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A Teachers Union for 2005

February 12, 2005

It has been 15 years since the giant Los Angeles teachers union has been a force for educational reform in the nation's second-largest school system. Its fiery demands for power sharing once made United Teachers Los Angeles a leader in the effort to remake urban schools. Now, union leaders spar with the district over small-change pay raises, paperwork demands and teacher assessment.

The district's teachers ought to aim for something better. They can begin by shedding their lethargy and educating themselves about the union election now underway.

The current union leaders are veterans whose claim to fame is that they "walked the line in '89" when teachers went on strike to win hefty pay raises and a bigger role in running district schools. But those raises left the district in a financial bind that led to pay cuts for teachers four years later, and the union-favored "School-Based Management" model that gave teachers more control over campus budgets and hiring withered after failing to raise students' test scores.

Since then, dynamics within the union have changed, as has the education terrain. State and federal mandates now hold schools accountable for their students' performance. Class-size reductions have drawn a flood of young teachers, who are required to join and pay dues to the union but tend to worry more about improving their classroom skills than protecting their retirement accounts. UTLA has yet to adjust its rhetoric to the new reality. The result is disengagement and division within its ranks.

Four years ago, John Perez -- standard-bearer for a "wages and working conditions" agenda -- won the union presidency by fewer than 100 votes over a candidate who emphasized curricular reforms. Fewer than 10,000 of the union's then-47,000 members (including other school professionals such as counselors) bothered to mail back ballots.

This time, Perez and his incumbent slate are vigorously opposed by a trio of classroom teachers who say they aim to invigorate the union with a "social justice" agenda and fight against class-size increases and standardized testing. Candidate forums have generated heat but little light.

It's clear what the union will stand against. Teachers -- and parents and taxpayers on the sidelines -- should be clamoring to know what it will stand for.

The union has not recognized what teachers already know: Their profession is ill served by the old industrial model that makes job protection a union's primary goal. It doesn't speak to the sense of mission that every good teacher brings to the classroom, or to the special challenges educators face.

In places like Denver, the union worked with the school district on a merit pay plan to promote good teaching and protect teachers' rights. In Rochester, N.Y., the union created an internship program for new teachers and a peer intervention program for failing ones.

Los Angeles teachers deserve leadership that is visionary and vigorous, and it is up to them to demand it. Otherwise, their union will drift between old-style protectionism and committed radicalism, leaving professionalism and the district's 750,000 students out of the equation.

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