Teaching Profession Opinion

Union Election in Los Angeles: Meet Candidate Caputo-Pearl

By Anthony Cody — February 23, 2014 17 min read
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Coleen Bondy, Los Angeles teacher, has prepared special coverage of the upcoming teacher’s union election in her city. Here is her report:

United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers’ union for Los Angeles Unified School District, is holding elections for all of its major offices this spring. Ballots will be mailed out to the membership beginning Feb. 25.

Effective leadership has never been so critical to UTLA members as it is now. Teachers have endured years of brutal budget cuts, including furlough days, pink slips, increased class sizes, and have gone seven years without a raise.

In addition, LAUSD has implemented programs such as Breakfast in the Classroom that are wildly unpopular with teachers, who already deal with cleanliness issues in the classroom because of a lack of adequate custodial staffing.

LAUSD’s school board appears to be charging full steam ahead on a plan to equip every student with an iPad, at a total cost of about $1 billion. It is planning to use bond money that voters specifically earmarked for construction of new facilities and maintenance of old ones.

Perhaps most important of all, many LAUSD teachers perceive that the district has been hijacked by employees and school board members who are bent upon implementing corporate-style reforms in the district, without the approval of parents or teachers.

With so much at stake this year, we asked the candidates running for president of UTLA to answer the same 10 questions. The questions were emailed to all of the candidates in January. More information can also be found here.

We kicked off the series Friday with Gregg Solkovits, and yesterday featured Kevin Mottus. Today we continue with candidate Alex Caputo-Pearl, who currently teaches at Frida Kahlo High School, and serves as an elected member of the UTLA Board of Directors

1. How did you come to be a teacher in Los Angeles?

I started teaching in 1990 in the Compton Unified School District, adjacent to LAUSD. I got that first job placement through Teach for America, which was in its first year. At that time, TFA was a rag-tag experiment trying to address an honest-to-goodness teacher shortage - a far cry from the large, corporate organization that it has become now, promoting “quick fix,” dangerous, market-based solutions that undermine equity and access for students, the teaching profession, and teacher unions. Back in that first year, 1990, I was eager, but underprepared by TFA for the real work of teaching. The program had encouraged us to believe that motivation, good-will and some weeks of training were all it took to help struggling kids. Of course, green as I was, I quickly realized that I was over my head. But, I also recognized that I wanted to make teaching my life. Thanks to some great kids, parents, and a wonderful 35-year veteran next door, Cleopatra Duncan, also a leader in the African- American community, who led a cohort of mentors for me, I became very excited about doing the real, years-long work it would take to really begin to meet student needs.

TFA, ironically, helped me see very early that students in low-income communities need a mix of the best, most experienced teachers and carefully prepared, career newer teachers. What they don’t need is two or three-years-and-out, Peace Corps-style do-gooders looking to move on and “up” out of teaching. Also ironically, the fact that I began my now 22-year teaching career through TFA, has given me a platform from which to critique the corporate organization. I have written in the New York Times and elsewhere about TFA’s dangerous part in the privatization movement, and I have helped initiate the national network, “Resistance to Teach for America,” which is organizing to pressure school districts across the country not to contract with the organization (see article links at the end of this piece).

2. Why are you running for President of UTLA?

UTLA, and teacher unions generally, can be a vehicle for winning excellent learning and teaching conditions, respectful treatment of educators, and broader social justice. UTLA needs to project a public collective vision for education, developed in genuine partnership with parents and community members, and community groups. We can no longer allow our adversaries to under-serve our most vulnerable students and get away with it by dividing teacher unions from the community.

Unfortunately, UTLA has been passive, with weak public relations, and with insufficient attention to building grassroots power. We need to change the organization, through a contract/community campaign for quality schools, and through re-orienting towards organizing, parent/community coalition-building, pro-active public relations, strategic research, and support for members as professional experts. I’m running in this election with the Union Power team, which brings the organizing experience and networks to lead UTLA powerfully and collaboratively. As a 25-year labor/community organizer with a Masters in Urban Planning, an award-winning classroom teacher who has co-founded major school improvement efforts such as the Extended Learning Cultural Model at Crenshaw High School, and as a parent of current LAUSD students, I can lead this effort.

As Crenshaw High’s chapter chair, I led a campaign that won tens of millions of additional dollars for area schools. Superintendent Roy Romer, though he bent on the demands for more resources, retaliated by transferring me. The community organized and I was re- instated to Crenshaw three months later. We used these victories to change the contract around transfers, and to build the nationally-recognized Extended Learning Cultural Model instructional program at Crenshaw (see article links at the end of this piece).

I will bring this same hard-nosed, unapologetic, community-connected approach to UTLA as a city-wide organization.

3. Have you been involved with any Gates-funded education reform projects such as Educators 4 Excellence? If so, what did you learn from that experience?

I have not been involved, but feel it is important to engage UTLA members who have been involved - we are fellow union members, fellow educators, and we should be dialoguing as much as possible about the direction of public education and the union, even if we disagree slightly or sharply.

Many of the funders and some of the key leaders of groups such as Educators 4 Excellence (E4E) clearly believe that teacher unions have too much influence in public schools and in education policy and their express purpose is to weaken our unions. In fact, some of those sorts of leaders may well have their own business-related self-interested ulterior motives when it comes to weakening teacher unions--and perhaps unions in general.

That said, I do believe that many of the educators who are drawn to organizations such as E4E, largely young, serious teachers, seek to reform education from the best motives: they want to work in a respected professional environment and they want the best for students. Some of these younger recruits may be dismissive of the positive role teacher unions play because of their own inexperience with a union tradition. They may not recognize, for example, that without union protections teacher advocacy for under-served students can be very dangerous or impossible for teachers. Teachers at non-union schools are regularly fired when their work on behalf of students runs afoul of management.

Yet, sadly, I think there is another dynamic at work here. Teachers and others join and promote groups such as E4E because there is a real vacuum that unions have not filled. In many cases, and I think UTLA is no exception, teacher unions have in fact missed opportunities to be the critical voice for quality education. For example, at this very moment, LAUSD is imposing a poorly-crafted, half-baked evaluation system on teachers and health and human service professionals that harms both those professionals and their students. In large part, UTLA has, however, allowed this imposition because, despite the fact that our best experts, in consultation with the best researchers around the country, developed a fantastic, very rigorous, very thorough teacher support and development plan, UTLA leaders never publicized this plan, and never even trumpeted its existence. The public, and many of our own members, are therefore left to believe that the union has little to nothing to say about teacher and health and human service worker quality, other than “no, no, no.”

The public and educators themselves are often seeking alternative organizational outlets because our unions have not projected their own bold, carefully-crafted vision for what public education should look like.

4. How will the recent iPad purchase affect LAUSD over the next few years?

Of course, no one opposes using technology to help students learn and prepare for life in the 21st Century. But LAUSD’s top-down, slapdash insistence on this particular program is indicative of all too much local policy today. After years of deep cuts of the sort that empty book rooms, fire art and music teachers, shut libraries, leave schools without nurses, fire counselors, close adult schools and the like, leave buildings in disrepair (when many corporate charters have new facilities), suddenly, when some money becomes available, LAUSD Superintendent Deasy, virtually on his own, chooses this iPad program, which seems like it’s going to cost the better part of $1 billion, using monies that were slated for desperately-needed physical plant safety construction in schools. Moreover, because of the contracts negotiated, and the limits of the technology, there will be massive cost overruns to place hardware (keyboards), curriculum, and test-taking onto the machines. This will likely come out of the general fund, which will mean that the cuts to arts, music, nurses, etc., will become all the more institutionalized as money goes to the i-Pad program.

It’s the classic shoot-first-think-later, non-consultative, frankly very suspicious public policy (that is why UTLA needs a strategic researcher to get into the conflicts of interest involved - Deasy’s relationship to Apple and Pearson, for example) that has come to be the hallmark of Deasy’s “leadership.” Over the next few years, the results of this ill-considered policy initiative are likely to be precisely the opposite of Deasy’s stated goals: This short- sighted expenditure on iPads will gobble up funds that would be better spent on much more targeted technology, in addition to lowering class size, providing more counselors and nurses, bringing back art and music and libraries where these critical programs have been summarily cut in recent years.

5. What do you think of recent changes in the way teachers are evaluated in LAUSD?

Teachers and health and human service workers need deep and meaningful support and professional development that they are not receiving. Any approach to evaluation that is imposed from above and that is designed to instill fear and that puts punitive measures above support will make schools worse for adults and for students. All of us want the few people who should not be working in schools to be removed from our profession. But what the vast majority of teachers and health and human service workers need to succeed is to be able to work in safe, nurturing environments where they are helped and supported, especially when they are struggling. Current policy, unfortunately, is to try to scare us straight. Anyone who doubts that this approach is prevailing under Deasy only needs to consider the fact that Deasy has tried to refuse negotiation, and drag his feet on negotiating, around evaluations. Moreover, at the very moment that he is imposing his evaluation system there is a dramatic increase in career-ending attacks on teachers with little or no due process.

It is open season on our members, yet very few members of the public beyond our ranks know what is happening to us. What we need is a public relations campaign that highlights the attacks on UTLA members in the context of highlighting the broader attacks on our students and their families, including massive destabilizations of schools when educators are pulled out without due process, and students lose critical programs.

6. Are you in favor of implementing the Common Core State Standards in LAUSD? If so, why? If not, why not?

Union Power supports the partial goals of CCSS to make curriculum and instruction more critical thinking-rich for our students. However, CCSS is fatally flawed when it is implemented without adequate support and tied to high-stakes standardized testing. UTLA must aggressively organize against high-stakes testing, especially when tied to evaluations. UTLA needs to demand, as part of a contract/community campaign, more educator control over professional development and school improvement. As we support members to shape professional development and school improvement, this re-asserts our expert role in schools - and gives us leverage to demand more resources, and adequate preparation time, for both. Moreover, when CCSS is tied to a money train of corporate contractors - for example, Pearson, with ties at the very top of LAUSD - trying to make a buck off of public education, this further damages the critical thinking-based positives that are associated with the CCSS.

7. What do you believe are the three most important issues facing teachers/UTLA today? How would you address those issues as president?

The three most important issues for UTLA to address, broadly speaking, are (a) the need for more resources in public education, (b) the need to stop the bashing of teachers and health and human service workers, and in place of that, build real supports for educators, and (c) the need to build quality schools with publicly-managed, equity and access for all students, as opposed to the private management and exclusion of students that characterize the privatization movement.

More specifically, in LA, that means fighting for:

  • A pay increase and protection of benefits
  • Support for member rights and an end to “teacher jail”
  • Reduction in class size and HHS case loads to meet the social and emotional needs of students
  • Restoration of Adult and Early Ed, librarians, art, music, and PE
  • Real educator support - not VAM - in a climate of support, not fear
  • Breakfast in the Cafeteria, not vermin and carbohydrates in the classroom
  • Control over professional development and school improvement
  • Regulation of abusive charter schools

The way Union Power would address these issues is to move into action quickly, in the first hundred days, specifically including:

i. An immediate public relations and organizing campaign in support of a significant raise, reduced class size and case loads, an end to “teacher jail,” evaluations in a climate of collaboration not intimidation, nutritious Breakfast in the Cafeteria not unhealthy Breakfast in the Classroom, and restoration of HHS, Adult/Early Ed, and arts/music/PE staffing.

ii. Member engagement to identify further priorities for the “Schools LA Students Deserve” contract/community campaign - including control over professional development/school improvement, more supplies, a stop to school destabilizations, challenging abusive charters, and more.

iii. An immediate re-orienting of UTLA towards organizing, pro-active public relations, coalition-building, and strategic research.

8. What has surprised you since you began running for this office?

The following hasn’t exactly surprised me, but it has been very refreshing, invigorating, and eye-opening. I’m referring to the tremendous amount of excitement that the Union Power campaign has been met with by teachers and health and human services professionals on the ground at schools. We knew our message of change, being pro-active, and building a social movement union would resonate well - but, we also knew that this would have to cut against the intense demoralization among our ranks, and an intense guardedness regarding whether to trust folks who are running for leadership of the union. 
The response we’ve been getting - because we’re engaging folks at schools, in the community, and on the phones, listening, and providing thoughts on our political program - has been stunning and very encouraging. For example, we have almost 250 chapter chairs (site level elected reps) who have endorsed the Union Power city-wide team, three weeks before the election even hits. 
This has helped us remember that, when Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) folks (whom we have strong relationships with) were elected to lead the Chicago Teachers Union, those members had just been through intensely demoralizing times, with Arne Duncan as their superintendent, and with massive school closings, cuts, and more. And yet, within a year and a half of being elected, the CORE leadership had worked intensely with the grassroots of their union, and the community, to prepare for one of the largest and most successful labor actions, with community demands front and center, in many years.

Helping our members feel confident again is critical.

9. How do you feel about Breakfast in the Classroom at the elementary, middle and high school levels?

Educators and their unions should be in the forefront of advocating for food access, food equity, and nutritious healthy food for young people in their neighborhoods and schools. In addition, the union needs to be in the lead of making sure that decisions that affect educators, parents, and students are not top-down and destructive.

UTLA did not get out in front of decisions made about Breakfast in the Classroom, did not shape the debate in the media, and now members, students, and schools are paying the price. When BIC was implemented, UTLA reactively scrambled with some negative but vague comments in the media. This in-the-moment and not-well-thought-out reaction walked right into the trap our adversaries wanted us to walk into - our adversaries said, “see, the teachers and the union do not want to feed kids, do not want to feed low-income kids.”

A pro-active organizing, coalition-building, and public relations strategy would have had UTLA meeting with food access and equity groups (there are many at universities and in communities) long before BIC was implemented, having seen it coming down the road. UTLA would have created a paper with those groups that established the following:

No one knows the importance of ensuring that young people are fed nutritious food better than educators, who see how lack of food and/or lack of healthy food affects things in classrooms and in schools. We absolutely want our kids fed.

However, there need to be guidelines on how students are fed at school, so that a safe, clean, academic, and healthy environment is supported. These guidelines should include that feeding students at school:

  • Should occur in the cafeteria

  • Should not interfere with instructional time

  • Should not contribute to vermin problems
o Should not consist primarily of carbohydrates and sugar that make it difficult for students to focus

  • Should not cynically enrich private contractors

The main problems with Breakfast in the Classroom are those listed above - it contributes to massive vermin problems (especially in the context of custodial staff having been cut so deeply), problems with nutrition (the food is not nutritious), problems with interfering with instructional time (at a time when teachers are being asked to do more and more with instructional time in a climate of fear), and it enriches the Walton corporation and other large corporate entities.

Parents are now organizing for Breakfast in the Cafeteria instead of Breakfast in the Classroom. The union missed the boat on protesting BIC the first time around, and should join with parents now in this effort to pro-actively move breakfast back to the cafeteria, with some clear guidelines as to what we expect from food in schools.

10. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Just some article links referred to above.

Union Power campaign website, see my and other candidates’ bios for more information on my and our organizing and teaching histories, see and hear media we have done, etc. --

Championing Mr. C,” LA Times Op-Ed, 2006, regarding the Superintendent’s transferring of me in retaliation for organizing, and the successful campaign to have me re-instated to Crenshaw High School.

Becoming Part of the Solution,” Zocalo Public Square, 2012, regarding the Extended Learning Cultural Model, the nationally-recognized curriculum model that I co-founded at Crenshaw High School.

LA Teachers Run on a Bigger Vision,” Labor Notes, 2014, regarding Union Power’s campaign in the UTLA elections.

Teach for America Shows the Downside of Quick Fixes to Education,” New York Times, 2013, my op-ed on Teach for America.

Teach for America Apostates a Primer of Alumni Resistance,” Truthout, 2013, regarding helping to organize the national “Resistance to Teach For America” network.

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The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.