Democrats soon will have to decide whether they are the party of the idle rich – i.e., the party of retired government employees, many of whom spend 30 or more years receiving pensions that are the equivalent of millions of dollars in savings – or the party of the poor, the downtrodden and the working class.

Fortunately, there are some Democrats who are serious about all that “helping the little guy” rhetoric, especially in the area of public education. In a recent article titled “Democratic schism opens on fixing schools,” the Sacramento Bee detailed the “growing chorus [of Democrats] arguing the party must move away from its traditional allegiance with teachers unions in order to improve chronically low-performing schools.”

We all know that many of this state’s larger school districts operate as efficiently as Soviet-era bureaucracies, and their educational product is the equivalent of the former Soviet Union’s consumer goods. There’s a reason for those dropout rates of 20 percent to 50 percent, a human tragedy when you consider the typical futures of the students who are cast aside by the current system.

This isn’t a slam on the many fine public schoolteachers, but it’s clear what happens when unaccountable bureaucracies, protected from competition and reliant on taxes rather than the free choice of consumers, produce things. Unions make it nearly impossible to fire the worst employees and create work rules that stymie innovation and reform.

The late Albert Shanker, longtime leader of national teachers unions, once famously said, “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.” Shanker was just being truthful about the purpose of unions. The rest of us need to be just as forthright about the need to tame those unions if we’re seriously interested in improving education rather than simply in seeking more taxpayer money to prop up the same-old failed, bureaucratic system.

The story in the Bee profiled former state Sen. Gloria Romero, who last year lost her bid to become state superintendent of public instruction to a union ally, Tom Torlakson, but who now heads the California chapter of a political action committee called Democrats for Education Reform. Romero is a tried-and-true liberal who understands that union dominance undermines traditional liberal values. Several years back, she was one of only a handful of state senators from either party to take on the police unions over their unconscionable protection of abusive officers.

It’s beyond me how Democrats can claim to be for education yet align themselves with those forces that oppose every serious reform that would help poor kids, just as I could never understand how Democrats could claim to stand for civil liberties even as they stifled open-government rules that would shine a light on police officers who abused people’s rights.

Democrats for Education Reform released a report in October, “Busting the Dam,” which succinctly captures the nature of the problem: “It is no secret that most of the efforts to reform K-12 public education systems in the last quarter century have been stymied by political gridlock. Although education pioneers like Teach For America and KIPP have demonstrated the tremendous potential impact of innovation, special interests (primarily but not limited to teachers unions) have built up symbiotic relationships with elected officials to the point that they are able to assert de facto veto power over the kinds of changes which could fundamentally alter the way education is delivered in our communities.”

That’s a politically careful way of spelling out what others have said more directly, with some Democratic leaders describing the struggle for education reform as the new civil-rights battle of our era. Conservatives have long championed market-based education reforms, but they have had little impact and they must now find new allies among the state’s dominant Democrats.

This intra-Democratic battle is crucial given that the Republican Party has been shoved to the margins in California. Judging by the November elections, California voters apparently want this to be a one-party state, given Democrats’ clean sweep of state constitutional offices and the passage of Proposition 25, which gives the majority party the power to pass budgets with a simple majority rather than with a two-thirds supermajority. There’s not much the GOP can do other than watch from the sidelines.

Democratic political consultant Garry South wrote in a column recently that he had been offering Republicans advice for years – that they should nominate a more diverse slate of moderate candidates for statewide office. “This election year, the Grand Old Party took most of my free, unsolicited advice. … But in the end, it didn’t matter, every one got mowed down.”

Although I question a lot of South’s advice, I do agree with his conclusion: There is nothing Republicans can do at this point to become a viable statewide party.

That means solutions on all the big issues are going to have to come from the other side. Those of us on the right need to exploit this schism within the Democratic Party and side with reformers such as Romero.

Of course, the unions are gloating about their enhanced political power in Sacramento, with the election of Jerry Brown as governor. The Orange County Employees Association and Sen. Lou Correa (the Santa Ana Democrat who authored legislation that sparked a decade of pension-hiking), for instance, are hosting an inauguration party “celebrating the election of the People’s Governor.” I always associate talk about People’s leaders and People’s republics with places that have a decidedly authoritarian bent.

But while the union-dominated Left is celebrating, just maybe we’ll see the beginnings of a serious debate about union power, thanks to those Democratic politicians who are interested in reform. That’s a sliver of hope for the new year in a state that is starting to seem hopeless.

About the author: Steven Greenhut is the editor-in-chief of Cal Watchdog, an independent, Sacramento-based journalism venture providing original investigative reports and news stories covering California state government.. Greenhut was deputy editor and columnist for The Orange County Register for 11 years. He is author of the new book, “Plunder! How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.”

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