Why This California Educator Decided To Take On The State's Most Powerful Teachers Union

Posted: Jun 29, 2017 12:30 PM

Editor's Note: This article was co-authored by Reagan McCarthy.

Georgetown, D.C. - Every community is different, every child is different, every teacher is different, and the ways in which we learn are different. That’s education. In California, Bhavini Bhakta, who started teaching in 2004, knew that something was wrong. Why was it that her local union was so supportive, but the California Teacher’s Association was the statewide organization that took the role of villain at the bargaining table? Townhall spoke with Ms. Bhakta in Georgetown last week, where she said that she liked her local union, but the dues to CTA is what’s killing education reform and accountability standards for teachers in the Golden State. She’s part of a multi-party lawsuit against the organization, but unlike the Friedrichs case, which we'll get to in a second, Ms. Bhakta wants to remain in her local  union; she just doesn’t want to pay for the state level politicking. First, an overview of the actors involved.

The California Teacher’s Association is under fire for reckless spending, using their members’ dues to further political causes. Three California teachers, including local native Bhavini Bhakta, refused to tolerate CTA putting their money toward causes, which they did not have input in. On the basis of the First Amendment, specifically the right to refrain from supporting a political cause, the teachers are taking the California Teacher’s Association to court. Currently, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California is reviewing the case, Bain v. CTA.

Bain v. CTA is similar to Friedrichs v. CTA, in which non-union teachers challenged CTA on their obligation to still pay union dues. The plaintiffs in Bain v. CTA enjoy being union members, and value the benefits that come with membership, but do not want their dollars put toward political causes. The teachers challenging CTA would prefer their dues be spent on expanding benefits for union members, not toward political campaigns. There is an ‘opt out” option for the political campaign aspect of member dues, but if employees select that option, they are stripped of their union right at the local level. Only members who willingly fund political causes with their union-member dues receive full benefits from both CTA and their local union.

The California Teacher’s Association directly infringes on their members’ First Amendment rights by funding political campaigns with their dues.

Bhakta explained that it’s a somewhat disturbing situation, where union members who should be united on the issues of education and accountability are divided and kept in the dark concerning major pieces of education relating to teaching being considered in the state legislature in Sacramento. She added that members don’t know the agenda. CTA also has no mechanism to gauge the feeling of local chapters, which could help them craft good policy. They have no clue what teachers think about the issues. Concerning the schism, Ms. Bhakta said that virtually every member—99 percent—are unaware of this disconnect between the local and state unions.

She also said that throughout the course of her teaching career, which began in Monrovia Unified School District in Los Angeles County, she had been laid off six times. One year, she was laid off when she had won the teacher of the year award. In California, lay offs are based on seniority. Even though she performed well concerning teaching her students, she was let go. How does this make sense? At the time, her local union was rather cold concerning advice, telling her it was a state policy issue and that she should tough it out while being unemployed.

Bhakta started working with education nonprofits, like Teach Plus, Educators For Excellence, and Students First, where she was able to access key information in real time and found that there were definitely better ways to ensure teacher accountability, execute layoffs, and terminate bad teachers. Some of the bills she worked on and advocated for were a teacher evaluation bill, which would have created a multi-tiered system. Right now, it’s merely satisfactory and unsatisfactory. The new proposed system would have been ranked from “highly effective” on down in terms of grading the effectiveness of a teacher. She also targeted the holy grail of educators: tenure. Currently, tenure is either granted or denied after 18 months. Bhakta supported a bill that would have extended it to three years, with a phased goal of eliminating the process altogether. Why? Well, tenure has been able to retain good teachers, but it’s also made firing bad ones all but impossible. All of this—teacher tenure, a better system of accountability, and streamlining the process to dismiss poor teachers–were all tenets in Vergara v. California, where she was a lay witness for the student plaintiffs, who filed a lawsuit arguing mechanisms that keep bad teachers employed violate one’s constitutional right to an education due to poor instruction. In that case as well, the reform wing of the education fight lost when the Court of Appeals ruled that the teacher tenure process isn’t unconstitutional.

Bhakta said for every issue, teacher tenure, evaluations, etc., CTA took the role of Goliath, standing in her way of making the system more accountable and efficient. She then saw what needed to be done. She needed to torch CTA’s wallets to prevent them from having a war chest to fight progress and filed the lawsuit, along with two others, who seek to prevent their $700 in dues from being spent on political activities without their say. With regards to harassment from CTA, Bhakta did say that some lawyers from the union stopped by her district office trying to find some negative press during the Vergara case, but has not been subjected to intense levels of outside pressure, or at least not yet. The odd thing that struck us about this conservation was the divide between the local chapters and CTA. Bhakta did make a note that her local union has been nothing but supportive of her efforts to reform the system, but the real fight will be over money. She said that the CTA is a lobbying organization. They say they’re for teachers, but get zero input from them on policy issues. Teachers are never given surveys to gauge interest or opinion from those in the trenches. Teachers do not craft bills endorsed by the CTA.

Bhakta said that many times in the state legislature, lawmakers would shy away from the bills she supported because CTA was against them. In all, she found that what was going on was nothing more than “legalized extortion,” the taking of money from people for political purposes that may not reflect the views of those filling the coffers. As a lifelong Democrat, Bhakta was perplexed. She was a union member, a Democrat. Why was CTA fighting her to the death on legislation? It shows that not all is well in a liberal haven on certain issues, especially ones as personal as education. She told us how her eyes were opened, and that cutting off the funds to CTA campaigns was a way to ensure accountability measures could take hold in the state. It’s the only way to leverage influence in order to get teachers the support they want and deserve. It also could allow them to see where their dues are going. She added that $300 goes to her local union, while $700 goes to CTA. That breakdown was unknown to her until she decided to take them on in court. You should know where your money is going, she said.

The lawsuit is entering its third year, with oral argument in the Ninth Circuit set to begin in September. Given the left wing nature of this circuit court, they’re planning on appealing this to the Supreme Court at a later date.

Bhakta is currently a vice principal at Arcadia Unified.