Election Lessons for Education Reformers

By Gloria Romero / November 10, 2014 / Union Watch

Results from the Nov. 4 yielded both hits and misses regarding prospects for advancing education reform in the Golden State, along with a few immediate lessons:

Understand your fight

You can’t buy elections – especially the obscure post of superintendent of Public Instruction, a constitutional office created seemingly to operate as a wholly owned subsidiary of the California Teachers Association, on the taxpayer’s dime.

Money is the mother’s milk of politics, and an obscene amount of it was dumped into efforts to elect former investment banker/school operator Marshall Tuck. Wealthy backers spent millions of dollars to win the seat – clearly understanding the role of money. But their Achilles heel was failing to understand machine politics and the formidable role they play in statewide elections. Buyers, beware: this isn’t just a Chicago story. Welcome to the underbelly of California politics.

Astute observers understood that there was never doubt current Superintendent Tom Torlakson would prevail. Tuck’s backers tried the “unleash the money” strategy; one backer alone contributed $3.4 million. Their view was simply “money versus money.”

But CTA is the biggest political special interest in California, with moneybags, and manpower to match – an organized army tethered to the Democratic Party and its political operation. Together, they ensured the victory for CTA’s guy, Torlakson.

Tuck’s camp threw money at the race – without also building the ground game needed to take on the machine. Critical to that ground game is recognizing that this can no longer be done from the top; the era of rich white men pontificating on reforms needed for overwhelmingly minority communities is past (see next lesson).

A new strategy is needed, including a focus on disrupting the machine. Hence, the lawsuit, Friedrichs vs. CTA, a challenge to the mandatory union dues that fuel the machine, could become a game-changer if decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. Coupled with the next two lessons, real reform could now be envisioned.

Remember Nixon went to China

In the race for the Bay Area’s 16th Assembly District, many of us parked our party affiliations and willingly crossed the political aisle to elect a candidate not beholden to CTA: moderate Republican Catharine Baker. She upset Democrat Tim Sbranti, a former chairman of the CTA’s Political Involvement Committee.

Baker understood that smart coalitions matter, joining independent-minded Democrats like me, Steve Glazer and others fed up with CTA’s stranglehold on weary voters. She galvanized women, Democrats, Republicans and Independents to defeat CTA’s heir apparent in the district.

In a politically blue state, education reformers, particularly Democrats, need to willingly cross the aisle to elect reform candidates not from our own party. Nixon left the political comfort zone and, in going to China, unfurled a whole new world. We must, too.

Latino parents are not a Democratic Party debit card.

Latino candidates tethered to CTA moneybags lost by decisive margins, including Orange County candidates Jose Solorio (state Senate), Sharon Quirk-Silva (state Assembly) and Jose F. Moreno (Anaheim City Council), who ignored pleas from Anaheim Latino parents to help them reform their children’s failing schools by using California’s Parent Empowerment Act.

Public opinion polls continue to reflect strong support among Latinos for school choice and opportunity. Democrats, funded by CTA, have blocked school choice reforms, providing an opening to Republicans to fight for the hearts, minds and votes of Latinos (coupled with getting their act together on sensible immigration reform).

This election illustrated that Latinos, as well as Asians, are free agents in an otherwise special-interest-dominated political system. Coalescing these communities will provide dynamic, winning combinations for education reform in California.

About the Author: Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles resident, served in the California Legislature from 1998 to 2008, the last seven years as Senate majority leader. Romero is the founder of the California Center for Parent Empowerment, established by in order to empower public school parents–especially those with children trapped in chronically underperforming schools–to understand and use the Parent Empowerment Act of 2010. This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register and is republished here with permission from the author.

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