Policy: Labor

Has teacher tenure driven a wedge between California Democrats and Big Labor?

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Beltway Confidential,Opinion,Congress,Education,Sean Higgins,Labor unions,Labor,Democratic Party,California,Nancy Pelosi,Teachers,Teachers Unions

Has the issue of teacher tenure driven a wedge between California Democrats and Big Labor? Teachers unions have been fuming over a decision last month by the Los Angeles Superior Court that ended tenure in the state, but most Democratic lawmakers do not share their outrage -- and that is creating some serious friction.

The two groups are normally close allies, but the division suggests that even Golden State Democrats are beginning to sour on Big Labor's effective control over the California education system, which consistently gets poor grades in national surveys.

The friction boiled over last week when the 3-million-member National Education Association to adopted a resolution calling for Education Secretary Arne Duncan to resign, a move initially inspired by his qualified praise for the tenure ruling.

On Monday, Duncan simply brushed off the call, telling reporters, "I try to stay out of local union politics."

While teachers unions are major supporters of the Democratic Party, the lawmakers are also warily looking at polls showing that parents are fed up with the current system. A recent University of Southern California survey found that survey found that 61 percent opposed the state's tenure rules -- including 53 percent of Democrats.

The court case, called Vergara v. California, started in 2012 when nine students sued the state over the quality of their education. On June 10, Judge Rolf Treu agreed, saying the tenure system had made it impossible to fire bad California teachers.

"There is also no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms," Treu said. He ordered the state education code statutes relating to teacher tenure be stayed pending appeals court review.

The ruling was a direct stab at the unions, which have fought tooth and nail to fight any education reform that puts the focus on teacher performance or limits their job security.

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel called the ruling "deeply flawed" and said the case was "never about helping students, but is yet another attempt by millionaires and corporate special interests to undermine the teaching profession."

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the ruling, "stoops to pitting students against their teachers … This is a sad day for public education."

The official state reaction was muted though. California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said the ruling "may inadvertently" make attracting good teachers "more challenging."

Most of California's Democratic members of Congress did not bother to release any official statements criticizing the tenure ruling, or even acknowledging it.

Neither of the state's Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, issued press releases. Neither office responded to requests for a comment on the ruling.

Similarly, most Democratic House members didn't issue statements either, even such staunch liberals as Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman and Maxine Waters. Many found time to criticize other legal rulings though like the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision.

Mattie Munoz, spokeswoman for Rep. Linda Sanchez, gave a typical reaction: "No, she hasn't, and I don't think she will make a statement."

One of the few who did issue a statement was Rep. George Miller, and he praised the ruling. "It is not only Californians who should celebrate today's decision, but families in every state and school district across the country."

That's notable because Miller -- who is retiring -- is ordinarily one of Big Labor's staunchest congressional allies. The Republican equivalent would be like Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, attacking the Tea Party.

Some California Democrats did criticize the ruling, but in fairly mild tones. Rep. Mark Takano, a former teacher, called it "disappointing" but felt compelled to add that he was open to "reviewing and adjusting tenure laws."

Rep. Mike Honda's office pointed the Washington Examiner to an op-ed he co-wrote with AFT's Weingarten last week that said the ruling "missed the mark."

Duncan seemed to represent the Democrats' consensus thinking when he called the ruling last month "an opportunity for a progressive state with a tradition of innovation to build a new framework for the teaching profession."

Duncan's comments so outraged the California Teacher Association that it successfully pushed the NEA, its parent organization, to call for his resignation.

The resolution accused Duncan of -- among other sins -- "continuing to promote policies and decisions that undermine public schools and colleges, the teaching education professionals, and education unions."

As the reaction among Democrats shows, that call has landed with a thud. On this issue, they aren't going to go to bat for the unions.

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