California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris walks on stage to address delegates… (Rich Pedroncelli / Asscociated…)
SACRAMENTO — California Democrats on Sunday condemned efforts led by members of their own party to overhaul the nation's schools, arguing that groups such as StudentsFirst and Democrats for Education Reform are fronts for Republicans and corporate interests.
Before delegates overwhelmingly passed a resolution excoriating the groups on the final day of the party's annual convention here, speakers urged them to focus on protecting students and teachers.
"People can call themselves Democrats for Education Reform -- it's a free country -- but if your agenda is to shut teachers and school employees out of the political process and not lift a finger to prevent cuts in education, in my book you're not a reformer, you're not helping education, and you're sure not much of a Democrat," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, a registered Democrat whose office is nonpartisan.
The advocacy groups are calling for increasing parental choice, tying student performance to teacher evaluations and changing how teachers are hired and fired. President Obama, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker are among the elected Democrats who support the groups' efforts.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, April 16, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 Local Desk 2 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Democrats and schools: An article in the April 15 LATExtra section about California Democrats criticizing school overhaul groups StudentsFirst and Democrats for Education Reform included a headline that said "Democrats blast L.A. overhaul efforts." StudentsFirst and Democrats for Education Reform, as the story indicated, are seeking changes in public education throughout the nation.
But such moves are anathema to teachers unions. California Teachers Assn. President Dean Vogel argued that the organizations are working to eliminate workers' rights and "hellbent on turning students into test-taking machines."
"I'll tell you right now, they want to do that, they have to come through us," Vogel said.
"Let's be perfectly clear," he added. "These organizations are backed by moneyed interests, Republican operatives and out-of-state Wall Street billionaires dedicated to school privatization and trampling on teacher and worker rights."
Gloria Romero, a former Democratic majority leader in the state Senate who leads the California chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, called the Sunday resolution "stupid."
"They drank some Kool-Aid that has been fresh squeezed for them by the most powerful political interest in California, the California Teachers Assn.," she said, adding that improving schools for minorities and the poor should be a priority for the party.
"They beat their chest," she continued, "they get some money into their campaign coffers, but they walk away having abandoned the call for quality education for children of color."
The clash over education had been building throughout the three-day convention, underscoring a larger debate taking place in education circles. A spokeswoman for StudentsFirst said the party failed over the weekend to discuss any concrete steps to improve education.
"The heated rhetoric ... is especially disappointing because it reveals an abject refusal to tackle the most important issue: ensuring that every California student goes to a great school and has a great teacher," said the spokeswoman, Jessica Ng.
StudentsFirst, founded by former Washington, D.C., schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, has spent nearly $1.5 million since 2012 on efforts to elect Democrats.
Rhee is married to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. An early hint of the convention controversy came when party officials, who had initially approved Johnson's request that his advocacy group have a booth at the convention, reversed course and said no.
A spokesman for the party said the decision not to provide space for the Democratic mayor of the host city had nothing to do with his group's message.
"We simply experienced a higher demand for exhibitor booths than initially anticipated," Tenoch Flores said.
On Sunday, other speakers included the leaders of the California Labor Federation and the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Throughout the convention, delegates were feted at evening receptions put on by unions.
At Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom's annual convention party, top labor leaders huddled on a private balcony dotted with silver buckets containing chilled Veuve Clicquot while D.J. Spinderella played dance music.
The state's highest ranking Democratic officials -- Gov. Jerry Brown and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer -- all in their 70s, did not attend the gathering.
Their absence fueled speculation about the next generation of leaders, notably Newsom and Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris.
The two addressed delegates Saturday, both focusing on Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban passed by voters in 2008 that the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on in June. Harris cited her refusal to defend the proposition in court as an example of Democratic values.
"When I ran for attorney general, I promised we would never stand in the chapel door. We said we don't need to read the polls, we need to read the Constitution," she said. "We said the state of California should not and will not stand in defense of any law that deprives people of their fundamental rights."
Widely viewed as a likely candidate for higher office, Harris said those who argue that states ought to have the authority to define marriage are denying the inevitable.
"But we know justice cannot be served cold," she said. "We know 'wait' is just a substitute for 'never.' ... Democrats, let's make this the year we don't take 'wait' for an answer. Now is the time!"
Two hours later, Newsom cited his decision as San Francisco mayor in 2004 to direct the city to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
"It's about standing upon principle and having the courage of our convictions," said Newsom, who is generally considered Harris' main competition for higher office. "It's about saying publicly what we all too often say privately, just as we did in 2004 in San Francisco."