California ed reform terminated?

There was no hero to rush to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's aid Tuesday as California voters pummeled all four of his ballot propositions with "nos."

Two of these rebukes were particularly painful for education reformers. Proposition 74 would have lengthened from two to five years the time required for a public school teacher to earn tenure. And Proposition 75 would have given public union members (many of whom are educators) a check-off option to keep their dues from flowing to political campaigns. This latter proposal would have weakened the unions' ability to block myriad initiatives that are in the public good (but threaten their weakest members) like the expansion of charter schools or the adoption of performance pay - and Tuesday's referenda.

Though the thumbs-down from voters was resounding, don't hit the panic button just yet. For Tuesday's vote wasn't a referendum on education policy so much as it was a test of union power, and of Schwarzenegger's approach to governing.

Clearly, the public employee unions won this round. They heavily outspent Schwarzenegger - $172 million vs. $90 million - according to Stanford's Michael Kirst, and bragged about their ability to do so. California Teachers Association President Barbara Kerr, incensed that the governor didn't credit the unions for his 0 for 4 showing, told a room of union supporters Tuesday night, "This governor ... doesn't have the courage to say he was wrong, that we're the real heroes of California." Says Kirst, "If you think the unions are weak, this should end that" idea.

Even before the run-up to the election, the unions were flexing their muscles. When Schwarzenegger released his 2005 budget, the teacher groups were upset that dollars promised the year before were not included. So beginning this past spring, Kirst says, they spent over $9 million on attack ads - to which the governor simply did not, or could not afford to, respond.

But perhaps even more than a test of union power, this election was a test of Schwarzenegger's approach to governing. Frustrated by a slothful, recalcitrant legislature and special interests unwilling to find ways to address California's growing financial problems, the governor tried to muscle his way past them by appealing to the people. But the people largely stayed home. Voter turnout hovered around 30 percent, thereby amplifying the targeted get-out-the-vote power of the unions. And four other initiatives not backed by Schwarzenegger also went down swinging. To be sure, the defeat of propositions 74 and 75 constitutes a blow to school reform in California. But it's a blow from which reformers can recover and learn. "If you go directly after" the unions, says Kirst, "you've got to have a very sophisticated proposal and a lot of money." Today, it seems, the governor has neither. But fear not: he'll be baaack, and so will these promising policy ideas.


"Voters Reject Schwarzenegger's Bid to Remake State Government," by Michael Finnegan and Robert Salladay, Los Angeles Times, November 9, 2005

"Schwarzenegger Is Dealt a Stinging Rebuke by Voters," by John M. Broder, New York Times, November 9, 2005

"State Election Results: California Rejects Education Measures," Education Week, November 9, 2005 (Subscription required)

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