It’s official. California voters will go to the polls this fall to decide controversial issues of teacher tenure and school funding in a special election that will test the strength of the state teachers’ unions in their ongoing conflict with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The Nov. 8 election, which the governor called last week, will also serve as a test of the Republican governor’s political strength and popularity as he begins his expected campaign for re-election in 2006. Gov. Schwarzenegger, who won office in a 2003 recall election that ousted Democratic Gov. Gray Davis, has seen his approval ratings drop significantly this spring after the teachers’ unions and other groups launched vigorous protests against his budget plans and his policy agenda. (“School Groups in ‘Dogfight’ With California Governor,” March 30, 2005.)
“I do not think there has ever been this big and expensive and high-stakes a battle between a governor and organized labor [anywhere],” said Michael W. Kirst, a former president of the state board of education and a co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, an independent policy research group based at Stanford University and the University of California Berkeley. “The stakes here are enormously high in national terms.”
Of utmost concern to school advocates is a Schwarzenegger-backed proposal to change Proposition 98.
Passed by voters in 1988, Proposition 98 amended the California Constitution to guarantee school districts a minimum funding hike each year. The law allows the governor to suspend the guarantee in times of fiscal crisis. Mr. Schwarzenegger’s proposal would kill a requirement that the state repay money that was withheld in such crisis years.
Another initiative backed by the governor would change the teacher-tenure system to require teachers to work for five years, instead of two, to receive tenure. Under the plan, a teacher also could be fired after receiving two consecutive negative evaluations.
A third initiative, also pushed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, would allow a panel of judges—not the legislature—to redraw legislative and congressional districts in the state. The proposal is seen as an effort to break up Democratic strongholds resulting from that party’s control of the legislature.
Yet another initiative, this one not directly endorsed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, would prohibit public-employee labor unions, such as the California Teachers Association, from using members’ dues for political purposes without their yearly written consent.
Members of the CTA, the state’s largest teachers’ union, voted overwhelmingly last week to temporarily raise their dues by $60 a year for the next three years to continue a campaign against the governor’s proposals.
The 335,000-member union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, has led the fight against the governor this year by calling protests at political events and taking out advertisements criticizing his proposals. The group expects to raise $50 million in three years through the increased dues.
The proposal to change Proposition 98 would “hurt our schools immensely,” said the CTA’s president, Barbara Kerr. She added that the governor had “painted himself into a corner being a macho bully.”
“Without reform, we are destined to relive the past again,” the governor, referring to the state’s recent budget deficits, said in a June 13 speech announcing the election. “We cannot just stand around while our deficit grows each year by billions of dollars.”
Currently, the state has a budget deficit of about $6 billion, out of a $78.7 billion state budget.
Secretary of State Bruce McPherson estimated that holding the election will cost the state $44.7 million, although Democrats and others have estimated the cost to be $80 million.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell criticized the costs of the special election, and he said the money could be better spent to reduce class sizes, hire school counselors or provide a 20 percent increase in funding for instructional materials.
“Calling for a special election is needlessly wasteful,” Mr. O’Connell, a former Democratic state senator, said in a statement.
Democratic leaders are pushing instead to raise taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents.
The governor says the price tag is reasonable to get the state back on track. “One way or another, there will be action this year, and there will be reform,” he said.
But a May 26 poll by the independent research group Public Policy of California did not have good news for the governor. It showed that 72 percent of 2,003 Californians polled had concerns about the governor’s budget proposals, and 57 percent thought the state was headed in the wrong direction.
Some 62 percent said it would be better to delay a special election until the primary elections in June of next year, which would be less costly. Only 24 percent of Democrats, 46 percent of Republicans, and 37 percent of independents said they supported a special election. The poll has a margin of error of 2 percentage points.
Mr. Kirst said the governor would have an uphill battle to win his initiatives. But, he said, “we’ve never had a governor like this,” referring to the charisma of the box-office star turned politician.
“This kind of campaigner,” Mr. Kirst continued, “is much more capable.”