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Reformers trying to shake up the status quo in failing public schools are in an optimistic mood. Founders of charter schools-deregulated public schools operated by community groups instead of government officials-last week celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the first charter school in Minnesota, with nearly 2,400 charters now spread across 34 states. With the Supreme Court expected to approve Cleveland's school-voucher program, reformers also hope to take the threat of court challenges out of local policy equations.
But reformers in the states could face a new kind of threat. In Sacramento, an education committee of the California Assembly passed a bill backed by the powerful California Teachers Association (CTA) that would put school policy up for negotiation in collective bargaining with teachers unions. If union negotiators didn't like a district's textbooks, curriculum, or even mentoring programs, it could subject them to drawn-out negotiations, draining the power of school administrators and parents. Elected representatives on school boards are calling the bill a "power grab."
Faced with twice as many groups opposing the bill as endorsing it (and most supporting groups are CTA affiliates), legislators amended the bill to allow districts to form "academic partnerships" with unions and parents that would jointly make curriculum decisions. The membership of the panel would be equally divided between the district and the union. If the partnership could not reach consensus in 90 days, the issues would then become subject to collective bargaining. But opponents say unions could just avoid a consensus for 90 days and then take policy changes to the negotiating table.
Local reformers say the teachers unions already have too much sway in policy-making. A study by the Pacific Research Institute found that in an average California school district, 85 percent of the district's operating budget is tied to teacher and employee salaries and collective bargaining contracts.
"Parents are horrified that union contracts already dictate basic policies and spending levels, giving administrators little flexibility to make necessary changes to boost achievement," said Jeanne Allen of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform. She says the union bill would take away what little power parents have to influence their schools.
The bill is controversial enough to split Democrats. It passed the Assembly Education Committee on a party-line vote of 8 to 5, but two Democrats abstained. Roy Romer, a former governor of Colorado and national Democratic Party chairman who now runs the Los Angeles Unified School District, was blunt: "If it passes, let me make a prediction: This is going to be the biggest shot in the arm for vouchers this state will ever see. I want it killed. You don't play with this kind of thing."
Public-school officials like Mr. Romer are looking over their shoulders at better performance from California's charter schools. A recent study of 1999, 2000, and 2001 state test scores by professors at California State University-Los Angeles found that poor students in charter schools achieved better scores than poor students in non-charter schools. That's despite the fact that charter schools have less money and facilities at their disposal than more-established public schools.
Gov. Gray Davis, who was elected with a moderate image based partly on his support for new testing requirements, has signaled opposition to the union bill, but will face a lot of pressure to sign it if it passes the Assembly Appropriations Committee, where Democrats hold a 16-7 majority. Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson is a co-sponsor.
The CTA is the second largest donor to the state's Democratic Party, and it has withheld the bulk of its contributions as leverage to grease bills through the legislature (including one removing tests before graduation). The union gave Gov. Davis about $2 million for his 1998 campaign but has only given him around $62,000 for his reelection bid against Republican Bill Simon. CTA President Wayne Johnson won't help Gov. Davis look moderate. Mr. Johnson has been publicly critical of national teachers union officials for "appeasement" of President Bush and others "that are dedicated to destroying public education."
Despite heavy lobbying and a radio advertising campaign to build support for the bill, the CTA's bold move could water down the Democratic Party's image of putting student performance first. A backlash at the polls is a form of collective bargaining the unions cannot control.