by  Vicki E. Murray and Evelyn B. Stacey

The California Teachers Association (CTA), the state’s largest teachers union and National Education Association affiliate, organized a statewide rally of teachers and students on March 4 to protest education spending cuts. The CTA’s “solution” indicates it is out of touch with economic and educational reality.

CTA President David A. Sanchez says businesses should pay their “fair share” by repealing tax credits worth some $2 billion. Yet California’s anti-business climate already ranks among the country’s worst, along with its unemployment rate, which just climbed to 12.5 percent.  Fixing the state’s $20 billion budget deficit will require wholesale reform not wishful thinking fueled by actual or de-facto tax increases. California voters agree.

Last May they defeated a slew of ballot initiatives, including one backed by the CTA, which relied on borrowing and a $16 billion temporary tax increase. The CTA’s latest blame-business scheme likely won’t pass muster, either, because California voters know cash isn’t created ex nihilo.

Voters and the companies they work for generate the wealth that primes the public-sector pump, which in turn keeps unions afloat. Nationwide, government-sector union membership exceeds 43 percent, compared to just 7 percent in the private sector.  As of last year, more than half of all American union members worked for the government, so public cash “is a lifeline,” as the Economist explains.

Leaders of the CTA and the California School Employees Association demand that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and state legislators “keep their promises to California students.” But there’s growing recognition in California and nationwide that labor-union opposition to common-sense reform is breaking promises-as well as budgets.

Public K-12 schooling represents almost half of most states’ general budgets — about 40 percent of California’s $83 billion budget. Leading cost-cutting measures proposed by Gov. Schwarzenegger include reductions in administrative spending and allowing more non-instructional service contracting. Almost one-quarter of California school spending goes to administration, operation and maintenance, transportation, and food service, totaling more than $13.7 billion annually. Outsourcing these services has saved other states up to 40 percent, according to the Reason Foundation’s Lisa Snell. The estimated savings in California from reducing school district administration and easing outsourcing restrictions is more than $1.5 billion.

Other cost-cutting measures proposed by the governor would help improve teacher quality, such as hiring and firing  teachers based on merit not seniority, streamlining dismissal procedures for ineffective teachers, eliminating salary and benefits for teachers suspended for poor performance or alleged criminal activity, and allowing up to four years, instead of two, before teachers can be tenured.

In fiscally tough times if teachers must be laid off, it’s better to let go of poor performers, not the latest hired. Students with talented teachers learn 50 percent more than students with ineffective ones, and the impact of effective teachers is 10 to 20 times stronger than class-size variations.

Opposition to such reforms is turning public opinion against union leadership — especially given recent revelations that cash-strapped school districts in Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere are spending tens of millions of dollars annually defending a relative handful of teachers accused of incompetence and criminal activities instead of protecting jobs of thousands of hard-working, talented teachers.

California unions failed to block a new law empowering parents with children in select failing schools to pick other public schools for their children, or petition to have new management take over their current schools. The California Federation of Teachers ignited national outrage by equating such parental control with a “lynch mob.” Reform-minded education leaders are also fighting back.

Frances Gallo, superintendent in Central Falls, Rhode Island, haggled for months with the local teachers union to fix the town’s failing high school. Union representatives objected to a plan requiring teachers, who earn up to $80,000, to work 25 extra minutes a day and eat lunch with students once a week. Dr. Gallo offered $30 extra an hour. When the union demanded $90, she fired the entire staff. Supporters rented billboard in the middle of town hailing Dr. Gallo, and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan applauded her for “doing the right thing for kids.”

Blaming businesses won’t fix budgets or fund education, and it could backfire on labor unions in California and elsewhere. Shortfalls in states’ public-sector retiree pension and benefits plans, which reached $1 trillion in 2008 according to the Pew Charitable Trusts Center on the States, could bankrupt states absent reform. Official legislative estimates peg California’s long-term education-related retirement liabilities at $100 to $135 billion. Meanwhile, more that 3,000 retired teachers and administrators receive annual pensions in excess of $100,000 according to the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility. Another 6,100 retired California government workers also receive six-figure-plus pensions.

Private-sector taxpayers struggling to preserve their own retirement cannot bankroll such lavish deals — even as labor unions like the CTA try to distract public attention with pleas about “the children.” The public’s patience with taxpayer-subsidized lobbying may soon run out, too. Last year as union leaders denounced teacher layoffs, nearly 100 California school districts spent $3.6 million combined on lobbyists.

As long as unions block common-sense budget and education reforms, they will become increasingly irrelevant. After all, letting labor-union extravagances bankrupt state coffers is a luxury private-sector taxpayers cannot afford.

Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., is Women for School Choice Project Director at the Independent Women?s Forum in Washington, D.C., and Education Studies Associate Director at the Pacific Research Institute in Sacramento, California. Evelyn B. Stacey is PRI Education Studies Policy Fellow.