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Reeducating unions

Teacher labor groups have changed education for the better, but now there are new lessons to be learned.

September 07, 2009

Even with signs that the U.S. economy might be stirring, this is a strained Labor Day for the many Americans who are going without raises, and whose hours are being cut at the same time that they are asked to take heavier workloads -- and especially for those who are without employment.

Teachers find themselves in all these categories, across the nation and right here, where the dire financial condition of the Los Angeles Unified School District has led to layoffs or demotions from regular teaching to substitute, and where class sizes will be larger and other cutbacks will reduce salaries. On a bigger scale, the unions that brought teachers better pay, benefits and job security find themselves at a tipping point, their power under threat in ways that seemed barely possible a few years ago.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose 2005 proposal to modify teacher tenure was brought down by the full-on might of the California Teachers Assn., is now calling for a change in state law that would allow teachers' performance reviews to be linked to test scores. And there is barely a political peep to be heard about it; the Obama administration has demanded such changes if California is to receive a share of new education funding. Obama and his Education secretary, Arne Duncan, openly admire high-performing charter schools and reform-minded superintendents such as Michelle Rhee of Washington, who is working to revamp tenure rules there.

Then came the blow last month to United Teachers Los Angeles. The L.A. Unified school board passed a resolution that will allow outside groups to compete with current district staff for permission to run any of 50 soon-to-open schools and about 200 low-performing schools, with the operators to be held accountable for student achievement. UTLA is accustomed to being the single most powerful entity in L.A. Unified; trustees used to jump to do its bidding. Yet Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former UTLA organizer known for his union ties, put his strong support behind the measure, criticizing the teachers union for failing to place children first.

To be fair, teachers unions exist to promote the status of teachers; it is no more their role to push for student-centered reforms than it is the job of the autoworkers union to fret about fuel economy. But when unions obstructed popular and necessary change, they ultimately did themselves and their members no favor. Parents and a public weary of lackluster schools rebelled and pulled politicians along with them. Labor now finds itself in a weakened situation on campus.

A new era of school reform will continue to take hold with or without union cooperation. Yet reformers should hesitate before agitating for the downfall of teachers unions, which have a rich history of improving both education and the welfare of educators. Our schools would be weaker without these labor organizations. The challenge on this Labor Day, as the traditional school year is starting, is to imagine a new flexibility among teachers unions in which they regain influence by promoting reform rather than by resisting it. We would welcome a resurgent and refocused local teachers union.

Those are curious words coming from this page, which has a long history of opposing and belittling organized labor.

"Director Bean declared that to pay all teachers exactly the same salaries, irrespective of merit and acquirements, smacks of the spirit of unionism, and he stood for rewarding those who made extra effort to improve themselves," The Times printed in 1912.

"There is not one school for the rich and another for the poor," a 1919 Times editorialist wrote, blissfully unaware of the coming achievement gaps of the 21st century. "All pass through the same grades and receive the same degrees. ... It is into this garden of democracy that the serpent of radicalism is gliding in the guise of the school-teachers' union."

In 1936, an editorial bristled: "There is no need and no room for a labor-union of teachers in this State. ... Any teacher who ties up with a radical organization should be subject to dismissal."

We are mindful of precedent on this page, and break from it reluctantly. But the editorial boards that went about their work in the aftermath of the 1910 bombing of The Times -- which killed 21 employees and was the work of union organizers -- saw labor far differently than today's board, which, among other things, endorsed Mayor Villaraigosa twice and has called for tougher sanctions against employers who violate labor rights. That extends to the unions that represent teachers. As much as we deplore rigid work rules that make it virtually impossible to fire unfit teachers or that fail to reward teachers who consistently get stellar results at the most challenging schools, we are aware that these restrictions have their roots in a century-old era during which teachers labored under deplorable conditions.

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