A bad deal for LA teachers

December 6, 2011

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) President Warren Fletcher has reached a tentative agreement (TA) with Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Superintendent John Deasy that bars the closure of schools or the opening of new charters.

The deal comes more than a year after LAUSD launched its Public School Choice initiative, a program that mandated that schools either carry out their own reforms or be handed over to charter operators. In response, UTLA worked with parents and community organizations to draft their own school reform plans and keep most charters out.

While the Deasy-Fletcher agreement includes a moratorium on charters, it is based on LAUSD's assumption that teachers at individual schools will be pressured to vote for changes that will override the current union contract in the name of "reform." This would endanger seniority-based job security and trigger a race to the bottom as principals demand concessions on a school-by-school basis.

Gillian Russom, UTLA's East Area chair, is working with other union activists to oppose the deal. Below, in edited form, is her contribution to an online discussion of UTLA's Progressive Educators for Action caucus.

I DON'T think this is an easy decision, and I think we need to see that a three-year reprieve from charter giveaways that preserves member jobs is a significant concession from the District. That said, I very much agree with the points that José Lara and the Central Area steering committee raised [in opposition], and I would like to add some reasons why I can't support this agreement.

A number of colleagues have argued that we must support this TA to save otherwise threatened schools, and thus positions and school communities, a terribly important concern. And clearly, this agreement may, at one level, protect UTLA bargaining unit positions for the current round of what would have been status-quo public school choice (PSC) competition, and it may do so for the next several years, depending on what charters would have been able to do. (Focus schools [LAUSD's term for underperforming schools], by the way, can still be reconstituted under this agreement if they fail to meet "benchmarks.")

UTLA teachers protest layoffs, budget cuts and school closures
UTLA teachers protest layoffs, budget cuts and school closures (Paul Bailey)

The fact that this limited assurance for a relatively small number of schools comes at the cost of eroding the bargaining and fighting power of our entire union should give us pause. How many more Reductions In Force [RIFs, or layoffs], how much more leverage to push out displaced teachers, how many more class size increases, how much more cherry-picking teachers and divisiveness and demoralization will this agreement allow the district and site administrators to push on us?

The district is promising us in-district solutions in exchange for a bonanza of perhaps hundreds of different, unregulated thin contracts, with all the danger to our members and our kids that these circumstances entail.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's "reform" agenda for public schools, represented locally by Deasy and the PSC process, has never been just about privatization. It has been about using competition from charters to discipline the rest of our schools into accepting more "flexible" labor policies. Duncan recently stated that he's more interested in this "flexibility" than in charters per se. That doesn't mean the charter threat is going away, but that we have to understand how it's being used to serve broader union-busting goals.

IT SEEMS to me that Deasy is very happy with this agreement because it is precisely the kind of "grand bargain" he wanted (and that we said we would not go for)--an agreement that will apply to ALL our schools within the next three years and will allow for waiving significant parts of our contract on a school-by-school basis.

In the "Local Initiative School" model, there are a number of pieces of the contract that UTLA has fought hard for over the years--including the methods for selecting department chairs and out-of-classroom personnel, assignment of teachers to classes, the length of the school day, and the way school budgets are controlled--that individual schools can waive without oversight.

We should think very carefully about what it will mean to lose these parts of the contract, school-by-school. A big reason why we have a collective bargaining agreement is that teachers in individual schools aren't strong enough to fight for their rights alone.

Perhaps my biggest concern is that this agreement implicates us in deepening a school "reform" process that is firmly controlled by Deasy himself, rather than putting out our own broad vision of the kind of process that would bring social justice to our schools. Deasy's model of "reform" involves teams of overworked teachers frantically writing plans in a short period of time; no real process for broad participation and engagement by parents; and of course ignores the question of resources.

As a union, we have talked about school governance. But we have not had a discussion and public campaign about what kind of curriculum, assessments, community engagement and teacher collaboration are needed for true and positive school transformation. Instead, this agreement will take tremendous capacity as we attempt to support dozens, perhaps eventually hundreds, of separate schools in the plan-writing process and in selecting what parts of the contract to waive.

Meanwhile, we have not explained to the public why our contract is not the obstacle to improving schools. In this context, most of our "organizing" energies will be focused on the relatively narrow task of administering under-resourced plans at perhaps hundreds of sites.

I know some people are asking, how can I oppose this agreement when I supported raising the cap on pilot schools [another school-autonomy reform program based on "thin" union contracts] for schools in PSC 1.0? It's an important question, which I will try to answer. (An equally important and fair question, however, is to ask how people who voted "no" on the pilot school memorandum of understanding in 2009 because of the threat of thin contracts, and despite the imminent and certain threat to Torres High School from charters, are willing to vote "yes" on this much broader, uncapped thin contract agreement now.)

In PSC 1.0, we had teams of teachers who had already written plans for pilots, and were faced with direct competition from charters. Several of these teacher teams were at least connected to the union, and included some union activists, who organized and came to UTLA House of Representatives meetings to ask for our support.

In my area, there were three charters bidding for Torres High School, a school that the community had fought long and hard for. And the school board even initially decided to give two of the five small schools to charters. If we had not raised the cap on pilot schools at that time, the pilot teams would have been disqualified, and that school would certainly be a charter today.

There are two important differences with this new agreement. First of all, the scope is far broader, because it allows for an unlimited number of pilots to be created. Second, we have the benefit of more experience from pilot schools. The UTLA committee of pilot school teachers itself is recommending that the cap on pilots not be raised, because promised autonomies have not been granted, and administrators are taking advantage of their ability to impose increased duties on teachers.

I still think a limited expansion of pilots that directly prevented specific charter takeovers was worth it at the time. An unlimited expansion of pilots--when we don't even have specific teacher teams asking for that right now--is tremendously different.

I'm not confident that the "Local Options Oversight Council" composed of two UTLA reps, two administrators, and two district reps will be a sufficient check on abuses at the large number of pilots that will result from this agreement. Again, the three-year ban on charter takeovers is very significant, but we have to weigh the tradeoffs. This agreement opens up a whole universe of contract changes, with no organizing strategy attached.

MY WORRY is that Deasy, and even some sections of UTLA leadership, see this as the first step in a new era of "collaboration" and "teamwork" with our union--at precisely the time that we should be building a militant fight back contract campaign.

This worry is somewhat confirmed by the "Statement of Joint Interest" that UTLA is considering signing with the district (it was distributed to the UTLA Board on November 30), and the number of Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) charges that we are withdrawing as part of this deal. It is almost as if we are giving up any real hope of publicly opposing LAUSD's agenda and counterposing a sharply different course for ourselves and our communities in favor of the false hope of "working together to serve kids."

The "Statement of Joint Interest" says that UTLA and the district agree that RIFs and evaluation are the next two issues we should be negotiating around, and that both parties have significant areas of agreement on these issues. While I agree that these are the two most important issues for us right now, we need a public campaign around our goals for these things before we say that we have significant "joint interest" with the district, and before we drop our PERB charge over the evaluations pilot program.

I believe that our differences with the district are more important than our "joint interest" right now. The district's plan for dealing with RIFs is to make us take more cuts, and their plan for evaluations is that they should include standardized test scores.

Finally, there is the question of what will happen if we vote this agreement down. Certainly, we will not be in a great position. We would return to the original PSC process, with possibly more schools opened up for giveaway, and the media would certainly attack us as being "anti-reform."

The only answer for improving our position is that we would then need to do some real organizing, with an organizing department in full swing and serious strategic planning undergirding our organizing. We would need a road show to go to community groups and churches to explain what our plans for real reform were, and why the district's unfunded mandates for flexibility and decentralization would actually harm kids in most cases.

While that kind of organizing project would be a big challenge, I feel that's the course we need to take if we want to stop the attacks on our schools.

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