Politics & Policy

Good Riddance

California's better off without teachers' union man on transition team.

James Hein of the California Teachers Association resigned from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s transition team when the governor appointed Richard Riordan as education secretary. The resignation should not trouble the governor because the CTA is at odds with both his education reform and fiscal policy.

As he made clear during the campaign, the governor wants no new taxes. But the CTA is pushing a $4.5 billion annual tax increase for education, which already gobbles up about 40 percent of California’s general fund. The new tax would raise business property taxes by 55 percent to pay for universal preschool, class-size reduction, and increased teacher pay. But the union’s tax push lays bare its real agenda, which is less about education than it is about empire building.

Universal preschool would be prohibitively expensive, requiring new facilities and staff, and has not been proven to increase student achievement. Neither has the $1.6 billion categorical program for class-size reduction. Students from the smaller classes don’t outperform their big-class brethren, according to the legislatively mandated evaluation of the costly plan.

California’s teacher pay is already the highest in the country at more than $54,000 a year. The looming teacher shortage here, long a lever for pay increases, never did more than loom. California now has a teacher surplus; it isn’t a shortage driving up wages.

Californians don’t need to solve the imaginary problems of the CTA. What they need is tax relief. A recent study by the D.C. think tank the Tax Foundation ranked California 49th out of the 50 states in small business tax climate. And a Milken Institute study pegged the general tax burden 24-percent higher than the national average.

Californians also need more control over their children’s education. Parents have already benefited from expanded educational choices, with more than 170,000 kids at charter schools that are outperforming their traditional counterparts. But lower taxes and school choice are anathema to the CTA, whose October newsletter was a shot across the bow of the state’s growing charter school movement.

The same organization that once wanted to limit the number of charter schools to 50, in a state with more than 1,000 school districts, rejects Riordan because of his strong record of reform and passionate advocacy for children, which included unwavering support of Los Angeles charter schools. Riordan’s groundwork paved the way for L.A.’s dramatic improvement in student performance, now in its fifth year. Riordan, an appointee, will not be at all beholden to the CTA.

Displaying a heretofore-unknown passion for lean government, Hein and the CTA objected not to Riordan himself, but to the very existence of the office of education secretary, saying its functions overlapped with the elected state superintendent of public instruction. This newfound austerity is commendable, but it is at least a little unseemly to be grandstanding about the evils of big government on the heels of a massive tax push.

California’s public-education Leviathan is bloated and spends, literally, billions of dollars with no idea how it affects students or even if the money goes where it should. A recent state audit of our categorical education spending identified $1.8 billion spent with absolutely zero oversight. Another educrat described the airtight accountability in his $11 million program by saying “We don’t know how the money is being used. We wish we did.”

The state should welcome legitimate efforts and ideas to trim the fat, but canning Richard Riordan isn’t one of them.

Schwarzenegger comes to Sacramento with a mandate to cut taxes and improve education, both through greater accountability and choice. It remains to be seen if he can do both, or either. But with Riordan hopping on and Hein hopping off, it looks as though Schwarzenegger’s train is on the right track.

Matt Cox is a public-policy fellow in education studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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