NEA Convention: The Jerry Brown I Admire

At today’s National Education Association Representative Assembly, the delegates honored California Gov. Jerry Brown as “America’s Greatest Education Governor.” Brown accepted the award and delivered a typical off-the-cuff speech via satellite.

He received the award primarily for being the driving force behind a ballot initiative that raised both income and sales taxes on Californians and for his championing of local control of state education funding. Since he is also responsible for signing the state’s teacher collective bargaining law back during his first tenure as governor, his labor credentials are impeccable.

As a long-time California resident and libertarian, I’m not a big fan of Gov. Jerry Brown. But I’ll always offer a tip of the hat to Mayor Jerry Brown, without whom virtually all of California’s more than 1,100 charter schools might be unionized today.

Some of you, particularly among NEA delegates who cheered Gov. Brown today, might think I’ve taken too many blows to the head. But it’s true.

Let’s take a ride in the WABAC machine to May 1999 when then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown was very supportive and involved in the establishment of a handful of charter schools in the city. Assemblywoman Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) authored AB 842, a California Teachers Association-sponsored bill that would have made charter school teachers subject to the collective bargaining contract in the local school district. Since almost all California districts had (and still have) exclusive representation and agency fee provisions, charter school teachers statewide would have been required to join the union or pay an agency fee.

Since Brown’s traditional allies supported the bill he could have joined them, kept silent, or offered his doubts in private. Instead, he took a very public stance against the bill, and didn’t pull any punches. He sent a letter to Migden, described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “a densely worded diatribe.”

“These courageous parents . . . will not be defeated now by distant political machinations over which they have no voice or control,” Brown wrote. “Speaking for the people of Oakland, I assure you that we will not back down or cravenly accept the sellout of our right to determine our educational destiny.”

Brown championed local control back then as well. Despite his ideological leanings, he wasn’t thrilled with a state mandate to unionize local schools. “As we all learned from the sorry experience of state-sanctioned bureaucracies in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, decentralization is crucial to both freedom and excellence,” Brown wrote.

He wrote to Migden that “it comes as a shock that you would take the side of the state’s most powerful and best-funded political organization against the small, fledgling group of families choosing smaller public schools.”

Brown and others mobilized against the bill, and received a boost from Gov. Gray Davis when he said he wouldn’t sign it as currently written. Backroom negotiations followed, the result of which was the withdrawal of AB 842 in exchange for the current law, which allows charter school teachers to unionize if they themselves vote to do so.

If AB 842 had passed back then, it might have changed the whole dynamic regarding charter schools and unionization. State mandates requiring union membership (or agency fees) for charter employees could have become the norm nationwide. Jerry Brown deserves much of the credit for preventing it.