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L.A. Teachers Union to Broaden Its Focus

CALIFORNIA

Newly elected leaders to take on social justice concerns in addition to contract, benefit issues.

March 08, 2005|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

The slate of Los Angeles classroom teachers elected last week to the top ranks of their union ousted the former leadership with a call for a 7% pay increase. But the group's agenda goes far beyond the traditional union concerns of contract and benefit issues.

In interviews last week, the new United Teachers Los Angeles officers -- many of whom ran on a social justice platform -- said they would take on federal laws, state policies and district practices, including the inequalities among schools.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 10, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Teachers union elections -- An article in Tuesday's California section about the newly elected leaders of United Teachers Los Angeles said Becki Robinson runs the Los Angeles Unified School District's Beyond the Bell after-school program. She runs part of that program, the Supplemental Educational Services Program.

They intend, for example, to speak out against No Child Left Behind, the federal education law that requires schools to improve their test scores annually. The union leaders say it is a conservative plot to decrease money to schools and to eradicate public education in favor of vouchers and private schools.

They say the Los Angeles Unified School District's efforts to impose smaller, more individualized learning for students at its most crowded schools represent, in the words of Joshua Pechthalt, a UTLA vice president-elect, "reform at the point of a gun."

And they voiced concern that the 46,000-member union has been focused on the wrong issues.

"UTLA needs to be fixed," said A.J. Duffy, who beat out current union President John Perez by about 2,000 votes. It was the first time in 35 years that an incumbent was voted out of office. "We have to change the direction our union is going."

The newly elected leaders were critical of the previous leadership for failing to deliver on more traditional labor issues: seeking better wages for teachers, preserving their generous benefit packages and zeroing in on quality-of-life issues. But they want to go further.

Most of them will ascend to leadership directly from the classroom, and they say their experiences have shaped the way they will interact with the district.

"People who have never been in a classroom always come up with the panaceas" that don't meet students' individual needs, said Duffy, who plans to remain a Palms Middle School special education teacher until he takes the union post July 1. (Previously, most teachers union presidents rose through UTLA leadership, spending years away from the classroom as they worked their way up the ranks.)

Whether the new leaders will help or hinder efforts already underway in the nation's second-largest school district -- to fix its failing schools, cope with a looming budget crisis and raise student achievement -- remains to be seen.

District officials and school board members say they expect a marked difference in the way the union and district deal with each another.

"I approach this relationship with optimism but realism," said Supt. Roy Romer. "There are issues, and we need to solve them."

With Perez, the Board of Education members "were feeling a lot of pressure," said board member Jon Lauritzen, a former teacher and UTLA activist who was supported by the union in his 2002 election.

"To have an even more militant group take power.... It's going to be interesting to see how it plays out," Lauritzen said.

Several of the new leaders teach in L.A.'s urban core, and they said those experiences in particular have solidified their push for a social justice focus for UTLA. Among the newly elected leaders was Murchison Street School second-grade teacher David Goldberg, whose aunt is former school board member and now state Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles).

Julie Washington, a kindergarten teacher at Normandie Avenue Elementary who will become the union's elementary vice president, said she sees firsthand the inequalities her students face.

"There is too wide of a variance between what children get at sites like mine and what they get in Brentwood or Palos Verdes or the west [San Fernando] Valley area," Washington said. "It's not fair. Many of my students are doomed to low-paying jobs or prison because they are not getting what they want out of the system."

The new UTLA leaders also say they want to push the union into a national dialogue on issues close to them, such as workers' rights, the funding of public education and No Child Left Behind.

"We can't be naive," Pechthalt said, and "believe we can simply struggle to protect healthcare benefits on a local level without being part of a national fight."

Romer said he was "very willing to be a partner" in that regard. But he also acknowledged that he would have to learn more about the new union leadership as he moved forward on certain key issues.

For example, he cited the effort underway to shake up the district's most troubled schools. Responding to federal pressure for improved student performance, L.A. Unified leaders are considering wholesale staff changes for next year at more than one-third of the district's 49 high schools. Romer said he was not yet sure how the union changes would affect that pressing work.

"I need to find a way to know their positions, and know them and include them in the process -- find ways of agreement if we can," he said.

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