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RESISTING: Friedrichs
RESISTING: Friedrichs

Fighting back

Back to School | Christian public school teachers go to court, and scientists quietly advance intelligent design

Golden state warriors

by Mary Jackson

Buena Parks, Calif., teacher Rebecca Friedrichs is married to a college professor and has a long list of family members who are educators, including her husband’s 96-year-old aunt who once taught in a Minnesota one-room schoolhouse. Even as her love for teaching runs deep, Friedrichs, 47, has voiced concern over her union’s one-sided politicking, its resistance to education reform—and its forced membership dues.

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Friedrichs’ union, the California Teachers Association (CTA), is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year with TV advertisements that feature teachers heralding its small beginnings. But today, the labor group is arguably the state’s single most powerful special interest group. Some call it California’s “fourth executive branch” for its sway over candidates, ballot measures, and lobbying. State legislators and voters have mostly protected the CTA—leading Friedrichs and a small group of teachers and parents to implore the court to loosen its firm grip on Golden State politics. 

As the middle child with four siblings, Friedrichs was “always the outspoken one.” In her 25 years with the Savanna School District, she has watched the CTA spend millions to fund numerous ballot measures and candidates that run contrary to her Christian beliefs: “They use the face, the reputation, and the trust of teachers to pass their agenda—and they’re allowed to make us pay for that agenda.” For three years, she advocated as a secretary and site representative for her local union, which she calls “a lesson in futility.” Then, last fall she put signs in her yard, picketed, and wrote op-ed pieces to support a ballot measure that would prohibit the CTA’s political spending—but the labor group spent over $20 million to defeat the proposal. 

Now, Friedrichs and nine other California teachers and the Christian Educators Association International (CEAI) have filed a federal lawsuit against the CTA and its affiliates, the National Education Association (NEA) and 10 local teachers unions. The plaintiffs hope a judge will allow them the choice of whether to join and pay dues to the unions, effectively making California a “right-to-work” state. 

In 2011, teacher dues and fees yielded the CTA more than $178 million in revenue. Additionally, its influence is written into the California constitution: More than two decades ago, voters passed an initiative guaranteeing about 40 percent of the state’s annual budget goes to public schools. With 325,000 members and a firm grip on the state budget, the CTA shelled out over $210 million in political contributions and lobbying expenses from 2000 to 2009—nearly twice that of the next largest spender, the Service Employees International Union, according to a state study. 

The CTA has funded a wide array of causes unrelated to education, from pro-abortion and pro-gay campaigns to implementing the state’s single-payer healthcare system. In the past decade, the CTA spent 89 percent of its revenue on ballot initiatives, 10 percent to help Democrats, and less than 1 percent to Republicans, according to the website followthemoney.org. Meanwhile, it has closely guarded a set of hard-won tenure rules and seniority protections for teachers. It routinely stifles attempts by education groups to improve teacher quality and introduce school vouchers. 

But California lags near the bottom in quality public education, competing with Mississippi and Washington, D.C. Some blame the CTA for funneling money to liberal causes instead of education and obstructing most reform efforts, both in the legislature and at the polls. Friedrichs is one of a handful of teachers and parents who are hoping courts will deliver an even playing field—even if it means taking on the CTA, the biggest fish in the 50-state pond. 

In January, the California Supreme Court will hear a different case brought by nine students and their parents from districts around the state. The suit, sponsored by the national nonprofit Students Matter, challenges the state’s tenure laws that allow wide protections for teachers after only 18 months on the job and make it difficult to fire those who are ineffective. 

“Parents in California should not have to worry every year that their children could be assigned to teachers who deny them the learning opportunities they deserve,” parent Laurie Campbell said in a press statement. Another parent, Jose Macias, said a second-grade Los Angeles teacher berated his daughter and told her she needed a special education program: “No child ... deserves to go through that,” Macias told the Los Angeles Times. The daughter is now a high-performing seventh-grader.  

Last year, the CTA strongly opposed a state Senate bill that would have sped up the dismissal process of the most criminal cases. The bill, drafted in response to the Miramonte Elementary School scandal (a teacher charged with sexually molesting 23 students), never made it past committee. Legislation “isn’t coming, so these students and parents feel compelled to go the courts,” said Enrique Monagas, an attorney representing the plaintiffs: “I hope when we win this case, legislators across the country see that the courts defend the fundamental right of children to quality education.” 

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