Teaching Profession

Union Victory in L.A. Schools Showdown Ups Ante

After edging out charter operators, United Teachers Los Angeles now must deliver.
By Lesli A. Maxwell — March 03, 2010 6 min read
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In Los Angeles, where teacher groups and charter schools engaged in a head-to-head competition to operate schools in the sprawling urban district, teachers have emerged—to the surprise of many observers—as the clear winners in the latest showdown.

With the management of 12 existing schools, all of them low-performing, and 18 new campuses up for grabs under the city’s “public school choice” policy approved last summer, the Los Angeles Unified Board of Education late last month voted in favor of teacher-led proposals in all but six cases. More than 40,000 students will attend the newly managed schools this fall.

Charters, which many had expected to be the dominant players, were largely left out, including three of the city’s most successful operators, whose proposals to run new schools were endorsed by Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines. But in his full slate of recommendations to board members on which groups should manage the schools, Mr. Cortines also favored some internal proposals over external ones.

Barbara Torres, left, vice president of Local 99 of the Service Employees International Union, and Joy Duenez celebrate with teachers and parents as the Los Angeles Unified School District board voted last month to transfer operation of several underperforming schools to teacher-led groups.

“I think the story here is that teachers, administrators, and parents really stepped up to the plate,” Mr. Cortines said in an interview. “Sure, I believe we needed external operators in the mix because I believe in competition, but true reform really has to capture the rank and file of teachers and administrators. There aren’t ever going to be enough charters in a school system of this size.”

More than 160 charters operate in Los Angeles and serve about 60,000 students—more schools than in any other American city. Los Angeles Unified, which remains the nation’s second-largest district despite decreasing enrollment, serves roughly 617,000 students.

Now, teachers and the union that represents them will face intense pressure to deliver the improvements in student academic achievement that they have outlined in their proposals. United Teachers Los Angeles, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, waged a dogged public relations campaign to defeat the charter groups—most of which employ nonunion teachers—that bid for the schools.

“I think this puts [United Teachers of Los Angeles] on the hook, big time,” said Charles T. Kerchner, an education professor at Claremont Graduate University in the Los Angeles area and a member of a committee that helped Mr. Cortines review the proposals.

“In a way, UTLA is the dog that caught the car,” said Mr. Kerchner. “I think they are going to be under tremendous pressure both from their own members who came up with these plans, and from the district, to follow through on this.”

Months of Debate

Since the Los Angeles school board voted last August to open the management of up to 250 new and existing schools to both outside operators and district employees, debate has raged in the district over which groups—charter operators, teachers and administrators, or community organizations—would propose the strongest plans for running the schools, many of them chronic underperformers. Last month’s vote by the board determined who will manage the first 30 schools; another round of bidding for schools will begin in the next several weeks.

A.J. Duffy, the fiery president of the 48,000-member UTLA, who for months derided the school choice policy as a “giveaway” to charter schools, said the teachers’ victories were “validating.”

“We’ve said all along that turning these schools around has to be led by teachers,” Mr. Duffy said. “I wish we’d had more time to do this, though, so we could have captured 100 percent of these schools.”

Charter operators whose bids were turned down by the school board blamed raw politics.

“We were promised that this competition was going to be about our track record and our merit, but it’s so abundantly clear that that’s not what happened,” said Michael D. Piscal, the chief executive officer of ICEF Public Schools, a charter network that operates 15 schools in south Los Angeles.

Mr. Duffy said UTLA will soon ramp up efforts to unionize more charter school teachers in the city, a move that could come as Los Angeles Unified cuts thousands of teachers from its payroll to close an enormous budget shortfall. Last week, the school board voted to send out 5,200 notices of possible layoffs.

Mr. Cortines had wanted ICEF to share a new middle school with a team of district teachers who had also bid for the campus. ICEF had proposed running five small schools on the new campus and won large support in the local community for its plans. But the board voted to keep ICEF out, in what Mr. Piscal characterized as members caving into Los Angeles’ powerful union interests.

“The one great thing about [the board vote] was that it revealed the strings of the puppet master,” Mr. Piscal said.

Yolie Flores Aguilar, the board member who authored the district’s school choice policy, agreed that anti-charter sentiment was prevalent in many of the final votes.

“There were politics playing out that were most definitely anti-charter,” Ms. Flores Aguilar said. “We are talking about some of the very best charter operators in the nation, too, so this in some ways has compromised our intentions.”

Like ICEF, Green Dot Public Schools and the Alliance for College-Ready Public Schools, both with national reputations, had also been favored by Mr. Cortines to run schools, but were shut out by the board.

In limiting the number of charters, Ms. Flores Aguilar said the board “missed an opportunity to really push charters to level the playing field to accept special-needs students and English-language learners.”

More Accepting?

Under the rules of the school choice policy, charters—which are sometimes criticized for enrolling fewer special education and English-language learners than their traditional school counterparts —must accept all children from within the campus boundaries. Some charter advocates pushed back against that requirement, which ultimately kept some operators from submitting proposals.

At the same time, Ms. Flores Aguilar said that many of the teacher-led proposals were “very strong.”

“They demonstrated that they are serious about being student-centered and that they are not going to be beholden to the status quo or mediocrity,” Ms. Flores Aguilar said. “Of course, they are now under a microscope in a way that they haven’t ever been before.”

Mr. Cortines said he will review the schools’ progress every six months and will have the authority to intervene if they do not meet the internal benchmarks for improvement that were set forth in their plans.

Most of the schools selected to be led by the teacher groups will continue to operate under the district’s existing contract with UTLA, though a handful will open as pilot schools that use a so-called “thin contract,” which frees those schools from some of the provisions of the regular collective bargaining agreement.

It looks unlikely that the school choice policy will live up to early expectations that it would finally transform hundreds of long-struggling schools in the nation’s second-largest district, said Mr. Kerchner, who has written books about Los Angeles’ earlier attempts at school reform.

“This entire process was dependent on a very robust competition, and it was the fear of charter operators that really drove people to this sense of urgency,” he said. “I think with last week’s vote, we probably aren’t going to see a whole lot of interest from charters and other outside competitors anymore. I am not optimistic that future rounds of public school choice will provide a wide enough variety of people bringing different ideas on what these schools should look like.”

Mr. Piscal, of ICEF, said he’s not inclined to participate again, but may change his mind.

“I wanted to do this and be a partner of the district,” he said. “This was a bold reform with a lot of promise.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Union Takes on High-Stakes Test in Running Troubled L.A. Schools


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