Tuesday brought two major political earthquakes, one on either side of the country. While Majority Leader Eric Cantor will forever be known as the first House Majority Leader to fall to a primary challenge, on the West Coast, the all-powerful California teachers’ unions were defeated by judicial review.
In deciding the Vergara v. California case, Judge Rolf Treu of the California Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles ruled in favor of the plaintiffs – a group of students from L.A. County represented by the Silicon Valley-funded group, Students Matter – who claimed California’s teacher tenure, dismissal, and lay-off laws violated the students’ constitutional right to equal educational opportunity. In his decision, Judge Treu stated, “This court finds that both students and teachers are unfairly, unnecessarily, and for no legally cognizable reason (let alone a compelling one), disadvantaged by the current Permanent Employment Statute.” While he has stayed any action resulting from his ruling pending appeal, Treu’s decision effectively rules California’s tenure, dismissal, and lay-off laws unconstitutional.
Considering how powerful California’s top two teachers’ unions – the California Teacher’s Association (CTA) and the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) – are within the State Legislature, this ruling sets up a series of consequential political battles that CTA and CFT have long been trying to avoid.
#1) 2014 Superintendent of Public Instruction Race
Even before the ruling, this race had become a battle between the status quo and reform. The CTA funneled about $3 million into the June primary on behalf of Superintendent Tom Torlakson, who has been a strong ally of the teachers’ unions over the course of his political career. Their hope: to get Torlakson over 50% in this non-partisan race to avoid a November run-off. But as of the morning of June 11, Torlakson’s two opponents had over 53% of the vote – meaning he’ll face second-place finisher Marshall Tuck, an education reformer and charter school executive. Judge Treu’s firm questioning of California’s key teacher protection laws gives Tuck even more ammunition in fight against the incumbent. That runoff will resemble the two candidates’ reactions after the judge’s decision. Following Treu’s decision, Tuck tweeted: “CA’s top edu official must be an independent advocate for students, not an apologist for a broken system.” Meanwhile, Torlakson’s office issued a press release saying, “Teachers are not the problem in our schools, they are the solution.”
#2) 2014 Governor’s Race
Neel Kashkari spent $3 million to get past Assemblyman Tim Donnelly last Tuesday for the right to challenge Governor Jerry Brown in November. No one thinks Kashkari has a chance at beating the incumbent, but Vergara v. California presents the Republican challenger with a talking point that could help to elevate his campaign. Kashkari’s theme – “jobs and education, that’s it” – is catchy, simple, and focuses on two issues that consistently rank among the top policy priorities for Californians. And according to the recent USC Dornsife/LA Times poll, Brown’s approval on education presents an opening for Kashkari. Brown’s net approval rating is just 7 points (48% approve vs. 41% disapprove) on education among likely voters, one-third his overall support (58% approve vs. 37% disapprove). Treu’s indictment of California’s tenure, dismissal, and layoff laws enables Kashkari to make a compelling case that California’s K-12 status quo needs serious, bold reform – something an inside player like Brown, who has so far received over $100,000 from teachers’ unions this year, can’t do.
#3) 2014 State Legislative Races
Democrats hold a bare supermajority in the State Assembly (and also would in the State Senate if it weren’t for three Democratic State Senators being suspended for ethics issues). Given strong performances by the favored Republican candidates in many of the key June primaries, it looks as if Republicans have a decent chance at preventing Democratic supermajorities come November. With the state’s economy recovering – albeit slowly – renewed focused on the California’s struggling K-12 education status quo presents a good opportunity for the out-of-power party to make a case against one-party rule in Sacramento. It will also force Democrats to rather publicly stand behind the teachers’ unions over students – an optic that voters might not view too positively.
#4) 2018 Governor’s Race
Because the State of California is the defendant in the case, the decision to appeal rests with Attorney General Kamala Harris. Watching her actions closely will be the other possible 2018 Democratic gubernatorial contenders – in particular, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, current Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, and Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom. Villaraigosa is an ally of Marshall Tuck’s and made moves to reform education in the state’s largest city during his tenure. Garcetti won his mayoral race despite strong union support for his opponent. Newsom has always been a more reform-minded Democrat. This issue could be a good opportunity for any one of them to make a clear distinction between their candidacy and Harris’.
#5) Republican Latino Outreach
In a state that is increasingly trending Latino, Republicans must find ways to make inroads with that community in order to win statewide contests and increase their legislative numbers. Thus far, Republicans have struggled to turn their policy positions into assets with Latino voters. Considering the Vergara v. California case specifically highlights the plight of disadvantaged Latino students in the state’s K-12 education system, Republicans have a clear opportunity to take their pro-student agenda into Latino communities.
While it’s unlikely that Vergara v. California will become a household name along the lines of Brown v. Board of Education, it nevertheless could be just as consequential in leading to education reforms. It presents Republicans with an opportunity to develop a reform-focused positive education message, which could re-cast the education debate in their favor; it also could lead to an internal Democratic battle as reformers step out of the shadows and challenge the teachers’ unions’ status quo control.
All of which could lead to a seismic political shift in California.