Support Prop. 30 extension? Not for free

Gov. Jerry Brown thanks supporters for their work on his temporary tax hike initiative, Proposition 30, during an election night party in Sacramento in 2012.
Gov. Jerry Brown thanks supporters for their work on his temporary tax hike initiative, Proposition 30, during an election night party in Sacramento in 2012. The Associated Press File

Spring has been good to teachers’ unions in California.

In late March, the U.S. Supreme Court deadlocked in a case that had been expected to gut labor’s ability to collect union dues. This month, a state appeals court blocked a high-profile challenge to teacher tenure.

The state appellate court reversed a lower court’s decision in the case known as Vergara v. California, and held that the state’s job protections for teachers did not, after all, violate the civil rights of poor and minority students.

Neither decision is the last word. The 4-4 Supreme Court decision left the door open for later court challenges when the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s replacement is confirmed. And the Vergara plaintiffs have vowed to take their fight to the California Supreme Court if state lawmakers don’t make it easier for schools to get rid of incompetent teachers.

But the rulings were undeniably dodged bullets for the California Teachers Association. And with public opinion polls showing support for extending the Proposition 30 income tax increase to support school funding, the politically powerful union is even more powerful.

Good schools and fair pay for teachers are crucial to California’s future – and we love teachers and support them. But a too-mighty CTA isn’t necessarily great for California or its kids.

Unions are, by definition, advocacy organizations, and compromise isn’t in an advocate’s job description. CTA leadership has shown no interest in parting with K-12 dollars to subsidize preschool so toddlers might be better prepared for kindergarten, or considering whether to dial back on job protections so kids in poorer districts aren’t saddled with mediocre teachers.

Advocates are important. But when an advocate has as much power as the CTA has over this blue state’s lawmakers, the voting public must speak up to prevent kids’ needs from being overshadowed by teachers’.

With the recent legal reprieves, the public lost leverage, but that doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation. The petitions being circulated by the CTA’s paid signature gatherers to put a Proposition 30 extension on the November ballot offer an opening for voters to discuss what the CTA might offer the rest of us in exchange for the ongoing taxation.

Though it’s unlikely CTA – or the legislators who rely on the union’s backing – will be receptive, given the hard lines that have been drawn among unions, school-reform types and conservative union busters, a couple of ideas might at least be worth a try.

Take teacher tenure. Though the state appellate court ruled that current job protections for teachers don’t violate the constitutional rights of kids seeking a public school education, the decision was hardly an endorsement of the status quo. Under state law, administrators have less than two years to decide whether a new teacher deserves tenure – less than all but four other states – and tenured teachers can’t be fired without a convoluted process. Nor can they be laid off unless newer teachers are laid off first.

The rules do protect teachers from being disciplined for, say, supporting their union, but they also make it incredibly difficult to replace incompetent teachers. Indeed, even teachers cringe at the rules. In a 2014 survey by Teach Plus, a nonprofit policy network for teachers, 81 percent of California teachers said tenure was important, but 69 percent added that the current rules protect ineffective colleagues, and 72 percent said administrators should get more time to decide whether to grant tenure.

That should be a clear signal for lawmakers to address teacher tenure. And Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, has just the vehicle in Assembly Bill 934, which would make tweaks by expanding the window for granting tenure and making it a little easier to lay off tenured teachers who have received poor evaluations.

The bill is scheduled to come in June before the Senate Education Committee, assuming the CTA doesn’t reflexively quash it. It’s just the sort of sensible measure voters might ask lawmakers to insist on while we mull the CTA’s call for an ongoing tax.

Another idea? Ask the CTA to throw its weight behind subsidized child care, which in turn will better prepare children for kindergarten. Right now, California has 300,000 children who are eligible for subsidized day care but, because of inadequate funding, are not receiving it.

Most mothers work, mostly to support children, and too many of those children are being passed by because they’re not getting the important foundation that can come only with decent early child care. Every year, Democrats in the legislative women’s caucus ask their colleagues to help address the child care shortage, and every year, they’re told that there isn’t enough money in the general fund.

It’s a travesty. Anyone with a toddler knows how early the achievement gap starts to widen, and anyone with a teenager knows how brutally lagging achievement can bring the hammer down on a child’s prospects. Last year, there was an effort to fund child care with money allocated under Proposition 98, the initiative that sets money aside for education, but teachers’ unions pushed back – more Proposition 98 money for preschoolers means less for older kids and, of course, teachers.

Lawmakers and voters should insist that a healthy share of new Proposition 30 money go to child care, or that the CTA advocate more for the little ones who, soon enough, will be in its members’ classrooms.

Lots of money will be raised for education if voters approve the Proposition 30 extension. We all want our schools to be well-funded, but we shouldn’t be naive. If voters and families don’t step up and say what they want, the only loud voice in the room will belong to the teachers’ unions. Which we support, but not necessarily for free.