Helen Bernstein, the departing president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, has announced that she will head a nationwide network of teachers unions dedicated to nurturing school reform.
With research assistance from UCLA and a $250,000 grant from a private foundation--the Pew Charitable Trust--Bernstein is to spend two years helping 21 union leaders increase their roles in restructuring their school districts.
In the process, the organization--known as the Teacher Union Reform Network, or TURN--hopes to create models that other unions can follow.
Teachers unions often have been wary of the latest wave of proposed reforms, which focus on transferring decision-making power to individual schools, because it complicates their struggle for consistent treatment.
"We're trying to break through that," said Adam Urbanski, vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, who helped found the organization and is among those attending a two-day meeting that continues today at UCLA.
"There's now a heightened sophistication that if the cow dies, nobody can milk it--that if public education goes down the tubes, there will be little need for . . . public schoolteacher unions," he said.
Urbanski said Bernstein's "gutsiness and candor," combined with her track record on reform in the Los Angeles Unified School District, made her the ideal choice to head the organization.
The former teacher, who will conclude a six-year stint as UTLA president in June, said she decided to take the job because she views organized labor's role in school reform as being as crucial to the success of the changes as it is to the unions' survival.
"Unless the unions engaged in the process are seen as a real leader, nothing's going to happen," Bernstein said.
Buzz Wilms, a professor at UCLA's graduate school of education, compared the organization to similar movements in industrial labor unions, where adversarial relationships with management have become more cooperative in a common drive for improving product quality.
"It's always a delicate balance [to avoid] claims that they have cozied up to management too far," Wilms said. "If TURN succeeds, their members will still have their bread-and-butter issues close at heart, but they will expand their charter to include the quality of education and student achievement."
The group's emergence comes at a time when teachers unions are under attack by conservative politicians for thwarting reform. The statewide California Teachers Assn. has been criticized for opposing an expansion of the charter school program, which has allowed more than 100 schools to operate free of many regulations and, if they choose, free of union contracts.
"I am very skeptical because at the same time they are forming this national group, they are still fighting reform efforts at the local levels," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform. "They are watering down charter contracts, fighting against accountability for teachers. . . . There's a real dichotomy between what they say and what they do."
But, like many of the other group members, Bernstein has consistently supported charter schools and other similar drives for independence, cautioning only that the teachers' due process rights be preserved.
In the case of Los Angeles Unified charter schools, that approach paid off, Bernstein believes, because only one of the seven current charters has opted not to be represented by the union.
Likewise with LEARN, the reform program that has spread to nearly half the district's campuses, teachers share an equal standing on school governing boards with principals, parents and staff. In addition, a campus cannot enter LEARN until three-quarters of the teachers agree.