(This commentary first appeared in TOP-Ed.)
Sometimes the most interesting political commentary is found in the comics … or in the ads.
Monday’s editions of the Los Angeles Times, Daily News, and La Opinion carried a full-page ad from a coalition of civic and community organizations aimed at influencing the negotiations between the Los Angeles Unified School District and its teachers, represented by United Teachers Los Angeles.
The ad itself is pretty bland. “Don’t hold us back” is not exactly a searing catch phrase. But the underlying issues are explosive: teacher evaluation, employment security, and school-site determination of work rules.
Essentially, the ad’s sponsors are drawing up a third chair to the bargaining table. They are attempting to influence both labor and management, but clearly they are in line with the positions and issues articulated by Superintendent John Deasy last summer. The increasingly bold and strident parent and community voice, amplified and modulated with foundation money, changes the politics of collective bargaining and challenges the union’s historic claim on parent loyalty.
In terms of Los Angeles politics, Monday’s ads are at least a semi big deal. Usually, collective bargaining holds little interest for parents and their organizations. It’s thought to be too boring and technical, something best left to the experts to sort through. But historically, when parent and community voice is activated, it tips the political balance. Decades ago, in The Changing Idea of A Teachers Union, my research colleagues and I examined scores of contract negotiations. We found that the usually silent parents were powerful when they got riled up. Thus, the admonition of political analysis: “When a fight starts, watch the crowd.”
So, looking at the ad’s sponsors tells us something about how those on the sidelines enter the fight. Although technically leaderless, the coalition grew from a report issued by the United Way and financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In addition, the ads were sponsored by the Alliance for a Better Community, Families in Schools, Inner City Struggle, Community Coalition, Asian Pacific Legal Center, the Los Angeles Urban League, and Communities for Teaching Excellence. Former school board member Yolie Flores heads the latter. Each of these organizations has been at least somewhat aligned with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the now-thin school board majority.
Like the mayor, the heads of these organizations have ties to ethnic communities, roots in civil rights struggles, and sometimes experience in labor activism. Virtually all are Democrats. So, their opposition to the current state of teacher labor relations is significant. “We need to push both sides,” said Veronica Melvin, of Communities for Teaching Excellence.
UTLA President Warren Fletcher doubts both the representativeness of the ads’ sponsors and their political clout. “They are reflective of the capacity to purchase a display ad,” he said with reference to the foundation and school district support that the ad’s sponsors have received.
Fletcher also thinks that the union better understands what parents want. He points to the recent school board race between retired educator Bennett Kaiser and Luis Sanchez, chief of staff to board president Monica Garcia. Sanchez lost despite the mayor’s support and substantial contributions from unions other than UTLA.
On the sponsors’ web page one finds a minefield of issues that not only divide management from union but also challenge traditionalists within the union and school district.
The ad’s sponsors want to maintain and protect the Public School Choice program, which Flores sponsored, in which the operation of both newly constructed schools and schools that have failed to meet test score benchmarks are put out to a request-for-proposal process. Groups, including teacher collaboratives and charter schools, can write a proposal to run a school. UTLA would love to have the whole thing go away, and it is particularly opposed to putting newly constructed schools up for bid. There are several issues surrounding Public School Choice that the district and union are supposed to resolve by Nov. 1. But the ad sponsors’ proposals go well beyond what will be negotiated in the next two weeks.
The ad’s sponsors also want to lift the cap on autonomous schools, such as Pilots and Expanded School-Based management structures that were embraced by both the school board and UTLA under former president A.J. Duffy. They also want to further open up areas in the city where parents can choose among schools as opposed to having their children assigned to a school, so-called Zones of Choice.
Regardless of whether a school is run by a charter or the district, regardless of whether it is management or worker dominated, the more autonomy given a school, the larger the threat to the traditional contract. LAUSD is well down the road toward autonomous schools, regardless of what happens with Public School Choice. Nearly a quarter of public school students attend charters, Pilots, magnet schools, and other deviations from a conventional district school. Opening up more teacher-led schools, more schools with distinct academic themes — such as the bilingual immersion schools being designed under Public School Choice — creates a stronger teacher interest in controlling who works there and under what conditions.
The more autonomy is granted to schools, the stronger the pressure to eliminate “must place” hiring processes in which a teacher, through seniority or other means, is sent to a school regardless of whether his or her skills and interests match the pedagogy and ethos the school is trying to develop and maintain. The more autonomy granted to a school, the greater the pressure for elect-to-work agreements in which the school’s faculty make up many of their own work rules and new hires agree to be bound by those rules.
These are huge changes from the tradition of a central contract in which one set of rules governs all teachers. So are the issues surrounding teacher evaluation.
Like most of those who call themselves reformers in education, the ad’s sponsors want to tie teacher evaluation and compensation to student outcomes. This notion of just rewards and strong incentives has gained so much face validity that it is hard to oppose, even when most merit-pay plans in public education have proven unworkable and short-lived.
The problem is that UTLA has been largely mute about alternatives to the current system, which virtually everyone, including Fletcher, agrees doesn’t work. But UTLA’s lack of a strong viable alternative and opposition to any use of student test score data for evaluation puts it on the defensive. Fletcher says internal work on developing an “intellectually honest and durable” system is under way, but that it takes time. But time is short because both the school administration and the newly attentive public have approached this round of bargaining with a righteous urgency.
There is good news for unionism in Monday’s ad. The organizations behind it see collective bargaining and the contract as a vehicle toward better public education. In this, they differ from the Republican forces that have limited or eliminated public sector bargaining in several states. The cautionary news for UTLA is that these organizations have brought their own demands and their own chair to the bargaining table. And they are impatient.
Charles Taylor Kerchner is the co-author of Learning from L.A.: Institutional Change in American Public Education and United Mind Workers: Unions and Teaching in the Knowledge Society. He is a professor at Claremont Graduate University.