When I was growing up in New York City the circus came to town each spring. On my eighth birthday, my mother, sisters and I took the subway to Madison Square Garden. I anticipated the Rubber Man's twists, the Fat Lady's jiggles and the Sword Swallower's life-threatening maneuvers, but we never got to the side show. We were stopped by a parade in front of the Garden, men carrying signs urging the public to boycott the circus.
I cried quietly while Mother explained what the men wanted to accomplish, how they helped working people earn decent wages. We didn't cross the picket line.
The first time I worked for a union shop was when I became a teacher. I signed a contract with the Los Angeles Unified School District and registered with United Teachers-Los Angeles on the same day. I'd heard some horror stories from my sister, who'd been teaching for 20 years, about conditions before unionization--teachers arbitrarily fired by vindictive principals without benefit of due process--and I wanted to support the union with my monthly dues.
It's been eight years since I became a union member, and although there is much UTLA has done to aid teachers, in the form of higher wages and benefits, and in ensuring due process, I question whether members' rights should come before sound education policy.
I'm not advocating a return to an era that allowed principals to fire teachers at will--I'd certainly have been on the chopping block more than once for daring to speak out. But it may be that in protecting against arbitrary termination we've created a system that protects incompetent teachers. Even UTLA's stance against merit pay for outstanding educators inadvertently awards mediocrity in the classroom.
A few years ago the service workers union managed to wrest an agreement from LAUSD's Board of Education which virtually assured no gardener would be fired to balance the budget unless a teacher were also displaced. Seems outrageous, but the board agreed to it.
What is called the Assn. of Administrators of Los Angeles (AALA), not a union, has become the strongest voice of all, and perhaps the most destructive.
On Feb. 15 and 16, the state Department of Education investigated a complaint filed by a group of teachers, myself included, against my former principal. Our contention was that she violated state education code by overriding the school's agreed-upon professional development program with one of her own. Sounds minor. Not enough to warrant the expense of sending two investigators from Sacramento to Los Angeles or keeping six teachers out of school for two days and hiring substitutes to replace them. But for my colleagues and me, filing the complaint seemed the only way to gain the LAUSD's attention.
Faculty at the Los Angeles high school where I taught had already tried going through channels to resolve the problems. In two years, 25 faculty and staff, including myself and the office manager, had transferred to other schools. More had threatened to leave.
The cluster leader, herself a board-appointed former principal, heard faculty complaints for a year. She took notes and listened sympathetically, but AALA members don't easily fire their own.
Faculty and parents complained at an Oct. 2, 1995, mediation meeting that "major parts of school disjointed," "that productivity of school is negatively impacted because of principal," and "sometimes divorce is healthy remedy," according to the minutes. In response, the cluster leader hired a well-respected mediator to intercede.
Seventy-four interviews and $4,470 later, the mediator's Dec. 13, 1995, report read, "dysfunctionality interferes with school's mission and keeps it from fulfilling its potential. School succeeds despite, not because of, the way things are run."
But by Jan. 16, the mediator's report read: "Concerns exist over some interpersonal / professional relations on campus."
Had the administrators' group done its job and protected its own?
UTLA has been known to do the same when a teacher is on the line.
Unions, as my mother explained while we stood outside Madison Square Garden those many years ago, owe their allegiance to their dues-paying members.
But students don't belong to unions and no one, it seems, protects them from incompetent educators, whether they be found in the classroom or behind the principal's desk.
One would hope that the Board of Education would hold students' rights above all others, that it would act as students' ombudsman. LAUSD's mandate, which it appears it has forgotten, is as an educational institution, not an employment agency. The board needs to take a stand against union contracts that protect incompetence and have the potential to injure students.
Unfortunately, I doubt board members have the will to do so. After all, unions, with their members' dues, contribute to board candidates' coffers and political careers while students remain unorganized, nonvoting, silent victims.