One thing I've learned in 30 years of covering education is that every dispute, demand or decree rests on one claim:
We must do this for the children
That's why the teachers union tried to stage a one-day strike to protest budget cuts this week -- to "save the children," said United Teachers Los Angeles President A.J. Duffy. And it's why district leaders went to court to block them -- to protect the "student safety," said Supt. Ramon C. Cortines.
It makes for good sound bites and political rhetoric.
But I have a hard time believing that children top the agenda in a district willing to pack 45 students in an English class. Or that students' rights matter much to union leaders whose primary goal is to protect teachers' jobs.
I was trying to figure out how a brief teacher walkout in a cash-strapped district where almost half the students drop out was supposed to help the children. So I asked UTLA Vice President Joshua Pechthalt to sit down at lunch and explain it to me.
Pechthalt and I go back 20 years, to when I was a rookie education reporter and he was a rabble-rousing history teacher at Manual Arts High, leading a radical faction of the teachers union. It was clear as we talked that he hasn't lost his passion for teaching or his vision of education as a social justice issue.
The current dust-up over budget cuts is not just a fiscal battle, but a philosophical one, he said. The issue is not just about how to spend the district's federal stimulus funds. It's also about how big of a sacrifice teachers will be asked to make.
Cortines wants to spread the stimulus money over two years to protect schools from gut-wrenching cuts down the line. The school board has approved laying off more than 2,000 teachers with less than two years on the job. Cortines plans to let individual campuses decide whether to use their stimulus grants to rehire lost teachers or to make up for other cutbacks.
The union wants all the available money used this year, and only for teachers' salaries. Schools would not have the flexibility to use it for anything else; that would keep class sizes from rising. If more cuts are needed next year, union leaders propose the district raise money by asking voters to approve a parcel tax.
It's an odd stance for a union that has spent years touting local control and decrying the fat cats' top-down decisions.
And it seems awfully optimistic to expect voters -- many struggling to keep their own jobs and homes -- to agree to buck up a district that was flush enough last year to approve a $500,000 golden parachute for a deposed superintendent.
Pechthalt told me the battle is not just over teachers' jobs, but the long-term health of the city's schools and students. "The fight to improve public education has to be waged in the streets," he said.
The sit-ins, walkouts and staged arrests are little more than political theater. "If you're fighting for something, people have to know 'these people are going a little crazy,' " said Pechthalt, who was among the 39 teachers arrested Friday.
"The single most powerful weapon any worker has is 'I'm not going to work today,' " he said.
I get why classroom teachers are angry, why 70% of union teachers voted to support the leadership's plan to strike.
I spent Friday morning outside John F. Kennedy High in Granada Hills, where 40 teachers were quietly passing out fliers and holding signs. Test scores there have been rising. Now teachers said they are hearing rumors that counselors' caseloads will rise from 400 to 550 students next fall, ninth-grade math will be eliminated and English classes now capped at 20 will have as many as 43 students.
That means 60 more English students over the course of a day.
"I try to give them challenging assignments, a lot of practice and essays," said English teacher Sophia Petkovic. "But there is no way I can give them enough attention with a class that crowded."
There was no chanting or fist-waving on the sidewalk outside Kennedy.
Teachers made a point of praising their principal. Students stood with them holding "Save Our Teachers" signs. Parents drove by and honked in support.
No one there knew that district and union officials had met earlier this week and worked out a potential compromise that could save teachers' jobs.
So wait. If they already had a tentative plan, why did we need all this street drama?
But that's the state of labor relations in this district, stuck in a time warp of posturing and muscle-flexing that demeans well-meaning people on both sides.
It all produced a signature moment on Friday. Union President Duffy praised protesting teachers waiting to be arrested outside the district's headquarters, telling them how proud he was of their act of civil disobedience.
And I can't help but wonder what that says to the teachers who filed into their classrooms when the bell rang Friday morning, and to the students waiting there for them.