LOS ANGELES schools have a few things going for them today that they didn’t have a couple of years ago: a new superintendent with a fresh eye. A new school board majority eager to make changes, aligned with a (relatively) new mayor who vows to renovate the halls of education.
At this point, the most regressive force in the L.A. Unified School District is its teachers union, which has wielded inordinate power via donations to school board campaigns. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s fundraising ability, though, was more than a match for United Teachers Los Angeles in Tuesday’s election. So, for the first time in decades, UTLA might be ripe for an overhaul.
And an overhaul it needs. The leadership of the union is out of sync with the realities of modern education and the priorities of many of its members. The post-World War II system of tenure, rigid work rules and budget-breaking pensions have stultified schools. Today’s young teachers are more interested in good wages, upward mobility and affordable housing than in lifetime sinecures and fat retirement packages.
Unions don’t have to be dinosaurs, and not all are. The New York City teachers union supported mayoral control of the schools there, and it is calling for new ways to draw good teachers to troubled schools. On Friday, the New York union’s president, Randi Weingarten, will be visiting Green Dot charter schools with an eye to possible partnerships. There can be no more important job for the new L.A. board and the mayor than to push UTLA in the same direction.
They can start by not only approving, but endorsing, the Green Dot takeover of Locke High School. Last week, a majority of tenured teachers at the low-performing school signed a petition favoring the move — thus showing that they are perfectly willing to loosen work rules and toss tenure out the classroom window if it means a safer and more vibrant campus.
In the next months comes a key opportunity, with each side able to reopen four provisions of the UTLA contract. The board should be ambitious. It needs more flexible work hours and duties — such as teachers supervising kids during lunch hours and after school to make campuses safer. It should push to soften tenure rules so that bad teachers are easier to fire and good teachers are easier to reward, and insist that students’ needs, not teachers’ seniority, guide job assignments.
There’s much more to fix than one negotiation can cover. But the board and mayor should make clear that the union can either help move L.A. schools forward or face more takeovers and fewer union jobs.
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