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L.A. Reform Plan Runs Up Against A Divided Union

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LOS ANGELES--Throughout this school year, as the Los Angeles Unified School District has reeled from one financial and labor crisis to the next, many people here have held out hope for something better.

Hope, in fact, is the word most often mentioned in connection with "the LEARN plan,'' a vision for decentralizing this mammoth district that is now being put in place in 36 schools.

The plan is widely considered to be the beleaguered district's best, if not only, chance for improving its schools. It was cobbled together over two years of debate by the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, or LEARN, a coalition of 625 representatives of education, business, civic, and church groups from throughout this 700-square-mile district.

But now the plan has run into unexpected opposition from a vital constituency: the district's teachers.

In late April, just as the Los Angeles board of education was preparing to select the first LEARN schools, the 200-member House of Representatives of the United Teachers-Los Angeles voted to withhold its support unless the plan specifically incorporated references to teachers' rights and due-process protections.

The motion against the LEARN plan was made by Wayne Johnson, the former president of the U.T.L.A. who led the union on a bitter strike in 1989.

And it prevailed despite the involvement in the LEARN deliberations of Helen F. Bernstein, Mr. Johnson's successor as the union's president, and about 80 teachers who sat on the LEARN group's seven task forces.

The motion, which passed the union's policymaking body by a 2-to-1 margin, has dismayed proponents of LEARN, who argue that the district has no choice but to abandon its centralized management procedures.

The vote also has thrown into sharp relief the internal debate in the union over whether and how to modify the work rules and procedures that constrain schools, but have provided security and a level playing field for teachers. Union members in big-city districts across the country are grappling with these same questions. (See Education Week, Dec. 9, 1992.)

"The union is now very divided between those in favor of deregulation and those who cling to protections,'' said Mark Slavkin, a member of the school board.

'The Worst Times'

The stakes are particularly high here, however, because the 640,000-student district--the nation's second-largest--is threatened by two powerful outside forces. One is a movement to break the Los Angeles Unified School District into about seven smaller units, which supporters of the move say would be more manageable and responsive to parents and taxpayers.

The other is the upcoming November ballot question that would give state residents vouchers to send their children to private or parochial schools.

Although the founders of LEARN did not intend for it to be this way, their reform plan is now seen as the only way to stave off such measures.

"We think this is the one chance to save the schools in Los Angeles,'' said Robert E. Wycoff, the chairman of LEARN and the president and chief operating officer of the Atlantic Richfield Company here. "But at the same time we are talking about revolutionary change, we have been going through the worst times the district has ever seen.''

Teachers here point out that they were forced to take a 10 percent pay cut this year and have endured large classes, meager supplies, and a bitter climate of distrust for too long.

"Teachers in Los Angeles are angry to a level of danger to their own mental health,'' Ms. Bernstein, the U.T.L.A. president, said. "They are either demoralized and withdrawn, or if they are still awake and alert, they are so angry and they have no outlet.''

Many people here say they are sympathetic to the plight of the district's 30,000 teachers. But they also share the view of one observer who was asked about the impact of the union's vote on the public's perception of its members.

He answered by pretending to hold a gun to his own head, and then pulled the trigger.

'Don't Have a Clue'

After the vote by the union panel, Ms. Bernstein created a task force to discuss members' concerns. The group met with representatives of LEARN and has recommended that the union give its "total support'' to the schools that have voted to implement LEARN's recommendations.

Union leaders also have written letters and issued point-by-point bulletins rebutting the charges that have been made against LEARN.

LEARN supporters now express hope that they have put teachers' fears to rest. But the union's House of Representatives has not yet voted to reverse its policy.

Most teachers, Ms. Bernstein and others said, have simply not read the LEARN documents. They cover seven areas: student learning and assessment, governance and accountability, professional development, parent involvement, social services, school-to-work transitions, and finance. The debate here has centered on the governance and accountability recommendations.

"The average teacher in a school doesn't have a clue what LEARN is,'' Ms. Bernstein asserted. "What they see is two leaders disagreeing, and I don't think they like that. We should not be having this discussion in the press.''

But Mr. Johnson, the former union president, who is now a teacher at Hamilton High School here and a member of the California Teachers Association's board of directors, argued that the LEARN recommendations would result in "a tremendous erosion of teachers' rights and protections.''

By stressing that principals will be in charge of schools, the plan also represents "a giant step backward'' from the 1989 teachers' contract that settled the strike, Mr. Johnson said. That agreement gave teachers a voice in making decisions on a limited number of issues through a governance council.

Under the LEARN plan, the principal will be the "school decision leader'' and will be expected to work collaboratively. But the plan does not specify a formula for including all the school's constituencies.

Mr. Johnson and others say this "principal-in-charge'' model is a slap in the face to teachers, but others disagree.

"The plain fact of the matter is that in most schools, principals already have complete power,'' said Day Higuchi, a vice president of the teachers' union.

The accountability system calls for an annual attitude survey of a school's staff, teachers, parents, and students to provide a basis for evaluating the school and the principal. If more than half of the parents, plus more than half of the teachers or the classified staff members, rate the principal unsatisfactory on the survey, the principal will be transferred, the LEARN documents say.

Brian Wallace, a Spanish teacher at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles and a union representative, called the LEARN plan a "corporate model'' that ignores the real problem here: a lack of money.

The corporations that are pushing the LEARN reforms, Mr. Wallace said, "are in favor of any kind of reform except fiscal reform.''

Fear of Waivers

The LEARN critics also doubt that the district will follow through with the administrative reforms needed to make the LEARN plan work.

"The managerial system isn't going to change,'' Mr. Johnson said. "The principals are going to be appointed by the same people and judged by the same people. For them to say 'O.K., now they're going to be held accountable' is fallacious.''

Mr. Johnson and other LEARN opponents have been circulating fliers charging that LEARN would remove teachers' contract protections and job security and that the reform effort contains a "secret plan to remove teachers.''

These assertions, LEARN officials say, are simply unfounded. They point out that the teachers' contract is a legal document and that Los Angeles teachers also are protected by state law.

"These concerns are misplaced and misguided,'' said Mike Roos, the former California assemblyman who is the president of LEARN. "It's a very dangerous strategy for anybody to be seen as a major obstacle to something positive happening.''

Schools that volunteer to participate in the LEARN reforms will be able to ask for waivers from labor contracts. Three-quarters of the school's teachers must vote in favor of joining LEARN.

The process for waiving the contract in LEARN schools would be the same as that now used in the Los Angeles schools that are operating under school-based management. Two-thirds of the teachers in a school would have to agree to the waiver, and the principal, parents, classified staff, and others would also have to reach consensus on the matter.

Some of the teachers who are uneasy about LEARN fear that this process could be used to make them give up their due-process rights; Mr. Johnson said he fears the principal or the classified staff in a LEARN school could get together and waive the teaching contract.

But Ms. Bernstein said such apprehensions are the result of "tremendous misunderstanding and misinformation.''

During the union's debate on the issue, she said, "there was a sense that the leadership has to protect teachers from themselves. Up until that point, I could understand [opponents' concerns], but I truly believe in site-based management, and teachers waiving their own contract are not going to do stupid things.''

Scare Tactics?

Supporters of LEARN charge that by fanning such suspicions, Mr. Johnson is engaging in scare tactics. They accuse him of attempting to further his own political career in the California Teachers Association by stirring up trouble in Los Angeles.

"Wayne is trying to regain a position of power,'' said John W. Mack, the president of the Los Angeles Urban League and a member of LEARN's core working group. "LEARN is the best thing going for [teachers] in terms of saving their own profession. He's about to shoot himself in the foot.''

Mr. Johnson counters that igniting an "in-house battle'' is not likely to win him friends in California's labor circles.

One thing the dispute has done, it seems, is to provide more ammunition for the numerous critics of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The district is widely regarded as an unwieldy, poorly managed bureaucracy rife with politics and hostile to the needs and wishes of the students, parents, and taxpayers it is supposed to serve.

Ms. Bernstein, who is regarded as a key player in the LEARN movement, is well aware of that image.

Ironically, some of the parent and community activists who sat on the LEARN task forces did not want Ms. Bernstein and other union members to be involved in the effort. The union members were seen as part of the problem with the district, not part of the solution.

"People said the task forces were stacked with the teachers' union,'' Mr. Mack recalled. "But the reality is, they showed up.''

Since the vote by the union's policymaking body, said Mr. Higuchi, the U.T.L.A. has been "assaulted on all sides for having a schizophrenic position on LEARN.''

Joseph Alibrandi, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Whittaker Corporation and a former LEARN board member, is now working to support the state voucher amendment. After the union's vote, he wrote in The Los Angeles Times that the "reason to hope'' embodied in LEARN was endangered by the teachers' reaction.

"As long as the system continues as a special-interest monopoly,'' he wrote, "the system's priorities will be pay, pensions, and power for bureaucrats and unions instead of learning, values, and accountability to students and their parents.''

And David A. Roberti, the state Senate president pro tempore who is pushing for the breakup of the district, believes that the LEARN reforms are unlikely to work because of the union's resistance, providing further evidence that the district needs to be dismantled, his spokesman said.

Mr. Higuchi said the "industrial-union mentality'' exhibited by Mr. Johnson and like-minded teachers was valid when unions were fighting "rapacious, exploitive capitalists.''

"But [now] we are talking about a tax-supported institution that is demonstrably out of money and needs to change,'' he said, "and to say we refuse to work with anyone is irresponsible. It's also foolish.''

'We Don't Own the Schools'

Indeed, the question of whose needs should come first in the schools here is a fundamental issue in the current debate.

"We don't own the schools,'' Ms. Bernstein said. "We are one player.''

But some teachers, pointing out that their salaries have been cut and their working conditions have deteriorated, say they cannot sign on to a reform plan that will now require more work.

"The last thing you can do is make people do something they don't want to, especially teachers,'' said Cathy Armstrong, a teacher at Jefferson High School in South Central Los Angeles. "At the school level, we have been pushed and shoved and asked to do this and that, and people are tired.''

Supporters of LEARN point out that the group, made up of all types of people from throughout this racially and ethnically polarized city, achieved remarkable consensus that cannot be ignored by just one constituency. Teachers, they say, are not the only people being asked to change.

"Everybody gave up something in this document,'' Mr. Roos said.

While other reform plans here "leapt out of the minds of leading bureaucrats or were a contrivance of labor negotiations,'' he added, LEARN was "genuinely the leadership of this community coming together and hammering out a framework to improve education.''

At the root of some teachers' mistrust of the LEARN initiative are years of bad feeling between teachers and administrators.

"We figured if we buy into the package, it will be the same 'bait and switch' we see with the board constantly,'' said Sheila Roth, an English teacher at San Fernando High School. "They all have political agendas. If we're going to take on a reform--and you'd have to be an idiot not to know we need it--then it has to be something that comes from us.''

Because the district has been in financial turmoil all year, and is facing budget cuts and layoffs for next year, union leaders say they were unable to adequately explain the LEARN process to their members.

Instead, the union took four strike votes and spent months haggling with the district over the details of a new contract and how to fund it.

Some of the teachers who are skeptical about LEARN also say they do not believe that Los Angelenos are going to vote for vouchers or to break up the district out of dissatisfaction with the current system.

"If you did a poll [about LEARN] right now, you'd be lucky if 5 percent of the people in this town knew what you were talking about,'' Mr. Johnson said. "Most have never even heard of this stuff, let alone understand it. It's a ploy to pressure teachers.''

But LEARN advocates say their fear of vouchers, which would drain money from the public schools, or a breakup of the district, which could create inequities and likely would spawn numerous lawsuits, are real.

"If the majority of voters perceive the district to be a continuing cesspool of distrust, bitterness, and game playing--if they perceive the district is beyond salvation--then the district is in big trouble,'' Mr. Mack of the Urban League said.

Shift Away From Rules

Given the amount of turmoil here, LEARN supporters say it is remarkable that teachers and others in 36 schools voted to become part of the first group of LEARN schools. But they acknowledge that most already are reform-minded and are not the district's lowest-achieving schools.

Although the LEARN plan envisioned starting the process with three high schools and their feeder schools, no high school faculties were able to muster 75 percent of their teachers to join LEARN.

Most of the first LEARN schools are located on the city's west side and in the San Fernando Valley, not the inner-city neighborhoods of South Central and East Los Angeles.

Parents in East Los Angeles, many of whom are Latino, were "very disappointed'' that their teachers did not vote to join LEARN, said Rosalinda Lugo, a representative of a coalition of Latino advocacy groups who is a member of LEARN.

"The attitude was reinforced that the system is not working and teachers don't care,'' she said.

The leaders of LEARN, who have already raised several million dollars to run the organization, are now trying to raise $3 million to provide intensive training for the principals and lead teachers of the first schools.

Mr. Wycoff, the LEARN chairman, said he is concerned about the signal the union's vote has sent to potential funders. "We have to find somebody to bet on us,'' he said.

Leaders in the LEARN schools will be trained by the University of California at Los Angeles's graduate school of education, which has developed a new school-management program in tandem with the university's business school.

The focus for principals will be "not on rules and looking up the chain above them, but below'' to the needs of students, teachers, and parents, said Theodore R. Mitchell, the dean of the education school.

"It's a shift from being rule-driven to the challenge of coming up with rules that make sense,'' he explained, "with the chief objective [being] the education of children.''

The tensions inherent in giving up some of that control in exchange for freedom at the school site is evident here, however.

Even as they continued to support the LEARN recommendations, the top leaders of the teachers' union negotiated a new contract that gives teachers the right to choose which grade levels they will teach in elementary schools and which subjects they will teach in high schools in multi-track year-round schools.

In schools where teachers work collaboratively, observers here say, the contract provision is unlikely to cause problems. But where they do not, said Marion Hogue, a parent who has been active in the LEARN effort, "it is going to tear faculties apart.''

The contract provision, one of many "applause lines'' that were negotiated to salve the pain of the pay cut, is an example of the "instinct on the part of the union to look to central rules to solve local problems,'' said Mr. Slavkin, the school board member.

"You can't have it both ways,'' he said. "They want to be empowered, but they want to negotiate a new set of rules into the central rule book and argue that it's not inconsistent.''

Ms. Bernstein asserted that principals now make assignments in an "arbitrary and capricious way'' and that schools can waive that provision of the contract if it does not fit their needs.

And people here note that another item in the new contract gives teachers control over professional development--evidence that the union is willing to take responsibility for the development of its members.

Over the next five years, LEARN officials hope that all of the schools here will join the reform effort. Some would like to see district administrators develop a time line to insure that that happens.

"We've got to deal with the whole system,'' Mr. Slavkin said. "We can't sustain it on a volunteer basis.''

While the current concerns over teachers' due-process rights, tenure, and the like are not in conflict with the LEARN proposals, he added, the reform plan "is inconsistent with a 500-page U.T.L.A. contract'' that spells out in detail how schools must operate.

'We Need a New Way'

The atmosphere at a recent party to celebrate the selection of the 36 "pioneer'' LEARN schools was festive and determinedly upbeat, with district and LEARN officials pledging to do everything in their power to see that the schools succeed.

For Nancy Kennedy, the principal of Sunland Elementary School, joining LEARN was a chance for "a lot more independence.''

"It's a real lean time,'' she added, "and we figured that good things would come to LEARN schools.''

Dolores Patterson, a teacher at Hyde Park Elementary School, said it was evident "the old way was not working.''

"We need some new way,'' she said. "There's no sense in saying no without trying it first. You can't hide your head in the sand.''

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