Patricia Rucker, a State Board of Education member whose day job is lobbyist for the California Teachers Association, is facing a conflict of interest complaint by supporters of the Parent Trigger law that the CTA wants to gut.
The complaint is a preemptive strike by parents affiliated with the nonprofit group Parent Revolution. It was filed Thursday with the California Fair Political Practices Commission, less than a week before the State Board is scheduled to take a crucial vote on Parent Trigger regulations that the Board has been reworking for nearly a year. In a Parent Revolution press release, the parents said they would “happily withdraw their complaint” if Rucker recuses herself from participating in all Parent Trigger discussions and votes – something she has declined to do so far. It would be fascinating to see what the FPPC would do if she doesn’t.
A spokesman for the CTA said it had not been notified of the complaint and therefore would not comment. The FPPC has 14 days to decide whether the complaint warrants a formal investigation.
CTA’s ‘seat’ on State Board
Rucker was among the seven nominees that Gov. Brown proposed when he cleaned house on the State Board after his election in November. While a dividend to the union that helped elect Brown, Rucker’s nomination continued a de facto tradition of designating a CTA seat on the 11-person Board. Joe Nunez, the associate executive director of Governmental Relations for the CTA, previously held that position.
Nonetheless, Rucker’s nomination raises conflict of interest questions, with her obligation as a public official to serve the greater good of K-12 students potentially clashing with her loyalty as a CTA employee to take its line on issues before the Board.
This was evident with the Parent Trigger, a first-in-the-nation law, passed in January 2010, that permits a majority of parents at an underperforming school to demand radical changes including, as one option, a conversion to a charter school, with the loss of union teaching jobs. The CTA unsuccessfully fought the law, and its chief lobbyist before the board, Kenneth Burt, has threatened to sue over various versions of Parent Trigger regulations CTA didn’t like.
Parent Revolution parents questioned Rucker’s conflict of interest at the April 21 State Board hearing on proposed Parent Trigger regulations. She declined to respond, and the Board’s lawyers, leaving it up to her, didn’t venture an opinion. Later in the day, picking up on a legal argument Burt made, Rucker suggested an amendment requiring a majority of teachers to approve a Parent Trigger petition for a conversion to a charter school. This would essentially give teachers the power to void the parents’ action. Board President Michael Kirst expressed doubt at the time whether this would be wise or necessary, and the provision is not in the final draft that the Board will consider on Wednesday.
The Board will be on a tight timetable. If it approves the regulations without serious objections, it can take a final vote in September. But if a new, substantial issue is raised, forcing more public comment delaying a vote until October or later, the Board will have to start the entire year-long process again from scratch. Fearing Rucker might stall the process, parents want her out of the way.
Wanting to please unions and corporate interests – and perhaps enrich discussion with different points of view – governors have sought balance on the State Board; there has traditionally been a “business seat” as well as a CTA seat.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger changed the makeup by naming a number of charter school advocates and executives, including Yvonne Chan, a principal of the state’s oldest conversion charter school; the late Donald Fisher, a funder of KIPP schools; Ted Mitchell, CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, which finances charters; and Rae Belisle, former CEO of EdVoice. After the Senate refused to approve Belisle’s nomination, Schwarzenegger named Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution. This also led to charges of conflict of interest – this time by the CTA and the California School Boards Association. But the difference here is that Austin recused himself and left the boardroom during discussions of Parent Trigger. And Mitchell reports that he recused himself on any vote that involved an organization on whose board any NewSchools representatives sat. He also recused himself during the Board’s decision to grant Aspire Public Schools, which NewSchools funded, a statewide charter.
While not familiar with the specifics of the current complaint, Dan Schnur, the former chairman of the FPPC and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, suggested the perception of a conflict increases when an official is not just an advocate but a full-time lobbyist, who then may gain access to other decision makers because of his or her position. Brown could have appointed a teacher or retired teacher to represent teachers’ views. Appointing a lobbyist to the Board “sends an unfortunate message,” he said.