Politics & Government

Teacher tenure, taxes on union executive’s 2015 agenda

Joe Nuñez is the executive director of the California Teachers Association, which enters next year facing battles over teacher tenure, taxes and how school districts will allocate funds according to new local-control and accountability laws.
Joe Nuñez is the executive director of the California Teachers Association, which enters next year facing battles over teacher tenure, taxes and how school districts will allocate funds according to new local-control and accountability laws. lsterling@sacbee.com

The walls of Joe Nuñez’s second-floor office, a stone’s throw from the state Capitol, bear reprints of fruit- and vegetable-crate labels from California farms, colorful reminders of his humble roots as the son of south-state farmworkers.

Now, as the first Latino executive director of the powerful California Teachers Association, the 61-year-old product of public education and long-time teacher-activist confronts a new year brimming with tensions born of politics and plenty.

Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown is appealing a recent court ruling that teacher job-protection laws violate the state constitution. CTA is joining the governor, but until the case is resolved, school-change advocates – including some well-known Latino Democrats – will try to use Vergara v. California to vilify the union.

Meanwhile, the state’s robust tax revenue will push more money to California districts next year, and new Common Core standards are kicking in. The state no longer categorically mandates how districts spend funds and districts are experimenting with how to best meet education standards. The decentralization will test CTA’s organizational strength, dispersed across California’s roughly 1,000 school districts.

And the union will press for extending Proposition 30, the temporary tax increase voters approved in 2012, or something similar. Anti-tax groups have drawn a bead on CTA.

“The union is going to be pushing for massive tax increases,” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. “They know it and we know it. And they are extremely powerful.”

Nuñez said another tax measure “is an option,” but that it could be a tough sell.

Schools are coming back from the cuts they faced during the recession. Average per-pupil spending rose to $8,448during 2013-14, according to Department of Education statistics, up $125 from the previous year but still nearly $300 per student less than six years ago.

Nuñez says the money is improving schools and fostering new programs, “but most people don’t have kids in school, so right about the time people realize that we’re doing innovative teaching, the taxes will be set to expire.”

Brown, who leaves office in early 2019, has said he’s leaning against pushing for an extension of Proposition 30, which raised retail sales taxes through 2016 and income taxes on California’s wealthiest earners two years past that. Brown stumped for the measure while labor put tens of millions of dollars into getting it approved. The teachers union gave more than $10 million to the cause, far more than any other contributor.

Next year CTA will likely lay the groundwork for a tax ballot measure in 2016. Part of the political calculus: Gauging whether Brown would publicly oppose extending the taxes or sidestep the debate and take no position.

Nuñez wouldn’t discuss Brown’s potential impact other than to say, “We think it’s important to be in partnership with him.”

That Nuñez has the ear of governors and legislators is a testament to his tenacity and political acumen.

Born in Santa Maria and raised in nearby Guadalupe in Santa Barbara County, Nuñez was the ninth of 11 children. He attended local public schools and earned a master’s degree from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

For 20 years he taught high school science and math in the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District. As the president of the district’s faculty union, he led a successful monthlong strike in 1990 for better pay and benefits. CTA hired him in 1995 and last year promoted him from a key lobbying position to executive director.

He runs an operation built on dues that activate what Nuñez calls an “aggressively democratic” organization with an agenda shaped by a 22-member governing board and 800 council members that meet quarterly and vigorously debate issues.

“People who don’t like the California Teachers Association don’t like us because together our 300,000 members pay dues and have the capacity to respond as a collective,” he said. “We can’t do it as individuals. And so we do the work of our members. ... We consider ourselves the loyal opposition.”

That work included spending more than $10 million to support incumbent pro-union Democrat Tom Torlakson for the state superintendent of public instruction. His opponent, Marshall Tuck, also a Democrat, received about $12 million in backing from billionaire philanthropists who want to revamp California’s low-performing public schools.

Although he lost by 4 percentage points, the issues Tuck raised during his campaign will resurface in 2015, including Vergara v. California.

The landmark court ruling struck down California’s teacher-tenure and teacher-discipline laws, concluding they allow bad teachers to keep their jobs. The impact, Judge Rolf Treu said, degrades educational quality for students in lower-income, mostly-minority schools.

Nuñez said the plaintiffs are funded by the same interests that backed Tuck.

Vergara has taken the debate in a direction reminiscent of the Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision. Treu’s ruling leads with a reference to the 60-year-old U.S. Supreme Court segregation ruling before striking down teacher job protections as a violation of the state constitution. Nuñez said he found the decision “horrifying” given the civil rights movement’s long history of kinship with unions.

While he expects the Vergara decision to be overturned, Nuñez said the debate over public education “will never go away.” Lawmakers may seek legislation to adjust the laws Vergara strikes down, hoping to fend off their eradication by the courts.

Meanwhile, the union next year will continue butting heads with Democratic ethnic-community leaders who want more public school changes, from President Barack Obama and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a charter-school advocate, and former state Sen. Gloria Romero.

“But we invite them to join us,” Nuñez said, chuckling, “and do something constructive.”

Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043.

Joe Nuñez

Age: 61

Title: Executive director, California Teachers Association.

Résumé highlight: Helped defeat California superintendent of public schools candidate Marshall Tuck in a 2014 election viewed as a proxy fight between the union and school-choice interests.

Chief goal in 2015: Guide the union into the new era of local school district spending control.

Biggest challenge in 2015: Defending California’s teacher-tenure and teacher-discipline laws.

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