POLITICS
10/15/2012 01:33 pm ET

Proposition 32 Divides California's Education Reformers

When Californians enter voting booths this November, they will face a slew of ballot propositions. Among them will be Proposition 32, a "paycheck protection" measure that the state's labor groups liken to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's union-busting bills.

Prop 32 would prevent unions from using dues automatically pulled from employees' paychecks to sponsor political activity. The measure is backed by $4 million from the Koch brothers and the contributions of other wealthy donors, like Charles Munger Jr. The California Teachers Association asserts that the measure would shut the union out of the political process, thereby devastating organized labor in California, where unions remain a powerful force. CTA has spent $18 million against the ban.

A Los Angeles Times/University of Southern California poll found that 44 percent of voters oppose the measure, while 36 percent support it.

But in July, Prop 32 got a new ally: California's arm of the national group Democrats for Education Reform, led by the state's former senate Democratic majority leader Gloria Romero, a woman who called herself a "die-hard progressive" in an interview.

Which raises the question: Why is a group that identifies as pro-education and Democratic endorsing a bill that has little to do with schools and that has so irked labor?

Romero told The Huffington Post that she shied away from endorsing similar measures in the past, but this time around, it's "more balanced" since it would "curtail the special interest money that dominates Sacramento." Since the proposition does not single out unions this time, she said, it is a fair counterweight to all outsized political clout in the state, corporations and labor both.

But opponents of Prop 32 cite loopholes that they say make it less than balanced, including exemptions for real estate trusts and limited liability corporations. And unions, not private corporations, rely primarily on payroll deductions to sponsor political activity.

"This approach is a little bit like saying we're going to get rid of gang violence by taking knives away from one gang and leaving guns in the hands of another," said Derek Cressman, regional director of Common Cause, a nonpartisan nonprofit better government group.

CTA would agree. "The kinds of restrictions that it puts on organized labor to engage in political activity will make it almost impossible for us to get the word out," said Dean Vogel, the union's president. "If you can mount a successful fight in California and neutralize the voice of labor in California, it empowers these moneyed interests and encourages them to pursue this agenda across the country."

When asked why an education group would endorse a measure that has more to do with labor clout than schools, Romero said, "We never become shy about endorsing candidates that we think will do the right thing." CTA's political contributions, she said, bring them into the political realm, which "directly does impact how we go forward" in school reform. She painted the issue as a recent twist in the ongoing narrative of liberals changing their views on education, and said that she has received calls from Democrats afraid to support Prop 32 publicly, who have told her things like, "Sister, more power to you."

The recent tale of the Democratic party shifting away from blind allegiance to unions on education policy has been well documented, with the rise of the movement known as education reform that favors school accountability, revamping the way teachers are hired and fired, charter schools and an emphasis on standardized test scores.

But insiders say the California endorsement is not part of that story, and upon further investigation, it appears Romero is striking out on her own.

By October, no other bipartisan or Democratic education group active in California had declared its support for the measure. Michelle Rhee's Sacramento-based lobbying group, StudentsFirst, has been accused of being anti-union, but it has remained mum on Prop 32. Not even Democrats for Education Reform, the national parent organization of Romero's group, has gotten behind the cause publicly. Joe Williams, DFER's executive director did not respond to requests for comment, and DFER's spokesperson declined to comment.

Several well-connected insiders within the education reform world, who requested anonymity to preserve working relationships, worried that Romero's support for Prop 32 only fuels theories, like those of New York University history professor Diane Ravitch, that reformers are part of a "billionaire boys' club" out to privatize education and turn a quick profit.

Some speculate that Romero's criticisms of the CTA are more personally motivated: After she authored the country's first parent trigger law, which allows parents to take over failing schools and replace faculty with non-unionized teachers, the union did not support her unsuccessful bid to serve as California's schools superintendent.

Romero denied such speculation, attributing it to sexism. "I did this for years before I ran for the superintendent," she said. "People say 'she's bitter' about this and that, but that's sexism in politics."

Steve Barr, who founded Green Dot charter schools, a unionized charter school chain, sits on DFER's national board. He called Prop 32 "a travesty" that is "incredibly divisive." Barr added that California's arm of DFER has no board, giving Romero free reign over the group.

"As somebody who respects the organization and has been a part of it at times, I think it's a huge blow to the [DFER] brand," Barr said of Romero's endorsement. "I don't want to have much to do with an organization with 'Democrat' in its name that's in bed with the Koch brothers and Karl Rove."

Matt Sledge contributed reporting.

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