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California Teachers Assn. a powerful force in Sacramento

The union, backed by an army of 325,000 teachers and a war chest as sizable as those of the major political parties, can make or break all sorts of deals.

August 18, 2012|By Michael J. Mishak, Los Angeles Times

Padilla said his bill was prompted by the case of former Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt, who was charged with 23 counts of lewd acts on children. The legislation, he said, would affect only "the very, very few who abuse the trust we've given them."

"This bill is not about dismissing a teacher if the lesson plan is not ready or they've shown up tardy too many times," Padilla testified.

CTA objected that the bill would have given school boards, rather than an administrative judge and two educators, final authority over dismissals. Dozens of teachers from across the state lined up at the microphone to defend the existing procedure, each holding a declaration asking the state to investigate school administrators for their roles in the Miramonte scandal.

"If you take teacher dismissal and you make it a political process, you will be undermining the basic tenets of the system we've had for 40 years and that has worked for 40 years," said Warren Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, CTA's largest affiliate.

The bill failed.

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Perhaps no one felt CTA's power more than Schwarzenegger. In 2005, he asked voters to decide on a batch of ballot measures that struck at the heart of the union's power.

He wanted the authority to bypass Proposition 98. He proposed restricting unions' participation in politics. And he asked that teachers be required to work longer before winning tenure.

The union responded aggressively, approving a dues hike for an instant multimillion-dollar cash infusion. It spent nearly $60 million on a punishing "No" campaign. On election day, all of Schwarzenegger's proposals tanked.

During 2009 budget talks, Schwarzenegger pushed again for flexibility in education funding, which could have meant teacher layoffs. As Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders argued in the governor's conference room, Susan Kennedy, his chief of staff, received an email on her BlackBerry.

It was from Nuñez, the CTA lobbyist, Kennedy recalled.

"Don't go there," it read.

Democrats in the room, Kennedy fumed, were emailing Nuñez real-time updates on the budget talks.

"It was almost as if CTA had a seat at the table," said Kennedy, herself a Democrat.

Nuñez said he didn't remember sending the email, but "if I did, good for me."

Vogel, the CTA president, said deference to his organization was appropriate.

"If I was doing their work," he said, "I'd certainly be interested in where we are and what we think."

Later that year, the Obama administration offered cash-strapped states billions of dollars in competitive grants to increase teacher accountability. Schwarzenegger asked lawmakers to pass several measures that could help the state get up to $700 million.

His list contained items the union had fought for years: merit pay for teachers, permission for students to change campuses, a requirement that student test scores be part of teachers' evaluations.

Schwarzenegger found an ally in state Sen. Gloria Romero, a Democrat from East Los Angeles who chaired the Senate Education Committee. But few lawmakers came aboard.

"They didn't want to know what the bills said," Romero recalled. "The only question I was asked was, 'Where is CTA on this?'"

CTA was opposed. Romero said her Democratic colleagues accused her of jeopardizing their careers by antagonizing the group.

In the end, parts of the package passed. But CTA had the final word.

The union urged its local affiliates not to support California's application for the federal funds. Washington dinged the state for the lack of union buy-in, among other factors, and rejected its request.

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Even before CTA helped Jerry Brown win election, he was sympathetic to many of its causes, such as limiting standardized testing and reducing government's role in schools. On his first full day in office, he sacked the majority of the state Board of Education.

He replaced several proponents of charter schools, parent power and teacher accountability with people friendlier to the union, including one of its lobbyists, Patricia Rucker. A few days later, Brown proposed a budget that eliminated money for a state database of such information as which courses a teacher had taught and what credentials he or she had, a system CTA opposed.

Months later, Brown turned to CTA for help closing California's budget deficit as he and legislative leaders came within days of their legal deadline to do so. They summoned Nuñez, the CTA lobbyist, to the governor's U-shaped suite and made their pitch to plug the gap with their rosy revenue forecasts. School funds would be cut if the money didn't appear.

That's when Nuñez balked. If the projections proved wrong (as they ultimately did), schools could be forced to fire teachers en masse.

Brown and the other leaders left the room. They returned with the outlines of a compromise scribbled on cardboard. The four hashed out details into the evening. A few days later, the Legislature passed a budget allowing education cuts if revenue lagged.

But CTA could still claim victory. Nuñez had secured a guarantee few could have imagined in such lean times:

For the next year, no school — no matter how financially strapped — could lay off any of its teachers.

michael.mishak@latimes.com

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