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Influence of teachers unions in question

The groups have been slow to come to terms with the push for reform. Some see them as obstacles to change, and even union sympathizers agree that their voice in the education debate has been muted.

November 07, 2010|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times

Teachers unions have a well-deserved reputation for exercising political clout. With a nearly unparalleled ability to raise cash and organize their ranks, they have elected school boards, influenced legislation and helped set the public school agenda in major American cities for decades.

Now, that clout is in question.

A nationwide school reform movement with bipartisan support has collided head-on with unions over three ideas that labor has long resisted: expansion of charter schools, the introduction of merit pay for teachers and the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations.

Even the long-held protections and prerogatives conferred by seniority and tenure no longer seem sacrosanct.

"To say that we're under attack is an understatement," Los Angeles teachers union vice president Julie Washington told an angry audience of her members recently. "This is a wakeup call for all of us."

It's not that unions have been slumbering, but they have been slow to come to terms with the surging momentum for reform. Critics see them as obstacles to change; even union sympathizers agree that their voice in the education debate has been muted.

"The big ideas that are being debated are not the ideas that they put there," said Charles Kerchner, a professor of education at Claremont Graduate University, who has written several books about teachers unions. "They're not forming the agenda."

Or as Jay Greene, a New York-based education researcher and union critic, recently blogged: "We won! At least we've won the war of ideas."

Unions' headaches begin at the top, with President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, Democrats who have pursued an agenda that builds substantially on the policies of Republican President George W. Bush.

Teachers unions donate almost exclusively to Democratic politicians and have usually been able to count on their support. Obama has disappointed them — and the feeling appears to be mutual.

Asked recently whether teachers unions were getting in the way of progress, the president said: "I'm a strong supporter of the notion that a union can protect its members and help be part of the solution as opposed to part of the problem. What is also true is that sometimes means they are resistant to change when things are not working."

Locally, opposition from a strong union, United Teachers Los Angeles, hasn't been enough to stop the creation of more charter schools than in any other city in the country. These schools — independently operated and publicly financed — are sometimes unionized, but most are not.

Across the country, dozens of states and school districts have proposed or instituted changes in the way they evaluate teachers to take into account how much their students improve on standardized tests. In Los Angeles, some district officials are pushing to rate individual teachers in this way — over strenuous union objections.

The pressure has grown since August, when The Times published a database that rated about 6,000 elementary school teachers using the "value-added" method. A series of articles underscored significant differences in teachers' influence on test scores, even within the same schools. Union leaders unsuccessfully urged the newspaper to take down the database, saying it was unfair and based on flawed results. The union has called for a boycott of the newspaper and alleged, among other things, that a teacher killed himself in response to a "less effective" rating in the database.

In October, UTLA expressed outrage at the district over a proposed legal settlement with civil rights attorneys that could threaten a longstanding "last hired, first fired" principle. The union had been part of the negotiations but ended up on the sidelines.

In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers was left fuming too, as school officials there announced plans to release teacher evaluation data to the public despite an earlier promise that they would try to keep the information private.

These developments hardly mean the unions have become impotent.

"They're still plenty powerful," Greene said. "They still have millions of dollars and millions and millions of members."

Union supporters say organized labor has not been given enough credit for its own efforts to reform education — for instance, efforts by UTLA to establish charter-like "pilot schools." And, they insist, there is scant evidence that the education reforms championed by Obama, Duncan and others will do anything to improve schools.

"I think a lot of the politicians … are looking for a quick fix, and they're looking for a scapegoat, and the scapegoat in this case is the teachers," said Kirti Baranwal, a teacher and union representative at Gompers Middle School in South Los Angeles.

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