Dan Walters: School reform duel shifts to surrogates
By Dan Walters
Oct. 30, 2009
One of the more obscure – and probably more important – of California's many political conflicts pits an organization called EdVoice against the California Teachers Association and other school unions.
It centers on our ever-deepening education crisis, manifested in low test scores and high dropout rates, especially among black and Latino kids.
EdVoice, maintained by some wealthy Californians such as Southern California developer Eli Broad and Silicon Valley tycoon Reed Hastings, advocates charter schools, tougher teaching standards and other aggressive approaches.
The CTA and its allies, meanwhile, say California's chief education issue is money, specifically its below-average level of per-pupil spending.
It's not so much a partisan or even ideological conflict – Broad and many other EdVoice leaders are Democrats – as it is one of pedagogic philosophy, but that doesn't make it any less abrasive.
Last year, for instance, EdVoice backed its former president, Christopher Cabaldon, in his bid for a Yolo County state Assembly seat while unions poured money to his victorious rival for the Democratic nomination, Mariko Yamada, one of several clashes between the factions.
EdVoice and the unions will play for bigger stakes next year, facing off in the ostensibly non-partisan race to succeed Jack O'Connell, the outgoing state schools superintendent who has ties to both factions.
Almost certainly, O'Connell's successor will be either state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, or Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, both former teachers. And EdVoice is throwing its weight behind Romero while Torlakson counts on the unions for his campaign.
Romero's crusade for prison reform pitted her against the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the other big union power player. And she aborted her bid for a congressional seat this year after the Los Angeles County Labor Federation endorsed rival Judy Chu.
Broad, Hastings, the family of the late Don Fisher (founder of the Gap), and other EdVoice principals have been Romero's chief contributors to date, clearly marking her as the organization's candidate. Commensurate financial backing from unions for Torlakson has yet to emerge, but clearly is in the works.
The two have already been dueling over legislation, with Romero carrying EdVoice-backed bills while Torlakson carried those sought by school unions, and he recently introduced a new bill imposing more regulation on charter schools. Romero won big when the Legislature (with Torlakson voting "no") extended a "school choice" law giving parents the right to shift their kids from one district to another.
It was not only a win for Romero and EdVoice but also reflected the Obama administration's direction on school reform. Inferentially, therefore, the Romero-Torlakson duel will be a referendum on how schools should be fixed not only in California but also across the nation.