Instead of meeting in Los Angeles, as they usually do this time of year, the 800 state council delegates of the California Teachers Association, along with hundreds of others, mobilized over the weekend in their local districts, making phone calls and house calls urging voters to say yes on Proposition 30 and no on Proposition 32 by capitalizing on what they consider their best asset: themselves.
“Face to face is the most important way to make a difference,” said Don Dawson, a CTA board member from San Jose. “People respect teachers.”
CTA may be the most powerful force in Sacramento, but the double challenge of Props 30 and 32 clearly has teachers worried. The former, a $6 billion tax increase, would, if defeated, lead to more teacher layoffs, furlough days, and larger classes. The latter would ban public employee unions from collecting dues for political purposes but leave corporate interests and wealthy individual donors largely untouched.
One initiative would strike at teachers’ wallets, the other at their influence. But at a pep rally with Gov. Jerry Brown in San Francisco over the weekend, teachers said there’s a lot more at stake in the upcoming election than their own interests.
Frances Robinson, a teacher at the Raphael Weill Early Education School in San Francisco Unified, said she’s getting anxious about what will happen to her students if Prop 30 loses and the district is forced to move ahead with 16 furlough days. “I’m losing sleep over it,” said Robinson, dabbing away tears. “Our place is for some kids a safe sanctuary. It’s a place where parents can leave their children, go to work, and be sure that their children are age-appropriately taught … and for some children that’s where they will be fed and they won’t be hungry.”
Sitting in the back of the room, leaning against a window, Anthony Tate said he’s worried about polling that shows the initiatives in such a tight battle this close to the election. Tate is a site coordinator for after-school programs at the YMCA, and said the outcome of Prop 30 could determine whether the kids he works with “stay in the same poverty-stricken areas that they live in, or if we give our students the opportunity to have choices.”
Anxiety and accusations rose late last week, with disclosure of an $11 million contribution from an Arizona-based nonprofit, Americans for Responsible Leadership, to the California Small Business Action Committee, which is campaigning against 30 and for 32.
California Common Cause has asked the Fair Political Practices Commission to investigate, arguing that the group is in violation of state campaign finance regulations because it will not reveal the identities of the donors.
Gov. Brown took up that charge when he spoke to the union members over the weekend, suggesting that there might be money laundering involved because such a huge sum of cash couldn’t have come from a group of small businesses.
“In truth, they’re neither leaders nor are they small businesses. It’s major financial interests and powerful corporations or personalities that have the ability to move $11 million at will,” said Brown talking to reporters following his speech. “I believe the Small Business Action Committee knows who it is and they’re hiding that fact.” (Click here to read the full text of the Governor’s remarks).
Through massive public employee unions donations, the Yes on 30 and No on 32 campaigns were still ahead of opponents in fund-raising: $52 million for Prop 30 versus $42 million against, and $58 million against Prop 32 to $46 million for it according to MapLight.org, a website that tracks campaign spending. However, there is overlap in donations to 30 and 32 on both sides, since some donors gave a lump sum to campaign organizations like the Small Business Action Committee, which have not said how the money would be divided. Prop 30 backers are worried, since the common wisdom has been that a tax wouldn’t win if there was a well-funded opposition. (CTA has taken no position on Proposition 38, a competing tax initiative funded by Los Angeles attorney Molly Munger and backed by the state PTA. It would raise $10 billion per year for early childhood education and K-12 schools, starting in 2013-14, by increasing the personal income tax. CTA said that Prop 38 would not address the $6 billion in automatic cuts to K-12 and community colleges that would happen if Prop 30 fails. See EdSource infographic comparing Props 30 and 38.)
CTA has donated $21 million to the Yes on Prop 30 and No on Prop 32 campaigns, making it the single largest donor, while putting pressure on its political war chest.
Full-time teachers contribute about 8 percent of their union dues – $52 out of $647 – into a fund, the Association for Better Citizenship, which is used to support candidates and initiatives, according to Dawson. With 300,000 members, that’s more than $16 million annually, which can be socked away for election years. Seven years ago, when faced with a package of education propositions by Gov. Schwarzenegger that the union opposed, CTA added an extra dues assessment of $60 for three years. This year, CTA didn’t go that route because many teachers already have experienced pay cuts through furloughs, and there are 30,000 fewer dues-paying members because of layoffs.
Members are feeling stressed, said KC Walsh, a special education teacher from the Oak Grove School District in San Jose and a director on the CTA board. “This is a huge ask. Teachers are feeling demoralized with pay cuts and pressure on testing by the state and federal government. I challenge anyone to say we are not working hard. And now we’re asking them to do more” by getting involved in the Nov. 6 campaign.
This year, CTA has expanded a strategy first tried in 2005, when they faced a similar initiative to Prop 32 on the ballot, and is paying some presidents of local unions and other activists to take a leave from their classrooms to work full-time on the campaign. In the San Jose area alone, there are seven released teachers working through the November election.
One is Wendi Smith, a third grade teacher in the Sunnyvale School District, who has been organizing phone banks twice a week in her district and met one-on-one with teachers in every school. “This means everything to me. If we have no voice, who will stand up for my own child?” she asked. “We’ll be going a mile a minute to Election Day to reach everyone we can. I don’t want to look back to say, I could have or should have.”
In San Francisco, union vice president Susan Solomon left Saturday’s pep rally freshly energized to spend the rest of the afternoon talking to voters in a diverse, working class neighborhood of small auto repair shops, apartments, and houses, all of them heavily protected by barred doors and windows.
She covered about three blocks in a little over an hour, knocking on the door of every registered voter. Most people weren’t home. A few looked out the window and didn’t answer. But the handful who did open their doors gave her hope. Solomon caught Grant Singleton as he was carrying groceries from his car to his house. No sooner had she introduced herself as a San Francisco teacher, than Singleton smiled and said, as if answering a question in class, “Yes on 30, no on 32.” Solomon laughed and joked, “I think you just took my rap from me.”
Down the block, Darrell Collier invited her inside, as his preschool-aged nephew ran outside with his scooter, followed by the boy’s father. Collier is young, a community college student hoping to transfer to UC San Francisco. He runs a basketball program at the local Boys and Girls Club and knows from his own recent experience and from the kids in his program what’s happening in California public schools.
“I understand what schools need,” said Collier. “I’m from the East Coast, so I know what schools that have money can do for you and what schools that don’t have money do.” He was so enthusiastic about the initiative that Solomon took it to the next level and asked if he’d be willing to volunteer on the campaign. Collier said yes.
That’s the response the CTA needs more of these next few weeks, said Vice President Eric Heins. ”You know, it seems like every election we’re told this is the most important election ever,” he told the teachers gathered in San Francisco. “Well, you know what? This time it really is.”