HAYWARD, Calif. — Unions to the left of him. Republican challengers to the right.
As Gov. Gavin Newsom keeps one eye on a potential recall election, California’s school reopening standoff has him caught in a political pincer.
Most public schools remain shuttered around California even as classrooms in other states welcomed back students months ago. The protracted closure poses one of the most potent threats to Newsom with a recall push harnessing mounting frustration among parents and voters in the final month of signature gathering.
Those dynamics have put Newsom in a precarious position. Republicans seeking to replace Newsom are hammering him over the school issue, trying to make the Democratic governor the face of school shutdowns. On his other flank, the state’s powerful teachers unions which have near-veto power at the local level are pushing back on Newsom’s efforts to expedite reopening, straining his relationship with a key ally whose support would be instrumental for beating back a recall.
“On the one hand, he’s facing tremendous pressure from the public,” said Theresa Montaño, a former CTA leader and California State University, Northridge education professor. “And on the other side you have classroom teachers who, while they want nothing more than to be closer to their students, are also in more vulnerable positions.”
“I think this has become a politicized issue,” Montaño added, with recall backers “using this as an opportunity to go after the governor.”
It is the same balancing act that President Joe Biden faces on the national level with his 100-day pledge to reopen schools. His top medical advisers have taken positions this month that defy teachers union demands for vaccines and stricter reopening requirements. But Biden’s job is not in immediate jeopardy.
The countervailing pressures on Newsom were on clear display last week. On Wednesday morning, the California Teachers Association launched six figures’ worth of television ads warning against reopening schools before it is safe, “including prioritizing vaccines for educators” — a critical sticking point in negotiations. While the spots did not mention Newsom, they landed as the governor has been increasingly assertive in saying it is safe to open schools without fully vaccinating teachers — and as talks have faltered behind the scenes. Soon after, legislators defied the governor by advancing a bill that aligns more with the CTA’s position.
As those ads played, Republican former San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer was continuing to build his gubernatorial campaign on school reopening. Standing outside a San Francisco school that has been recently renamed but not reopened in a sign of district dysfunction, Faulconer blasted Newsom for “failed leadership” that “has left an entire generation of kids falling behind because he won’t stand up for kids.” Another Republican challenger, businessman John Cox, tweeted that the statewide teachers union was “holding a generation of public school kids hostage for money.”
While local control of schools limits Newsom’s power, the governor’s efforts to craft a statewide incentive plan has gone nowhere in the Legislature, which this week advanced its union-friendly blueprint without waiting for Newsom’s blessing. The governor swiftly criticized the proposal, saying "it doesn’t go far enough or fast enough."
“Unfortunately, what was put into print would slow down the process of reopening our schools, and that is something I can’t support,” Newsom said on Friday, adding that the bill would make California "an extreme outlier" by setting one of the nation’s strictest case rate thresholds for reopening. He signaled he might veto it in its current form.
Newsom suggested Friday that his relationship with CTA would remain strong despite their current disagreement, saying “good people can disagree." But the governor and the unions remain at odds on timing, vaccines and the appropriate infection rate threshold.
As that debate unfolds, Newsom has increasingly broken with teachers unions by echoing a point made by other Democratic elected officials: If we wait to open schools until vaccines are available to all educators, it will not happen this year. A similar consensus has taken hold around California, with San Francisco Mayor London Breed backing her city suing its school board to crack open schoolhouse doors, and a Los Angeles council member considering the same.
Newsom received political cover this month from Democratic health leaders in Washington. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky and the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, both said that schools should not wait for teachers to get vaccinated before opening their doors.
Still, those words were virtually ignored by much of California’s political class and influential labor movement, where "vaccines for teachers" has emerged as a new rallying cry as school reopening appears more imminent.
Newsom has made his vaccine point bluntly and publicly since POLITICO revealed he had told school administrators last month that “if everybody has to be vaccinated,” that means “there will be no in-person instruction in the state of California.” He reiterates on a nearly daily basis that conditions should allow for a phased return to begin.
“With a lot of our members, before they were as frustrated as other folks about the governor’s approach to reopening,” said Edgar Zazueta, a lobbyist for the Association of California School Administrators. “But we have noticed a noticeable shift, not in policy per se, but in how he’s going to use his bully pulpit.”
In a potentially crucial concession to teachers’ concerns, Newsom said Friday that California would begin allocating 75,000 vaccines a week for educators starting March 1.
The political incentive for Newsom to get kids back in classrooms is clear. Recall proponents are hammering the issue as they seek to collect 1.5 million valid signatures, with organizer Anne Dunsmore saying in an interview that simmering school frustration has brought more parents into the fold, including despairing suburban mothers who have been “a sought-after demographic politically for decades now.”
The governor also seems to have a genuine interest as a father of four young children, often using his own kids’ struggles with distance learning as an example of why students must return. In that late January school administrator call, which was intended to be private but later released after POLITICO reported on it, Newsom expressed clear frustration with union and district opposition to reopening.
His children’s Sacramento-area private school has since returned to in-person instruction, a point that has been emphasized by recall proponents — but one that also has highlighted the inequity of how campuses have opened in California. The state released maps this month showing that the vast majority of private elementary schools have brought their students back, with more resources and no labor negotiations.
Parents have organized an Open Schools California group with hubs around the state to push their representatives to act. Underscoring the national stakes, Republican elected officials from other states have waded in, with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) reaching out to a vocal parent and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) enlisting a member of Open Schools California for a call urging action.
While organizer Megan Bacigalupi, who joined the call with Scalise, said it was increasingly evident to members that Newsom is “more amenable” to the view “that schools can safely be reopened now,” he has still become a focal point for discontent.
“I think more anger is certainly directed at Newsom than at your Assemblymember or state senator, and that’s because people know Gavin Newsom,” Bacigalupi said. “Governor Newsom is the easiest of targets, but he may not be the correct one.”
A school reopening deal could counteract those criticisms. But Zazueta warned against a pact that purports to return kids to class and then falls short — something that could open Newsom to criticism of making and breaking promises.
“I think the biggest danger that all of our state leaders have is we have a deal that gets a lot of headlines, and the expectation from your average parent is ‘Oh, Sacramento figured it out, that means my school will reopen,’ only to find out you’re in the status quo and your kid is still at home,” Zazueta said. “I think there’s a political risk there.”
There is also a risk that Newsom bruises his relationship with a stalwart ally. The California Teachers Association is a formidable player in California. The CTA and other education labor organizations spent heavily to buoy Newsom’s 2018 gubernatorial run, when charter-aligned interests poured millions into boosting fellow Democrat and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Newsom prevailed, and during his first year in office, he signed legislation more tightly regulating charter schools, a longtime goal for teachers unions.
Service Employees International Union, which represents bus drivers, food service workers and other school staff, has also joined the fight over vaccines and campus work conditions. SEIU and CTA are two of the state’s most powerful unions, and Democrats routinely rely on them not only for money but for their organizing power to turn out voters.
But Newsom’s labor relationship has come under strain as he has become increasingly willing to challenge unions’ position on schools. While Newsom has proposed allocating billions of dollars to help schools reopen and secure needed protective equipment, unions are intent on making vaccination a prerequisite and establishing one of the highest bars in the country for reopening — an infection rate below 7 daily cases per 100,000 residents, a level only six rural counties are currently at. The CTA’s ad blitz underscored its safety concerns.
“Obviously, safely reopening schools has been a major priority for educators and precisely why they’ve have been calling for safety measures since those conversations started,” CTA spokesperson Claudia Briggs said in an email. “We’re simply outlining what educators and many parents say is important to safely open schools for in-person instruction. Advocating for teaching and learning and safe public schools for all students is what we do!”
A source familiar with the negotiations rebutted concerns that the ongoing standoff could damage Newsom and benefit the recall, saying labor’s position has remained consistent as the recall has gathered strength and honed its message in recent months.
“I think the people who support a recall of the governor will use whatever they think works on whatever day of the week it works,” the source said. “It didn’t start with ‘open the schools,’ it won’t end with ‘open the schools.’”
The overall outcome could be something of a split decision. While the schools debate may be energizing Newsom opponents now, the source predicted that if a campaign arrives, labor would have little interest in a challenger and would rally behind Newsom.
“We’re not looking for somebody else,” the source said. “He’s the governor.”