The California Teachers Association (CTA) and its allies raised $17 million to defeat Proposition 174, California’s school voucher initiative, which proposed granting parents a voucher worth as much as $2,600 that could be applied to tuition at public or private schools. Ironically, this special interest didn’t even have to break a sweat: the campaign budget of “Yes on Prop 174” amounted to a mere $2 million, hardly the sort of money needed to campaign effectively in the country’s most populous and demographically and culturally complex state. The CTA could even afford to drop $100,000 on victory parties throughout California. The union’s politician-packed party at San Francisco’s posh Fairmont Hotel was so lavish that one anti-voucher activist confided to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, “It’s the Circus of the Stars. It is an extravaganza.”
During California’s last legislative campaign cycle (1991-92), the CTA gave nearly one million dollars in campaign contributions to politicians, according to California Common Cause, which in a July 1993 study of the “Top Ten” special interests in California said the CTA “ranked number one in terms of total political expenditures, and spent $7.4 million on state political activities in 1991 and 1992.” California Common Cause likewise noted that in the last election cycle the CTA, which keeps a staff of eight lobbyists, diversified its investments: campaign contributions went to 126 political candidates throughout California, 86 of whom are now holding office. Willie Brown, the Democratic Assembly speaker whose career, fueled by extraordinary amounts of special interest money, has become a symbol of all that’s rotten in the California legislature, topped the list of CTA money recipients in 1991-92 at $112,353. Brown opposed the voucher initiative, and Alice Huffman, the CTA’s associate executive director, has been raising money to help draft him into running for governor—or another constitutional office.
Politicians on the CTA dole readily repaid the favor as election day neared. For instance. State Senator Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles), who took $4,198 in CTA money in 1991-92, said in September that “gangs” might start their own schools under Prop. 174. That’s doubtful. Besides, adolescent thugs can already have their way in California’s public schools: a 13-year-old and his friends, armed with a gun and knives, didn’t need vouchers to help them plot a hostage-taking at a public Huntington Beach school last October. The plot was foiled, ineptitude being one thing public schools arc still good at instilling in students.
If the Christian Coalition pumped this sort of money into the state’s political system it would be front-page news. But for the teachers’ union to be calling the shots on education by way of its checkbook is, well, just business as usual. The press, however, was not wholly to blame in the sinking of Prop 174. Initiative strategists blew most of their money up front on signature-gathering and failed to expose the union’s political power and its financial interest in preventing any competition. Moreover, anti-voucher conservatives and libertarians who legitimately feared the intrusion of public policies in private education under a voucher regime and who voted against Prop 174 or who plain stayed at home on election day (both in good conscience) ironically helped to strengthen the statist status quo.
Prop 174 would not have toppled the CTA, but it would have diluted its power as well as given parents the opportunity to challenge the growing menace of politicized education—like the common practice of leading budding public employee union activists in letter-writing campaigns to the governor any time public-school budget cuts are in the news or the everyday cultivation of a new generation of sensitivity-niks by spending class time on condom etiquette and multicultural indoctrination. Had California’s school voucher initiative passed, more parents would have opted out of a major state-managed and state-dictated system of everyday life, and their children would have learned the virtue of being weaned from the bureaucratic teat.
Voters in states where other school voucher battles are shaping up—Ohio, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Illinois, New York, Virginia, Michigan, and Oregon—should follow the money from teachers’ unions in their respective legislatures and ask themselves one simple question: Should power-obsessed unions—special interests maintained professionally and politically with millions of taxpayer dollars—be allowed to continue their control over the education of the most impressionable?