who is running for state superintendent of schools, is quoted in the story, saying, “We’ve learned to live with failing schools. Our party has not prioritized education the way we need to.”

Those traditional alliances are being strained, as more and more citizens and politicians see that the state of public education in California has not advanced, despite increased state funding to schools in the last few years.

Portantino’s bill to move school start times later is an example of a simple change that would vastly improve student health and academic achievement. Yet the union opposes it.

Weber’s bill to extend the probationary period for granting teacher tenure from two years to three – and even to four or five years if teachers are still developing the skills they need to succeed – is also triggering opposition from the union.

Weber, a state legislator and staunch Democrat with impeccable credentials, has years of experience on and with local school boards and is a former faculty member of San Diego State University. She understands better than most the inner workings of public education in California.

So her push to extend teacher tenure beyond two years is notable and hits at the core of the union’s sole purpose which is to implement policies that benefit teachers.

From a Los Angeles Times May 11 feature story on Weber: “The union is a huge political player with hefty campaign bankrolls. It exerts strong influence over Democratic legislators. Not so much over Weber, though.”

She is “not afraid to buck the Democratic establishment.”


The tenure issue is hugely contentious, because the California Teachers Association opposes any extension beyond the two years, claiming, according to a June 8 EdSource report, that “two years is enough time on which to judge a teacher’s long-term potential.”

In a San Diego Union-Tribune op-ed two years ago, Weber wrote, “The current K-12 tenure system is irrefutably broken. Most educational experts agree that it takes about five years to master the skills and pedagogies requisite to teaching. But California’s system forces a district to decide to either offer a teacher tenure or issue a pink slip after only about 18 months – clearly not enough time to develop skills or demonstrate competence.”

It’s less than a full two years before tenure decisions must be made, due to the required March 15 deadline to notify teachers of their employment status.

Many superintendents and school principals would agree with Weber. Said one in an online post, “The 18-month probationary period is frequently too short, especially in the case of beginning teachers who may struggle in their first year and need more time and support to demonstrate their effectiveness.”

Weber’s bill, Assembly Bill 1220, was watered down when the Assembly Appropriations Committee, chaired by San Diego’s Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, eliminated the optional fourth and fifth year. The CTA opposes this revised version as well.

EdSource says 42 states have probationary periods of three to five years.

More transparency

Weber is also pushing for more transparency in access to achievement data, to understand if Gov. Jerry Brown’s local control funding formula, which grants districts more autonomy and increased funding for underserved students, is having any noticeable effect.

“California’s new system for funding public education has pumped tens of billions of extra dollars into struggling schools, but there’s little evidence yet that the investment is helping the most disadvantaged students,” according to a June 18 report by the non-profit CALmatters.

“The state has spent tens of billions of dollars trying to lift poor kids and not one penny evaluating whether any of it is working,” said Bruce Fuller, an education policy professor at the University of California Berkeley, in the report.

Another example of Democrats willing to challenge union power is Gloria Romero, the Democratic majority leader of the California State Senate from 2001 until 2008, who described her disillusionment with unions and how they use their power, in a 2013 op-ed in the San Diego Union-Tribune which I’ve saved because it was so eye-opening.

Here are excerpts:

“The most influential public-sector union is the California Teachers Association … it commands the most powerful war chest in California …”

“From 2000-2010, CTA spent over $210 million on political campaigning – more than any other donor in the state, outspending the pharmaceutical, oil and tobacco industries combined.”

“Its political war chest is legendary, allowing it to dominate elections, including school board races …”

“California’s teachers are among the highest paid in the nation; yet there is little accountability for student achievement or teacher performance. Tenure and seniority are protected. Laws make it almost impossible to fire teachers for incompetence or misconduct.”

“Until legislators are willing to put student interests over party interests, we will continue to fund failing schools.”

False accusations

These are welcome conversations to have – all the more remarkable because they have been initiated by Democrats who have concluded that fundamental change is required for even a remote chance of improving academic performance and preparing California’s struggling children for a successful future.

These politicians make it possible, even acceptable, for citizens who care about education to challenge union-backed positions and candidates, and not be made to feel guilty over false accusations that they don’t care about kids or schools.

There’s work to do to ensure that candidates for school board are obligated to no one and nothing except their deep commitment to improving the state of public education. Speaking up at school board meetings and protesting bad policy decisions are critical to the effort.

Following on last week’s theme, it’s time to reject the notion that teachers unions represent the best interests of students. That’s not what they’re about.

As the link between unions and Democrats begins to unravel ever so slightly, taxpayers on the left side of the political spectrum are becoming more comfortable questioning union goals and criticizing school board members for irresponsible spending and bad fiscal policy.

There are good reasons to be disenchanted with traditional union policies and the bully tactics used to push union agendas and their candidates. That does not make people conservatives or liberals. It makes them sensible.

Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at