Alex Caputo-Pearl was a young, activist teacher when he helped lead the Bus Riders Union, co-founded a group to organize against the growing influence of standardized testing and helped start a bloc within the union to push for liberal-leaning issues.
Strikingly little has changed about the veteran social studies instructor, what he’s fighting for, and how he intends to go about it.
Except now he is taking that mission to the top job of the teachers union for the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system.
Caputo-Pearl, 45, won a resounding victory Tuesday, winning 80% of the United Teachers Los Angeles vote in a runoff against one-term incumbent President Warren Fletcher. In the mail-in election, 7,235 members cast ballots, fewer than one in four of those eligible to vote.
The incoming leader vowed to make the union a force for advancing education reforms favored by teachers in the school district.
“I’ve always walked the walk on this,” said Caputo-Pearl. “The union needs to be a real leader in taking control of school improvement and really working with members and the community around how to improve schools.”
Caputo-Pearl and Fletcher differ little on education policy.
Fletcher, too, has criticized standardized testing. Also, both are opposed to evaluating teachers based in part on their students’ test scores. And both criticize the overall direction of schools Supt. John Deasy.
Both have made limited headway.
Fletcher spent his three-year term on the defensive — working to limit layoffs and salary cuts while trying to block aggressive moves by Deasy, who overhauled teacher evaluations to include test scores. Deasy also has tried, less successfully so far, to limit teacher job protections in the name of improving the workforce.
Caputo-Pearl was on the receiving end of one Deasy strategy: replacing the staff at low-performing schools.
Caputo-Pearl lost his job at Crenshaw High, after devoting his career to the campus and surrounding neighborhood. This year, he taught at Frida Kahlo High School.
His tenure at Crenshaw offers some insight into his leadership.
Students appreciated him as a strong teacher who motivated many into social activism. Several times, Caputo-Pearl outmaneuvered district officials, as when he helped students, parents and teachers fight off attempts to bring a charter school to the campus. (Charters are independently run public schools; most are nonunion.)
Caputo-Pearl was most proud, in recent years, of helping develop a homegrown improvement plan that won support from foundations and USC. Rather than replacing teachers, the faculty committed to improving skills and collaborating, while also working with students to make key decisions and incorporate an understanding and celebration of students’ cultures.
But Deasy concluded that the approach failed to raise achievement. Caputo-Pearl countered that district decisions perpetually undermined efforts.
Another issue has arisen between them: Deasy said recently that Caputo-Pearl faces possible discipline for campaigning during school hours.
Caputo-Pearl said he’ll look beyond these conflicts to work with the superintendent.
And, Deasy said Tuesday that he called to congratulate Caputo-Pearl. “I look forward to a positive and collaborative working relationship,” the superintendent said.
The new leader’s battle scars are a selling point for many teachers.
“I respect a man who has been stomped on and still has the stamina and courage to speak truth to power,” said Stephane Joyet, a French teacher at the Cortines School of Visual & Performing Arts.
To best Fletcher, Caputo-Pearl used organizing skills honed by decades of activism. He was an early leader of the Bus Riders Union in the 1990s, as he was beginning his teaching career. The group he helped start, the Coalition for Educational Justice, was active on community issues and left-of-center politics. Within the union, he co-founded Progressive Educators for Action.
For the election he assembled a slate, called Union Power, and hustled to win support from about 250 campus union leaders. The slate swept districtwide union officer positions.
The union has 35,000 members, including guidance counselors, school psychologists and nurses.
Some critics suggest that the union leadership does not speak for many within its ranks, those who support Deasy’s efforts, for example, or younger teachers hurt by seniority-based layoffs.
“A lot of teachers didn’t have a problem with being evaluated on their performance,” including test scores, said Sandy Mendoza, advocacy manager for the locally based group Families in Schools, which has strongly backed Deasy.
But many teachers asserted that Fletcher had not been militant enough.
The union ranks suffered job losses and salary reductions during the recent recession. Teachers have complained of facing increasing demands for higher scores even as they confronted larger classes and less support from counselors, custodians and others.
“Fletcher was a good guy but obviously no threat to Deasy,” said Paul Duke, a physical education teacher at University High School. Caputo-Pearl “comes across as a tougher guy who won’t wilt in front of Deasy.”
Caputo-Pearl’s greatest challenges will include building a broader community alliance. Deasy has captured the favor of some grass-roots organizations as well as the civic elite, leaving the union often cast as an obstacle to positive change.
The union leadership often seems “so bombastic and extreme,” said Paul Robak, a Rancho Palos Verdes parent. “It gives parents overall a bad impression of the teachers union.”
Caputo-Pearl said such views are misperceptions.
Teachers are in accord “with parents on at least 80% of things,” he said. “They want smaller class sizes, stable schools with teachers and programs that actually stick around. They want music, art and clean, safe schools.”