A Bizarro World where teachers are to blame

January 6, 2011

Teacher and UTLA member Randy Childs explains why the supposedly pro-union LA mayor has jumped on the bandwagon in scapegoating teachers unions.

SPEAKING IN December before the influential Public Policy Institute of California in Sacramento, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa launched a salvo of incendiary accusations against United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the largest local teachers union in the state, representing about 40,000 teachers and health and human services workers.

In his speech and a corresponding article on the Huffington Post Web site, Villaraigosa called UTLA an "unwavering roadblock to reform," the "loudest opponent and the largest obstacle to creating quality schools" and the "most powerful defenders of the unacceptable status quo."

These charges are all despicable lies. Unfortunately, this type of rhetoric is all too common in current debates around public education. A nationwide chorus of politicians, business executives and billionaires who like to be called "philanthropists" are repeating the same talking points ad nauseam in their campaign to remake public schools in the image and interests of Corporate America.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

In what education historian Diane Ravitch calls the "dominant narrative" of education reform today, buzzwords like "accountability" and "choice" are used as window dressing for a concerted effort to impose corporate management techniques and market-style competition on the education system. Teachers unions and anyone else who dares to disagree with this agenda are invariably accused of being "against reform" and "for the status quo."

These allegations come straight from Bizarro World, where the richest and most powerful people in the U.S. are cast as a plucky band of selfless rebels fighting for the civil rights of poor children of color, while dedicated and overworked teachers who can't afford a house or pay for their children's college tuition are imagined to be the greedy overlords of the old order.

However, in the real world, UTLA fiercely supports--and has spent years fighting for--a whole array of school reforms that support student learning and would tremendously shake up the actual status quo in education.

We have advocated for smaller class sizes, more art and music education, democratic and collaborative school governance models, progressive taxation to increase school funding, reducing the onerous burden of standardized testing, an end to scripted curricula imposed by LAUSD, and even overhauling teacher evaluations with mentoring and peer review, just to list a few.

Such reforms would dramatically improve student learning, be easy to implement with adequate school funding, and even make the process of teaching and learning more enjoyable for all. The mayor and his corporate ilk know all this--but they don't want you to know it. That's because these genuine reforms would also empower teachers, parents and students at the expense of the LAUSD administration, fellow politicians, and big business.

Meanwhile, the "reforms" that Villaraigosa advocated in his speech are at the opposite end of the spectrum. They include increasing the number of privately managed charter schools, closing or reconstituting "failing" schools, lengthening the probationary period for new teachers from two years to four years, eliminating seniority protections for teachers in job placements and layoffs, using students' standardized test scores to evaluate teachers and as the basis for a "merit" pay system, and making it easier to fire teachers.

Each one of these measures weakens teachers' rights at the workplace, forces students further into the restrictive box of standardized "bubble" tests, and increases the leverage of the rich and powerful to force public education to serve their own narrow interests.

Numerous education studies have failed to find any consistent positive effect on student learning caused by any of these "reforms." So it is only natural and completely justified for this business-driven campaign to meet resistance from teachers and our unions. In fact, we need that resistance to become stronger and better organized.

VILLARAIGOSA'S ATTACKS on UTLA are even more noteworthy when you consider how hard he works to pose as a progressive, pro-union Democrat and man of the people. It's no secret that he was, ironically, a staff organizer for UTLA in the 1980s, and he repeatedly emphasizes his distant past as a union organizer in order to gain credibility with working-class audiences.

"I don't have an anti-union bone in my body," he claimed in his Huffington Post piece. Which only begs the question: If he's so pro-union, why is he spreading lies to make teacher unions the scapegoat for the problems in public education? And if he's such a friend of the unions, why are almost all of his "reform" proposals designed to strengthen the hand of management over labor?

In his speech, Villaraigosa started with some liberal-sounding critiques of the state of education in California, without offering any specific explanations about why these problems exist. He said that California spends $2,400 less per pupil on education than the national average, our schools are becoming increasingly segregated, and Black and Latino students are vastly underrepresented in California's state universities.

We know what caused these outrages. Thirty years of tax cuts for the rich have starved our schools of the resources they need. School integration has been all but abandoned by the powers that be. Racial discrimination in jobs and housing continues to be a daily fact of life in the U.S. California's universities have essentially ended affirmative action, and tuition has skyrocketed in the last 20 years, steadily pushing more and more students of color out of the system.

But Villaraigosa didn't say a word about any of this. Instead, he posed the rhetorical question, "What is stopping us from changing direction?" Then he launched into his tirade against UTLA.

THIS MAKES Villaraigosa's rhetoric even more dangerous. If a "pro-union" liberal like him thinks unions are to blame, then it must be true, right? By shedding crocodile tears about the plight of students of color, and then calling UTLA the biggest obstacle to improving their education, he makes his strategy clear--divide students and parents against teachers, and manipulate the public into acquiescing to Corporate America's war on teacher unions.

"I knew it would cause a firestorm," Villaraigosa bragged to the Los Angeles Times about his speech. "I knew that if I said it at one of my partnership schools, it would go unnoticed."

By "my partnership schools," Villaraigosa is referring to the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools (PLAS), an independent nonprofit agency affiliated with the mayor's office that oversees 21 schools in collaboration with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). These schools are often erroneously reported as being "under mayoral control," where in actuality PLAS has simply replaced LAUSD's reviled "mini-district" offices as the middle layer of LAUSD bureaucracy. Naturally, the only thing Villaraigosa himself does at any PLAS school is pose for photographs at staged media events.

I teach at Roosevelt High School, the mayor's alma mater and part of PLAS. If he had given that disgusting speech at Roosevelt, it would not have gone "unnoticed." He would have been booed and heckled.

Unfortunately, we didn't have the opportunity to challenge Villaraigosa's attacks in person. But teachers at PLAS schools have organized a response to his lies. Seventeen UTLA representatives at PLAS schools have signed an open letter to the mayor, soon to be published by the Los Angeles Times, that challenges his anti-union rhetoric and points out, among other things, numerous examples of reforms that are being implemented right now by UTLA members at "his" schools.

In order to win true, beneficial reforms for our schools, teachers and our unions need to be ready to challenge the dishonest attacks from politicians like Villaraigosa. Moreover, we will need to proudly stand as an "unwavering roadblock" to the insidious corporate-style restructuring looming over our schools.

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