The California Federation of Teachers came in for heavy criticism in recent months for shooting for the moon. Its Millionaire’s Tax ballot initiative, now dropped in a compromise with Gov. Jerry Brown, was seen as being too bold and ambitious in raising taxes on the rich, so much so that it would have imperiled the Democrats’ tax-raising project this year.

In all that debate about CFT, I kept wondering about the other teachers’ union, the California Teachers Assn., which is only “the other union” in the way that the Yankees are the other baseball team in New York. Why wasn’t CTA pushing harder for new revenues and new taxes?

It may seem like a strange question, because when CTA gets noticed, it’s for the times when it wields its considerable power. It gets criticized for blocking various proposals to change how teachers are paid and evaluated, to step up student testing, and to make other changes to education suggested by would-be reformers. CTA also uses its leverage in the budget, through Prop 98, the education-funding guarantee, to weigh in on all kinds of fiscal issues. For all of this, CTA is called a special interest, a bully, and worse.

I can understand that perspective. But I have another one. I’ve been amazed over and over again by how judicious, even cautious, CTA can be in its use of power.

So cautious that one wonders whether the union is being bold enough.

CTA, unlike so many powerful interests, is always willing to talk, even and especially with those who see the union as an enemy. CTA has always sent representatives to meet with would-be education reformers, even it’s obvious that those reformers see reducing the union’s power as essential to reform. When CTA and other unions were fighting Schwarzenegger tooth and nail in 2005, it was CTA that made a point of holding extensive negotiations with the governor to see if there was any kind of face-saving compromise. CTA has gone along with temporary cuts or suspensions of Prop 98 to help the budget, or gain long-term advantage. And CTA is generous in sharing its expertise and polling with ballot initiative sponsors. That political sophistication leads to caution; it does not pursue what it wants at the ballot without oceans of polling showing it can win.

But by my lights, all of CTA’s care and caution has started to curdle. CTA now looks too tame, particularly at a time like this.

Polling shows that California voters are more disposed than they’ve ever been to raising taxes, particularly if those taxes go to education. What an opportunity! After more than a generation of disinvestment from education, California could turn the ship around.

But CTA has consistently been on the side of the least ambitious initiatives that do the least for education. And as such, it’s been a force for keeping the tax increases in the measures small – so small that none would even produce enough money to bring California up to the national average in per-pupil spending.

When there were three main tax initiatives, CTA was with Gov. Brown’s measure – even though CFT had a different measure that would put more money into schools. Now that those measures are combined into a compromise, CTA supports the compromise, even though most of the money would end up, via backfill, in non-education programs. And CTA hasn’t backed Molly Munger’s measure, which, for all its flaws, would send more actual money to actual schools.

In the budget debates and these initiative fights, CTA clings to Prop 98, even though the education funding guarantee hasn’t done what it is supposed to do: provide stable, predictable funding for schools. Indeed, California has fallen in education spending, relative to other states, since the passage of Prop 98 in 1988 and a follow-up measure in 1990. CTA folks I’ve asked about this over the years always point out that things can always be worse and that Prop 98 is the best protection they have against the squeeze of the Prop 13 system – so they have not dared try to replace Prop 98 with a better formula.

That’s a reasonable argument. Heck, everything CTA does is pretty reasonable. But is it right?

We know this. California’s budget and governing systems don’t work. Those systems are slowly strangling the schools. But CTA won’t take on the grand project of remaking that system, and join any of the larger movements out there to redesign the constitution, the tax system or the budget system.

And the hard political fact is that Californians won’t be able to remake their system – no matter how many foundations or homeless billionaires provide funding – until CTA gets fully on board. And yes, a systemic redesign, a constitutional rewrite, seems awfully big, and is easily dismissed as unrealistic, as unreasonable.

So for now, we Californians are stuck waiting for its teachers’ union – its most powerful and most sophisticated and most reasonable interest group – to start being unreasonable.