SACRAMENTO, CA - FEBRUARY 18: California Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg speaks during a session of the California State Senate February 18, 2009 in Sacramento, California. The California legislature has stalled its vote on a State budget proposal after the GOP party ousted its leader, Dave Cogdill, R-Fresno. The stalled budget caused Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to issue 20,000 pink slips to state workers and threatens hundreds of state funded public works projects. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
How bleak is the budget picture for schools? So bleak that political allies -- the state senate's top Democrat, Darrell Steinberg, and the most powerful interest group on the Democratic side, the California Teachers Assn. -- are engaged in a nasty public dispute. CTA recently put up billboards in Steinberg's Sacramento district imploring him to "Stop the Blame, Stop the Cuts," according to the Sacramento Bee.
Since both Steinberg and CTA deplore cuts in education, the question is: what could they be fighting about? The answer is style. CTA is taking a hard, confrontational line against education cuts. Steinberg, who has to worry about cuts to programs other than education, has been more willing to compromise.
President Obama is a factor in the dispute. The president has angered teachers' unions across the country by pressuring states to adopt new laws that make it easier to fire teachers and that link teacher pay to student performance -- measures that the unions oppose. Steinberg, while expressing doubts about some of these policies, worked to pass such laws in California in hopes that the federal government would send the state more money for its cash-poor schools.
No matter who is right about strategy, the fight is a waste of energy -- and union money. Steinberg and the CTA are fighting about how best to protect scarce school funding in a broken system. It would be better if they worked together to fix that budget system. That's a big task -- and there's no time to waste.