As an urban high school teacher, I'm ceded the moral high ground in most encounters with people in more highly compensated fields; invariably, they tell me how much they admire what I do. Although they rarely say so explicitly, they regard my work -- the students -- as difficult and cannot imagine themselves in my shoes, just as I can't imagine rushing into burning buildings as a firefighter.
These same people frequently characterize my employer, the Los Angeles Unified School District, as an unmanageable failure. There's some truth in that, but our schools' mission is far more difficult than critics understand. If it were easy to educate children raised near or below the poverty line, most from homes in which English is not spoken, then L.A.'s public schools would produce better results.
Still, despite its shortcomings, I feel a deep affinity with the district, in whose schools I was educated. I feel far less connection to United Teachers Los Angeles, which represented my father before me and to which I pay nearly $700 a year in dues. Cynics say UTLA is the union that the LAUSD deserves -- ineffective and one-dimensional -- and they're not wrong.
The teachers and children of Los Angeles deserve better, and an opportunity to change direction is imminent. On Thursday -- the day ballots are mailed to 43,000 teachers, counselors and nurses -- members start voting on union leaders for the next three-year term.
This is a crucial time for the district. Debates rage over the mandates of No Child Left Behind and how much testing and teaching-to-tests we should do. Charter schools -- some good, some bad -- are siphoning off students and resources. High schools are subdividing into Small Learning Communities, a model that's produced mixed results elsewhere, without adequate planning or funding. Most students don't pass Algebra I the first time, yet Algebra II will become a graduation requirement in a few years, likely increasing the already abysmal dropout rate.
As the district grapples with these issues, its teachers have important contributions to make to the policy discussions. Unfortunately, for the last three years, UTLA President A.J. Duffy has used his bully pulpit to talk mostly about money and governance.
In the 1970s, UTLA saw itself as an education advocate to counter bureaucrats "on the hill." Under Duffy, the union has devolved into a purely political operation -- and a mediocre one at that. Duffy, for example, endorsed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's hostile schools takeover before the legislation was even written, frittering away the union's power to shape reform. It apparently didn't matter to Duffy that the initiative was an end-run around voters, destined to be struck down because it violated the state Constitution. UTLA members did care: Twice they voted to repudiate Duffy's support for the power play.
Likewise, after a poorly reported story on KCBS-TV, Duffy screeched about abuse of credit cards by administrators; he expressed surprise that $4 million a month was being charged. Had he done research, he would have discovered that using credit cards was saving the district far more than the cost of questionable purchases. Duffy would not be inconvenienced by facts, however, not when he sensed an opportunity to bash the district.
Last year's payroll debacle -- in which a new system issued tens of thousands of error-filled checks -- provided more opportunities for confrontation and theatrics. Duffy filed a lawsuit and camped out at district headquarters in gas-guzzling RVs. He railed about members who'd been underpaid or not paid at all, even though five times as many had been overpaid. Duffy didn't see that the crisis required the district and its employees to pull together, not apart. He also said little about the district's efforts to re-collect overpayments. Thus teachers -- with little guidance from their union -- had to accept the school district's questionable accounting or face messy tax consequences.
While the media focus on the California presidential primary, the UTLA election -- which lasts through Feb. 21 -- is arguably of equal consequence to the school district's students, employees and their families, perhaps 2 million people in all. Unless interest surges beyond that of past elections, the electorate will be about 10,000 -- a quarter of the union's membership.
Teachers must decide whether they are satisfied with Duffy's predilection for sound and fury over substance -- or whether they want the union to return to its roots as a constructive advocate for teachers and children. I urge my colleagues to take this election seriously and consider all the candidates; Duffy's three challengers include one current and one former union vice president.
Teachers must never forget that the moral high ground isn't ours by default -- it must be earned.