The Los Angeles teachers union has long been the most powerful player in local education.
But with the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and other well-heeled nonprofits pushing hard to fundamentally change the nature of public education in Los Angeles, enrollment in traditional schools is declining and nonunion charter schools are on the rise.
The teachers union needs money to fight back.
There are, however, far fewer teachers to pay dues to United Teachers Los Angeles.
So this week the union asked its 32,000 members — down from 45,000 in 2008 — to raise their dues by nearly a third, to about $1000 per member annually, and also to allow UTLA to pass on to members any future increases in dues owed to state and national parent unions.
The votes will be counted Wednesday.
A previous attempt to increase dues failed in 2008, but this time the stakes are higher and union leaders are more hopeful of success.
Union President Alex Caputo-Pearl said that the money will help combat a brand of reform that favors operating schools more like businesses — for example, by using metrics-based performance evaluations such as standardized test scores to rate teachers.
Nationwide, districts have become battlefields over the business model versus more traditional approaches to public education. And Los Angeles, a pro-labor enclave with the country's second-largest district, is widely seen as the front that could shift momentum in either direction.
Los Angeles school board elections, pitting union-endorsed candidates against union critics, are the most expensive in the nation.
UTLA also wants money for legal fights.
An L.A. County Superior Court judge recently threw out traditional teacher job protections as harmful to students — a verdict that is on appeal. And the U.S. Supreme Court is deliberating a California case that could make it more difficult for all teacher unions to collect dues.
In both those cases, lawyers hired by teacher unions are up against those brought in by deep-pocketed opponents.
The pro-charter side is building its own war chest.
A proposal circulated over the summer by the Broad Foundation talked about raising $490 million to enroll half of L.A. students in charters over the next eight years.
L.A. Unified already has the most charters of any school district in the nation, and pro-charter forces have become the biggest spenders in school board elections.
The union finds itself on the defensive.
That's a good thing to those who criticize unions for obstructing efforts to limit tenure, toughen how teachers are evaluated and expand the types of schools parents and students can choose.
"Those promoting these changes have sought to force the unions to stretch themselves thin — across states, within states and across multiple fights," said Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the conservative Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.
A small, vocal but unorganized group of current and former teachers openly opposes the higher dues. In online posts, some have accused their union leaders of corruption and of failing to protect members, especially older teachers and substitutes.
In the union local's newsletter, four members of the union's house of representatives argued against raising dues, challenging the leadership's spending.
For 45 years, dues have been tied to a small percentage of a beginning teacher's salary. That came to $685 a year until recently, when an across-the-board salary boost pushed the amount to $760.
Union leaders insist this isn't enough.
More than half the union's budget comes from membership dues and assessments. Most of the rest arrives in the form of rebates from state or national unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Assn.
According to the most recent available tax records, UTLA's revenue dropped to $38.8 million in 2013 from $43.7 million in 2010.
The union was so cash-strapped in the last board election that it borrowed $400,000 from its strike fund, which it is gradually repaying.
The union trimmed its budget every year from 2010 through 2013, finishing in the red two of those four years.
A "yes" vote on the increase would base union dues for all teachers on a small percentage of what a mid-career teacher makes.
"UTLA dues are by far the lowest anywhere that I know of," said Joshua Pechthalt, a former UTLA officer who is currently president of the California Federation of Teachers. "A hundred dollars per month and higher is common."
Teachers' salaries vary from district to district, as does the cost of living. So it's difficult to compare dues' financial bite.
In L.A., a beginning teacher makes as little as $43,000 and veteran instructors can earn about $85,000, Caputo-Pearl said.
Elected, citywide union leaders, including Caputo-Pearl, make about $100,000 a year, according to tax filings.
In trying to fire up members, Caputo-Pearl talks about battling what he calls the "Broad-Wal-Mart" plan.
Wal-Mart, in his reference, is the Walton Family Foundation, which is bankrolled by heirs to the Wal-Mart discount store fortune. It has provided grants to create and assist charter schools nationwide.
"Caputo-Pearl is smart to use the boogeyman of Broad-Walton to create enough fear among his members to vote for a dues increase," said Jim Blew, president of Sacramento-based StudentsFirst, which has support from the Walton foundation and frequently opposes unions politically. "His finances are untenable, and the only way out is to get more revenue from his members."
UCLA education professor John Rogers thinks Caputo-Pearl is making his case.
"There have been times in the past 15 years when I was not quite sure whether UTLA leadership would use additional funds efficiently and in ways that would have a payoff for L.A. schools," Rogers said. Now, he added, he has more confidence that the union will spend the money effectively.
Editor's Note: The Times receives funding for its Education Matters digital initiative from one or more of the groups mentioned in this article. The California Community Foundation and United Way of Greater Los Angeles administer grants from the Baxter Family Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the California Endowment and the Wasserman Foundation to support this effort. Under terms of the grants, The Times retains complete control over editorial content.
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