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Teachers unions, listen up

As concerns in education shift, unions risk being left behind if they don't abandon hidebound positions.

July 31, 2009

When even your best friends aren't on your side, it's time to pay attention. Teachers unions in California would be wise to listen as new challenges to their most cherished doctrines come from the very politicians they have counted on as allies.

United Teachers Los Angeles is trying to kill a resolution under consideration by the Los Angeles Unified school board that would allow charter operators, community organizations and the union itself to submit proposals to run 50 new schools. UTLA leaders see union teaching jobs disappearing if more schools are run by private operators, a valid concern. Non-district operators are less likely to accept contract rules that forbid merit pay or make it difficult to fire chronically underperforming teachers.

But they also would invigorate the district with new models for educating L.A. Unified's students. That has to trump union concerns. And Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a onetime UTLA organizer known as a strong union supporter, backs the plan.

Now President Obama, who was endorsed by this nation's two largest teachers unions, has put California on notice that it will not qualify for a portion of the $4.5 billion in federal "Race to the Top" funds unless it repeals a law that puts a firewall between student data and teacher performance. Inserted into a larger bill on student data tracking at the insistence of teachers unions, the provision forbids the state to use information about student progress in evaluating teachers. The Obama administration also has called for merit pay and reforms to the tenure system, stances that unions have firmly opposed for decades.

Why the seeming split? After years of middling efforts to improve schools that led to only middling improvement, there's no escaping the need for more fundamental changes that always made sense but were downplayed in the days before school accountability. It was never a good idea to allow ineffective or uncaring teachers to continue in the classroom; today it is untenable.

Now that politicians are speaking up for students, their next task must be to engage California teachers in meaningful discussions about how to shape accountability in ways that make sense in the classroom. Student scores are obviously part of a teacher's job, but they should not be the only issue, or even the single most important one. Nor should low-performing teachers be summarily fired, but tenure robs administrators of the authority to compel improvement. If union leaders want a role in these discussions, they'll need to abandon their hidebound positions and take a place at the reform table.

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