Teachers Union Leaders Oppose Reform Plan
Leaders of the Los Angeles teachers union have voted to oppose an ambitious plan to reform the Los Angeles Unified School District unless it is modified to strengthen teachers’ power--a requirement that would undermine the basic premise of the restructuring blueprint.
The vote last week by the union’s House of Representatives presents a formidable obstacle to the long-term prospects for overhauling the beleaguered school district and is a blow to United Teachers-Los Angeles President Helen Bernstein--one of the chief architects of the reform plan.
That plan--advanced by LEARN (Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now) and approved by the school board for implementation this fall--would give school principals authority over virtually every aspect of campus management. It is seen by many as the last hope for survival of a district threatened by a vigorous campaign to dismantle it and a ballot initiative for private school vouchers that would deprive it of needed funds.
But teachers union leaders say the plan conflicts with portions of their contract that give teachers more control over such things as class and grade-level assignments.
The school board unanimously ratified the teachers’ contract Monday, capping seven months of labor strife that brought the district to the brink of a potentially devastating teachers strike and bankruptcy.
“Everyone knows this is a terrible contract, and the mere fact we are finally going to sign off on it after a real tumultuous process does not give us anything positive to hold onto,” said board member Warren Furutani. “At best we can use it as a turning point for this district.”
The union motion to withhold support from the LEARN plan was sponsored by former UTLA President Wayne Johnson and approved Wednesday by the union’s chief governing body by a margin of 2 to 1.
At that same meeting, union leaders also rejected a motion by Bernstein to delay taking a position on the LEARN plan and let individual campuses decide whether to participate.
Johnson said his motion was the first volley in a campaign to either force LEARN backers to scrap provisions of the plan that infringe on teacher protections the union has previously negotiated or persuade the district’s 30,000 teachers to boycott the reform program altogether.
“I’ve spent 25 years of my life in UTLA fighting to implement teacher protections and rights, and I’m not going to give them away just because something is called a reform,” said Johnson, who presided over the union for six years. He led the union during its nine-day strike in 1989 that won teachers 8% annual raises and a groundbreaking campus power-sharing plan.
“Our intent is to oppose this until there are changes made,” he said. “As it exists right now, it’s unacceptable. It requires that the union contract be waived and makes the principal the czar of the school. If you do that, you’ve wiped out all teacher protections and rights.”
LEARN President Mike Roos said the union’s position does not imperil the first year of the program, which will begin with 38 schools this fall.
But it does threaten the long-term success of the reform program, which was developed over the past two years by the LEARN coalition of more then 600 business leaders, educators, parents and community activists.
“LEARN cannot succeed long-term without the support of teachers,” said Roos, who is in the midst of trying to raise private donations toward the estimated $3-million cost of the program’s first year.
District officials said they intend to begin implementing the first phase of the LEARN plan Thursday by selecting the first 38 schools to participate from a group of 100 volunteers.
Supt. Sid Thompson said he fully supports the LEARN plan and called the union’s position “a big hurt that throws up a roadblock” to full implementation. “I’m sure it sends, at a minimum, a mixed message to the teaching corps,” he said. “You can’t begin the whole process by saying ‘We shouldn’t play,’ because if you don’t play you can’t be a part of any of it.”
School board member Roberta Weintraub said the union’s objection to LEARN only days before the first phase is to be launched is certain to anger the influential business leaders whose financial support has sustained the LEARN effort.
The LEARN program has been hailed nationally as a model of school reform, in part because it links businesses, the educational Establishment, labor unions and parents in an effort to improve public schools.
“Never before in the history of this district has business been so committed to schools by turning over hundreds and thousands of dollars,” Weintraub said. “They are now going to say this is a bad place for business, this district doesn’t warrant our support. They are going to pull out.
“I would certainly hope that the union will re-evaluate the situation,” Weintraub said.
Bernstein said she will push for another vote on the issue when union representatives meet later this month. “This is only union policy until . . . someone makes a new policy,” she said.
Last week’s vote by union leaders does not mean that teachers oppose the LEARN reforms, the UTLA chief said Monday, but reflects a deepening anger over protracted labor battles with the district.
Teachers voted to walk off the job in February when the union and district could not agree on contract terms. The strike was averted when Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) intervened and forged a contract that reduced a cumulative 12% pay cut to 10%. But delays by the district in formally approving that deal led angry teachers to vote again last week to strike if the contract is not approved by this Friday.
“This is the first union backlash, and a justified backlash, against everything we have been through with our contract,” Bernstein said. “It was not a vote against reform and progress. It was a vote against the district and the deep distrust teachers have of anything the district promotes.”
Other teachers say the vote may reflect a growing split between the union’s top tier of paid leaders, who have embraced the reforms, and rank-and-file teachers, who worry that the LEARN plan will require them to work harder for less pay, expand principals’ rights at their expense and weaken job security.
“I think some people would say this is a showdown between Wayne and Helen, but I don’t think it is,” said David Tokofsky, a Marshall High social studies teacher who was on two of LEARN’s six task forces.
“I think it reflects teachers’ concerns that there just isn’t enough here to guarantee teachers’ rights . . . and that it transfers power back to principals in a way that would be seen as undoing the things we won in 1989. It just doesn’t seem to guarantee basic trade union concepts of worker protection.”
Former UTLA leader Johnson said he sponsored his motion in response to calls from teachers asking him to help mobilize opposition to the reforms. Campus representatives in three of the union’s eight regions--the East San Fernando Valley, the South and the Westside--had already voted to oppose the plan, he said.
“I think Helen has done a good job (as union president) and I hate to disagree with her publicly, but this issue is just too big and it’s a killer for UTLA. I just can’t sit by and watch this happen.”