California: Hot Seat for Contentious Education Issues

Seal_of_the_California_Department_of_Education.jpg (JPEG Image, 230 × 230 pixels)Last month, the Democratic Party in California held a three day convention. The convention, at which the California Teachers Association was prominently represented, sparked a wave of rhetoric that reveals at least a temporary rift among some members and former members of the Democratic Party in California.  The rift concerns how much school choice and student testing as part of teacher evaluations should be part of the Democratic platform for education reform.

On one side, those who disagree with both of these movements, stand the younger leaders of the Democratic Party in California, such as Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris, and the California Teachers Association. On the other side, those who favor school choice and teacher evaluations that include student test scores, stand prominent education groups StudentsFirst and Democrats for Education Reform.

The first group, which had the chance to make its views known at the recent California Democratic Party Convention, charges the latter two education groups with being fronts for Republican and corporate interests because of their agenda which supposedly jeopardizes public schools and its teachers.

The second group, represented most prominently by Michelle Rhee, charges the first group with not being true to their Democratic ideals because they seek to obstruct measures that focus on helping students, especially minority students, have access to better education.

Below are some selected sections from a Los Angeles Times article about the debate:

“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.

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.

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