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Putting Education – Not Unions – First

November 15, 2008

Opinion Editorial

By Benjamin DeGrow

This year brought the biggest electoral Democratic wave in more than three decades. Yet Colorado teachers union officials may have lost, rather than gained, political ground.

Sometimes, the interests of the Democratic Party and teachers union officials align closely. The Colorado Education Association and Colorado Federation of Teachers together give Democrats about $50 in contributions for every $1 they give Republicans.

Of course, not all Democratic legislators are in the pockets of the teachers union hierarchy. It is remarkable, though, to see not one but two legislators without union connections assume the highest positions at our state Capitol. Peter Groff’s Democratic peers voted to re-elect him as state Senate president, and Rep. Terrance Carroll was selected to become the new speaker of the House.

Supporters of public school parental choice could find no better friends in the Democratic caucus than Groff and Carroll. Both men have a strong record of protecting charter schools against union-backed legislative attacks, even attacks launched by other Democrats.

Carroll was hardly the unions’ first choice to be the new speaker. Rep. Bernie Buescher of Mesa County, the presumed successor to retiring House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, took more than $10,000 into his campaign coffers from CEA and its affiliates. Yet on his road to the speakership, Buescher surprisingly was beaten by Republican challenger Laura Bradford.

Carroll is set to appoint fellow Democrats to the House Education Committee. In recent years, the committee, largely stacked with handpicked union favorites, has killed or watered down many K-12 education bills deemed unacceptable by the union. CEA may lose some of its leverage to bottle up education reform in committee.

Voters’ verdicts on key state ballot issues have thrown another wrench into the union leaders’ agenda. Their other lobbies sought to gut the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights by passing Amendment 59 and to weaken citizens’ initiative power by passing Referendum O. Together, 59 and O were supposed to lay the groundwork for a huge school tax proposal in 2010. But instead, Coloradans rejected both measures. The unions will now need to reassess their strategy.

The two major teachers unions combined to spend more than $6 million to oppose three ballot measures: Amendments 47, 49 and 54. They probably made a mistake by spending so much against 47, the right-to-work proposal. Even if 47 had passed, it would have had no effect on the teachers union. Public school teachers already are legally protected from being required to join or pay fees to a union. Amendment 47 would simply have extended the same protection to private-sector Colorado employees.

Amendment 49 was a matter of more direct urgency. Currently, government payroll systems are used to collect teachers union dues. The government takes the money from individual teachers’ paychecks and delivers it to the union in a bundle. If 49 had passed, the unions would have lost their free government dues-collection service. Of course, union members could still make automatic dues payments with a credit card or with a monthly bank debit.

The huge spending campaign did succeed in defeating Amendment 49. (Disclosure: The Independence Institute supported 49.)

Amendment 54 passed narrowly, despite the heavy union spending. It restricts campaign contributions by persons and organizations who have single-source, no-bid government contracts. This includes unions as well as corporations, since unions often have sole-source collective bargaining contracts with school districts. The unions are already making plans to file a court case against Amendment 54. Yet even if the teachers unions prevail in court, all they achieve is restoration of the old status quo, having spent millions of dollars to block some reforms.

Back at the legislature, they face a leadership that puts students and families first, not the union.

This article originally appeared in the Denver Post.