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Home » Chalk Talk – Hardly a Blow to Reform – Why California Voters Really Rejected Teacher Reforms

November, 2005

Voters in California rejected two important education reform initiatives this week – the reform of teacher tenure rules, and the requirement that teachers and other public employees opt in to their union’s political spending, rather than having that money automatically taken from their paychecks along with other union dues. In both cases, it would have taken only about a five percent swing in the vote (about 300,000 people) for these initiatives to pass.

Their passage would have been one more skirmish won in the long war between the union’s efforts to protect their stake in the status quo and reformers’ bids to improve accountability and achievement in the schools. At the end of the day, the unions’ victory – and the Governor’s loss – was at best a superficial blow to a burgeoning school reform movement. But the modest defeat will be used for years by the education monopoly (aka the Blob) to “prove” that Americans overwhelmingly reject such reform efforts. The reality is that the defeat is not a comment on whether or not the people of California – or any other state – believe that teachers should be held more accountable in the classroom, or have more control over their paychecks. The fate of these education ballot initiatives – like so many others before them – is, rather, a case study of how proponents continue to fail to wage campaigns that engage voters in their communities and in their homes on the compelling issue of the state of their schools.

The political handlers still do not understand this. Most initiative campaign managers believe that major media buys and traditional stump speeches will get them the votes. But, as most of us know first hand, education is a complexly personal, emotional issue that requires one-to-one contact.

The art of grassroots politics was seen at its best during the last presidential election in Ohio, the state that Bush won against all odds. There, like in so many other swing states, campaign forces took to the streets to argue the case for their candidate. When an advocate addresses you on an issue in person, and personally hands you the literature she want you to read (whether or not you do), you are much more likely to engage in that issue than if you’d merely heard a campaign ad on the subject, no matter how many times. Americans respond best to people whom they know, who also have a stake in their communities, and who address the specific impact an issue has on the voter and the community. In the absence of good old-fashioned door-to-door politicking, major media ads will never help win a campaign.

For more than twenty years, Californians have been inundated with voter initiatives that require them to make policy at the ballot box, a trend built on the back of the famously successful Proposition 13, which in 1978 rolled back skyrocketing property taxes. The union establishment – “representing” teachers and other public employees – took it as a bite out of “their” slice of the state budget pie and a threat to the purchasing power they’d worked so carefully to cultivate in the legislature. Ever since, special interests have been working to circumvent its spirit and dismantle its effect piecemeal. Each year, initiatives to bring in and set aside more money, more control, and more power to these vested interests under the guise of “public services” have been put before to voters, and each time voters have acquiesced, creating a pattern in which initiatives boosting cash flow into the public coffers now fly through easily. However, those that require a deeper understanding of policy and politics and that attempt to bring accountability into the mix almost always get an automatic no.

That’s one reason why in Washington State an initiative to sustain the state’s legislatively-passed charter school bill in 2004 was defeated so strongly. It is also one of the reasons why initiatives for school choice in Colorado and Oregon have failed by a margin of 2 to 1. And it’s partly the reason why last week the two efforts aimed at helping create better, more accountable schools in California failed.

But the public’s initiative voting behavior is just part of the story. The bigger – and more controllable – reason is that in each of these instances, proponents did little or nothing to secure – really fasten – the core issues of these reforms in the minds of voters. The reason: initiative campaigns waged by education reform proponents are almost universally battled out on the airwaves. Convinced by campaign consultants and media salespeople that the only way to reach millions of voters is through mass advertising, proponents create commercials that fail to make their point and leave little impression. And in the absence of a compelling, personal reason to vote for change, voters will always stick with the devil they know.

When Golden State Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger first launched his series of campaign initiatives, he said he would take them to the people to decide. But the only people his campaign supporters eventually reached out to were those listening to radio or watching television, and then only with 30 and 60 second spots that could not help but fail to define the nuances of the issues. Where was the grassroots campaigning to help voters understand and identify with these reforms? Oh, yes, there were rallies and meetings where people fell over themselves to touch the Gubernator. But they were not there because they believed in the cause. They were there to touch his biceps.

So when faced with whether or not we, as mere mortals (not policymakers), should do something like extend the time it takes for a teacher to get tenure, our otherwise sharp intellects abandon us. We hear the ads by the special interests that say such a move would devastate teachers, and we cave. No one wants to think they are doing anything to hurt the school employees who look out for their child 8 hours a day, be it the neighbor in food services who greets little Tommy by name, the best friend who’s a teacher’s aide and makes sure his pictures always get a gold star, or the 3rd grade teacher who, while not always spot-on academically, did take the time to call to share her concerns about his tough time making friends. We want the absolute best for our kids, and yet even when faced with year after year of less-than-stellar teachers (or worse), we’re not willing to go to measures that might hold jobs in the balance, and we instead rationalize, “Well they can’t help it. After all, they have all those kids!”

As for the initiative that would require teachers – and all public employee union members – to give consent before money can be taken out of their paychecks for the unions’ vast (and hard-left) political spending, the public, it seems, was simply overwhelmed by a notion that just is not familiar to most people. Most Americans do not understand the unionized teacher employment system: that teachers are forced to pay for their union’s political activity (over the direction of which they have little, if any say), that they cannot be hired for their skills, and cannot be fired without excessive delay and cost. Not only are these facts not on the radar for most of us, but when given the opportunity to cast a vote to upset the status quo on one of these notions, most of us just will not do so if at all unsure of the stakes or consequences. That is, unless someone has individually spoken or otherwise reached out to us on the issue in a way that has enabled and encouraged our thoughtful consideration.

Governor Schwarzenegger’s move to reform the policies that surround teacher pay and performance was courageous, and would likely not have been undertaken if he were a politician who cared more about his next career move than his current commitment, as most pols, of necessity, do. But he was failed by those around him who undertook a Hollywood-style campaign with lots of sizzle but little substance.

This referendum on teacher tenure and union dues was not a statement of public opposition at all, but of public confusion and mistrust magnified by the flaws of the initiative process. In the absence of effective grassroots initiative campaigns, which time and time again reformers have shown themselves ill-equipped to wage, these issues belong in the legislature, where the debate and the dialogue will receive the time and sunshine required. Yes, legislatures are difficult beasts to conquer, especially in light of the millions in special interest spending that make it difficult for individual lawmakers to be more independent. But there is a way to win over legislators, and it requires the engagement of the people who are most affected by these policies – teachers and parents. A legislator need only see a handful of his constituents daily on an issue to know that something’s brewing that needs his attention. Working to mobilize such grassroots involvement over an extended period of time is laborious and less sexy than buying a TV ad. Political donors typically don’t understand it, and political consultants working to collect their money don’t sell it, because the inexpensive, time-intensive efforts of grassroots politics don’t make them the big money that the splashy yet ineffective ad buys do.

It is, nonetheless, the only way to win on education reform, especially when that reform challenges the status quo. Until the various reform-minded governors, money-folk, and activist leaders get that, they’ll continue to lick their wounds following every initiative defeat, for years to come.