Meaningful change probably won’t come from elected officials, at least for now. The CTA’s size, financial resources and influence with the state’s Democratic Party are enough to kill most pieces of hostile legislation.
Los Angeles Elementary School is shown in 2011. The California Teachers Assn., or CTA, is arguably the state’s most powerful union.
California’s education tailspin has been blamed on class sizes, on the property tax restrictions enforced by Proposition 13, on an influx of Spanish-speaking students. But no portrait of the schools’ downfall would be complete without mention of the California Teachers Assn., or CTA, arguably the state’s most powerful union and a political behemoth that has blocked meaningful education reform, protected failing and even criminal educators, and pushed for pay raises and benefits that have reached unsustainable levels.
The CTA’s power dates back to September 1975, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Rodda Act, which allowed teachers to bargain collectively. Within 18 months, 600 of the 1,000 local CTA chapters — up to then a professional organization — had moved to collective bargaining. As the union’s power grew, its ranks nearly doubled, from 170,000 in the late 1970s to about 325,000 today. By following the union’s directions and voting in blocs in low-turnout school board elections, teachers were often able to handpick their own supervisors. Further, the organization that had once forsworn the strike began taking to the picket lines. In the years since Rodda’s passage, the CTA has launched more than 170 strikes.
The CTA’s most important resource, however, isn’t a pool of workers ready to strike; it’s a fat bank account fed by mandatory dues that can run to more than $1,000 per member. In 2009, the union’s income was more than $186 million, all of it tax exempt. The CTA doesn’t need its members’ consent to spend this money on politicking. According to figures from the California Fair Political Practices Commission (a public institution) in 2010, the CTA had spent more than $210 million over the previous decade on political campaigning — more than any other donor in the state.