By Stephanie Simon
(Reuters) - Teachers unions won several big victories in both red and blue states Tuesday, overturning laws that would have eliminated tenure in Idaho and South Dakota, defeating a threat to union political work in California, and ousting a state schools chief in Indiana who sought to fundamentally remake public education.
The night didn't belong entirely to big labor; advocates of charter schools, which are typically nonunion, scored a win in Georgia and looked likely to prevail in a tough fight in Washington state.
But unions had the bigger trophies - none bigger than in Indiana, where they stunned pundits by handing a loss to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, who was running for a second term.
Bennett, a Republican, had emerged as a national leader in the bipartisan education reform movement. He pushed to grade schools and teachers by their students' test scores. He gave middle-income families vouchers to pay tuition at private and parochial schools. He seized control of struggling public schools, then turned them over to private managers, including a for-profit company based in Florida. And he required 9-year-olds to pass a reading test before earning promotion to fourth grade.
Bennett raised $1.3 million for the race, four times as much as his Democratic challenger, Glenda Ritz, a veteran teacher who relied mostly on union support. Bennett's donors included major education reform figures, such as Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Los Angeles developer Eli Broad. He also had the advantage of running in a solidly red state, where Republicans up and down the ticket had strong showings.
DRAWING MIXED MESSAGES
Yet Ritz won 53 percent of the vote with strong support from voters across the spectrum. She vowed to de-emphasize standardized tests and said she would not take over public schools or hire for-profit companies to run them. "This was a referendum on education policies," she said.
Bennett, however, said he believed voters were rejecting him personally, not his agenda.
The union victories in Indiana, Idaho, South Dakota and elsewhere dealt a blow to the reform agenda, he said, "but this is not a staggering blow." Sounding upbeat, Bennett said he would fight to preserve his policies in Indiana and promote them elsewhere. "We should blink at this and double down on our efforts," he said.
Education analysts, taken aback by Bennett's defeat, said they drew mixed messages from it.
"This was the most aggressive reform agenda in the country, and you might say that voters thought things were going too far, too fast," said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
But Petrilli cautioned that the Bennett vote should not be seen as a clear repudiation of the agenda. Most state lawmakers who backed policies such as vouchers cruised to re-election.
Also, unions and their liberal allies weren't alone in targeting Bennett; many conservatives in Indiana were furious that he embraced the Common Core curriculum, a set of national academic standards. While many Republicans back Common Core, some see it as an unacceptable overreach by the federal government.
COLLECTIVE BARGAINING TAKES A HIT
Though Bennett's defeat stung, the reform movement - which broadly aims to inject more free-market competition into public education - did claim a few victories.
An initiative in Washington state to allow charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, appeared headed to a narrow win on Wednesday afternoon, though mail-in votes were still being counted.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Alice Walton and a handful of others poured more than $11 million into the charter initiative, which would allow 40 charter schools to open in the next five years, with priority given to those serving low-income populations. The measure would also allow parents at any public school - no matter how wealthy or high-performing - to band together, seize control and demand that it be turned into a charter, which could entail firing the staff en masse.
Local and national teachers unions fought the proposal but were outspent 15 to 1.
Unions also lost a fight in Georgia when voters approved the creation of a statewide commission with the power to authorize more charter schools. They took a third hit as well, this one in Michigan, where voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have guaranteed collective bargaining rights.
Those defeats hardly dampened the jubilant mood Wednesday among teacher union organizers and their supporters.
"American voters resoundingly said they value and respect the voices of educators and the way forward for our nation — our progress and prosperity — depends on quality public education," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teacher unions.
Union leaders were delighted with the narrow win in California for Proposition 30, a temporary tax increase to raise billions for public schools. They were happy California voters rejected a measure that would have blocked unions from funding political work with dues automatically deducted from members' paychecks.
They were pleased, too, with a Michigan vote to block the state from appointing an emergency manager to run troubled school districts. Such managers have taken over several districts and turned their schools over to private managers, including for-profit companies.
Above all, union organizers said they were proud of overturning education laws promoted by Republican governors in South Dakota and Idaho.
The laws would have phased out tenure and offered bonuses to teachers who raised student test scores. Advocates of merit pay say it will spur teachers to work harder, but many teachers decry it as insulting and ineffective.
Teachers unions spent nearly $3 million to defeat the laws in Idaho, which also included curbs on collective bargaining.
Elsewhere in the nation, voters in several counties passed sizeable tax and bond initiatives to raise money for public education, including a $1.2 billion bond issue in Florida's Miami-Dade County.
Linda Darling-Hammond, an education professor at Stanford who has been critical of the reform movement, said she read the election results as a sign that voters are eager for "investing in public education rather than dismantling and privatizing it."
But Petrilli, the reform advocate at the Fordham Institute, cautioned against reading too much into the state results. Teachers unions clearly had a big night, he wrote on his blog. But "no victories are permanent. Neither are defeats. The fight goes on."
(Reporting by Stephanie Simon in Boston; editing by Lee Aitken and Prudence Crowther)