Schwarzenegger Takes School Plans to Voters
Governor Blames Legislative Delays for New Strategy
In a move that has incensed California teachers’ unions, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing to qualify several major proposals on his legislative agenda for the statewide ballot, including measures that would revamp teacher tenure and public employees’ pensions.
Accusing the Democratic-controlled legislature of dragging its feet, the first-term Republican began collecting signatures and raising money this month to prepare for possible votes this fall on proposals he deems critical to getting the state’s fiscal house in order.
And even as he insists that he would rather work with legislators on those plans, he is holding out the prospect of putting the measures on the ballot in a special election that he could call for later this year.
“Now it’s time to put the pressure on and have the people send the message that they demand reform,” Gov. Schwarzenegger said at a March 1 news conference, after which he personally canvassed voters for signatures on two proposed ballot initiatives.
Education groups, especially the state affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, quickly signaled that they would work vigorously to combat the governor and his allies.
It remains unclear exactly how many initiatives may ultimately emerge from the complicated process of qualifying them for the ballot. As of last week, an organization formed to promote ballot measures supported by Mr. Schwarzenegger, Citizens to Save California, was collecting signatures for two measures that have infuriated the teachers’ unions and other labor groups.
One would increase from two to five years the length of time that public school teachers must work before acquiring tenure. The other would require school districts to offer only 401(k)-style retirement plans, whose payouts could vary depending on employee contributions and investment choices, rather than pensions with defined benefits.
“Our teachers go to work every single day, and I believe they are doing the best they can with what they’ve got,”David A. Sanchez, the vice president of the California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the NEA, said last week. “This may turn people off from wanting to go into education.”
In January, Gov. Schwarzenegger called a special session of the legislature and asked its members to take action on a slate of changes involving teacher pay and tenure, the pension system, legislative redistricting, and the state budget process—including funding for education.
On March 1, he declared that the ballot-measure campaign was needed because legislators had “done nothing to address my reforms,” but instead had offered “a lot of excuses, a lot of complaints, and a lot of finger-pointing.”
Not surprisingly, those charges didn’t sit well with legislators, who are still in the special session.
Sen. Jack Scott, the Democrat who chairs the Senate education committee, noted that his panel held a Feb. 23 hearing on Mr. Schwarzenegger’s proposal to require school districts to base all employment decisions on performance rather than on seniority.
Often referred to as a merit-pay plan, it would change the California Constitution to eliminate seniority as a factor in school employees’ pay, assignments, transfers, hiring, firing, promotions, or demotions. Instead, schools would be required to base such decisions on a combination of performance evaluations and student gains on state standardized tests.
The measure in the legislature would require teachers to work for 10 years in a district, with evaluations of satisfactory or better each year, before earning tenure.
Sen. Scott said he put the bill on hold, at the request of its Republican sponsor, rather than ask the panel to vote it down, even though he said he felt it “was not carefully thought through.”
“Then suddenly the governor turns around in less than a week and asked why hasn’t there been action.” Mr. Scott said. “That smacks of game-playing.”
It was unclear last week whether a ballot measure on merit pay—in addition to the existing one on tenure being pushed by Citizens to Save California—would make it through the qualifying process, and whether the governor would back it.
New Group Launched
Meanwhile, a coalition of public-employee groups last week announced a new group to combat the Schwarzenegger-supported ballot initiatives and to promote measures of its own.
Known as Seriously, Saving California, the group includes the CTA, the California Federation of Teachers, the Association of California School Administrators, and the California School Employees Association.
The group bitterly opposes the plan to alter the pension system, which the governor says is too generous and out of step with the sorts of personal retirement accounts that are now the norm in many workplaces. Seriously, Saving California and other critics call the governor’s plan a bid to reward campaign contributors from Wall Street by privatizing the management of public employees’ retirement savings.
Besides his tenure and pension plans, Mr. Schwarzenegger has stressed the need to change the state budgeting system to rein in what he calls “automatic pilot” spending increases.
A legislative plan he has proposed targets school spending guarantees under a 1988 ballot measure known as Proposition 98. A host of school groups oppose the governor’s plan, which would substantially change the ground rules for how the guarantee is enforced.
A spokesman for Citizens to Save California, based in Roseville, Calif., said last week that the group had yet to settle on a ballot proposal on budgeting but expected to do so shortly.
Vol. 24, Issue 27, Pages 24, 26Published in Print: March 16, 2005, as Schwarzenegger Takes School Plans to Voters