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United in name only

October 08, 2006

UNITED TEACHERS LOS ANGELES is misnamed. Last week's events show that the teachers union is hardly united -- and that its focus too often strays far from education and Los Angeles. By being overly political and acting against reform, the union has let down both its members and the district's students.

The teachers finally rose up against their union leadership last week, voting by a convincing margin to oppose the legislation that gives Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa a measure of influence over the schools. Union leaders at first opposed mayoral control of the schools; then, without consulting their members or even their governing body, they worked out a deal to get behind a half-baked bill that fragments responsibility rather than centralizing it and blurs accountability rather than clarifying it. The leaders defended themselves by saying Villaraigosa wouldn't wait for them to consult its policymaking body.

The union suffered another embarrassment when it backed off from plans to co-host an anti-Israel rally at its headquarters. The reason for its hasty retreat is obvious -- outcry from both the public and within its own ranks. Less clear is what the union was thinking in the first place, getting involved in a sensitive international issue and hosting a rally certain to offend many teachers, students and parents.

But then, building student achievement often comes in a distant second to politics as UTLA priorities. Last week, union President A.J. Duffy told The Times that even though scripted teaching methods raise scores, "test scores are a phony gauge of whether public education is successful or not."

He's entitled to his opinion, but like them or not, tests are one of the measures by which the district tracks the progress of its students. And their progress is the job of every teacher. The union leadership's resistance to the reforms that improve scores is an obstacle to the improvement of L.A. schools.

Fortunately, there are many teachers who disagree with Duffy, who put student achievement first, who believe in trying new things that might help. These are the teachers who think more about the classroom than the union. Unfortunately, they don't tend to vote in union elections. Slightly more than a quarter of the union's members voted in the election that made Duffy president. Maybe if those teachers were more active in UTLA, the L.A. schools would have the kind of union they deserve.

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