If not for the activism of the California Democratic Party’s most prominent special-interest group, the state party convention last month would have been a humdrum affair. The party’s top officials, including governor Jerry Brown and attorney general Kamala Harris, took to the podium to urge action on their pet issues, including gun control and property-tax “reform.” Not much news there—until, that is, the California Teachers Association went on the warpath, sponsoring an inflammatory resolution that ripped into two Democratic-run organizations.
The resolution denounced Students First, founded in 2010 by former Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee, and Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), whose California chapter is directed by former California state senator Gloria Romero. Though it doesn’t mention Rhee or Romero by name, the resolution mocks their “so-called ‘reform’ initiatives,” suggesting that they “rely on destructive anti-educator policies that do nothing for students but blame educators and their unions for the ills of society.” It also claims that Rhee’s group makes “testing the goal of education, shatter[s] communities by closing their public schools, and see[s] public schools as potential profit centers and children as measureable commodities.” The resolution lambastes DFER, meanwhile, for its alleged associations with “corporations, Republican operatives and wealthy individuals dedicated to privatization and anti-educator initiatives.” And the union attacks both groups for being tools of “billionaires” whose goal is nothing less than replacing “a free public education for every student in California” with “company run charter schools, non-credentialed teachers and unproven untested so-called ‘reforms.’”
Employing class-warfare rhetoric to bash Republicans is nothing new, of course, but tarring fellow Democrats with the same brush is novel. Rhee is a self-described liberal Democrat who is married to Kevin Johnson, the Democratic mayor of Sacramento. Her transgression is leading an organization that prioritizes the needs of schoolchildren over those of adults. For her part, Romero regularly battled the teachers’ union as a state senator, authored the nation’s first parent-trigger law, and, as a DFER leader, has been an outspoken proponent of school choice.
Why are Democrats attacking their own? In recent years, education reform has blurred political boundaries. Conservative and libertarian think tanks have joined forces with liberal Democrats in pushing for more teacher accountability, charter schools, and opportunity scholarships—changes that old-line Democrats, dominated by the teachers’ unions, aggressively oppose. While the “new” Democrats have no particular ill will for organized labor—Romero, in fact, was a longtime union member in Los Angeles before she ran for political office—they put the interests of children first. It clearly irritates the unions that these renegade Democratic reformers have picked up friends and allies.
Union officials have tried to play a double game, taking a more measured stance with the public while peddling a hard line to the party faithful. In March, I participated, along with Romero and CTA president Dean Vogel, in an education-reform panel sponsored by the Conservative Forum of Silicon Valley. Aware that he was in enemy territory, Vogel acted like Mr. Congeniality and implored people of good will to “work together” to improve education. But he struck a more strident tone at the party convention, where his attacks and threats were unsparing. The education-reform groups, Vogel told party delegates, were “hellbent on turning students into test-taking machines. I’ll tell you right now, [if] they want to do that, they have to come through us.” He went on: “Let’s be perfectly clear. These organizations are backed by moneyed interests, Republican operatives and out-of-state Wall Street billionaires dedicated to school privatization and trampling on teacher and worker rights.”
Responding later, Students First spokeswoman Jessica Ng took a moderate stance. “The heated rhetoric is especially disappointing because it reveals an abject refusal to tackle the most important issue, ensuring that every California student goes to a great school and has a great teacher,” she said. Romero, battle-scarred from years of fighting the CTA, was more direct. She called the resolution “stupid.” Later, Romero described Vogel’s comments as “political theater” and claimed that the fight is now “blue vs. blue.” As she wrote in the Orange County Register: “More and more Democrats are getting tired of bowing down before the CTA, in homage. Their constituents, especially Latinos whose kids are stuck in subpar schools, are clamoring for reform. True reform . . . will come when moderate Democrats in the Legislature are willing to stand up and tell both the party and the CTA that they’ve gone too far.”
While it’s true that wealthy donors fund Students First and DFER, none stand to gain personally from the reforms they’re supporting. Besides, any conversation about powerful “moneyed interests” has to start with the CTA: the teachers’ union is a private corporation that rakes in about $185 million annually. The vast majority of public school teachers in California pay $647 a year for membership. With a huge war chest, the CTA controls the state assembly and manages to kill most child-friendly reform proposals. And CTA does it all without paying one penny in corporate tax. Not for nothing has it been called “The Worst Union in America.”
Reformers such as Romero and Rhee should be commended for veering from the traditional Democratic Party line and standing up to teachers’ union bosses and their bought-and-paid-for cronies in Sacramento. Fighting those moneyed interests is a battle that good people of all political persuasions should support.