School & District Management

Labor, Charter Forces Notch State-Level Election Wins

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 12, 2012 8 min read

On an Election Day filled with dozens of state races and ballot measures with big implications for the nation’s public schools, state teachers’ unions and charter school champions had plenty to cheer in the aftermath, even as tax measures that would help pay for schools suffered setbacks in some places.

Union efforts were instrumental in overturning a trio of high-profile laws in Idaho that included limits on teachers’ bargaining rights, along with pay based in part on student performance. And they were a key part of the coalition that successfully pushed for passage of a temporary tax measure deemed crucial to school funding in California.

Likewise, charter advocates were poised to celebrate the passage—after three previous failed attempts—of a ballot measure allowing charter schools in Washington state, along with a new law in Georgia that likely will increase charters’ growth.

But labor supporters stumbled in their effort to enshrine collective bargaining in the Michigan Constitution. And they saw Republicans grab control of the Wisconsin Senate—a move that appears likely to ensure a voucher-program expansion in that state and the continuation of collective bargaining changes enacted under GOP Gov. Scott Walker, whom unions tried unsuccessfully to unseat earlier this year.

Meanwhile, Democrats could relish gaining legislative control in Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, and New York; in Maine, they could stymie school policy initiatives from Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican.

Gov. Jerry Brown displays a "Yes" on a Proposition 30 card featuring a photo of his dog Sutter, while discussing the passage of that tax initiative during a Capitol news conference in Sacramento, Calif., the day after the elections. Mr. Brown used his dog as a campaign prop in stumping for the measure, which will place temporary increases on the state sales tax and on the wealthy, with the proceeds earmarked for education.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reported that Democrats picked up control of four statehouses, and that the number of legislatures with divided control dropped from eight to four.

The Nov. 6 elections yielded 26 statehouses with both chambers controlled by Republicans, compared with 19 where Democrats had unified control. (Nebraska has a unicameral, nonpartisan legislature.)

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the night for followers of state education policy: the defeat of Indiana schools Superintendent Tony Bennett, a voucher and charter school supporter who overhauled teacher evaluations in the Hoosier State.

The Republican state chief lost his race for re-election to Democratic challenger Glenda Ritz, who was backed by the Indiana State Teachers Association, a 45,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association that had clashed with Mr. Bennett.

“Given what’s happened with the unions in Wisconsin and things that were going on in Michigan, I think this [election cycle] is a big win for them,” said Emily Workman, an associate policy analyst at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, referring to the unions.

Mr. Bennett’s loss made the night much gloomier for backers of aggressive policies like the ones he pursued, even though charter advocates had a good Election Day, said Michael J. Petrilli, the executive vice president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which favors parent-based educational choice and changes to union-supported teacher policies.

“In terms of the true clashes, where it was unions against the reformers, it was a pretty mixed night,” he said. He also said he was worried that Mr. Bennett’s defeat could send a chill to like-minded state chiefs.

Glenda Ritz, a Democrat, celebrates defeating Indiana’s Republican state schools chief, Tony Bennett. A teacher, she drew strong union support.

But StudentsFirst, a Sacramento, Calif.-based advocacy group also interested in similar labor-policy and teacher-evaluation changes, reported that out of the 105 state legislative candidates it endorsed, 84 won, including 12 out of 13 Democrats, and 26 out of 32 candidates in races without an incumbent.

“If our win rate was under 50 percent, we’d be more concerned,” said Tim Melton, the vice president of legislative affairs for StudentsFirst.

Funding Battles

On the finance front, with the exception of California, school funding advocates in such states as Arizona, Missouri, and South Dakota were disappointed to see ballot measures designed to boost K-12 funding through higher taxes go down to defeat.

“It just kind of is an indication that it is really hard to put a tax increase on the ballot and to raise revenues that way,” Ms. Workman said.

California teachers’ unions put significant weight behind passage of Proposition 30, a temporary tax increase on people earning more than $250,000 and a one-quarter-cent sales-tax increase championed by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat. The governor built the tax increase into the fiscal 2013 budget he signed and declared that $4.8 billion would be cut from K-12 aid at midyear if it failed. His strategy prompted unions to line up in support of the hike.

The victory was especially sweet for the unions because it was the first time since 1993 that California residents voted to raise taxes on themselves, said Dan Schnur, the director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles.

“Their support of public education outweighed their distrust of state government,” he said of voters.

Dean Vogel, the president of the 325,000-member California Teachers Association, a National Education Association affiliate, said of Proposition 30: “We believe this was a vehicle where you started the conversation.”

He argued that Proposition 30’s passage was the start of a process that should ultimately lead to a major overhaul of the state’s tax structure.

California unions could also celebrate the defeat of Proposition 32, which would have banned automatically deducted money from union workers from being used for political purposes and banned union contributions to state and local candidates.

Mr. Vogel said that even his own members, when they first heard pro-Proposition 32 arguments, favored the measure by more than two-thirds, only to flip once other CTA members explained the union’s case against it.

Grassroots Base

Another example of teachers’ union success was in South Dakota, where the 7,000-member South Dakota Education Association, an affiliate of the NEA, led the fight against Referred Law 16. The bill, a priority for Gov. Dennis Daugaard, a Republican, was passed by the GOP-controlled legislature and would have ended state-sponsored tenure for teachers.

It also would have instituted bonus pay based in part on student test scores and a scholarship program for students pursuing teaching degrees in subject areas deemed critical by the state.

Sandy Arseneault, the president of the SDEA, said the grassroots fight started with 400 teachers circulating petitions to get the law put to a vote on the Nov. 6 ballot. Voters decisively rejected the law, 67 percent to 33 percent.

Teachers have seen higher class sizes and less per-student funding in recent years, Ms. Arseneault said, and were determined to have South Dakotans overturn a law they said would not improve student achievement and would institute a “one size fits all” statewide evaluation system.

“I do believe that when your grassroots, your base, our teachers, wholeheartedly were behind defeating this measure, I think that made the difference,” she said.

But Michigan teachers’ unions saw mixed results last week that in part moved labor relations back to a place before the 2010 elections.

Through the passage of Proposal 1, they successfully toppled the state’s 2011 measure that allowed emergency financial managers in districts to toss out collectively bargained contracts. They failed, though, in their effort to pass Proposal 2, which would have placed collective bargaining rights in the state constitution.

Chance for Charters

Georgia voters, over the objections of state Superintendent of Public Instruction John Barge, a Republican, approved by a nearly 15-point margin Constitutional Amendment 1, which will create a statewide authorizing commission for charter schools. Charter proponents see such state authorizers as the key in many states to expanding such schools.

The clear, simple wording of the measure “will resonate, and those who are studying those types of efforts will want to replicate it in other places,” said Nina Rees, the president of the Washington-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

But the worlds of charter school advocates and state teachers’ unions collided in Washington state. Ballot measures to allow charters in that state failed in 1996, 2000, and 2004, but this year’s measure, Initiative 1240,was on the brink of passage, with the final tally pending at the end of last week.

“Having a ground game in place to make sure people were affirmatively checking that box was also very important [in Washington state],” Ms. Rees said. “It wasn’t just pouring money into generic ads and hoping that people show up and vote in favor of the initiative.”

Foes of charters, including the Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union with 82,000 members and an NEA affiliate, were dismayed at the level of spending by wealthy donors to Initiative 1240, who included Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates.

But WEA members made electing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee a priority, because of fears that his Republican foe, Rob McKenna, could replicate policies pushed by Gov. Walker in Wisconsin. Mr. Inslee, who resigned his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives to run for governor and opposes charters, was leading in the count as of week’s end.

“It was the organization’s priority,” Linda Mullen, a WEA spokeswoman, said of Mr. Inslee’s likely victory, adding that since the state’s governors tend to get two terms, “we were looking at it in terms of an eight-year decision.”

Lisa Macfarlane, the director of the Washington chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, said she was confident that Mr. Inslee would appoint “quality people” to the statewide charter commission that will be able to authorize schools. Of the charter initiative’s success after three previous failures, she said, “We kept it high-road and factual.”

At press time, Democrats had won six of the 11 gubernatorial seats up for election, while Republicans had captured four.

School choice proponents suffered a setback in Florida, where voters soundly rejected a constitutional amendment that would have prohibited the state government from discriminating against religious organizations in the provision of benefits and other areas. Fifty-five percent of voters turned it down.

But the American Federation for Children, a Washington-based group that supports parental choice in education, pointed to victories by its preferred state legislative candidates in Arizona and Tennessee.

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2012 edition of Education Week as Voters Offer Mixed Signs

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