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United Teachers Los Angeles: Absent from reform

L.A. Unified is changing, but a UTLA split could cause the union to miss out on opportunities to be part of the transformation.

October 17, 2009

It's easy to see why United Teachers Los Angeles doesn't like the new Public School Choice policy at L.A. Unified, which allows outside groups to apply to take over about 250 new or underperforming schools. Those groups are likely to include a large number of charter school operators that would hire their own teachers rather than sign a contract with the teachers union.

What's less understandable is why UTLA would minimize its chances of keeping some of the schools within the district, along with their union jobs. Yet that's what appears to be happening. A rift has developed within the union's leadership over whether to allow more so-called pilot schools, and if so, how many and under what conditions. Pilot schools are similar to charter schools, except that they remain within L.A. Unified, staffed by the district's union employees. The staff is given more independence to make instructional and budgeting decisions in exchange for greater accountability and "thin contracts," which contain fewer of the prescriptive work rules that can stultify progress.

UTLA protested vociferously against Public School Choice, but once the policy was approved, union President A.J. Duffy was quick to propose a more constructive tactic: UTLA would help teachers craft the complicated proposals to operate pilot schools or other possible educational models at the schools that will be up for grabs. So far, staff at more than 40 schools have expressed interest in switching to pilot status. The existing handful of pilot schools are only a year or two old, but the results so far are encouraging.

UTLA's agreement would be required to expand this promising program, which is currently capped at 10 schools districtwide. Some within the union's governing bodies, though, worry that pilot schools erode traditional teacher protections. The union's House of Representatives is scheduled to bring up the topic at its Nov. 18 meeting -- three days after groups must submit letters to the district indicating that they will propose operating a school and outlining their educational plans. That also would give the union only seven weeks to help teachers carry out the complicated series of steps required for the full application, due Jan. 8.

UTLA cannot maintain the status quo of "fat" teacher contracts at new and failing schools even if it places a moratorium on additional pilot schools. Rather, it risks yielding the field to charter operators, which would have little or no competition. Teachers eager to improve their schools might form their own charters, as they recently did at Birmingham High. Whether the resisting faction within the union is comfortable with it or not, change has come to L.A. Unified.

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