Pressing education problems dividing California Democrats

For years — even decades — the political equation on California public education has been engraved in stone.

Democrats lined up with the California Teachers Association and other elements of the education establishment to contend that spending more money would be the pathway to improving test scores, dropout rates and other indices of educational attainment.

Republicans, meanwhile, argued that spending more money wouldn’t improve outcomes and that public schools needed competition — either more charter schools or vouchers for private schools — and a crackdown on incompetent teachers.

Recently, however, the equation has been changing. The Democratic-establishment coalition is breaking down as parents, especially those in inner cities, demand more local control, more school options and better outcomes. Political war erupted between the CTA and EdVoice, an organization financed mainly by wealthy Democrats that is pressing for reforms that the union dislikes, such as more charter schools.

Earlier this year, as the state sought federal Race to the Top grants, the Democratic-dominated Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger enacted school changes that the unions disliked — taking their reformist cue from the Obama White House. Recently, in fact, a group of parents in Compton invoked the new “parent trigger” law for the first time to force change in one failing school.

The Democratic author of the legislation, former Sen. Gloria Romero, ran for state schools superintendent with EdVoice support. Although the CTA-backed candidate, Tom Torlakson, eventually won, the Democratic split continues to widen.

Recently, the feud surfaced publicly as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, in a speech to a policy issues conference in Sacramento, slammed United Teachers Los Angeles, the powerful Los Angeles Unified School District union, as an impediment to meaningful school reform.

Villaraigosa called for changes in teacher tenure and other issues the unions hold dear. What made his speech even more dramatic is that the mayor got his political start as an organizer for the UTLA.

As Villaraigosa was speaking, the Department of Education was releasing its latest high school dropout report indicating that more than a fifth of California’s secondary students don’t get their diplomas — a number that critics still believe undercounts the real total.

Officially, over a third of L.A. Unified’s high schoolers are dropping out. Other researchers put it at 50 percent or more. It’s powerful ammunition for the war.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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