In 1989, after a bitter teachers’ strike, United Teachers of Los Angeles campaigned hard to get four candidates who were sympathetic to the union’s views elected to the board of education.
The union’s candidates won.
“The message is, ‘You better listen to us, or you are in political trouble,’'' Wayne Johnson, who was then president of the U.T.L.A., told the Los Angeles Times. “The political strength of teachers cannot be underestimated.’'
Over the years, the issue of whether the union dominates the Los Angeles school board has been raised repeatedly. But the concern over special-interest groups’ influence in school-board elections is not unique to the nation’s second-largest school district.
In many big cities, where money and political savvy are essential to winning elections, critics have charged that board members’ first loyalties are to organized employee groups, rather than to parents, students, and taxpayers.
In Cleveland--a city with powerful, politically active trade unions--school-board members’ openness about their allegiance to employee unions was one factor in a movement that elected a new slate of reform-oriented board members last fall.
The concern that board members are beholden to special-interest groups is fueled, in part, by the low voter turnout that is typical in many city elections. In 1991, for example, only 18 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the election for the Los Angeles Board of Education.
While the U.T.L.A. is far from the only employee group that raises money for school-board candidates, its leaders have been the most vocal about the influence they wield.
“Look, the reality is that politicians are involved in education to the utmost degree,’' says Helen Bernstein, the president of the U.T.L.A., “and as long as they are involved in education, educators better be involved in politics.’'
The union does not claim to “control’’ board members, she says, “but we can be the deciding factor in getting them elected and in getting them unelected.’'
“We have had a lot of board members elected with our support, and then they turn on us,’' Ms. Bernstein adds. “So just because they got our support doesn’t mean an awful lot.’'
Part of ‘American Process’
Kim Moran, the director of field services for the political department of the American Federation of Teachers, argues that it is “part of the American process’’ for school employees to be actively involved in deciding who their employers will be.
Ms. Moran provides training for local and state A.F.T. affiliates in how to set up a political committee, interview and endorse candidates, raise money from members, and get members out to vote.
In Louisiana, the union is actively supporting school-board candidates who favor collective bargaining.
In Dallas, the Alliance of Dallas Educators, an A.F.T. affiliate, plans to spend about $20,000 on the May 2 board race.
The National Education Association does not have a position similar to Ms. Moran’s at the national level, but its local affiliates work hard to support board candidates and get school levies passed.
In New Jersey, for example, union locals screen board candidates and sponsor “candidate nights’’ for the community.
Generally, says Karen Joseph, a spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, locals contribute time on telephone banks and distribute literature, rather than make cash donations to candidates.
Union officials say that critics of district employees’ involvement in school-board races overstate the influence that such support buys.
“You can educate a candidate about the issues and your position on the issues,’' Ms. Moran says, “but once that candidate is elected, the candidate is going to also find out the views that are in opposition. Any candidate worth his or her salt will weigh both sides and make a decision.’'
But Desiree Mabry, the assistant director of Concerned Educators Against Forced Unionism, points out that three months after the 1989 election, the Los Angeles board voted to allow the U.T.L.A. to charge nonmembers for its services.
“The union had been trying to get forced union dues for years, and the school board would never agree to it,’' Ms. Mabry says. “Then the union decided to get its own people elected, and they got agency shop.’'
Jackie Goldberg, a Los Angeles teacher and a U.T.L.A. member who served on the school board for eight years, was first elected to the board with the U.T.L.A.'s support. But she did not receive its endorsement for her second term.
Union support, she says, provides “credibility,’' money for mailings, and, in districts where many teachers live, can translate into votes.
As for the decision to give the union the right to charge agency fees, she says, “If you elect pro-labor people, you’re going to get pro-labor votes.’'
That does not mean, however, that the union or any other group manipulates the board, she says.
“I think all the [U.T.L.A.'s] rhetoric is much more for their internal consumption than a reality,’' Ms. Goldberg says. “I don’t think they control the board, I don’t think they ever did, and I don’t think they ever will.’'
A version of this article appeared in the April 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Boards of Contention: Unions Strive To Elect Friendly Board Members