Capitol Alert

John Cox wants teachers ‘paid like rock stars and baseball players.’ Why they back his opponent.

Get to know Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox

The attorney, accountant and businessman from Chicago, a "Jack Kemp-style" Republican, has set his sights on California's governorship.
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The attorney, accountant and businessman from Chicago, a "Jack Kemp-style" Republican, has set his sights on California's governorship.

It’s a position that might make an educator’s ears perk up.

I want to see our teachers paid like rock stars and baseball players.

Republican gubernatorial candidate John Cox has offered up variations of the line throughout his campaign — during interviews, on a debate stage, in a tweet. He said it reflects his appreciation for the “heart, soul and love” his mother poured into teaching in the Chicago public school system.

But it often comes with an addendum — “based on merit” — that, if Cox is elected, puts him on a collision course with the teachers unions that dominate education policymaking in Sacramento.

Merit pay, which typically means basing teachers’ salaries or bonuses on their students’ performance, is one of a suite of market-based approaches to schooling that Cox, a businessman from San Diego County, has embraced.

Along with overhauling tenure protections and providing vouchers that allow families to use government funding for a private education, California’s powerful teachers unions have spent decades swatting back at all of them. And the sweet talk of getting compensated like millionaires isn’t endearing those ideas to them any further.

“This is somebody who really doesn’t understand what education is about,” said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Federation of Teachers. “Education should not be a competitive endeavor.”

Since former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made an unsuccessful push early in his first term to tie teacher pay to merit rather than tenure, the idea hasn’t gotten much air time in Sacramento. The Democratic politicians who run the Capitol are largely sympathetic to union positions.

But merit pay remains a key tenet in conservative orthodoxy on improving public education.

Lance Izumi, senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute, a free-market think tank, said the goal is to get schools competing not just for students, but also the best teachers. He believes merit pay would be particularly attractive to young people, who “want to be rewarded for their efforts,” and could help attract more of them to the profession as California faces a teacher shortage.

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Despite national assessment scores that generally rank California in the bottom ten states for reading and math among 4th and 8th graders, Republicans have not embraced education as a political priority.

“Republicans are really missing a cross-cutting issue here where they can appeal in a bipartisan way and cross-culturally,” Izumi said.

Education is not a major part of the Cox campaign either. He has focused overwhelmingly on affordability.

When asked about it, however, the “rock stars and baseball players” line — which dates back at least to his 2004 U.S. Senate run in Illinois — is one of his standard responses. Cox also often slams teacher tenure as a bad system and discusses his desire to see an expansion of charter schools in the state, so families have more alternatives.

Cox declined to answer questions about his position on merit pay.

In a statement, he said, “Of course our teachers will never approach the pay of a Beyonce or a Lebron, but quite frankly, our classroom teachers influence, inspire and change the arc of more lives than even these music and athletic superstars.”

As governor, he said, he would “request an independent audit — free from the influence of the Sacramento special interests — of exactly where the education money is spent” and “make certain that every available dollar goes directly to the classroom — and that means to our teachers.”

“We need to attract the best and brightest, as well as value the ones we have — making absolutely certain their pensions are secure,” Cox said.

On that point, at least, the teachers unions can agree. They’d certainly like to see higher pay for educators and other school employees.

But the rest of Cox’s ideas are anathema to them.

Pechthalt said introducing these “market mechanisms” would distort what public education is about. Merit pay, he argues, creates an incentive to teach to the test or cheat the results, rather than serving every student based on their needs.

“We are not concerned with the bottom line,” he said.

CFT and the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers unions, both support Cox’s Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, for governor. Each has donated the maximum $58,4000 to Newsom, and they collectively gave more than $1.3 million to an independent expenditure supporting Newsom during the primary.

“He’s more aligned with our values. We don’t see him scapegoating teachers, as we’ve seen other candidates,” Pechthalt said. “We think he’s going to be receptive to increasing funding in meaningful ways.”

That includes the organized labor dream of rolling back provisions of Proposition 13, the iconic California law limiting property taxes, that apply to commercial properties. An initiative may be on the 2020 ballot.

Unions have long blasted the law for shortchanging funding for public services, such as schools. At the only gubernatorial debate, Newsom expressed his willingness to consider the idea, known as “split roll,” while Cox is opposed.

Pechthalt criticized Cox for favoring marginal adjustments to increase teacher pay, like cutting administration, rather than boosting funding overall: “It’s easy to say we should put more money into schools. But money doesn’t just come off trees. It comes off taxation policies.”

At charter schools, many of which are not unionized and therefore not subject to collective bargaining, the push for merit pay has gained more traction.

Gloria Romero, a former state senator from Los Angeles, gave bonuses to all of the teachers when standardized test scores rose this year at the charter schools she has opened in Santa Ana and Oceanside. She is now incorporating student assessment factors into a new salary schedule.

“It should be something more than just showing up and breathing for however many certain number of years,” she said.

During a dozen years in Sacramento, Romero was one of a handful of Democrats who frequently clashed with the teachers unions by promoting policies they opposed. With Republican support, she passed the 2010 “parent trigger” law giving communities a tool to turn low-performing local schools into charter schools.

Romero said she likes merit pay because it sends a signal to parents about which campuses and teachers are performing well and doing things right.

“Merit comes in many forms and fashions. But right at the top is we’re going to pay for the innovative leadership of these teachers,” she said. “It’s themselves that they’re putting into their students and you want to reward that.”

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