THE BLOG
06/16/2014 09:16 pm ET Updated Aug 16, 2014

Jerry Brown Gets His California Budget, Teachers Unions Get a Harsh Wake-Up Call

Governor Jerry Brown got another on-time California state budget with nearly everything he wanted, a regular occurrence since he exercised a first-in-history budget veto three years ago, when the state legislature voted on Sunday. And a few days before that, the state's powerful teachers unions got a jarring wake-up call when a Los Angeles judge threw out the state laws governing teacher tenure, discipline, and termination, laws which have made it extraordinarily difficult to fire any public school teacher.

Let's talk about the teachers unions first. And let's start with the good stuff, at least from a Democratic standpoint.

These unions of well-educated knowledge workers, whose members perform, frequently rather valorously, one of society's most important functions, are key lynchpins of the Democratic Party coalition. They contribute mightily to its success, as well as to the richness of its political culture, backing, mostly out of conviction, a host of progressive ideas.

The California Teachers Association, aligned at the national level with the National Education Association, is the state's largest teachers union and arguably the single most powerful organization in the state, especially from a left of center perspective. The California Federation of Teachers, aligned at the national level with the American Federation of Teachers, is even more liberal than the CTA. It played a critical role in helping Brown, by, er, forcing his hand with a rival initiative, make his cornerstone Proposition 30 in 2012 more oriented to taxes on high-income Californians, thus making it more electorally attractive.

The teachers unions, especially CTA, deliver major campaign funds and also highly skilled political operatives for electioneering and public relations. That includes, most notably, political consultant and CTA strategist Gale Kaufman, whom I usually refer to as the most effective state political consultant around. While it's not true that California Democrats could not succeed without the teachers unions, the Golden State Democracy would be a poorer and hollower place without them. They are, as Kaufman's old boss and friend former Assembly Speaker and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown says, "anchor tenants" of the party.

Of course, there is a downside as well. The teachers unions in California exhibit the all-too-human characteristic of going for most all that they can get. Put another way, they are greedy. Which is not necessarily bad. After all, "Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms, greed for life, for money, for love, for knowledge, has marked the upward surge of mankind."

That it was Gordon Gekko (okay, channeling Oliver Stone) who said that only further clarifies the situation. For the very powerful, be they individuals or institutions, have something in common regardless of professed ideology; they go for what they can get. Which is why there have to be checks on their power.

The teachers unions went for, and got, state laws making California one of the easiest states in which to gain teacher tenure and one of the hardest states in which to get fired or even disciplined. At two years and change, it's certainly a lot easier to get tenure in a grade school or high school than it is in a college or university, and the level of qualification for the position is much lower. But then, doctoral students don't have much of a union. And as far as firing a teacher for incompetence, well, that's probably more trouble than it's worth.

In a society in which capital has disproportionate power over labor, and in which organized labor is on the decline as a proportion of the labor force, it's incumbent on leaders of organized labor not to make it easy for their enemies to make them the issue. There are many reasons why schools have problems in this society. Teacher quality is one of those reasons, though you will be hard-pressed to find a California Democrat who will say that, but there would be serious problems with public education even if that were not true.

Best to remove the kick-me sign and keep moving forward. That's why I think the Vergara decision is an opportunity for teachers unions, and for Democrats.

Instead of taking an absolutist stance and battling for years in court to protect a position which, frankly, is not a sell-able position over the long term, change the laws now.

Make it harder to gain tenure. Make it easier to fire a teacher for poor performance. (Standardized student test performances have to be part of that equation, but only part. Let principals and school boards do their jobs.) Make lifelong learning and training and retraining -- for remedial purposes as well as making needed adjustments for curriculum and social changes -- with appropriate new funding, a bigger part of the life cycle of teaching. That will convince the public that the teachers unions are serious about doing their part to ensure a quality education.

It's not as though teachers unions don't have multiple opportunities to weigh in on the processes of education. At the local level, they play in elections for the school boards which are actually in charge of the more than one thousand districts which govern the individual schools, with which they participate in the collective bargaining process. And the participate in local ballot measures. At the state level, they support and oppose candidates for the legislature and for governor and superintendent of public instruction, not to mention statewide initiatives.

Brown, not incidentally, has been just as quiet as every other statewide Democrat on the Vergara decision. Not because he needs the teachers unions to win re-election. Brown, a champion of charter schools as Oakland's mayor, doesn't. Of course, if he comments then the silence of other Democrats becomes less tenable. In any event, he's a friend of the unions, having signed, during his first go-round as governor, the legislation giving public employee unions the opportunity to make real powers of themselves.

Teachers unions, especially CTA, have been important backers of Brown in his state campaigns. Could he have returned to the governorship in 2010, running against the biggest spending non-presidential campaign in American history, without that support?

In retrospect, I would say the answer is yes. What I wrote about in the summer of 2010, what I called Brown's rope-a-dope approach to billionaire Meg Whitman's constantly spending campaign, set up a powerful dynamic. (The piece uses a boxing metaphor but the title, "Enter the Moonbeam," is of course a play on the classic Bruce Lee martial arts picture, Enter the Dragon.)

Like Muhammad Ali in his classic 1974 championship fight in Zaire with the younger and stronger George Foreman, Brown let his opponent punch herself out, wearing out her message and her welcome with the voters with her incessant advertising before seizing the initiative with some well-considered moves.

Not that it would have been prudent to stake everything on that theory. I do recall commenting to Kaufman in a phone call from the floor of the California Republican Party convention in March of that year -- where I saw what looked like a free-spending big business/super-rich political machine -- that it looked to me like Whitman intended to spend $200 million to try to drown Brown's candidacy. (In the event, Whitman spent $180 million, though I believe she would have spent $200 million or more had she not been trailing Brown so badly as the fall campaign unfolded.)

Meanwhile, back in 2014, Brown has essentially gotten his budget, with the legislature voting on Sunday to adopt another on-time state budget. The suspense was removed on Friday when Brown and outgoing state Senate President Darrell Steinberg and new Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins issued a mutually congratulatory set of statements on their state budget agreement via the Guv's press release. The deal included adoption of Brown's more conservative revenue estimates (his preferred mechanism to tamp down new spending demands from his fellow Dems), some more money for pre-school education in lieu of Steinberg's preferred additional year of early schooling, and 25 percent of greenhouse gas cap-and-trade market proceeds per year going to high-speed rail thus solving an immediate problem for the emerging system. Brown gave way on demands that the budget not reject overtime for in-home health care workers.

With $250 million in this year's budget, another one-time allocation of $400 million, and hundreds of millions more per year from carbon market proceeds, federal bureaucratic and local judicial concerns about the high-speed rail project having more funding starting out are addressed. Add that to the $9.9 billion in bonds previously authorized and some $3 billion in federal funds slated for the project and the bullet train will get a strong start.

Of course, most of its $68 billion in lifetime project funding is not there yet. But that's not all that unusual for huge infrastructure projects.

The real reason why this has been an issue is because hard right Republicans took over the House of Representatives in the 2010 election which returned Brown to executive power in a landslide. Heavily influenced by conventional fossil fuel lobbies as well as the Tea Party, House Republicans oppose high-speed rail, a commonplace in much of Asia and Europe, everywhere in America.

That opposition extends to the amiable new House majority leader-to-be, Bakersfield's Kevin McCarthy, despite his good relationship with high-speed rail champion Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the Republicans won't control the House forever, an obvious point which manages to escape many critics of the project in politics and media. And in any event they will have to make some adjustments going forward, especially on climate change as the realities become ever more apparent.

Not that all Republicans oppose high-speed rail. While the fight for second place in the California state controller's race is still unresolved in the long, laborious count of final absentee and provisional ballots -- the first place finisher in the primary, Republican Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, favors the high-speed rail project initiated by Governor Gray Davis, ramped up by Schwarzenegger, and aggressively pushed forward to realization by Brown, with all three governors in "up-wing" mode.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari, the former assistant U.S. Treasury secretary and Wall Street bailout coordinator, has made his opposition to high-speed rail a centerpiece of his campaign. But he's also against the state's landmark climate change program, another Schwarzenegger signature issue.

Not that it matters.

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