In the 1990 film Kindergarten Cop, Arnold Schwarzenegger played a gun-toting city detective intent on tracking down a drug dealer. Today the California governor is taking on the state's powerful teachers' union, only this time his weapon is political clout. His battle plan: to revamp entirely the way teachers in the country's largest education system are hired, fired, and paid. "The more we tolerate ineffective teachers, the more our teachers will be ineffective," Schwarzenegger declared when he started his offensive in January.
The popular governor has cast his mission as more mandate than proposal: If the Democratic-controlled legislature resists, he vows to back a trio of referendums that could go before voters in a special fall election. One would link educators' pay to classroom performance. Another would raise eligibility for teacher tenure to five years from the current two, making it easier to fire poor performers. A third would attack the state budget deficit in part by reining in school spending by $4 billion a year. That would entail overhauling a state proposition that requires Sacramento to allocate 40% of its budget to education.
The issues resonate far beyond California. Politicians -- mostly Republicans -- are pushing teacher pay-for-performance schemes in other states, including Florida, Kentucky, Minnesota, Texas, and Wisconsin. President George W. Bush has proposed a $500 million teacher-quality program to reward high-performers. And ex-CEO Louis V. Gerstner Jr. of IBM (IBM) is pushing these ideas through the Teaching Commission, a high-profile group he founded in 2003 to raise teacher quality.
Already, Schwarzenegger's ambitious attack has triggered an all-out war that's pulling in national and California players alike. The two teachers' unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Assn. (NEA), have voted for dues hikes to raise millions for the fight they expect will spread to several states over many years. In the governor's corner is a well-heeled group called Citizens to Save California, whose leaders include members of the state chamber of commerce and antitax activists. Each side is flooding the California airwaves with ads blasting the other group about school spending. "I'm already hearing from Ohio, Nevada, and Oregon," says Barbara E. Kerry, president of the NEA's California Teachers Assn.
Schwarzenegger argues that the only way to improve schools is to reward good teachers and penalize or fire bad ones. He and others point out that right now, teachers get a raise no matter how they perform, giving them no financial incentive to do better. Advocates point to Denver, where 13 school districts instituted a pay-for-performance program four years ago and students scored higher when taught by teachers who met specific objectives set by the district, according to a recent report by Boston's Community Training & Assistance Center. "Our school system is just not turning out the kinds of students who can run and create businesses in this state, and someone has to take accountability," says California Education Secretary Richard J. Riordan.
The teachers' unions hate the idea of tying pay to test scores, but they're divided on the broader question of introducing other performance measures. The much larger NEA opposes almost everything about Schwarzenegger's plan. The AFT has been more willing to embrace so-called merit pay if it's part of an effort to boost teacher quality with better training and professional development. Both unions object to tying salaries specifically to state standardized tests, as Schwarzenegger wants. They, along with many parents, argue that there's already a "narrowing of curriculum around tests," says Mary Bergan, president of the AFT's California Federation of Teachers. They fear the problem would be exacerbated if teachers got paid for boosting test scores.
Nationally, it's by no means clear what the public thinks. In early April, Gerstner released a national poll commissioned by the Teaching Commission which found that 80% of adults support teacher pay hikes tied to student achievement -- even if it means higher taxes. Only 67% agreed that wage hikes should be tied to "test results and other indicators." Support plunged, to just 41%, when pollsters asked if a teacher's base salary should be linked specifically to test scores alone. Overall, reducing class size, not improving teacher quality, ranked as the public's No. 1 concern.
Schwarzenegger may not ace this test. Recently he was forced to drop a proposal to switch state workers' pension plan to a 401(k)-style system. And his approval rating has fallen to 55%, down from 65% three months ago, according to the Field Poll. Still, he plans to raise $50 million to push his initiatives, including another that would overhaul redistricting to loosen Democratic control of the legislature. He has until early May to put all his measures on the ballot for November. Right now the odds seem long, but never underestimate the former Kindergarten Cop.
By Ronald Grover in Los Angeles and Aaron Bernstein in Washington