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Striking the right note

L.A.'s mayor should use his clout with the teachers union to break the impasse in contract talks.

January 25, 2007

THOUSANDS OF teachers in Los Angeles boycotted faculty meetings Tuesday, and the president of the teachers union is promising a strike. The district, meanwhile, is complaining that the union's demands are unrealistic. Teachers are scheduled to vote whether to authorize a strike next month.

All in all, it's a perfect moment for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. As a former organizer for United Teachers Los Angeles, Villaraigosa has both personal and political clout with the union. And as the man who wants to run the Los Angeles Unified School District, he has a golden opportunity to show his mettle by brokering an uninterrupted school year.

Of course, it's entirely possible that A.J. Duffy, the president of UTLA, is bluffing. But if he isn't -- and whoever is "right" about what sort of compensation package the district can afford and the teachers deserve -- he should know that neither students nor teachers can afford a strike.

District officials have made it clear that they would keep the schools open. What they don't make clear is that this would mean days of warehousing kids with adult baby-sitters. The district's last strike, in 1989, lasted nine days. Are teachers or managers, already under pressure to improve students' generally lackluster achievement, ready to see their students' test scores after losing almost two weeks of instructional time?

Negotiations this year have dropped to their usual lowest-common-denominator level: What percentage increase in pay and benefits will the teachers receive? It's the wrong argument. Great teachers, especially those teaching in hard-to-fill positions, should get great pay increases, and poor ones should be booted altogether.

The union continues to insist that all teachers be compensated according to experience rather than performance, a losing proposition for the students and the teachers. The union also has locked the district into a budget-busting pension package that will have a negative effect on teacher salaries for decades to come.

It's too late in the process to wish for a more productive start. But it's not too late for Villaraigosa to inject a note of sanity into the proceedings and bring negotiations to a more productive end.

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