A.J. Duffy is the outgoing president of United Teachers Los Angeles. Eight… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
The eight candidates vying to be president of the powerful Los Angeles teachers union share a general belief that public education is endangered by malevolent forces outside and corrupt incompetency inside.
From their perspective, corporations seek to bleed dollars from schools and collude with powerful nonprofits, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; a top-heavy, punitive school district bureaucracy stifles innovation while squandering or squirreling away millions; charter schools abuse teachers, drain public resources and take only the best students; and traditional schools need a lot more money.
The best weapon against these forces, the candidates assert, is the strongest possible, most combative union to serve as a last bastion against those who seek to do harm to students and teachers.
It's a traditional union outlook — especially in Los Angeles — but it's a harder sell outside United Teachers Los Angeles. Some critics contend that teacher unions are hindering educational progress. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former UTLA organizer, has called the union "one unwavering roadblock to reform."
Labor relations expert Charles Kerchner said the union's habitual rhetoric undermines some legitimate substance. Teacher unions do face grave threats, including efforts to end collective bargaining rights, and union leaders have contributions to make on school reform, said Kerchner, a professor at Claremont Graduate University.
The mail-in balloting for union officers, which ends Feb. 17, coincides with multiple, serious challenges for the Los Angeles Unified School District and the union. A financial crisis could lead to more layoffs and pay cuts. Community leaders and public officials are demanding more and faster reforms. The district leadership is in flux, with a new superintendent taking charge in April. And the mayor and union are battling for control of the school board in the March elections, when four seats on the seven-member Board of Education are on the ballot.
Ongoing contract talks include a controversial district proposal to revamp teacher evaluations. The proposed evaluation would use a "value-added" measure to link teachers to their students' year-to-year growth on standardized tests.
Julie Washington, a UTLA vice president and a heavy favorite to win the union presidency, strongly decries unions across the country that have agreed to measure teachers, in part, by student progress on standardized tests.
"All of these unions have caved in," Washington said at a recent candidates forum at Taft High School in Woodland Hills. "We are the last-standing major union in this country that does not have the value-added model shoved down their throat.... UTLA has stood strong."
Among teachers, there's evidence of discontent with local union orthodoxy as well as a long history of widespread apathy to union participation. About one in five members voted in the last election for union president. Members of a recently formed splinter group, NewTLA, call for more openness to new ideas and more collaboration with other interest groups.
Still, the forum at Taft, in which seven candidates took part, suggests that there will be no sharp turn of philosophy at the top.
The real problem, said candidates, is that allegiance to traditional union approaches has lapsed. Except for Washington, who is part of the union leadership, candidates insisted that UTLA has become too weak, too compliant, too ineffectual, too willing to compromise under president A.J. Duffy, who is finishing his second and final three-year term.
"There is no more giving anything away," Matthew Ross, a teacher who works with underachieving students in several schools, said at the forum. "We're going to take every inch back.... I am going to fight like a tiger."
Said substitute teacher Linda Everhart: "The word is strike. Yes, strike. Have you been waiting to hear that powerful word?"
The candidates uniformly castigated the spread of charter schools and the district's policy of allowing them to bid for control of low-performing schools and new campuses. Charters are publicly funded, independently run campuses that are mostly nonunion and free of many district regulations.
"The district is being torn into shreds, cut into pieces, being sold off," said Warren Fletcher, a teacher at the City of Angels alternative school. He called for unionizing charter schools, as did other candidates.
Mat Taylor, the lead union representative for much of South Los Angeles, wants to rally against outside interests: "We need to make it clear we don't subscribe to the Bill Gates agenda on education and make it clear we're not for a superintendent who does."
He was referring to incoming L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy, who previously worked for the Gates Foundation, heading a research effort to improve teacher evaluations.
Despite similar world views, some internal divisions have percolated into the election.